For us at CBI

Culture is a part of Business to be managed.

Culture is a part of business which has to be managed. We are neither cultural trainers nor culture romantics. Culture has nothing dogmatic about it. It should never be an excuse for failure! The ability to effectively handle culture is a qualification managers must obtain. To simply visit a country does not equate with studying its culture.

Only through success and failure can managers learn to adjust. CBI coaches many managers in this process to help them to avoid failure while also teaching them to differentiate between cultural and human or organizational issues for which it is also importatnt to find solutions. Too often culture is used as an excuse for bad behaviour, insufficient qualification, poor organisation…..

Nothing of the following is absolute and can be taken as true or valid for every situation – these are simply points to be considered in order to understand what culture is or might be. Always remember: „裏には裏がある“ Ura ni wa ura ga aru“ – The other side has another side!

Getting everything to run smoothly takes longer

All companies that have succeeded in Japan, aswell as all the companies that have failed, understand that Japan is different.

How is it different? How do you explain a culture to somebody who hasn’t experienced it for himself? How do you explain how water feels to somebody who grew up on the moon? You cannot explain culture, but you can learn to utilize it and let it work for you.

You arrive at Narita airport and a nice lady explains how you can reach your hotel by train or bus. You travel by yourself; you notice that many people speak English and that everybody is friendly… Most foreigners do not feel the real cultural difference because they associate culture with visual and objective standards.

Think about major failures of international corporations in Japan and how helpless top managers, despite being very intelligent people, saw billions being lost. They all thought Japan would be the same as western countries.

We are what we eat!

  • By looking at the way we grow our basic food we can see many cultural differences that help ups to understand why Japan (Asia) is different.
  • In order to grow wheat you need a piece of land, horses and a plough. In addition to this you would hunt for meat and set up clear fences to protect your family from outsiders: both very individualistic acts.
  • In order to grow rice complicated water-systems and paddy fields are required, and these can only be created and maintained in teams. Open conflicts and arguments hurt the community even more than it does in Western societies.
  • Continue to think about this yourself….
  • Individualism & Liberalism: Which Asian country went through a revolution like the French Revolution and shares Western values based on religion and the Greek and Roman Empires….?
  • Individualism is not a value of Japanese Culture!

Fatal Assumptions – We assume:

  • The Japanese work in a similar way to Europeans.
  • The Japanese also use the same standards.
  • There is no difference in standards.
  • The Japanese don’t know how things work.
  • We consider problems as being due to a lack of qualification, but do not condsiderinter-cultural differences.
  • We can show them how things work (globally).
  • People who cannot speak English well are stupid Japanese.
  • People do not have the same set of values as Westerners.

Business issues – Education issues:

  • The real elite start in kindergarden.
  • They are drilled to succeed for the group, company, organization, even if it involves sacrificing their private lives.
  • The company is very important, often more so than familly.
  • Tokyo subway gas attack : 90% of injured people went to work before going to hospital.
  • Forced team spirit.
  • Harmony driven.
  • Even trivial mistakes have severe consequences for the individual (Goningumi).

Historical & Geographical issues

  • Japan was completely isolated between 1600 and 1868, thus the culture has strong „inside“ and „outside“ components.
  • 80% of the population inhabit 20% of the available land in Japan (80% mountainous). Densest population in the world – these living conditions make harmony, rules and discipline a must.
  • Having less space meant the Japanese had to learn to respect each other.
  • Rice requires peace (wa) within a group.
  • Harmony driven.
  • Neither Japan nor any other Asian country took part an event like the French Revolution – being patient and to endure are virtues (the Chinese Revolution was effectively a path to dictatorship).

Some direct comparision points:


  • Teamwork, work packages
  • Clear power distribution
  • Clearly defined roles & responsibilities
  • Limited cooperation


  • Teamwork over all line
  • Unclear power distribution
  • Variable roles & responsibilities
  • Intensive cooperation

Decision West

  • Leader decision
  • Power driven
  • Top down
  • Limited cooperation

Decision Japan

  • Group decision
  • Harmony driven
  • Bottom up
  • Intensive cooperation

Western Director

  • He gives direct orders
  • He decides

Japanese Director

  • He puts forth the direction
  • He doesn’t decide
  • Both cultures are driven by roles
  • But the roles are different
  • Try to accept this difference
  • Gather more background information
  • Try to arrange compromises
  • Provided Trade- and Sales Representation

Honne vs. Tatemae 

Honne = true thoughts,
Tatemae = facade

  • Verbal statements don’t always reflect the real intension
  • The Japanese try to please everybody (harmony)
  • The main target is harmony; avoid confrontation
  • They communicate but don’t define / fix important things in a clear manner
  • Europeans often interpret this as lying
  • But it’s actually an important aspect of Japanese culture

Tatemae Honne often cause:

Misunderstandings, wrong reactions, mistrust and fear. If you ever discover how to deal with it, please share your wisdom with us. It effects our core values! You can learn to live with these issues but if you are involved in miscommunication, it is always difficult to undo.

Trust in Japanese culture is similar – some musts:

  • Trust needs time to develop and needs to be proven in difficult situations
  • To gain trust you have to deliver what you promise … again and again!
  • Japanese OEMs are tired of being told why Europeans or Americans are better
  • Prove what you say – don‘t claim you are the best – prove it!
  • Do not usethe phrase „I am the best“- present plenty of conclusive data to back your statement and then your customer will understand and believe that you are indeed the best.

Bushido – the way of the samurai – is still alive:

Read Miyamoto Musashi’s The Five Rings:

  • Know your art and all arts around it. Never stop studying your art!
  • Know your opponent as well as you know yourself!
  • Know the territory!
  • Be flexible!
  • Strike to kill (or win), strike fast, strike without mercy!
  • Use the momentum of a surprise!
  • First rule – break all rules if necessary to win!

If you do not have time for The Five Rings, watching Tom Cruise in Last Samurai is good enough!