Reading Between the Lines
Illustration: Phil Couzens

Reading Between the Lines

Executive Coaching in Japan

By Charlie Badenhop

When foreign executives are posted to Japan, they usually face a steep learning curve. Not only do they need to grasp the ins and outs of a unique marketplace, they also need to understand how to operate in a new culture. Well actually, not a “new” culture, but an ancient culture that is quite different than any in the West.

Sure enough most everyone posted to Japan receives some training in regard to Japanese culture. Learning how to present a business card, and the correct way to bow is a good beginning. But what’s most important is gaining an emotional understanding of how and why Japanese people tend to behave and react differently than people in your home country.

It’s important to learn how to read between the lines in Japan, because Japanese people are masters of nuance. What people don’t say is often more important than what they do say. When a proposal you present is met with a polite silence or a simple “Thank you,” it’s likely your counterpart has a rather different opinion. After all, there’s no greater nuance than saying nothing!

Another important point to consider is the meaning of compliments. It’s my experience that Japanese people feel that complimenting others is a good strategy for building relationships. Thus it’s not uncommon for a compliment to be offered, even when nothing notable has been accomplished. In fact the more you get complimented, the more you can guess you’re still considered to be an outsider. You haven’t really made the grade here until you receive your first criticism. This is clearly evident when studying most any Japanese art. New students get almost all the compliments while long time students mostly receive criticism and corrections. Indeed it’s my experience that getting criticized is a way for sensei to show you he’s taken notice and feels you’re worthy of his lessons.

When I first arrived in Japan I studied Aikido more than twenty hours a week, and yet for the first two months I was treated as if I was invisible. Then all of a sudden during a night class one of the junior sensei gave me two strong criticisms, one right after the other. When class was over everyone went out for a beer, and I hesitantly went along not sure sensei would want me there. Once the refreshments were poured, sensei raised his glass, and to my total surprise said, “Here’s to Charlie-san, the newest member of our dojo. Kanpai!”

So the next time you get criticized in Japan, you might want to stop and consider whether or not you’ve just been complimented!

Charlie Badenhop is a native New Yorker and has been living in Japan for the past 25 years. He is also an Aikido instructor and the founder of Seishindo ( a health and emotional well-being program.

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Good to see you still have fantastic insights into Japan and the world in general. You've always been a great coach, and that is one of the many things I appreciated.

I definitely agree with you ... with the Japanese, it is really what is not said that is important.


Hi Tony,
Thanks for your kind words.

How is life in Singapore?