From long working hours to strict hierarchy, there are many ways Japanese work culture differs from how we do things here in the UK.

Although some of Japan’s working practices may seem strange to us Brits at first sight, sometimes it’s good to shake things up and approach your work from a new angle. 

Here are a few interesting lessons we can learn from Japanese work culture.

Silence can be powerful

If the person you were talking to in a meeting fell silent after you asked them a question, what would you do? 

Chances are, you’d repeat the question in a different way, perhaps assuming they hadn’t heard or understood. Or perhaps you’d fill the gap with chit-chat. 

In the UK, silence makes us feel awkward. We feel mounting pressure to break it, and it rarely lasts more than a second or two in meetings. 

A study conducted by the University of Groningen found that in English and Dutch, people start to feel uneasy if a silence stretches to four seconds. 

In Japan however, silence is an accepted part of conversation. 

One study compared a Japanese business meeting with an American one. They found that in the Japanese meeting, there were on average 5.15 seconds of silence per minute, with the longest silence being 8.2 seconds. 

This compared to 0.74 seconds of silence per minute in the American meeting.

Not all communication is verbal

The importance of silence is recognised in the Japanese concept of ‘haragei’. 

Translated literally, haragei means ‘belly art’. It is a form of intuitive communication that relies on non-verbal cues - allowing people to communicate ‘belly to belly’. 

Haragei suggests that we communicate best when we don’t speak. If you need words, there has already been a failure to understand each other.

In the workplace, this means that Japanese people will often revert to silence in meetings. Sometimes, they can even close their eyes - which can come as a shock to non-Japanese people. 

Silences lasting many seconds are not uncommon, and are often seen as the most productive time in a meeting.

Interpreting the silence

The meaning of these silences can vary. A silence may imply approval - something like, ‘I like what you said, let me think about it for a minute’ - or it can simply be a moment for quiet reflection. 

Or it may indicate a negative response, with the silence acting as a polite way to avoid confrontation. 

In order to understand the meaning of a silence, the listener must use the non-verbal cues that haragei relies on. 

Timing, facial expressions and other sounds - for example, an intake of breath - can all indicate what the person is trying to communicate. 

These subtle signals are embedded in Japanese communication culture and may be difficult for non-Japanese people to pick up on.

Japanese work culture: what lessons can we learn?

Adopting silence in your working life

Although the conventions underpinning haragei are absent from British communication, we can still benefit from adopting elements of the concept into our working lives.

Silence can be incredibly powerful in meetings. In British work culture, where pauses in conversation are not the norm, a silence can carry extra weight. It’s likely to take people off guard. 

Pausing after presenting an idea can convey gravitas, confidence and a command of the situation. It creates a sense that you have the upper hand, and gives others a moment to absorb and process what you’ve said.

Leaving a silence after another person has made you a proposal can be particularly impactful. 

It not only gives you time to fully understand what they’ve proposed. The other person may jump in to try and fill the gap and end up revealing too much, backtracking on their proposal or even increasing their offer.

You may want to adopt the practice of leaving short silences during team meetings. It's a way for everyone to take a step back, contemplate and get a fresh perspective. 

Taking time to be quiet and reflect may yield new insights - or it could simply be a moment of calm during a stressful day.

Communicating according to tradition

The Japanese culture of non-verbal communication is characterised by the distinction between ‘tatemae’ and ‘honne’. These two words define what one communicates publicly, and what one truly thinks and feels.

Tatemae is a social obligation - a set of expectations and conventions that guide the way people communicate in Japan. Japanese people usually behave according to tatemae, even when it directly contradicts honne. 

For example, Japanese people rarely say no. Denying a request is considered embarrassing. 

Instead, they may signal disapproval using subtle facial cues, such as a twitch of the mouth or clenched teeth. Otherwise they may say something indirect, like ‘I will do my best’ or ‘that may be a little difficult’. 

Working in harmony 

Understanding these cues relies heavily on group harmony - something else that is highly prized in Japanese work culture. 

Non-Japanese people working in Japan often report that team-based attitudes are prevalent. People work together for the good of the group rather than as individuals - or even rivals - as in Western culture.

In companies, as in wider Japanese society, the needs of the group are generally considered more important than the needs of the individual. 

Japanese companies usually take a holistic approach to their work, valuing group consensus in decision-making. Workers are expected to make concessions for one another in order to maintain harmony within the group.

Emphasising teamwork

This dedication to the group is something else we can learn from Japanese work culture. An emphasis on teamwork can make employees feel supported, and provide encouragement and reassurance. 

Asking your employees for their input, and making decisions accordingly, helps employees to feel valued. This is likely to make employees feel more engaged, resulting in a boost in productivity for the company as a whole.

As with the concept of haragei, this reliance on teamwork centres around understanding. 

Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Japanese work culture is that understanding one another results in better working relationships, more effective communication and better results for companies overall.

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