4.3 Offering opinions versus listening

Sachiko: On the other hand, internationally, the Japanese “silent communication” is difficult to understand. In the international community, Japanese people are often criticized for “not expressing their opinions clearly”, so, in today’s school education, it has become important to say one’s opinion very straightforward. I understand that, but I also think that, no matter how good we imitate Western ways of communicating, we cannot do it so well, simply because they are essentially different from the way we Japanese communicate… Japanese way of communication, so to speak, “silent communication” (or “accepting communication”) suits Japanese people, isn’t it? So now the question is: how to balance the two things?
I was thinking about the staff who work at Beniya Mukayu, such as front desk staff, kitchen and restaurant staff, spa therapists and even the cleaning staff. Having opinions is not necessarily so important when dealing with the guests, foremost is being able to listen to them, just like you write:

Silence is accompanied by a desire and effort to accept the other person’s mood, to suss out that individual’s thoughts and feelings, and to try to pay as much attention to their needs as you do to your own. At its best, this kind of silence exemplifies Japanese relatedness and is a supreme form of acceptance. You’re not judging or opining about others; you are silently empathizing with them, trying to feel what they feel and think what they think. It goes back to a definition of ukeireru: “Used by a mother with a child to accept something gently.” A parent holds a child, the silence of their embrace. (page 118)

I like this passage very very much. I say to my staff everyday this is the best communication with the guests, I think. I love these sentences.

Scott: Thank you!

Sachiko: Another example concerns suppliers and craftsmen. Farmers, fishermen, poultry farmers, sake breweries, miso soy sauce breweries, gardeners, various craftsmen … They also don’t have to give their opinions to vegetables, fish, chickens, liquor or trees!

Scott: Right, absolutely.

Sachiko: It would be useless, as you wrote:

When in nature, accepting the majesty of what you’re seeing brings you closer to what’s around you. If you’re busy talking and offering your opinions, you can’t take things in. (page 118)

Of course, some people who need to do business with international people must be able to communicate and express their opinions in an international way. But for the majority of Japanese people, “silent communication” as “accepting communication” is more important, isn’t it? In Japan, there is an expression “Fueki Ryuukou不易流行” written by the Haiku”俳句  master Matsuo Basho 松尾芭蕉 in Edo period which can be translated as “to change while the core remains the same”. So, it’s desirable that we balance international ways of communication with silent communication, in accordance to the situation. We mustn’t forget the cultural value of silence which goes back centuries in Japan. Scott, what do you think?

Scott: That’s right. Silence is an artifact of many traditions. Nuns and priests, Tibetan monasteries, and so on. Monastic silence is a part of our human heritage. After all, why speak when silence is possible?  Look, too, at Samuel Beckett, my favorite writer, he prized silence; after tragedy, words can be an admission of failure, and a sign of disrespect.  Think of R.I.P. – Rest in Peace.  Silence is sometimes preferable, a way of responding to what it means to lose.

Here’s what I think in terms of opinions. Here’s the challenge. The problem with opinions [Scott laughs and adds: and this is just an opinion] if you are the owner of a ryokan, you don’t want to hear an opinion unless you ask for the opinion. For example, if you are serving crabs in January, and one of the staff comes over to you and says: “I do not know why you serve crabs, I think you should serve fish”, you will be like: “Are you kidding me? Just serve the crabs, I don’t have time for this conversation,” but the difference is, if you go over to that person and say: “Listen, you know, you have worked here for two years. We have served fish and we have served crabs, I want your opinion, I want you to tell me what are the benefits of the fish and of the crabs in terms of customer satisfaction,” and if that person says: “I don’t have an opinion” that is a problem: if you asked for an opinion, then the person should be able to give you her opinion. The problem with the cultures that are more “silent”, is that finally, when you want that opinion, the person may not give it to you. And that is one of the challenges that some Westerners might say when they work in Japan. They go to meetings, and there’s Japanese and North Americans there, the North Americans are giving one hundred different opinions, and the Japanese are thinking about it, they are not offering their opinions, not yet, and this drives some of the Americans crazy. They might turn to their Japanese colleagues, and ask, for example: “What do you think? Should we put air conditioning units in the rooms or should we have central air conditioning?” and the colleague in Japan may say: “I don’t know, I’m not sure”, and the North American guy goes crazy, because he wants an opinion. The challenge is to be able to speak up with confidence, and for the individual to be able to express an opinion openly without fear of being criticized. To be able to have a conversation. But people are sometimes afraid of offering their opinions even when they are asked. A difference in Japan may be that the person here could be an expert on the subject he’s being asked his opinion about, but he is afraid to tell you what he thinks because it is the first time he has been asked for his opinion. He’s afraid of getting it wrong, he is afraid of what you think. People are afraid to give opinions sometimes, because they are not used to it. 

Sachiko: I have a question: if everybody has different opinions, how does the meeting get to the conclusion?”

Scott: Because often there is a boss and the boss decides based, in part, on what opinions she’s heard.  She weighs the opinions and decides for the team.  She’s the one in charge.