Japanese companies love meetings. Comments I frequently read on social media from foreign workers living in Japan are: “There are too many meetings,” “Why do the Japanese love meetings so much?” or “The meetings are too long, and in the end, nothing is decided,” (something I have briefly evoked here). My personal experience is similar to these impressions, although I would like to do further research and confirm them with statistics. However, one thing that has puzzled me for some time while working in Japan is the different way the Japanese value face-to-face meetings.
Even in the era of Skype and Zoom meetings, it is not uncommon for Japanese businesspeople to take the train or the plane for a few hours to do just one session with someone. And come back the same day. A friend of mine has the experience of traveling five hours for a two-hour meeting, eating a quick bento lunch, and making the five-hour return trip on a single day. Why would you sacrifice so many productive hours for something that could be done online? The current COVID-19 pandemic is changing the game. Still, I tend to think that once the situation gets better, Japanese businessmen may return to their old ways in most cases.
Based on personal experience, my explanation is that the Japanese do not look for the same things in meetings as most Westerners do. In Western culture, meetings are mostly held to disseminate information, agree on something, make decisions, and get work done. I would say these aspects make up only half or two-thirds of what meetings are about for the Japanese. For them, maintaining good relationships is as important as getting the work done.
You will often find that most of the time, nothing very important will take place during your first meeting with Japanese business counterparts. They need to get to know you first, and for this, meeting face to face is the best way. Japan is a high-context culture, which, to sum up roughly, means that what is not said during the meeting is as important as what is said. The Japanese have a specific expression for that: “kuuki wo yomu,” literally “reading the air.”
You will be judged not only on what you say and what you bring to the table, but also on your manners and general attitude during the meeting. That is why knowing a few basics about Japanese business habits can make a big difference to reach a successful end. Observing the way someone sits, the way they listen to things, eye movements, and other microexpressions are part of “reading the air,” and these are not as easy to grasp from an online meeting.
In a first meeting including several companies or organizations regarding a common project, the Japanese will try their best to use “reading the air” techniques to weigh things, like the various power relations in the group and each person’s attitude towards the project. This way, they will know how to adapt their strategy and arguments, while making sure to keep relations as smooth as possible. However, power balances and attitudes can change along the process, so adjustments and reassessments need to be done on a regular basis—hence the need for regular face-to-face meetings.
A colleague has recently told me that there is a reverse strategy of “pretending not to read the air”—adopting a bold attitude on purpose to get your point heard. But I will save this topic for another time.
For more details about “reading the air,” I recommend this excellent article from the BBC.