Why do Japanese change their way of talking based on differences in age and experience?


In Japan, why do they change their way of talking based on differences in age and experience? Do you want to know the answer? The answer is…

In countries with Confucian (儒教) backgrounds, such as Japan and Korea, people are ranked as senior or junior, with consideration (考慮、配慮、思いやり) being given to their age, or in accordance with (~にしたがって) when they entered the school or company. Thus, “kohai” (junior or younger generation) must pay respect to “senpai” (senior or elder), being careful (気を遣います) about their use of language and attitudes in dealing (接する態度)  with them.


Traditionally (伝統的に、もともと), everyone is equal in societies like America’s. If they are not in the military, no one thinks this way. Whether (~であろうとなかろうと)  older or younger, people call each other by their first names in casual situations, which seems quite a bit different from the Japanese style of hierarchical relationships (上下関係). Even if there are hierarchical relationships in the workplace, they are firmly (しっかりと、確固として) based on the idea that relationships between individuals are fifty-fifty and on an equal basis.

Therefore, if non-Japanese are dealt with (~と取り扱われる) using the “senpai-kohai” concept, it will be the cause of unforeseen (思いがけない、意外な、不測の) friction (摩擦、衝突、あつれき) and misunderstandings. People who have been working for a long time need to know how to deal with newcomers, not in a hierarchical way, but as mentors (良き指導者). 


Even if the customer is always right, isn’t that going too far?

In Japan’s hierarchical society, the customer is often placed above the supplier. The difference between Japan, where the motto is “The customer is always right” and the West “ where they seek equal partnerships with customers for mutual (相互の、共通の) benefit, is a classic (典型的な) example of internal (内部の、社内) friction seen at foreign-owned companies.




claims from Gods (customers)

This can often be seen in the service industry. Some customers get angry about some inadequacy (不備), complain loudly and shout at the other person. In Western society, the more emotionally (感情的に) a customer complains, the more the person receiving the complaint insists on his or her position as an equal. 

“Please treat me as a human being. Why are you talking to me arrogantly (横柄に、傲慢に、威張って、偉そうに)? Get out of here right away, or else!” If they think something doesn’t make sense, people will strongly defend their positions and protect, even to customers. Japanese can’t say such a thing…




Is it true that Japanese people look down on women?

Although it is changing these days, the women’s movement has tended to be relatively (比較的に、どちらかと言えば) slow in developing in Japan, compared with other developed countries. On top of that (加えて), there is a longstanding (長年の) image that Japanese women have been relegated (追いやる、左遷する、格下げする) to the home, and even if they are in a business environment, it is a fact that Westerners have a firm (しっかりした、変わらない)  impression that their position is not high.

 A real and common problem is that when a female boss from America takes a male subordinate (部下) to Japan, the Japanese side will only look at and talk to the male subordinate during the meeting. Certainly (確かに), in Japanese society in general (一般的に), with just a few exceptions (一部を除いて), males are overwhelmingly (圧倒的に) in high positions with decision-making authority (決裁権のある), and this is a conclusion (結論) that Japanese people jump to (早とちり) because of that situation. However, this misunderstanding actually makes the impression of Japanese sexism (性差別) even worse.

Females always showing deference (服従、敬意) to males and acting reserved (遠慮した) is already old-fashioned (時代遅れの), and there are also equal-employment laws (雇用機会均等法) in Japan. However, there still appear to be a lot of issues (課題) to overcome (克服する、乗り越える) in order to make females’ position completely equal to that of males’.





One aspect (面) of Japanese corporate culture that often is difficult for non-Japanese to understand is the importance of hierarchy. The status relationships among various different members of the organization is a key determining factor in how they interact (相互に作用する、影響し合う) with each other, and how they expect others to interact with them.

How can you use knowledge of this aspect of Japanese culture to improve your working relationships with Japanese? First of all, be sure to accurately (正確に) determine the status relationships of the Japanese you are working with. This may require asking a Japanese person from that organization to help you decipher (解読する) the meaning of the titles in their company. But if you don’t have someone to explain, you are not necessarily lost. 


Although merit based promotion is recently gaining adherents in Japan, seniority-based promotion remains common, and thus age can often be used as a proxy for guessing someone’s place in the hierarchy.

Once (一旦) you understand the hierarchy, be sure to show due deference (それ相当の敬意) to high status individuals. Japanese who have risen to high positions in their companies are accustomed (慣れている) to being treated with a great deal of ceremony and deference — in other words, as VIPs. 


The more you can follow this approach, the better. Make sure that senior people are given the red carpet treatment. For example, if a high-ranking person is visiting your company, be sure that they are greeted with appropriate (適切な) fanfare. Also, be sure to show appropriate deference to high status individuals in business discussions, for example by avoiding disagreeing with them directly and causing them to lose face.

It is an incredible story, isn’t it? (まるで嘘のような話ですね)