DENNIS SEID: Understanding Japanese – and other cultures – is good business

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one.”
23th-century Vulcan philosopher

In many regards, that altruistic statement can be applied to much of Japanese culture, where individualism typically gives way to the overall needs of society as a whole.

Takeshi Koto, vice consul with the Japanese Consulate in New Orleans, last week headed a forum on Japanese culture and business etiquette to help us understand them better. After all, with Toyota building a plant in Blue Springs plant that will have some 2,000 employers, plus suppliers adding thousands more, we’ll be dealing quite a bit with the Japanese.

They’re not out to take over the world, as many people thought in the 1980s, when Japan Inc. seemed to be buying property left and right in the U.S. and its products were “flooding the market.” We were quite afraid, weren’t we?

But now that China has emerged, Japan is our new best friend. The island nation is our largest export market outside North America. In turn, the U.S. is the largest export market for Japan. Economically and politically, we are much aligned.

Still, many of us are unfamiliar with Far East cultures like the Japanese and Chinese. Yes, they are often humble, quiet and unassuming, not because they’re shy, but because it’s ingrained in the gene pool. They don’t go out of their way to stand out.

That doesn’t mean they’re not individuals. “While Japanese may choose to conform to society, each Japanese is a unique individual,” Takeshi emphasized. It’s that group-think mentality prevailing.

As in other cultures, today’s Japanese are caught between the tradition of their culture and the desire to become more Westernized. Takeshi prefers the term “modernized.”

In other words, many want to strike the right balance. It was no different in our house growing up, with my parents who spoke both Chinese and (mostly good) English, as did my paternal grandparents, who lived with us. There was no doubt what our roots were. But we embraced American culture just as well as anyone, particularly those like myself who were born and raised in the good ole U.S.A.

Knowing who you’re dealing with and what they might – or might not – be thinking or saying is crucial. You just have to pick up on the nuances of different people.

For example, prolonged eye contact in Oriental culture is considered rude, or worse, taken as a challenge to authority.

The lesson here is simple – learn more about the Japanese and their ancient culture, and others, too.

It’s not all about us; we are not alone.

Understanding other people helps break down stereotypes and prejudice.

And that’s just good business.

Dennis Seid is business editor of the Daily Journal. Reach him at 678-1578 or e-mail him at

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