Recently the news about the Japanese car recall have drawn my attention. How have things gone wrong in these cases? Japanese car manufactures must have many international staff as well as American management. While they continues to be the leading car manufacturers in the world, their approach to this incident was so typical Japanese. And it caused misunderstandings and confusion in American users. This recall itself might not have been so bad if their highest management decided to appear in public earlier and open all of the information they have on the possible technical problems.
This is an article to show what is the typical Japanese decision-making process and the how different it is from an American one. The intention of this article is to point out the difference, not to evaluate or criticize.
In many cases of my involvement of international business, a Japanese company had been in this critical situation, even it was clear that Japanese made a mistake, they could not change their attitude and decision. Thus it resulted in either losing a huge business opportunity or it would make their counterpart so angry that they would not be able to further pursue the business relationship they had originally intended on.
Instead, American companies seem to be more flexible in accepting their mistake and change their decision or business strategy, saving their own business opportunity and, most importantly, the relationship.
If we can accept our own mistakes, the actions we need to take are relatively simple. We accept we made a mistake, apologize, and propose a correction. American organizations are good at doing this sort of correction. This flexibility may come from a religious principle of forgiveness. People make mistakes. Once a mistake is made, being flexible is much better than to stick to the mistake and stubbornly lose everything.
Now on the other hand, the Japanese approach is based on the “save face” or “lose face” concept. Japanese people tend to hate someone who cannot consistently keep their promises. They regard it is losing face. So they try not to accept mistakes so that they do not have to break their promises and lose face. Even if they know they made a mistake, they do not want to accept it because they will lose face by accepting it.
And they try to hide it. Then they try to modify it in a way publicly unknown to save face. This makes the entire process of correction very complicated. In many cases the business decision priority would be shifted from saving business to saving face by hiding the fact that they made a mistake. The end result could be devastating. It is a simple fact that they are not so good at saying “Oops, we made a mistake. Sorry.”
In answering my own question, I have to admit the Japanese are stubborn and not good at apologizing, when it comes to accept their mistakes.