Japanese people have no flexibility ? But…

Japanese people think a lot of the concept of “kata” (pattern, form), and we pay a lot of attention to processes in order to learn it. On the other hand, Westerners are more logic-oriented (論理型) in trying to produce business results. They leave people a lot of room (幅をもたせる) in how they want to achieve results, and respect individual ways of doing things.

When the Japanese supervisor (上司, 監督者, 管理人) instructed (指示する, 教える) his American staff member to clean his desk, it really made the subordinate (部下) upset. In this case, the issue of keeping one’s desk orderly (整然とした)  is a personal habit, so the foreigner tends to see it as something not even connected with the process. 

Keeping one’s desk is a personal issue?

However, in Japan, if a supervisor says that someone should keep things tidy (整然とした) and in order, the person understands implicitly (暗黙のうちに) that this is a first step in learning an efficient (効果的な) means (手段) to classify (分類する)  everything and retrieve (回収する, 繕う)  information. So, he or she may obey the supervisor’s instruction. 

However, in the case of a non-Japanese staff member, the person may object that “It’s a personal issue. Finding fault with such small things is unthinkable (考えられない).”

“My Japanese supervisor told me to keep things neat (きちんとした) and tidy to improve my work. I’m not joking.”

In the end, a process is a personal decision, and if there is a problem with the result, when the supervisor gives guidance (指導, 指図), how should the relationship between the supervisor and the subordinate be understood?

Also, when instructing someone in some process, can the supervisor convince (納得させる) the person that it makes sense and is logical? Internationally (国際的に), Japanese bosses are still on probation (試練, 見習い期間, 執行猶予).

“When I asked him to clean up his desk, he looked upset.”

(by Japanese boss)

Don’t you think Japan’s way of teaching sports is strange?

In the last (前の) case study (事例), we saw how on the long Japanese journey of practice, results are achieved by learning the “kata” through the whole process. The most mysterious things about this for foreigners are the ways of instructing and practicing sports.

For example, when someone studies “kendo” (Japanese fencing), beginners are made to clean the floor of the martial arts school. In baseball, beginners have to fetch balls (球拾いをする) and practice their swings over and over.

Neither of these things has any direct connection with sporting technique, so it can be thought of as being a waste of time. Even though the Japanese idea is that this is disciplining the spirit (精神の鍛錬), foreigners can’t understand why everyone has to clean the floor together.

In companies, too, new recruits (新入社員) are asked to do the same menial (つまらない) tasks again and again over a long period of time. If non-Japanese have to do that, they may find another job in a short time.

That training process is taken for granted (当然のこととして) by Japanese people, but it should be understood that as a traditional Japanese value, it is only common to Japanese.

Japanese people are so focused on form that they have no flexibility

They say (〜と言われている) that there are two weaknesses of Japanese people’s emphasis (強調, 重点) on “kata”. The first is that the “kata” can never be changed, so people have a tendency (傾向) to adhere (執着する) to one way of doing things. The other is that people in local offices and subordinates follow the supervisor’s orders too much, inhibiting (抑制する) each individual’s judgment and decisions.

If you go to a restaurant, of course there will be a menu. However, in the West, it is not unusual for customers to make very specific (明確な) orders. For example, when they order toast for breakfast, they might ask for their egg sunny-side-up and on top of the toast, with a small bowl of strawberries for a side dish.

In Japan, ordering off the menu (メニューにない注文) is usually not allowed. If the waiters and waitresses can’t judge them on the spot (即座に, 現場で), unusual orders are not allowed. If you order something that’s not on the menu, it makes trouble. There are the exceptions (例外, 異議) with the case attaching great importance to hospitality, though. 

However, when following “kata”, Japanese people will do an outstanding (傑出した) job. There is a clear difference between cultures where the side making the request (頼む側) respects diverse (多様な) ideas and cultures where people try to lead by asking (求める) customers and subordinates to follow form.


Japan is a country of many capacities (収容能力), capabilities (能力) and specialities (特殊, 特技, 特色) but being flexible (柔軟性)  is not one of them. However, we can  benefit by exploiting (功績) high levels of basic politeness. 

The service here might not be particularly engaging (魅力のある), but it is at a consistent (首尾一貫した) minimum (最小限の), uniformly (一様に) polite. Having flexibility though isn’t in the “manual”. Instead of being inflexible, The Japanese is the impersonation (化身, 演技, モノマネ) of politeness