The Seven Keys to Communicating in Japan
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The Seven Keys to Communicating in Japan

An Intercultural Approach

Haru Yamada, Orlando R. Kelm, David A. Victor

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  1. 280 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Seven Keys to Communicating in Japan

An Intercultural Approach

Haru Yamada, Orlando R. Kelm, David A. Victor

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About This Book

The key to professional success in Japan is understanding Japanese people. The authors, seasoned cross-cultural trainers for businesspeople, provide a practical set of guidelines for understanding Japanese people and culture through David A. Victor's LESCANT approach of evaluating a culture's language, environment, social organization, context, authority, nonverbal communication, and time conception. Each chapter addresses one of these topics and shows effective strategies to overcoming cultural barriers and demonstrates how to evaluate the differences between Japan and North America to help avoid common communication mistakes. The book is generously peppered with photographs to provide visual examples. Exploring language and communication topics, international relations, and the business community, this book is an excellent intercultural overview for anyone traveling to or working in Japan.

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One Language, One Country

Language is central to communication, and this significance becomes even more key when we consider its role in intercultural communication. Here, in our first key for North Americans communicating with the Japanese, we take a selective look at the important aspects of the Japanese language as well as examining the impact of English as a global language on the Japanese.
Although Japanese is the ninth-most-widely-spoken language in the world, with roughly 125 million mother-tongue speakers, virtually all these speakers live in Japan. This is unique among the world’s top ten largest languages, and an important consideration, because, when you choose to learn Japanese, it can mean that you have a real interest in Japan. This is not a given with other languages. If you learn Spanish, for instance, you may be interested in Spain or Mexico or any of the twenty countries where Spanish is a first language.
No significant population of people exists who speak Japanese as a minority language. There is no network of minority speakers in any other country, as there is with Russian and the nations of the former USSR. There is no far-flung diaspora of Japanese speakers the way there is for speakers of Hindi and Chinese.
Moreover, because Japan is an isolated set of self-contained islands, there is not even a shared border of nations among Japanese speakers, as there is for the great Indian regional languages such as Bengali (split between India and Bangladesh) and Punjabi (split between India and Pakistan). In short, the only country where Japanese is official or even widely known is Japan; and because of this, when you learn Japanese, you automatically show yourself as someone interested in Japan and only Japan. People anywhere like it when you are interested in their country in particular, and in this way, learning Japanese shows this clearly to the Japanese people.
The significance of this interest in Japanese as a language takes on even more importance when we consider how many nations still hold resentments against Japan over World War II. Although presumably this has diminished somewhat with the passage of time, large numbers of people in China, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Oceania, and elsewhere continue to hold prejudices against Japan. The Japanese themselves are understandably sensitive to this issue. It is important, then, to note that when we choose to learn Japanese, we demonstrate that we do not share in these historical prejudices. As a result, speaking even a little Japanese carries an extra positive symbolic message that, say, learning Portuguese would not carry in Brazil.


Japanese is essentially unrelated to any major language group. Most other languages belong to linguistic families, which have evolved from a common ancestor. For example, the Romance languages evolved from ancient Latin to become modern Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Catalan, and Romanian. Because of this, they share many grammatical features and related vocabularies. Similar relationships exist among the members of the Slavic, Semitic, Germanic, and Turkic families, and so on.
In fact, until the twentieth century, Japanese was considered a language isolate (i.e., as having no related languages at all). Today, most linguists agree that spoken Japanese is related to the Ryukyuan languages. These eleven tiny languages are limited to a small number of speakers on Okinawa and its surrounding island chain, with a combined total of roughly 1.25 million speakers. For all intents and purposes, then, we can see Japanese as an orphan language.
The fact that Japanese is essentially unrelated to any other language is more than just an interesting piece of trivia (although it is that, too). Rather, this means that Japanese is difficult to learn because its structure and vocabulary have little in common with other languages. Likewise, it is difficult for Japanese speakers to learn other languages for the same reason—particularly English, with all its irregularities from having absorbed the vocabularies and grammatical structures of different languages in different periods.


The Japanese accept the idea that English is the lingua franca for communication outside Japan, and they are largely receptive to the idea that English is the language in which most scientific, business, and scholarly work is published. English also influences Japanese popular culture through the entertainment industry of gaming, television, movies, and music, as well as the fashion industry. Advertising frequently includes English words or phrases (which at times are comically misused) to add a cachet of brand, trend, worldliness, or even otherworldliness.
More important, for the Japanese, English is not just a means of speaking with nationals from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, or Australia whose native language is English. Rather, except for Mandarin Chinese with native Mandarin Chinese speakers, English is the main means for reaching most foreigners. Whether Japanese people speak with Germans, Brazilians, or Thai people, they will tend to use English as the lingua franca.

English as a Technical Skill

Japanese generally view English as a technical skill. This is especially the case in business, government, education, and other areas where communicating with foreigners is required. As a result, the ability to speak English is a job requirement for many Japanese. English is as much of a technical skill as, say, the ability to read a spreadsheet or balance sales figures. In short, an educated person is expected to be proficient in English.

The Prestige of English Proficiency and Face-Saving

From the Japanese point of view, because English language skills are evaluated on par with other technical skills, English proficiency is not just about communication ability and clarity but also about how well qualified a person appears to be in his or her job. In short, to maintain a good profile within a company, it is important for a Japanese employee to at least appear as if he or she speaks English well, because the contrary could have negative repercussions and even hurt an employee’s prospects for future promotion.
The upshot of this is that many Japanese employees become skilled at seeming as if they understand more English than they do. This subskill is encouraged by the fact that the Japanese language favors interpretation and positive I’m listening feedback, which we explore in further detail in chapter 4, which discusses contexting. Briefly here, head nods and vocals like mhm may make it seem as if the Japanese listener understands everything we are saying.
Awareness of the Japanese sensitivity to English fluency brings up another issue in a native speaker’s interaction with them: No matter how poor that, say, an Anglophone Canadian engineer or auditor might be at any other technical aspect of his or her job, the one technical skill at which that Canadian has undisputed expertise is the technical skill of communicating in English, merely by growing up as a first-language speaker of English. This advantage can be a devastating reality for a senior Japanese professional with a lower standard of English proficiency. It is our strong recommendation that as native speakers of English, we take the prestige factor of the English language in Japan seriously. With this new key, we can note that a seemingly amusing ice-breaker—such as “So I guess we’re not going to be speaking that much English,” followed by a laugh—may not be very funny to our Japanese counterpart, and could have the same impact as looking at someone’s poorly drafted spreadsheet and saying, “Well, I guess not everyone is a quant.” It would only produce a laugh if we knew the other person well. Most English speakers, however, are oblivious to this sort of thing.

Problems of English Proficiency

Because English is seen as vital to communicating with those outside Japan, English is a mandatory subject for all Japanese schoolchildren. Starting in the first year of junior high school, all Japanese students take six years of English. Moreover, roughly 30 percent of Japanese students actually begin studying English in grade school.
Despite this, by the time they are finishing high school, Japanese students generally have a comparatively weak control of English, especially spoken English. This is apparent through numerous surveys. For instance, among those taking the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), Japan ranked thirty-ninth out of forty-six countries, with a mean score of only 513 out of 990, considerably lower than neighboring South Korea (which ranked eighteenth, with a mean of 670) or China (twenty-fourth, with a mean of 632).1
The TOEIC is taken largely by people who are already considered somewhat proficient, for those seeking a job largely take the test. The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), by contrast, is largely administered by schools to track English-level proficiency. But here, too, Japan consistently performs very poorly.
The TOEFL scores in Japan were consistently so bad that in 2009 the Japanese government instituted a program to address this by requiring all schools to use the TOEFL and to raise their test scores. The TOEFL scores in 2009 that led to this action ranked Japan twenty-ninth out of thirty Asian countries, with a mean score of 67 on the 120-point test, far below neighbors China, at seventy-sixth, and South Korea, at eighty-first.2
In the summer of 2014, after six years of concerted efforts to improve the level of English in schools, the Japanese government carried out a test at 480 randomly chosen schools among third-year high school students, the equivalent of twelfth grade in North America. The results continued to be disappointing. Using the Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency, the survey showed poor English in all areas. The results made national news. These remarks from the Japan Ti...

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