When Americans do business with the Japanese, conflicts are inevitable. The breadth and depth of differences between the two countries are enormous.1 Yet the effective management and resolution of conflict are critical to financial success, especially given the staggering increase in business interactions between Americans and Japanese.2 Unfortunately, efforts by each side to resolve conflicts are the most serious source of conflict. When conflicts arise between American and Japanese businesspeople, Japanese typically attempt to resolve them using methods that have proven successful in their own country, while Americans in turn use conflict resolution methods that are customary in the United States. The result is that the effort to resolve the original conflict actually aggravates the condition. Consequently, the participants must deal with this “metaproblem” before they can effectively tackle the specific issues of the original conflict. In this article, we explain some of the cultural mechanisms underlying the Japanese approach to conflict resolution and suggest ways that Americans can more effectively resolve conflicts when working with the Japanese. These insights and recommendations are based both on the experience of the authors, who have lived and worked in Japan for several years, and also on writings by primarily Japanese scholars about the conflict and behavior of their own people. The senior author has been involved in over fifty negotiations with major Japanese multinational corporations while working as the general manager of a Japanese consulting and management training firm. These experiences led to the initial insights that were developed more fully, based on the writings of Japanese scholars who have described concepts and psychological processes associated with conflict within the Japanese society. While Western scholars can describe Japanese behavior and psychology in terms that are easy for Westerners to understand, Japanese scholars often capture a purer description of the Japanese mind. These descriptions help get to the heart of not only how Japanese conflict behavior changes, depending on the situation, but also why it changes.3
Harmony Builders or Conflict Avoiders?
American managers are often surprised and baffled at the behavior of their Japanese counterparts. Often, the behavior they observe is counterintuitive to information they have gleaned from the popular business and academic press. Much of what appears in the academic and popular press on Japanese culture focuses on the concept of wa or group harmony.