A lot of fellow foreigners often tell me about getting shot down when they give suggestions at work. It happens a lot, especially if you can’t speak Japanese. Truthfully, though, one of the main reasons for this is simply because you’re an outsider. You don’t have the social clout. What you need is someone who isn’t an outsider to be on your side. At every school I’ve worked at, even out here in the inaka (countryside), I’ve found at least one ally that has helped me to carry out my battles, so as long as you try to be a “good gaijin,” you should have at least one general. From there, it gets easier.
However, before I start, know this: you are working in a foreign country. The things you read in books are sometimes dated or just one person’s opinion (hi there, reader!) and should be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t encourage people to force their beliefs on others. That being said, your workplace is a small society and there will be times where one person is holding a whole group back. It is not okay to be direct and confrontational the moment there’s a problem (at least, not in Japan). There is a certain method to the madness which I think I’ve figured out and replicated successfully several times. Here’s what I’ve learned. I hope it helps.
Do the best you can to be a “good gaijin.” Japanese people expect you to be foreign, but don’t use that as an excuse to do whatever you want. Assimilate a bit, especially when it comes to omiyage culture (abuse any reason to give a gift to even people you don’t think can help you; you may be wrong). As an English teacher, I’ve gotten help from business teachers, tech teachers, and even the traditional classic Japanese teachers. Think of it like an RPG and just recruit everyone to your team by working on their needs first. If you do that, they’ll join you in your battle. The more soldiers you have, the more options you have too. It would be a shame if you only had one fire-type teachers when the enemy pushing back on your ideas is a water-type. “Augh! If only I had recruited the electric-type PE teacher when I had the chance!”
Pick Your Battles and Your Target(s)
So now you’ve done the prep work, so it’s time to fight! Or is it? Don’t fight for the sake of fighting. Make battles a very rare occurrence. I would say, 99% of the time, assume you are wrong, figure out what the cultural differences are, learn from them, and move on. However, if there is a great opportunity, something your business, clients, students, or whatever can benefit from, but there’s a small window of opportunity, and someone needs convincing, it might be time to go to war. Personally, I’ve never used this method with more than three “targets” and even that was difficult (and a bit expensive).
Outline the problem both from your perspective and a Japanese perspective. Not just your understanding of a Japanese perspective, but at least one real Japanese person’s opinion. I know getting this can be difficult sometimes, but with the above prep work in mind, it’s a lot easier. Feel free to ask a close confidant who is outside the target’s circle for advice or opinions, and explicitly say that you want that conversation kept private. Find out exactly where the problem occurs, especially in ways that might deviate from upholding stereotypical Japanese beliefs or images. Really, if you can’t do this, you won’t succeed and should just give up and assume you’re having some culture shock. That’s fine, but don’t confuse it with a real need to apply social pressure on anyone other than yourself.
Assembling Your Army
Assuming you can figure out the cultural differences and how your target may not be acting in a way that benefits Japanese thinking, find out who is in their group. Department co-workers, leaders, friends, etc. Rank matters, both high and low. Make sure that they’re people you’ve prepped, and if you haven’t, make a reason to prep them (conversation, give or receive favors, omiyage, etc). The whole plan revolves around using the group to change the individual, or at the very least, making the individual into a minority that wants to rejoin the group. Being “outside the group” is a very uncomfortable feeling in Japanese culture.
Next, approach these people with your problem. These are your soldiers. They are going to do the fighting for you. The basic idea is that you need to convince the people close to your target that your method is not only a good one, but it upholds a Japanese ideal. For example, I wanted to do oral exams at one of my schools but was told it was too troublesome, that written tests were better. However, I saw that teachers were often asked to help students study for the Eiken exam and had to stay after school to help with it. I offered to help them, took notes about how the exam worked, and compared it to my job description and what teachers valued. By representing my idea as a more relaxed way of Eiken practice that I could do unassisted while giving teachers more classroom time (which is what they wanted), I was able to get the majority of my teachers on my side. They saw that I was doing test prep and allowing them to do their job without the additional work usually needed for team teaching. Suddenly, any teacher who disagreed was making more work for them, so they wanted me to get my way.
So, make what you want what they want too. Also make it “Japanese”. Once you have these two things, change will come easily.
If it’s a project that’s being shut down, show how your way upholds Japanese culture or thinking. Your goal should be something your “army” believes in, not because they want to help you, but because they want to help themselves. If there is a social issue, pose it as a question even though you know the answer should be no: “Is this correct from a Japanese perspective?” Hit as many targets as possible. When asked who the problem is, don’t answer at first. Hesitate. Say that you don’t want to cause any problems and that you’re “just a foreigner” and may not understand. If you’ve done your research well enough, you’ll be told that isn’t the case, that you are correct, and that person will offer to help you. If you’re wrong though, again, you may just be suffering from culture shock, and that’s okay, but don’t risk ruining relationships because of that.
All of this will be happening without you directly speaking to your target (for the most part). Again, we’re only doing this because we’ve failed in the past and needed to try something new. Co-workers will apply pressure to your target on their own if you’ve done a good job. People working under your target will be whispering about your method and possibly talking to your targets’ co-workers as well (Japanese don’t usually go over anyone’s head to fix problems, but will approach their peers to act on their behalf, which is largely what you’re doing). If you can pull it off, using your “gaijin card,” mention it to their boss. Usually at a work party it might be dropped casually, or if you go to them asking permission as part of “potential planning.”
For example, with my oral test idea, I asked my boss if I would need parental signatures to pull students out of class for the testing. Yes, it sounds stupid, but I’m foreign, so my “foreign” ideas are sometimes strange and interesting, so when asked for more details, I discussed what I wanted to do and suddenly I have my target’s boss suggesting my idea to them.
That’s a best case scenario though! For the most part, your plan will seem like the norm since the people around your target have (hopefully) embraced your idea, or there is social pressure on them now that they feel they must use it. Friends and co-workers will tell you when they’ve spoken to your target, but most likely won’t arrange a meeting. If you failed, nothing will change, but if you’re successful, your target will come to you, thinking it is their idea, and will tell you how they want to execute your plan with some modifications.
Get ready to make amends quickly. Offer to help with a project or bring them back an omiyage from a “recent trip” “just because.” You need to maintain social harmony, even as the victor, because every time you try to use this method, it becomes more and more obvious that you’re not another ignorant foreigner. This is pretty much the accepted way of doing things in my experience. Being directly confrontational means the other person might “lose face” along with all the respect they may have had for you. If done well, the worst thing that can happen is that the person will know that you know how to play the game and will be much more careful around you from now on. This is why you should very rarely use this strategy, and when you do, make sure you are constantly doing prep work and can strike when needed.
Best case scenario? You not only win the battle, but win their heart along with the war. Consider them another potential soldier for future campaigns.