Category Archives: Japanese customer service

A Weirdly Shaped Peg Looking for a Hole to Fill


My career trajectory didn’t “shape me” to fit well into any existing professional categories. To my surprise, many others seem to be in the same boat. It’s good to know I’m not alone.

I was a cryptologist in the Navy who went on to study cultural anthropology and Japanese, then worked on a mixed-culture project team to start up a new Japanese factory, was subsequently hired by a U.S. company as a sales manager to develop business with Japanese transplants in the U.S., was later recruited by a Japanese company to work as a management/productivity consultant, and even ran an insert-molding factory for four years before eventually starting my own business as a cross-cultural business consultant.

Moral of my story: if you’re a weirdly shaped peg that doesn’t fit well into round or even square holes, you have to create your own hole to fill.

And here I am. 🙂


Is Honne-Tatemae a Taboo Cross-Cultural Topic?


The Messy Job Interview

Almost twenty years ago I interviewed for a freelance position with a training company. The interviewer, a fellow American, was a capable, savvy interculturalist. We arranged to meet at her home office, a short train ride away from my home. She picked me up at the station in a nondescript two-door sedan that I’m pretty sure was a Toyota; what I remember for sure is that her car made a positive impression on me because it was devoid of pretense, and I took it as a good omen that we’d get along swimmingly. 

Then I got in her car.

It was filled to the brim with an assortment of candy wrappers, food containers, empty paper cups, notebooks, paperwork, and other miscellaneous items, all of which I pretended not to notice. After the initial shock wore off, I settled in and convinced myself it wasn’t a big deal, while part of me secretly admired her for unabashedly owning that mess.

Stating the obvious, she was in a power position, so in a practical sense her messiness didn’t matter; I was there to impress her, not her me.

To her credit, she apologized for the mess but absolutely didn’t mean it. I waved it off and said something like, “No worries, you should see my car,” a polite lie, equally insincere. It was not my place, nor was it to my benefit, to rock the boat. I needed work and this nice, messy lady was in a position to help me. Still, I couldn’t wait to see her office.

And it didn’t disappoint!


A dramatization of the interviewer’s desk based on a random internet stock photo.

Sitting eye-deep among towering skyscrapers of stacked papers, boxes, and books, we engaged in ritual chit-chat before getting to my pitch. To my surprise and delight, the messy ambiance of the room had a weirdly calming effect and it put me in a zone. With an American audience of one, I relaxed and told my story. The luck of the Irish was with me, and I impressed enough to graduate to the next phase of the interview, at which time my interviewer provided an overview of the company’s training material.

As she went through it, she urged me to hang my personal stories on the content and to “just be yourself.” This was music to my ears, as I am damn good at just being myself.

She also highlighted topics to avoid, the good old trifecta of workplace taboos: politics, religion, and sex. So far so good.

Then she said something I never expected to hear: “And you should never, ever discuss honne-tatemae because Americans will interpret it to mean that the Japanese are liars.”

I couldn’t have disagreed with her more, but that battle would remain in my head. There was no need to rock this boat either.

What Is Honne-Tatemae?

Anyone familiar with Japan has heard of honne-tatemae. For those who haven’t, it is a pairing of two Japanese words often translated as “one’s true feelings” (=honne) versus “the truth for public consumption” (=tatemae). This particular expression acknowledges and articulates an unwritten cultural rule in Japan that regulates what is appropriate to say in any given situation versus “one’s true feelings.” This expression is, in essence, an open admission by Japanese culture that people’s words and true feelings don’t always match. Shocking, I know.

A non-Japanese friend who lives in Japan says he can’t stand tatemae and believes it is unhealthy. I agree that too much tatemae is indeed unhealthy. But just for fun, let’s imagine the opposite extreme, a world completely devoid of tatemae, where people blurt out everything on their minds without thought or empathy for others’ feelings. That doesn’t sound at all healthy to me either.

Like most things in life, honne-tatemae is about balance and context. When socializing with good friends, the American in me prefers to keep tatemae to a minimum. On the other hand, in a public setting, tatemae can be a good thing if practiced judiciously. Another friend familiar with Japan says to think of tatemae as “diplomacy.” That’s as good a characterization as I’ve heard.

Personally, I find the frankness of my American compatriots refreshing, but I never lose sight of the fact that they too practice tatemae when it suits their purposes, even if they don’t want to admit it.

In my experience dealing with Japan for over four decades, more often than not, tatemae has been practiced with good intentions—to keep the harmony, put a positive spin on a bad situation, help someone avoid embarrassment, or protect a loved one. By implication, it also means that lots of roads have gotten paved to hell, but that goes for any culture.

Not everyone agrees with my take on honne-tatemae. Some might say it is too forgiving. Fair enough, each person’s take is highly subjective. For those who have a darker view of honne-tatemae, I would only remind them that no culture, certainly not Japan, has a monopoly on it. We all play the honne-tatemae game when the situation calls for it.

Whatever one’s take on the concept—positive, negative or neutral—understanding the dynamics of honne-tatemae is essential for effective communication with the Japanese, specifically for learning the all-important skill of “reading the air” and between the lines.

The irony of that fateful interview almost two decades ago is that the interviewer and interviewee, both Americans, had tatemae on full display while we danced around the endearing elephant in the room—the interviewer’s unabashed messiness. The dance came so naturally that we weren’t even conscious of it, evidence that honne-tatemae is alive and well in American culture—even if we pretend it isn’t.

Is Honne-Tatemae a Taboo Cross-Cultural Topic?

My clients are fully-grown adults. They deserve my respect. They deserve to have information that will enhance their ability to effectively communicate with Japanese friends, colleagues and loved ones. Professional educators in my field should know how to explain concepts like honne-tatemae without casting cross-cultural aspersions, and we should trust that clients will know what to do with that information.

By understanding the honne-tatemae dynamic, non-Japanese are better equipped to forge deeper bonds with Japanese counterparts and improve communication in the process. This is reason enough to put it on the table for discussion.

What do you think?


Copyright © 2019 Tim Sullivan

What Does “Marketing” Mean In Japan?

Once upon a time in a previous life, I worked for a prestigious Japanese management consulting firm that was trying to make headway in the U.S. market. The company was originally affiliated with Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (通産省) but eventually became a for-profit entity in the early 1980s. As lean-manufacturing concepts spread to other countries in the 80s and 90s, our company started branching out as well, with the goal of becoming a “global player.”

The company had a great product, a “better mousetrap” if you will. But it wasn’t nearly enough to get the world to beat a path to our door. In the end, we would prove to be a victim of our success in Japan.

For starters, our company had no incentive to actively market and sell its services in Japan since its history and former affiliation with the Japanese government served as a badge of prestige that almost ensured clients would beat a path to our door. Would-be Japanese clients would actually come to the company, bow their heads and humbly ask for help. A wonderful situation to be in. If you’re a prestigious, well-known entity in Japan.

Unfortunately, this same company had zero name recognition abroad much less prestige. It didn’t help that it never once felt the need to establish a marketing culture to maintain a sustainable client base; it also didn’t help that the company didn’t grasp what it meant to be “global.” But perhaps the bigger problem was that no one seemed to understand what the concept of “marketing” meant.

On the positive side, we managed to snag some high profile clients early on, clients that kept us busy, although not nearly enough to sustain us long-term. So one fateful day, my Japanese boss marched into the morning meeting and announced that we were going to “spend the day marketing.”

It’s worth mentioning here that marketing has never been my area of expertise, and at best, I know just enough to be dangerous. But even to me, something sounded a bit off about “spending the day marketing.” My notion of marketing conjured up images of research, strategy, and planning, although admittedly, I was fuzzy on the details and execution. And yet, I knew intuitively that marketing wasn’t a thing you just randomly decide to do on a given day.

Still, I naively entertained the possibility that my Japanese colleagues were wiser than me and had some magical, counter-intuitive Zen marketing ideas up their sleeves. This thinking only served to set me up for a big letdown. For when my Japanese boss told us what was in store for us that day, I could almost hear the writing getting etched on the proverbial wall.

I eventually left that company for a better career opportunity long before that ship started sinking. Amazingly the company hung on for more than ten years before finally pulling the plug. What’s unfortunate is that, even with a great product, the company was unable to adapt to the new reality, very disappointing since there was so much potential. Management had no clue how to scale.

Below is the exchange that happened that fateful day, along with my (admittedly imperfect) analysis. I welcome feedback from any marketing experts out there on how best to fill in the cross-cultural blanks below the linguistic surface.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

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.

I Need Help.jpg

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

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.


“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: