Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Japanese and Israelis could make a killer yin-and-yang combo

by Glenn Newman

Contributing Writer

“The opportunities are immense, the enthusiasm is great, because there is genius on the Japanese side, there is genius on the Israeli side.” — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, in Jerusalem on Jan. 19, 2015

“You complete me.” — Tom Cruise to Renee Zellweger in “Jerry McGuire”

Like love, synergy can be found in unexpected places. Japan and Israel are about as far apart geographically as they can be. The distance between them historically, culturally and temperamentally is at least as vast.

Israel and Japan are the yin and yang of countries. And yet, despite — or maybe because of — their differences, they have much to offer each other. Marrying their respective geniuses, Japan and Israel could be a killer combination.

Relations between Japan and Israel are on the upswing. Prime Minister Abe has visited Israel twice, most recently in May. Israel and Japan entered into a wide-ranging investment agreement late last year. Sony, Rakuten, TDK, Fujitsu and other Japanese firms have recently acquired or entered into partnerships with Israeli companies. Sompo just established a fintech center in Tel Aviv.

Manga and sushi-loving Israeli tourists are flocking to Japan in ever-increasing numbers. Israel is still below the radar as a tourist destination for most Japanese, but it is working to enhance its visibility as an interesting (and safe) place to visit, even producing Japanese language anime to promote travel to Israel.

While recent moves are promising, Japan and Israel will never realize their full cooperative potential if they get stuck in the friend zone. Japanese and Israelis need to learn to love their differences.

Japanese plan, Israelis improvise

Japanese plan. They focus on detail. They respect process. By and large, the Japanese emphasis on planning, detail and process has produced an affluent and smoothly functioning society where nasty surprises are rare. The ability of major Japanese companies to manage sprawling enterprises over decades can be partly attributed to their genius for planning.

Israelis improvise. If something goes wrong, Israelis are confident that they’re smart enough to fix it “on the fly.” Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! The result is a chaotic, dynamic society in which out-of-the-box thinking dominates (proposed zen koan: “In a place where everyone thinks out of the box, is there a box?”). Much of the credit for the endless stream of innovative startup companies in Israel must be given to this Israeli genius for improvisation.

Japanese patiently build consensus, Israelis passionately debate

Japanese strive to build consensus among all members of a group. Time is no object. The process involves as much listening as talking.

The final decision should be mindful of everyone’s concerns, no matter how small. People’s feelings also need to be taken into account to avoid causing offense or shame, even if this means steering clear of difficult subjects or dealing with them in a roundabout way. The process can be long and frustrating but, when done well, it can ensure potential hazards are uncovered and addressed early, rollout is smooth and teamwork maximized.

Israelis make decisions through passionate, no-holds-barred debate. Emotions can run high. The process can be (or at least feel) adversarial. Directness and candor are prized. Subtlety and understatement, not so much.

Hierarchy should not stand in the way of a good argument. If the boss is wrong, someone needs to tell him or her. Done well, the Israeli approach ensures that mission-critical issues are given a hearing, illogical positions are wrung out and the strongest argument wins the day. Passion is harnessed to drive the whole team forward.

Japanese run from risk, Israelis toward it

Japanese work diligently to anticipate risk and stamp it out. Predictability is prized. Progress is measured in small steps. Enthusiasm is tempered lest it lead to rash behavior. While progress has been made in encouraging entrepreneurship, the appetite for risk is still low.

Israelis do not retreat from risk. Many Israeli entrepreneurs served as army officers responsible for making life-or-death decisions. The settlement and founding of the country was itself an audacious gamble. Before Israel became known as the “Start-up Nation” for its entrepreneurial prowess, it was quite literally a startup nation, imagined, and then willed into existence, by a small, visionary group. Compared to all that, the risks facing a new business venture must seem mild indeed.

Can you really have the best of both worlds, the yin and the yang? Improvise but respect the value of a detailed plan? Be willing to throw caution to the wind, but only after checking which direction the wind is blowing? Harness passion but appreciate that steadiness can help you avoid rash decisions? Argue vigorously but still see the worth in others’ points of view?

Sure you can. Many successful and durable partnerships have reached this promised land.

It might not be as hard for Japanese and Israelis to build an enduring, close partnership as it would appear at first blush. While their differences are real, in one critical way their approach to life is the same: Unlike the more transactional approach to interpersonal relations of Americans, for example, Japanese and Israelis both value personal relationships above all.

It may come as a surprise to Israelis misled by their outward formality, but Japanese view theirs as a “wet” culture, built on warm emotions, empathy and deep human ties. Israeli culture, too, is soaking wet. Nurturing personal relationships between Japanese and Israelis could allow them to bridge the other gaps between them.

Allowances will need to be made. Israelis need to understand that Japanese are not “suckers” (the last thing any Israeli wants to be) for waiting in line; they’re being polite and orderly. Japanese should know that Israelis are not being deliberately rude when they loudly disagree; they’re being candid and direct. Japanese will need to get over Israeli casualness and fast familiarity; Israelis will learn that a deep reservoir of human warmth lies just beneath the cool Japanese surface. And Israelis should definitely do enough due diligence about Japan to know that it is bad manners to serve dessert in a shoe, as they discovered too late during Abe’s recent visit to Israel.

Japanese may never discover their “inner Israeli” or Israelis their hidden Yamato damashii, but they can learn to embrace their differences and team up for their mutual benefit. In any case, the budding relationship between Japan and Israel will certainly test the proposition that opposites attract.

Glenn Newman (gnewman@newmanlaw.net) is a former long-term resident of — and frequent business traveler to — Japan.