Japan: A High Context Culture

As described earlier, high context refers to cultures that rely mainly on non-verbal, implicit communication. They rely on deep personal relationships, context, and traditions to interpret messages. By contrast, low-context cultures tend to have many short-term relationships, are more individualistic, and need the entire message to be explicitly conveyed through words.

High context cultures also tend to use polychronic time – where time is seen as fluid rather than sequential and where people prefer to juggle multiple tasks at once, prefer unstructured work environments, and do not place great importance on deadlines. This is in contrast to monochronic time.

To read more about this, please see our article on high context vs low context cultures and monochronic vs polychronic time.

Japan is considered one of the highest context cultures in the world. However, while the Japanese primarily use polychronic time, they use strict monochronic time when dealing with foreigners and in their handling of technology. The Japanese:

  • Rely on groups, informal networks and tight bonds: The group is very important in getting things done. Similarly, group harmony is paramount, which is why non-confrontational approaches are generally used. There is a greater distinction between people who are inside our outside one’s circle. Relationships are the basis of doing business.

  • Work space is more communal: People tend to work closer together. E.g. Japanese managers are usually not to be separated from the workforce, and often do not even have offices, instead preferring to have their desks right in the middle of the action. This closeness with one’s group is another enabler for high context communication. It also allows for a polychronic approach to work, where numerous tasks are juggled simultaneously.

  • Employ an indirect, non-confrontational style of communication: This is due to the fact that high context cultures rely on non-verbal indications like tone of voice and facial expressions, and also because confrontational behaviour is considered to be disruptive to group harmony. This has led to many problems during interactions with Western firms. On of the most discussed examples is the way the Japanese will say “yes” to mean “I hear you”, and they will typically never say “no” outright, making it necessary to interpret the rejection from the way the message was delivered.

  • Value traditions, rituals, and status: Traditions, rituals, and status provide an important context for how to act and how to interpret events. For this reason, change is slow and the Japanese prefer to discuss things at length before making a decision.

  • Do not work in a linear fashion: This basically means that they tend to consider many things at once, including multiple sources of information, rather than to proceed from A to B. The style of communication in the workplace is also characterised by this.

  • Do not separate their work from their spare time: This is another characteristic of polychronic time. The Japanese will typically spend many more hours at work as well as socialising with their colleagues. This strengthens the group and develops relationships.

To read about how Denmark and Japan compare, please see the article on Denmark vs, Japan: A Low vs. High Context Culture.

Sources:

Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture, Anchor Books, 1977, p. 91-131

Sorrels, K., (1998) “On The Past and Future of Intercultural Relations Study Gifts of Wisdom:
An Interview with Dr. Edward T. Hall “, Accessed 10 February 2013 from: http://people.umass.edu/~leda/comm494r/The%20Edge%20Interview%20Hall.htm

Sullivan, T. (2011) “When Cultures Collide: Low-Context Versus High Context”, Accessed 10 February 2013 from: http://japaninsight.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/when-cultures-collide-low-context-versus-high-context/

Tung, R. (1995), “International Organizational Behaviour”, Luthans Virtual OB McGraw-Hill, pp 487-518

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