Not only in the company setting but also when entertaining business associates after hours, Japanese take a very different approach from Americans. I first became aware of this issue when I witnessed firsthand how each culture’s failure to understand the other’s cultural practices regarding entertainment can hurt or even break a business relationship:
I had told my Japanese boyfriend, Cyg, that my friend Patrick, another exchange student from the University of California, was very skillful at making websites, and Cyg decided he wanted to recruit him for the Internet business he had just started. He proposed that he, I, and Patrick meet for dinner so that the two of them could get to know each other and talk it over. The venue? A fancy, pricey restaurant in Omotesando. I wasn’t too comfortable with the price, and I warned Cyg that Patrick probably wouldn’t be either. “Why don’t we meet at Ootoya instead?” I suggested, mentioning the name of my favorite casual and reasonably priced Japanese restaurant, to which Cyg scoffed and replied disdainfully that Ootoya was no place for a business meeting. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why not–you could sit down, eat dinner and have a conversation at almost any restaurant, and therefore there was no way an American college student would agree to pay for such an extravagant dinner just for a preliminary business meeting, but Cyg kept insisting that the setting was of great importance when trying to cultivate a professional relationship. As a result, just as I had predicted, Patrick refused to go to the dinner and lost the job offer, Cyg lost a potentially valuable human resource for his company, and both of them were extremely angry and resentful toward each other for being “uncooperative” and “unreasonable” (and I, of course, was stuck in the middle).
In order to avoid messy situations and misunderstandings like these, it is of the utmost importance that both Japanese and Americans make an effort to understand one another’s cultural differences when planning business get-togethers. For this reason I have chosen the topic of entertainment practices in Japanese business culture, and I will go on to explain in detail the differences between Japanese and American styles of business entertainment in the hopes that readers, whether they be American, Japanese, or of another culture, will be better able to understand the thoughts and cultural ideas behind another country’s seemingly alien customs.
Popular types of Japanese corporate entertainment
As in the situation above, expensive dinner parties at upscale restaurants, nomiyas and izakayas are commonly held after a long day at work for a Japanese company. These dinner outings may take place at not one, but two or even three different restaurants or nomiyas in one night, often continuing until the last train leaves or even later, requiring everyone to take a taxi home. I have had experience with such dinner parties or “compa” as a member of several clubs and circles at Hitotsubashi; we would go to an izakaya to eat and drink, spend about 3000円 each (and these are the cheap-end izakayas!), then go to another izakaya for 二次会 (second party) to have some more drinks and spend another 1500 or so, and then the people who weren’t yet drunk out of their minds or broke would go to karaoke or another izakaya for 三次会 (third party) to drink and spend some more.
Alcohol is key for business social events. As Diana Rowland puts it, “intoxication is the time, or state, in which a Japanese man can express himself rather freely and with impunity-an opportunity to show his true nature without fear of repercussion” (125-26). In addition to being personally liberating, this creates more of a bond of trust between businessmen because it allows them to see each other’s true feelings and personalities. In fact, if you don’t drink at one of these business dinner parties, “that’s a strike against you” (Japan Guide); your hosts will wonder why you refuse to drink, and you may even be suspected of having something to hide (Rowland 126).
Karaoke, which began at a bar in Kobe in 1970 and has since spread and gained popularity all over the world (Dog & Pony), is probably one of the cheapest and most popular forms of entertainment in Japan-especially when compared to American karaoke places which run about $30 per hour, in Japan you can sing karaoke for much more reasonable prices, averaging around $1.50 per hour during the day and around $6 per hour at night. However, when Japanese businesspeople go out for karaoke, it is a given that they will go at the most expensive time and order plenty of overpriced alcoholic drinks.
Japanese people tend to be on the shy side and don’t normally feel comfortable showing off in front of others, but karaoke is a socially acceptable way to “fulfill the latent desire or urge to gain credit as an individual without jeopardizing the need to be accepted by the whole group” (Dog & Pony). In this way it serves a similar function as drinking for Japanese businessmen.
Another popular venue for socializing are clubs where businessmen can sit and enjoy some of the most expensive drinks in Japan with glamorous women or “hostesses”. These nightclubs can cost as much as $500-1500 per person for just one night, and about 90% of the clubs’ income can be attributed to business-related gatherings (Venture). Often the nightclub is the scene of the 二次会 or 三次会, and on the rare occasion the businessmen’s wives were invited along to dinner, they should excuse themselves and leave after the end of the first party (Rowland 127).
Special events and gift-giving
Japanese businesspeople are also required to give costly gifts to their colleagues and subordinates for things like weddings, funerals, and holidays, as well as a mid-year gift on July 15 and a New Year’s gift on January 1. Gift giving is a $92 billion industry in Japan (Rowland 139) and at the top of the business gift list are prestigious brand name items, fine liquor and gourmet foods (Executive).
In the case of a wedding or funeral, guests generally give gifts in the form of money, taking care to wrap it in a paper envelope because unwrapped money is considered “coarse” (Rowland 145). Japaneseweddingfavors.com claims that the usual value of these monetary wedding gifts ranges from $30 to $200, but my boyfriend was recently asked to pay $300 to attend a colleague’s wedding (I, of course, was miffed at being too poor to accompany him), and I’ve heard cases of company managers giving as much as $500 to congratulate a subordinate on his or her marriage. To an American this practice of giving money may seem in poor taste, but the idea is that the money will help the newlyweds to pay for the extravagant wedding ceremony and reception. The happy couple or family of the deceased in turn is obligated to give a return gift of half the value of the gift received (Rowland 140); Cyg came home from that wedding armed with fancy favors which included little individually packaged cakes, flowers, and a catalog of furniture, home appliances and gourmet foods from which we were allowed to choose one item.
Other situations that require gift-giving are if you have traveled somewhere (you must bring back omiyage for all of your coworkers and bosses), if someone in the company is sick, or to congratulate someone (Rowland 143-44). Even lucky golfers must send gifts to the people who witnessed their performance; insurance companies have begun offering “hole-in-one golf insurance” to cover the costly gifts and parties a golfer who has played well must provide (Rowland 140).
How do business entertainment practices differ in America?
In America, where family time is more important and people are more hesitant to spend large amounts of money on a single night of going out, businesspeople (save the very rich) are less likely to choose upscale, pricey entertainment. When my father and his coworkers get together (and this happens very rarely; usually my father is home for dinner by 6 pm) they generally go to a casual-dining restaurant where the most they will spend on dinner and a beer or two is maybe $20 (about 2000円). Entertaining in the home is also common and a great way to save money; such parties usually take the form of a potluck, in which each guest prepares a different dish and brings it to share with everyone. However, in Japan home entertaining is not often feasible because houses are so small (Rowland 129), and it is “a rare honour” to be invited to a colleague’s house for a party (Executive Planet).
Why does expensive entertainment continue to be the norm in Japanese corporate society?
It is true that business-related entertainment spending in Japan has been decreasing slightly in recent years; in 2002 Japanese corporations spent an estimated 3.74 trillion yen on entertainment, 4.4% down from the previous year, and statistics have shown a slow but steady decline (Japan Weekly Monitor), but from a Western point of view the amount of spending on entertainment in Japan still seems outrageous. There are also other problems caused by the importance of business entertainment in addition to the heavy spending; Kaori Shoji acknowledges that not only Westerners but many Japanese as well “profess to hate the ‘tsukiai’ that are part and parcel of any office life and say they would much rather go home early and cultivate friendships outside the kaisha”. If this is indeed true, why do Japanese businesspeople continue to put up with this custom?
The Japanese way of thinking is that “legitimate business entertainment reinforces legitimate business relationships” (Venture). Unlike in America, where more focus is placed on a simple business transaction and instant profitability for both parties, Japanese place more importance on the “human aspects of business”, on making an honest effort to develop long-lasting personal relationships with both the people of their own company and those of the companies they are cooperating with. Creating a foundation of friendship and trust by being a team player is the key to successfully doing business in Japan (Rowland 129); while if you refuse to join the group, you will be “perceived as selfish-something akin to reading a book in a corner at a party” (Rowland 168). Foreign companies who do not know the social protocol in Japan often earn the reputation of “here today, gone tomorrow” for their tendency not to place such importance on business relationships (Rowland 162).
Joy Hendry argues for the expensive social business customs as a demonstration of power; they are “concerned with the extent with which an individual, or a group he belongs to or represents, is able to impress and influence another individual or group” and in this way “‘the world’ may take advantage of specific individuals and groups in the pursuit of apparently corporate goals” (155). Communicaid agrees with this point, adding that the concept of “face” which “forms the basis of an individual’s reputation and social status” contributes to the need for a businessperson to show off by proving he or she can afford extravagant social events.
Another reason for the need for expensive and extravagant entertainment may be the stress brought on by working such long hours every day, an obligation less common in America. Because everyone in the company has “suffered” all day together, it is only natural to want to go out, relax and commiserate with that same group of people. Also, a friend of mine once admitted that since her family situation at home is less than pleasant, she looks forward to “escaping to her job”, and the longer she gets to spend with her coworkers and not with her family, the better.
An additional reason, perhaps becoming less valid in recent years but still worth noting, is that some businessmen are given a certain amount of tax-deductible money each month to fund these nights of socializing, considered important for corporate relationship-building by the government, and they are encouraged to spend the full amount they are given or risk being allotted less the next month (Rowland 189). Previously 100% of business entertainment expenses were tax-deductible, but in 2004 this decreased to slightly over 80% (Venture). Compared to the American policy which designates 50% of business-related entertainment expenses as tax-deductible (UCA), however, the Japanese figure is still large.
Whatever the reason, though, it is essential that Westerners aspiring to do business with Japanese people make an effort to educate themselves and be understanding of the different cultural practices they might encounter, and that Japanese people hoping to make a business deal with Westerners also do their part in being understanding that Westerners may not be accustomed to spending so much on fun nights with coworkers, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t serious about doing business together. Being sensitive to and respecting cultural differences is key not only in a corporate setting, but in all walks of life for people of different cultures to get along.
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Hendry, Joy. Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation and Power in Japan and Other Societies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
“History of Karaoke.” Dog and Pony Sound. Accessed 7 July 2005. <http://www.dogandponysound.com/fun_history.htm>
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Rowland, D. Japanese Business Etiquette. New York: Warner Books, 1993.
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“Weddings Today.” Japaneseweddingfavors.com. Accessed 23 July 2005. <http://www.japaneseweddingfavors.com/japanese_wedding.htm>