A commenter from the JET Ladies + group on Facebook (a group for women in a work exchange program called JET) gave me this great idea for a question:

“[Before coming to Japan] I had this image of Japan/Japanese people being really formal/ closed off all the time and was super worried about workplace (and personal) interpersonal communication. Especially since the Japanese language has way more levels of formality than English does. I was super terrified of accidentally offending someone.”

Just how formal is Japanese culture?


I’m going to use an example near and dear to the researchers who have come to visit the ILC candidate site. The local government knows that Japan can be a challenging place to live in for foreigners, so they’d like to hear directly from foreign researchers about what sorts of services they’d need for their lives in Japan. Therefore, whenever a foreign researcher visits Iwate, our government customarily holds something called an “iken koukankai (意見交換会).”

I would usually just translate this term as “dialogue” or “discussion,” but the truth is, this is much more formal than a casual chat. This is an event. Time schedules are devised, questions are prepared weeks in advance about everything under the sun, and there’s even an emcee leading the procession.

“We would now like to start the opinion exchange between Iwate Prefecture and Prof. X,” a be-suited government worker will announce to a researcher who thought we were just having a coffee klatch.

A typical “iken koukankai” (and hey, look! THE KITAKAMI TIMES up on the projector!)

I’ve participated in so many of these events that I forgot that they’re kind of weird for a Westerner. It can feel uncomfortable. You haven’t prepared any talking points of your own. It feels like you’re getting a spotlight shown on you. A more informal atmosphere would allow us to let down our guards so we can have a deeper discussion. To a foreign person, sometimes all this formality just feels like a lot of pomp and circumstance, like theater.

However, I’ve come to appreciate this culture of formality in the way it “lubricates” the wheels of Japanese society.

A Script for Almost Everything

Many people tend to frame Japanese formality in terms of language, as Japanese is (in)famous for having different forms of politeness that change depending on your relationship with someone. You need to use different language with your brother, your colleagues, your bosses, your clients, etc. However, I’m just going to leave that discussion to by Mami Suzuki at Tofugu.com, which has an awesome in-depth article about it that you can read here.

Instead, I’d like to talk about the general formality of interpersonal exchange here.

There seems to be a prescribed way to do almost any kind of interaction you can think of, from meeting someone for the first time, to holding meetings, and even for parties. For instance, the classic “self-introduction”:

“Nice to meet you. I’m with the Iwate Prefectural Government, and my name is Wayama. I look forward to working with you.”

(greeting, state your affiliation (first), state your last name (only), then bow as you give another greeting)

This is THE way to greet someone in a business context. There’s no other way to do it! Then you exchange a business card. This is just the way it’s done.

In the west we just tend to greet each other with our names and a handshake

Even for work parties and receptions, there are formal opening and closing greetings, speeches from all the big-wigs, and don’t forget that you can’t drink until everyone cheers “kampai!” It can feel quite unnatural to have so many scripts to memorize, even more so when everyone seems to know the script but you. It takes more time and effort to get things done. Sometimes there’s more of a focus on how something is being said instead of what is being said.

No Offense Taken

The good thing is that matching Japanese formality levels are not really something visitors have to worry about. I have never met a Japanese person who would get upset or offended at a foreigner for making a formality faux pas. In fact, I’ve been here ten years and I still mess up literally every day. If I get a reaction at all, it’s a kind correction or amused smile. While politeness and formality are valued in Japan, *effort* is valued even higher, and you get a lot of points for just trying to meet people on their level.

One caveat: It is annoying to Japanese people when a foreigner (who can speak Japanese) purposely speaks informally with everyone in a noble attempt at “equality.” It’s seen as trying to force a friendly relationship that doesn’t exist yet, or even worse, as showing disrespect. You don’t need to be a formal Japanese master; just strive to speak in the most neutral form of the language (ie, “desu/masu” form).

Personally, I’ve grown to like the formality of Japanese society because I’m Socially Awkward, and knowing the “script” helps me out. I don’t find that formality equals a barrier to deep friendship and connection either. Speech politeness levels don’t really have a bearing on what two people can talk about. I remember being worried that I’ve never be able to be friends with someone I wasn’t on “equal” terms with, but now? I have close friends that I still call LastName-san. Conversely, there are people I can use informal Japanese with yet we still only talk about the weather. The only real barrier to a deep relationship here is if you feel that spark of connection, and that remains the same no matter where you go.

So don’t worry too much about formality. If you strive to be polite and kind, and to go with the flow as much as you can, then I can guarantee you will have no issues.

But don’t just take my word for it! Let’s get the Japanese take on things.

Opinions from a Japanese director

-In Japan, there are many different kinds of meetings that could be entitled “iken koukankai.”

-The first is of course a more informal meeting geared towards discussion. These are often held in order to get ideas for new projects.

-The second would be like what Amanda-san described. These events have a number of higher-ranking individuals come together to give opinions backed on their experience on a new plan, policy, or issue going on within the government. The organizer would then take those opinions and reflect them within the indicate policy, etc. Rather than an “iken koukankai (opinion exchange)” we should really call it something more like “iken choushukai (gathering opinions from experts).” I think it’s best to put together your opinions first before attending this type of meeting.

-In conclusion, aside from those events described in my second point, Japanese people are not worried about formality, but are using the “iken koukankai” as one part of the decision-making process, so that they can gather a number of different opinions.

-As Amanda-san said, the name of these meetings and content don’t really match. So please try asking questions beforehand to the Japanese staff about what kind of goals are being aimed for in the meeting you have been invited to.