Japanese company meetings: Getting by at the table
Japanese company 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 was 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 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 10 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.
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 realize 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, it can also be a cause for frustration.