Cross-Cultural Communication, Part III: Application

In light of what we now know about the nuances of Japanese/English cross-cultural communication, let’s take a look at Toyota’s Mr. Toyoda. Here are some excerpts from AP articles written about his congressional hearing.

In one pointed exchange, Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., asked Toyoda whether U.S. regulators should require automakers to report all defects throughout the globe. When Toyoda gave a lengthy response through his translator, promising to "minimize those troubles," Bilbray became flustered. "In all fairness, I’d just like a yes or no," Bilbray said, pointing his finger at Toyoda. Toyoda quickly said through the translator that the company would "extend full cooperation." Bilbray shot back, "We’ll take that as a yes."

Japanese is all about circumlocution, especially when it comes to answering yes or no questions, while Americans have a lower tolerance for bullshit than most, hence this miscommunication. However, pointing at someone is rude even in American culture, and especially so in Japan. Both parties were certainly frustrated by this exchange, though Mr. Toyoda less visibly so (to American-eyes) than his questioners.

"Where is the remorse?" scolded Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio… Of Toyoda’s apology, Kaptur said, "I do not think it reflects significant remorse for those who have died."

Mr. Toyoda’s perceived lack of sorrow probably stems from two areas in which American and Japanese culture differ. Firstly, Japanese culture dictates that emotion is to be shown only when and where it is appropriate. A congressional hearing is not a TV drama; it is a serious matter, not the place for excessive emotionalism. Second, when Japanese people show emotion, it is through their eyes, not their mouths; which makes it more difficult to pick up on, especially for Americans. American senators, therefore, had a hard time picking up any emotional sincerity to echo Mr. Toyoda’s remorseful words. How did Japanese people interpret Mr. Toyoda’s emotional state?

Koji Endo, managing director at Advanced Research Japan in Tokyo, acknowledged that the hearing was "a little a bit harsh" and noted that some of the lawmakers appeared frustrated by Toyoda’s use of an interpreter and answers that were not as clear as they would have liked… "Toyoda-san doesn’t seem awkward, he seems to be sincerely giving his responses. My impression is that it’s not that bad."

The Japanese in general are more worried about Mr. Toyoda’s personal well-being during this ordeal than their own safety while driving a Toyota car. Why is that? No Toyotas have been recalled in Japan. Why? Japanese Toyotas are manufactured in Japan by Japanese people using Japanese parts; vehicles which are made outside of Japan use faulty parts made by an American supplier. On top of that, foreign-produced Toyotas are made by gaijin, not by the Japanese who have a superior work ethic. Ethnocentric, but true. Historically, Japanese companies have had a very hard time with quality control once they branch outside of Japan. It seems Japanese businesses have certain culture assumptions that aren’t always translated to foreign employees, which creates yet another problem in cross-cultural communication.



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