Brian Corporation Japan
Business Japan 101
Japanese Business Culture - "Tatemai" and "Hon-ne"
We start with the most basic item which is probably the most difficult, not to understand but to accept because your logic tells you otherwise. Don't ask why but accept that this is the way it is done by Japanese (when in Rome ...). Mind you, if a foreigner uses a same approach, he or she would my not be looked upon favorably.
Tatemai means to prop it up, frontal view, or upfront view or not necessary the truth. Closest analogy (although not quite) of Tatemai is what politicians usually say during campaign speeches. They say things which they may not mean but which they think the other side (constituents) wants to hear or expect them to say. So many a times (most of the time), Japanese businessman would say things in Tatemai manner but does not really mean it but said it because that was what was expected in front of groups or in public. In a business meeting, one is always in public. In a formal setting, whether parties or meetings, one is always in public.
Hon-ne means real bone or from the bone or the real truth. Hon-ne is rarely spoken in public. Hon-ne is supposed to be 'kept for oneself', not for others to know. This is especially true if it is a negative answer or feeling.
Even amongst Japanese, Japanese always tries to figure out what the other guy (another Japanese) was saying and what the other guy really meant. It does not matter how many times they meet formally, Hon-ne does not come out. One way to get to the truth or to the bone is to get to know the other person by going out to dinner, golf, karaoke, etc. with him. This takes time and money as one needs to form a personal relationship with that person. Even after doing that Hon-ne may not come out. On the other hand, he may refuse your invitation. Then what?
In addition to Tatemai and Hon-ne, Japanese (also some Asian countries) speak in indirect manner so this adds to the confusion as well. One may be explaining a large rock garden but that person maybe speaking about the relationship between their two companies.
There are many stories I hear where a westerner comes to Japan to sell something and meets a Japanese company. He comes every two months or so to have meetings and dinner with this potential Japanese company. The Japanese side is very cordial and polite every time and very nice to him taking him out to various Japanese and Continental dinner every time he visits. The westerner goes back and reports to his boss that everything is going great and he expect to close an order or sign an agreement on his next visit. He does this for about a year and no order or an agreement is signed. His boss gets impatient and cuts off his travel budget (maybe him also) and the westerner scratches his head as to what went wrong.
In such a case, maybe this westerner did not listen to the other side carefully. Tatemai is always polite, not necessary true feeling, nor positive outcome. Politeness does not necessary mean agreement. Maybe there were hints (negative) dropped during dinner or karaoke and he did not catch it.
Another complication. Since most westerners cannot speak adequate Japanese (especially business Japanese which is different than ordinary Japanese) they speak English in Japan. Japanese who can speak English is speaking Japanese English which is different than English English even though it sounds like English English (very confusing, huh?). The difference is that when a westerner speaks English, he is speaking English based on his culture. When a Japanese speaks English, he is merely translating Japanese into English but his base is Japanese culture. So Japanese English and English English is not the same. One needs to translate Japanese English to English English. Before this, much is lost when translating from one language to another especially from Japanese to English or from English to Japanese.
Also, this Japanese English may come out very direct which may contradict what I mentioned earlier about not being direct but this is merely a Tatemai in Japanese English. In such a case, the Japanese is using Japanese English in a direct manner because he thinks that is how he is supposed to say when he is talking to westerners (maybe he watches too many American movies... I like Steven Segal).
The best suggestion for all this is; don't rush, be sincere, be a professional and watch out for any signs, negative or positive (if there are any). Or do what many Japanese do if things are not progressing. They ask a third party to assist as a mediator or to find out the real story since they cannot ask directly to the other company (it is not done). There are many Samurai principals in modern day businessmen (later articles to cover this topic).
Oh, I forgot to tell you, the other side won't tell you "yes" or "no" as there are no "no" in spoken language. Only "yes" and "yes".
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