I was discussing American corporate strategies with the president of a fairly large Japanese company recently, specifically one approach that is popular over there but not here in Japan. I suggested he try it out and his response surprised me.

“Actually, I brought it up already,” he said, “but the legal department nixed it, as they were afraid there might be complaints.”

I told him it was a shame that the company wasn’t able to do something bold simply due to the risk of offending some hypothetical employee or client, and was tempted to chime in with a few aphorisms along the lines of “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” or “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” I refrained from the pep talk, though, as it was clear that, for his company, the prospect of a few unhappy customers was enough to stop the idea dead in its tracks.

The specter of even a small number of people being displeased seems to be much more of a concern in Japanese culture than it is for other countries. In fact, a fear of complaints drives a surprising amount of Japanese business behavior in matters both large and small, and goes beyond corporate culture to be found in society at large, evident in a tendency to be risk-averse and a desire to maintain societal harmony.

One manifestation of the fear of complaints are the many warning signs and announcements that you’ll encounter in your everyday life in Japan. For example, when riding an escalator you will likely hear an exhortation to stay within the yellow lines that outline each step, and reminders that parents should hold their child’s hand. I don’t have children, but every time I hear one of these announcements I can’t help but think, “Do parents really need to be reminded to watch their kids?”

In his seminal book “The Enigma of Japanese Power,” Karel van Wolferen referred to these constant blandishments to do this or not do that as a “daily manifestation of authority” based on a paternalism that thinks it knows what is best for everyone. While I don’t disagree, I think these messages also have their roots in a desire by companies to avoid being blamed for any problems that happen. Thinking back to the escalator example, I can imagine a hypothetical meeting being filled with “What if” pleas from everyone involved — “What if kids get their feet caught?” or “What if their parents get distracted and take their eyes off them?” However, if a warning is given then nobody can accuse the escalator operators of not doing their best to prevent those kinds of problems.

Avoiding blame

The ability to predict and plan for potential problems is a prized skill in Japanese business, and it is one of the reasons Japan produces such high-quality products and boasts such a smoothly run society. (Try taking a train in most other countries to better appreciate this talent.)

The down side, however, is that too much worrying over what might go wrong can paralyze Japanese organizations, preventing them from trying new approaches or making needed changes.

One Westerner working in a Japanese company recently voiced his frustration to me over this risk-averse approach.

“I often feel like an idea will be presented and then the team thinks of every possible way it will be taken advantage of by the public,” he said. “That waters down the actual idea to the point where it’s just mediocre rather than ‘game-changing.'”

This sentiment isn’t strictly cultural, either. I’ve encountered Japanese workers with similar frustrations, like the company president I mentioned earlier. Businesspeople will often use the prospect of complaints or other problematic responses as a reason not to do something, or to curtail it beyond all recognition, effectively blocking any change from the status quo.

I personally experienced this phenomenon the other day, when I shared some information on my Japanese-language Twitter account about food waste, mentioning Japan’s lack of a custom of taking leftover food home. I was quickly offered numerous reasons why “doggy bags” wouldn’t work in Japan, the most common one being that if a diner got food poisoning from the food taken home, they could complain to the restaurant — or even sue! That felt like a rather far-fetched scenario to me, but was quite compelling for some of the people taking part in the online conversation. Those in favor of doggy bags were in the majority, but if the discussion had taken place in a business meeting I have to wonder if the vociferousness of those who imagined the potentially dire consequences of doggy bags would have won out and quashed the idea.

Historical roots

Tsuyoshi Ushio, a software development engineer at Microsoft who has helped many Japanese firms reform their internal processes, points out that Japanese can be quick to react negatively, even hostilely, toward those who make choices or take risks that don’t work out.

One deeply rooted reason he gave for this behavior comes from Japan’s samurai past, in that those warriors who made major mistakes were required to kill themselves in a ritual suicide. Ushio believes that “hyper concern” over potential mistakes are a “ghost of the Edo Period mindset” — essentially, if things go wrong, the punishment will be severe. He maintains that this mindset persists today and shapes the way Japanese children are raised and educated.

And while ritual suicides are a thing of the past, public punishment for transgressions is still a big part of Japanese culture, primarily through the media. The Japanese press tends to descend on any individual or company accused of misdoings with relentless critical coverage. As also happens in other countries, social media can be an additional source of public approbation for those deemed to have done something wrong.

This kind of unforgiving atmosphere can lead to strong responses that can be somewhat unique to Japan, such as when a celebrity is arrested for alleged drug use. Such an accusation can lead to albums being pulled from music stores and online, film reshoots or a suspension of sales for any media the tainted star has participated in. In a culture where reputation is everything, public shaming is a powerful deterrent.

An epidemic of claimers

When talking about the dreaded complaints that they would like to avoid, Japanese will often use the katakana word “kurēmu” (claim). People who make complaints are referred to as “kurēmā” (claimers).

A quick web search turns up a plethora of Japanese articles arguing that the number of “claimers” and companies that acquiesce to them are a growing phenomenon. Some commentators have even ascribed Japan’s low productivity problems to the efforts companies make to prevent and deal with customer complaints.

The common conception is that habitual complainers have been spoiled by the high level of customer service in Japan, and conditioned to believe that, as customers, they will always be treated like royalty. When no complaint is deemed too trivial or silly to not be taken seriously, it leads to companies bending over backward, much more than is perhaps truly necessary.

The question is, what’s the best way to get Japanese organizations to avoid the paralysis that comes from a fear of complaints? Sharing examples of what has been done by other companies, or in other countries, in the same circumstance can often provide a reference that’s reassuring. For example, if it were the appropriate setting, I could have shared with the company president specific actions that American firms take to ensure things go smoothly when implementing the strategy I had mentioned. As Japanese companies prefer to not be the first to do something, sharing examples of other firms that have successfully implemented the strategy you are recommending is helpful.

Creating a plan for dealing with any complaints that might arise can also be invaluable. Getting input and recommendations from experts outside of the firm — in areas such as legal, media relations or human resources — can help reassure those who are nervous.

When possible, implementing something on a limited trial basis is another good way to allay the fears of people who worry about things going badly. For example, the new idea could be tried out for a short period of time, or for a small subset of customers, before taking on the bigger risks of rolling it out to everyone.

Psychological safety within the company is also a key factor. In addition to worrying about complaints coming from outside the company, people often fear retribution from higher-ups if they are perceived to have prompted the complaints. If upper-level managers reassure employees that they won’t be blamed for every “claimer” that might emerge, that might give them more confidence to move forward with bold new ideas.

Rochelle Kopp teaches at Kitakyushu University and consults with both Japanese firms operating globally and foreign firms operating in Japan. She recently published “Manga de Wakaru Gaikokujin to no Hatarakikata” (“Learn How to Work With Non-Japanese Through Manga.”) You can find her on Twitter at @JapanIntercult.

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