The Secret to Managing Your Japanese Boss

Okay, there’s no secret. But over the years I picked up some techniques–some I learned from my father, others from Japanese colleagues–to avoid being micromanaged by a Japanese boss. These are the most important:

“Hear 1 Do 10”

My very first Japanese boss told me this the first day of work, meaning he expected me to be observant, read between the lines, process the information around me, then take initiative without specifically being told what to do. Thankfully it’s exactly how my father raised me; I still remember dad telling me that if I ever ran out of work that I shouldn’t wait for instructions; that I should pick up a broom, or find something else constructive to do without being told. This foundation made it easy for me to adapt to the Japanese expectation that employees take initiative.


The other key concept is what Japanese managers call “HORENSO,” an acronym, made up of three Japanese words 「報告」(hokoku), 「連絡」(renraku), and 「相談」(sodan). The acronym literally means “report-contact-consult”, but it’s pronounced the same as the Japanese word for “spinach” (“horenso“), making it easy to remember.

Here’s an easy way to understand this concept: your boss tells you to do “1”; you take initiative and do 1, 2, 3. Then you go back to your boss to show him what you did. He pulls out his red pen and tells you everything you did wrong (usually without any praise); you in turn fix your “mistakes,” then proceed to do 4, 5, 6. Repeat the drill with Japanese boss and red pen. After fixing the red marks on 4, 5, 6 you proceed to 10, then once again repeat drill with boss and red pen.

Some of my American compatriots think HORENSO is “micromanagement,” but it’s actually the antidote to micromanagement. (Trust me, I’ve broken in a few Japanese bosses in my day.) Horenso is absolutely the best way to manage your Japanese boss. Rather than waiting for him to come breathe down your neck, you beat him to the punch by going to him first.

HORENSO has also been the most effective technique for me in building trust with previous Japanese bosses and colleagues. Once that trust is established, all my Japanese bosses have backed off and given me breathing room. And we lived happily ever after…most of the time.

Also related is the concept of kikubari, the idea of “distributing one’s ‘spirit”, and proactively taking action through the fine Japanese art of anticipation. The best example is the dangerous Japanese beer-pouring ritual where each person at the table stays on the lookout for half-empty glasses to fill, then takes initiative to pour without being requested to do so. An uninitiated (and very drunk) American friend once quipped in slurred tones, “I had 53 half glasses of beer!”

Nemawashi and Chosei-yaku

When Japanese set out to introduce change into their organizations–whether it be a single decision or a series of decisions directed at solving a problem–they meet informally with numerous people throughout the organization to ask for help in defining the problem. Indeed many of these meetings happen one-on-one, sometimes outside of work at social functions. This is the Japanese way of laying the groundwork for change, a process they call nemawashi.

For some background, the word nemawashi is a gardening term that roughly translates to, “digging around the roots.” The actual nemawashi process happens when a Japanese gardener undertakes the delicate task of transplanting a tree or plant from one part of the garden to another. If the gardener simply rips out the plant and buries it in a new location, it dies of shock. To avoid this he instead “digs around the roots,” keeping the surrounding soil loosened up for the appropriate period of time. It’s the gardener’s way of giving the plant a “heads-up” that change is coming.

Similarly when change becomes necessary in the workplace, nemawashi is analogous to pre-selling a decision or initiative through consultations with affected departments. And the act of moving the tree to its new location in the garden would be analogous to implementing any given decision in the workplace. Nemawashi is a useful analogy to describe how Japanese take time upfront to lay the groundwork, so quick and effective implementation is possible.

The nemawashi process is absolutely critical to introducing change in a Japanese organization, but it also works in Western organizations if done properly. At a seminar I administered a few years ago to a group of Japanese managers, one of them remarked that the word nemawashi had an underhanded nuance. It was the first time a Japanese participant had expressed this sentiment in all the years I’ve been consulting. It piqued my interest so I did a survey and found that not all Japanese share his opinion. However most agreed that “chosei” is a more palatable expression.

Explaining the chosei process is a dissertation in itself. Suffice it to say that the concept of “chosei-yaku” (Japanese-style, cross-functional coordinator) is missing in the West’s highly compartmentalized way of organizing work. (For more on the chosei process check out The Hunter and the Fisherman: Glimpses of Culture Through Decision-Making & The Hunter and the Fisherman II: A Zen Master’s Guide to Problem-Solving)

Lastly, it helps to understand why the Japanese and Western approaches are so different. The West has the legacy of the Greek philosophers who, rightly or wrongly, put “truth” at the top of the hierarchy of values. And to get to the truth they invented the dialectic, what most folks call “debating” or sometimes “arguing”. This legacy lingers today: when Western managers go to a meeting to openly debate the issues they are trying to get to the “truth”. Whether they realize it or not, the ghost of Socrates lurks quietly in the background.

In Japan the corresponding value is harmony, where the ghost of Confucius lingers. It’s not that the Japanese don’t like the truth, but when truth and harmony collide, often the truth gets swept under the rug to preserve harmony. So how to avoid harmony-shattering confrontation? Why you negotiate behind the scenes (nemawashi/chosei) so as to avoid confrontation at the meeting! The better you learn to conduct chosei, the more effective you’ll be in managing your boss and doing your job.

A quick disclaimer before signing off: when humans are involved there will always be a gap between the cultural ideal and the cultural reality. Just because Westerners value the truth doesn’t mean we always tell the truth; it’s simply an ideal that we aspire to uphold. Similarly, just because the Japanese value harmony doesn’t mean they are harmonious all the time. When true harmony cannot be achieved in Japan, fake harmony is the next best option.

 Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

4 responses to “The Secret to Managing Your Japanese Boss

  1. Very informative. Can u share me some of your articles that is related with working with japanese? Also rn Im very curious on their gestures at work.. Earlier while watching anime, I have found out that employees who are placed near the window were those they find less in need..

  2. I find articles like this, while informative, always somehow leave out the fact that “time efficiency” is an unknown concept in Japan. Priority A1 is to Always Avoid Risk. Always. Therefore everything is about following process and protocol unthinkingly. People may have opinions about how to improve workflows, but they are not voiced because in Japan you Conform.

    • You raise some good points and I agree with you Andy. For the record, I didn’t purposely “leave it out,” I just covered these realities (lack of efficiency, risk-aversion, conformity) in other articles. (Although I think lack of efficiency is sort of implied in this article.) But I’ve walked more than a mile in your moccasins and feel your pain, one reason why I choose not to work for a Japanese company (or any company for that matter). Here’s a piece that speaks to the efficiency issue:

      This one touches on conformity:

      I’ve also touched on risk aversion in other articles (on decision-making, etc.) but haven’t belabored the point, as there’s not much one can do to change it.

      Thanks for reading and taking time to comment.

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