Category Archives: cross-cultural

How to Disappoint Your Japanese Customer Without Even Trying


It’s a tall order to please visitors from a country like Japan where customers are routinely treated like God. No surprise that more often than not, disappointment is exactly what Japanese travelers feel when they venture abroad.

Not that Japan’s service is flawless. If I really want to pick nits, their service can be overly scripted, lacking in flexibility, and sometimes downright robotic. Still, the average level of service in Japan is unmatched anywhere in the world; servers are helpful, courteous, and laser-focused on anticipating the customer’s needs, albeit to an annoying fault sometimes.

Over the past 15 years, I have conducted numerous workshops on Japanese expectations of customer service for hundreds of employees working for Hawaii’s finest hotels. My message to them is always the same: Understand the wants and needs of your Japanese guests, but never, ever try to act Japanese. Then I add, just for effect, “If you try to act too Japanese, you’ll creep them out!” That usually drives home my point and gets a laugh in the process.

The delicate balance between making proper adjustments and being authentic is a sweet spot that’s tough to hit. The trick is understanding Japanese guests’ expectations, then making adjustments that come from a place of honesty. It’s a goal well worth pursuing. For just like the rest of us, the Japanese crave authenticity.

Today’s featured interaction analyzes key gaps in expectations that can drive a wedge between a Japanese guest and even the most well-intentioned service provider—without the provider realizing the guest was offended! (Miffed Japanese customers tend to not openly complain—while they quietly stew in their own juice.) The burden is on each service provider to decide how it wants its employees to deal with these gaps, but the disconnects must be understood before the organization can attempt to pursue that elusive sweet spot alluded to above.

This particular scenario happened before my very eyes at a luxury hotel in Hawai’i. I can assure you that the same scenario plays out every day in every context imaginable, certainly where Japanese international travelers are concerned. The chart below shows my analysis of the culture gaps below the surface.

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Cross-Cultural Broken Promises: One Man’s Reason is Another Man’s Excuse

no-excuses.jpgJapanese often complain that when promises are broken, Americans “make excuses.” Many Americans, on the other hand, believe that when one breaks a promise, an explanation is warranted. In an effort to better understand this gap in thinking, I once asked a Japanese client what the difference was between a “reason” and an “excuse.” His answer was both funny and incisive: “If the Japanese person agrees with your explanation, then it’s a ‘reason’; if not, it’s an ‘excuse.'” It is worth noting here that the most formal Japanese apology, “Moshiwake gozaimasen,” literally means “There is no excuse,” which in essence forbids the offending party from even thinking about making an excuse.

Today’s anecdote is based on a true story that illustrates, in concrete terms, how one man’s reason can be another man’s excuse.

About ten years ago, my wife and I flew to Honolulu from our home on the Big Island of Hawaii to meet up with friends from Japan. We rendezvoused for lunch at a restaurant in Waikiki then accompanied them to their hotel to check in. Our plan was to get them settled in their room before venturing out to enjoy the sites and sounds of the island.

When we arrived at the hotel, the lobby was packed wall-to-wall with people. A long line was queued up in front of the check-in counter with just one clerk on duty. We found a place to wait with our friend’s wife while her husband got in line to check in.

It took almost ten minutes for our friend to finally wind his way to the front of the line. After a several-second interaction with the clerk, he abruptly turned and walked toward us with a demeanor teetering between anger and puzzlement. Something was clearly amiss, and we soon found out what it was: He couldn’t check in because the computer was down.

Our friend was clearly miffed. The first words out of his mouth were, “This would never happen in Japan.”

He wasn’t angry about the computer outage. Nor was he implying that in Japan computers never go down or even that mistakes don’t happen. He was frustrated and disappointed by the way he was treated.

He wondered aloud why the clerk hadn’t apologized; why the hotel manager wasn’t on the floor letting guests know in advance about the outage before they wasted their time standing in line; and he couldn’t believe that the hotel wouldn’t provide guests with vouchers so that they could at least enjoy a drink at the bar while waiting until the computer glitch was fixed. But mostly, he was disappointed that the hotel hadn’t trained its staff to check in guests as a back-up plan for when the computer went down.

Anyone who has lived in—or even just visited—Japan for any length of time has felt my friend’s frustration on some level. Indeed, once you get spoiled by Japanese customer service, it can ruin you for life!

This anecdote illustrates not only the different standards of service in Japan compared to my country—and dare I say, the rest of the world—it speaks to profound differences in how people of different cultures expect service providers to behave when a major hiccup hits the fan. In the case of Japan, four words summarize the difference: There is no excuse!

A similar computer hiccup occurred on a much larger scale in 2006, when a 6.6 earthquake rocked the Big Island of Hawaii. It was so powerful that it caused power interruptions throughout the state, which affected major airports on all the islands. As a result, all our airports’ “indispensable” computers were down prompting flight cancellations around the state. Except in the case of Japan Airlines.

Why was JAL able to avoid canceling their flight out of Honolulu while other airlines weren’t? For starters, JAL leadership did not accept a computer outage as a reason not to deliver on its promise to get customers to their destinations in a timely manner. (Keeping promises is a big deal in Japan, especially when it involves the honorable customer.) The other reason is that JAL employees were trained (and had the will and wherewithal) to manually issue tickets and perform all other functions necessary to get their airplane off the ground. No excuses!

Below is my analysis of the hotel check-in fiasco described above, but it applies to just about any situation in which a Japanese customer is inconvenienced.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

Why Do Americans Say “My Lovely Wife”?

Americans think it’s odd, even mean, when Japanese men introduce their spouses as their  “foolish wife” (うちの愚妻). Or vice versa, when the wife talks about her no-good, useless husband.

It’s not that the Japanese don’t love their spouses, they just express it differently. And while younger Japanese don’t use the “foolish wife” expression very much these days, I also have never heard Japanese folks, young or old, publicly shower their spouse with glowing accolades. Although admittedly, I’ve heard it said privately.

Which brings us to the flip side of this cultural phenomenon. I’m occasionally asked by Japanese participants at my seminars why Americans, when introducing their wives, say, “This is my lovely wife.” I usually answer with a joke: “Because we have to!” Some laugh, but some of them take me seriously. Check out my analysis below.

(Note that I’m fortunate to be married to a lovely Japanese lady. If I ever introduced her as “my lovely wife” she’d likely punch me or, at the very least, ask what the hell I was saying. Fortunately, she doesn’t read my blog, so I’m safe. ;))



How Not to Refuse a Drink in Japan

Anyone who has lived in Japan or just deals with the Japanese on a regular basis knows that social attitudes toward alcohol consumption are different here.

That said, it appears attitudes are changing and that younger Japanese are less interested in drinking, a positive development in my opinion. And yet I still hear Japanese friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who like to imbibe jokingly say that they are “alcoholics.” In fact, I just heard it last week at a local drinking establishment. It reminded me of a nomikai (drinking party) a few years back when I had to interpret a conversation between a Japanese host and recovering alcoholic named “John.” Below is my analysis of what was likely going through the Japanese host’s head at the time.

Keep in mind that the scenario below is a great example of how not to refuse a drink in Japan. With the wisdom of hindsight, I should have handled the situation differently. What’s my advice to non-drinkers who want to politely avoid a drink when it’s offered in Japan without getting into the details of alcoholism and what it means? Simply say, “I’m allergic to alcohol,” “I’m on medication,” or “I can’t drink due to health reasons.” One of those polite lies usually gets the desired response.


Why Do North Americans Quit Japanese Companies?

Since the late 1980s, I’ve spoken with hundreds of North American HR managers employed by Japanese-owned subsidiaries. A large percentage of them routinely express concern about the high turnover rate at their companies, how Japanese management fails to grasp the reasons employees leave, and their unwillingness to take any kind of meaningful action to rectify the matter.

After training literally thousands of Japanese managers in the U.S., I’ve learned that one of the most common misconceptions Japanese have about Americans is that they “quit their jobs because they only care about money.” Unfortunately, when I present Japanese managers with the facts, many don’t believe me. Indeed, deeply rooted assumptions can be more stubborn than facts.

My own anecdotal data collection overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that money isn’t the main reason for high turnover, and that it’s not even in the top five. Truth is Japanese subsidiaries tend to be very competitive with pay and benefits. Feedback from literally thousands of American and Canadian employees who have attended my seminars over the years indicates that while money is not unimportant, money alone is not enough to lure them away if they like their jobs and get along with coworkers.  Most just want to do meaningful work, be appreciated, have a say in decisions, and have fun.

It goes without saying that not all Japanese companies are created equal. And many Japanese managers sincerely want to do the right thing, but their hands are tied by the decision-makers in the parent company back in Japan. I have also worked with excellent Japanese organizations that do not have excessive turnover issues and have succeeded in retaining talent. But sadly, I’ve found it to be more the exception than the rule.

Below is my analysis of communication gaps that can cloud this issue. What do you think?



Patience Grasshopper: Japanese Versus American Communication Styles

The first big translation project I ever did was a production control manual about the Kanban (Just-In-Time) system. It was boring beyond tears, but I’ll do my best not to make you cry.

It was the late 1980s. I was working at a new Japanese factory start-up in the Deep South. My Japanese boss mentioned in passing one day that, once we stabilized operations, we would be implementing Just-In-Time. Without any thought whatsoever, I volunteered to translate the manual, even though I had absolutely no idea at the time what “Just-In-Time” meant.

A novice to the industry, I had zero knowledge of manufacturing and knew even less about production control concepts (if that’s even possible). And as I started reading the manual (in Japanese, although I probably wouldn’t have understood it in English either), it didn’t take long before I wondered what I had gotten myself into. The manual was a bloody mess!

To the credit of the manual’s author, it started out simple enough with a clear objective: “To create a visual inventory control and scheduling system that keeps inventory levels to a minimum while ensuring components are produced only as needed.” I was fuzzy about what all this meant, but at least I had a general inkling of the goal. Or so I thought.

Then things got gnarly. The manual immediately jumped into the nuts-and-bolts of the system’s standard procedures without offering an overview of its key components, functions, and how the components fit together. At the time, I thought my confusion was due solely to my ignorance of production control concepts, which admittedly, was a big part of my problem. But what I didn’t realize was that it was written in typical Japanese “whodunit” expository style, best described as the “inductive approach”: start with the specifics and build to a conclusion until the mystery is solved.

This went against my deductive American (Western?) sensibilities, which craved for a general overview of the system followed by the details. No surprise, I spent lots of time picking my Japanese boss’s brain, while he gently encouraged me to “Be patient Grasshopper!”— although not in those exact words. I wasn’t at all patient, but I somehow muddled my way through, and by the time I got to the end, the lightbulb finally clicked on. Which just compelled newly enlightened Grasshopper to go back and rewrite the whole damn thing.

It shouldn’t surprise that the Japanese inductive style is not limited to technical manuals. I deal with it every day on a personal level. (And so do numerous non-Japanese friends who are married to Japanese spouses.) Because I love my dear wife with my whole heart and soul, I’ve learned over the years to approach her communication style as if I were a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: can I figure out the answer before my wife is done giving me hints?

How have I faired? Let’s just say that if “The Secret” were true and my imagination could manifest reality, I’d be a rich man!

Disclaimer: Of course, not all Japanese communicate this way,. But it’s a discernible cultural pattern in their writing and verbal communication styles, as proscribed in the traditional 起承転結  (Introduction-Development-Transition-Conclusion) approach.

Below is my analysis of the communication gaps at play:


“You Probably Won’t Like This, But…”

The first time I was invited over for a meal at a Japanese home, I remember being confused (and a tad scared) when the wife, upon serving me food, said that she didn’t think I would like what she prepared. With some trepidation—and out of grudging politeness—I forced myself to take a bite, only to discover to my delight and surprise that the food was delicious. And I remember at the time wondering why she would say such a thing to a guest. It didn’t take long for me to learn that this was a common practice in Japan. But for a long time, I didn’t know why.

This scenario happens often in Japan, whether the guest is a foreigner or not. The expression “Kore wa kuchi ni awanai ka mo shirenai kedo…” (Literally, “This may not suit your palate, but…”) is a standard, scripted expression Japanese hosts typically use prior to presenting food to a guest.

What, you may ask, is going on below the linguistic surface? Here’s my analysis: