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The master-servant hierarchy

This blog post may be one of the most controversial that I end up writing. Quite simply, Asian societies tend to be hierarchical, and this is especially true in Japanese business. If you are a vendor, you are serving your customer. Therefore, you are below your customer.

If you have ever observed the behavior of customers and staff in a restaurant in Japan, you can see a similar phenomenon. Notice how all of the staff are exceedingly welcoming, polite and thankful, while customers are often silent or “abrupt” (one could say rude). This used to bother me until I realized what was underlying the behavior.

The more savvy foreign visitors doing business in Japan understand this to some degree. By being a foreigner, you are put on a pedestal and can deal more as an equal with a customer or potential customer. There are actually several factors at play and one or more may be influencing a particular situation or interaction:

1) Being foreign means you are outside the hierarchy
2) Being a visitor to the country means you are a guest, and Japanese have a very highly defined sense of decorum toward guests
3) Being American means you are high in the global hierarchy
4) Being older or distinguished places you high up

Ironically, Americans are the most blind to this dynamic, since American society has little in the way of traditional hierarchy, although there are other hierarchies present. And being foreign in appearance will cause behaviors to occur on an automatic basis, so much so that even Japanese are not always aware of what is happening.

My own experience is unique because I have experienced both sides – being a foreigner and being Japanese – and I can tell you the two sides are hugely different. For the typical Westerner, it would be very uncomfortable to be put into a native position as a vendor. And in fact, Western managers often see their Japanese staff or partners act in ways that are bewildering.

For example, in a sales meeting, it is hard for Westerners to understand why their Japanese salesperson may not be asking questions about budget or timeline or needs. Instead, he or she seems to simply answer requests and take notes. And this may occur over a series of meetings with the same customer. When something is not right, such as an error or bug, the customer complains loudly and with excruciating detail, demanding timelines for a fix and deep explanations of the reason why the error occurred.

Think about it. You are the vendor, and the customer is your master. You do what the customer wants.

Now obviously some Japanese who are viewed as senior and who have an established relationship with the customer can ask certain probing questions at the right time, but the answers will often be vague.

Some Westerners who see how differently they are treated can throw their weight around, so to speak. The unfortunate effect of this can be polite tolerance during the meeting, and then afterward their Japanese colleagues will get angry phone calls and even louder complaints.

Clearly there must be a delicate balancing act. But that can take years of practice to do effectively.

This also points to the foundation of the perennial issue with sales in Japan – there is no urgency and it can be extremely difficult to progress a sale in a timeframe that is suitable for the vendor. But that is the topic of another post.