Resolving Conflicts with the Japanese: Mission Impossible?

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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.


1. For example, see:

R.B. Peterson and J. Shimada, “Sources of Management Problems in Japanese-American Joint Ventures,” Academy of Management Review 4 (1978): 796–804.

2. For example, the United States Commerce Department estimates that Japanese investment in the United States has grown eleven times since 1980 and that U.S. investment in Japan has tripled in the same period; in 1989, Japanese investment in the United States totaled over $50 billion, while U.S. investment in Japan totaled nearly $17 billion. The automobile factories of Honda, Toyota, and Nissan in the United States or the new Corning plant in Japan are visible examples of this direct investment. Also, the number of Japanese and American firms that are forming joint ventures and strategic alliances is increasing at an exponential rate. From 1979 to 1985, such organizational collaborations increased 2,000 percent, and 79 percent of the joint ventures were between rivals in the same market. As an example, approximately 126 U.S.-Japanese joint ventures exist in the auto-supply parts industry alone. See:

M. Hergert and D. Morris, “Can Japanese-American Collaborate Agreements Succeed?” Business Forum 12 (1987): 20–22.

3. T. Doi, Amae no kozo [Anatomy of Dependence] (Tokyo, Japan: Kodanshita International, 1973);

C. Nakane, Tateshakai no kankei [Japanese Society] (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970);

H. Minami, Nihonjin no shinri [Psychology of the Japanese People] (Tokyo, Japan: Tokyo University Press, 1971);

E.S. Krauss, T.P. Rohlen, and P. G. Steinhoff, eds., Conflict in Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984). This edited book contains some essays by Japanese scholars.

4. For example, see:

J. Alston, “Wa, Guanxi, and Inwha: Managerial Principles in Japan, China, and Korea,” Business Horizons 32 (1989): 26–31.

5. For example, see:

E.T. Hall, Beyond Culture (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday & Company, 1976).

6. T. Ishida, “Conflict and Its Accommodation: Omote-Ura and Uchi-Soto Relations,” in Conflict in Japan, ed. E.S. Krauss, T.P. Rohlen, and P.G. Steinhoff (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984).

7. J.L. Graham and Y. Sano, Smart Bargaining: Doing Business with the Japanese (New York: Harper & Row, Ballinger Division, 1989).

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