Japanese Company Meetings

June 2nd, 2010By Category: Work Tips

Japanese meetings are an entirely different beast to what goes on in an American-style office.  Not too long ago, I worked for a Japanese  IT company in Tokyo.  My department was divided into a wide assortment of sub-sections, but we all had a weekly meeting to discuss projects together and share announcements. When everyone entered the room for that weekly meeting, it were as though we were gathering right after a funeral.

The mood was solemn; team members who had worked with each other for months if not years seemed embarrassed to so much as talk to one another out loud, and laughter seemed more of an attempted means to release tension than a reflection of being at ease. There would be a team leader who would take us through the meeting, asking if anyone had announcements or material that they wished to have discussed.  Whereas you would normally expect people to input their ideas one after the other in almost rapid fire succession, getting people to express opinions at a typical meeting here was akin to pulling teeth.

There would be perhaps one or two older veterans who seemed rather comfortable with themselves and confident with whatever they had to say about such-and-such, but otherwise everyone else would be deathly quiet as though they were dreading that their name would be called out. Without exaggeration, I have never witnessed such as high a level of tension at any other job as I did here. If an outranking team member contradicted another member, there would be cases in which that member would fall deathly quiet for about ten seconds before offering a feeble reply, or even times where the member just wouldn’t respond at all with so much as eye contact.

Another aspect I found striking about meetings in Japanese business environs was the pace.  I was used to people systematically tackling a problem, wasting no time in assessing what would be the most effective means of addressing the issue at hand.  In the case of this team, the subject matter would be mulled over for hours.  We rarely finished meetings on time (which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t cut into the lunch hour), and it always seemed as though everything that could possibly get said, was said. The meticulousness alone was unprecedented for me.

If there was a single bit of a doubt regarding the minutest of details on a proposal, it would be dissected, analyzed, and reviewed over and over again until every imaginable alternative had been exhausted-and to that end “time” was certainly never an issue. meeting-notes I wouldn’t be so quick to judge one way of doing things over the other as being better or worse, but it always is intriguing to become aware of such differences, and realizing how the way even a simple meeting is carried out is reflective of the values of the surrounding culture.

People take their work more seriously in Japan, always stressing details and never rushing to a conclusion.  On the one hand it is highly admirable for a culture already renowned for its working values, but for the outsider, also a cause for frustration.

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  • working in Tokyo says:

    I see resistance to change is also a major setback. Even when the point of mentioning an issue is to solve a known problem, discussion will lead to keeping things as they are, but that itself isn't a decision either as it will pop up again in the next meeting.

    I know exactly what the author is talking about regarding “rapid fire” attempts to conquer a problem seeming bizarrely inappropriate. At my previous gig in the U.S, if you didn't try to come up with a solution, you were seen as lazy or stupid. So, it's a reflex of mine that I am trying (often not succeeding) to subdue.

    Any advice on being progressive without being disruptive?

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  • 名無し says:

    I'm currently working in a game company here in Tokyo. For me it's ain't that tense. Its just section leader fighting on either to put a close button on top or on the bottom of some window for HOURS! while most of us lower beings just sit there unable to move forward with the meeting. It was the most unproductive meeting I've ever experienced. Unproductive and ineffective work environment.

  • Luigi says:

    I have worked at a games company in Tokyo for 6 years and if meetings were so tense at a GAMES company, I can not even imagine how they would be in companies dealing with not so much fun stuff. The article writer and Joe are spot on about how detrimental is to creativity and being progressive about your work.

  • Joe says:

    Come work in a Japanese company and it'll remove any doubt from your mind about what this author is talking about. Call it what you will, but your romanticized vision of proper decorum leaves much to be desired when you work in that company day in and day out. The fear and tension is palpable and detrimental to any progressive business attitude. Trust me.

  • Anonymous says:

    I've heard that in Japan, it's more common than in a place such as America to give someone time to respond, even if that means giving them silence. That is, if somebody asks you a tough question, and you begin to answer, you're allowed to take a long (we're talking 10-20 second) pause to organize your thoughts before presenting what you think to the others.

    Also, it's possible that what you perceive to be tension, everyone else perceives to be proper decorum.