The absence of the dame moto mentality

by Yoko Ishikura

Early February is a peak season for college entrance exams. Many high school students take exams for a few universities, as a degree from a “good” university goes a long way toward entering a good, established company and good career. Many believe that if they fail to get into a good university, their chance for a good career may be lost forever. So how do they and their parents decide which schools to apply for?

With a declining number of students, some high schools appeal to parents by touting a good track record for sending students into good universities. How do they advise students and parents on which universities to try for? Some tell them to select the ones with the highest probability of gaining admission, using hensachi (deviation value.) This tactic implies that students should stay in their “assigned” group according to deviation value, and should not step out and apply at universities where they have a low chance of getting accepted. The people around these students do not suggest that they take a “Why not?” or “go for it” attitude, and they are conditioned not to even give it a try. In other words, there is no dame moto in their selection process.

Recently I have encountered several occasions where the dame moto mentality was missing. “Dame moto” literally means that you lose nothing even if you do not get what you ask for and thus “why not?” and “go for it.” I see the lack of this mentality show up in other contexts with Japanese people — such as during a competition, applying for a scholarship, seeking an award or asking for better options or treatment.

Many organizations hosting a competition, and foundations offering opportunities for scholarships and awards, seem to have a tough time getting applicants. For example, the workshop series I ran for women corporate director candidates, funded by the government, and a scholarship for a study tour in Boston by a U.S. foundation did not receive as many applications as expected, even though both were free of charge.

Some programs that require applicants to fill out forms, write an essay and so forth, including the Wing of Excellence of St. Gallen, have had difficulty getting enough Japanese applicants, despite the great opportunity that goes with getting invited to the St. Gallen symposium in early May as a leader of tomorrow. When I was involved with the Porter Prize at Hitotsubashi University, I couldn’t understand why few companies applied for the prize.

In fact, many non-Japanese people question why the application rate is so low for potential opportunities. It could be that communication and promotion of scholarships and other awards are not reaching the right target. I think, however, the root causes of the low number of applicants have more to do with the mentality of Japanese.

One is that they give up even before they try — that is, they exercise “voluntary self-restraint.” They assume that they will not win, and thus do not try. Another is the “right answer/approach” syndrome that I often describe as the deep-rooted mentality of Japanese. They seem to feel that there is a “right answer/person/organization” to almost anything, and they do not try unless they find the “right” approach. In the case of awards, they may assume that it is a zero-sum game and if one company/group wins the award in the past, no possibility is open for those in the same industry. Fear of rejection also plays a role. If they apply and do not get it, they feel rejected.

As I see many students taking entrance exams these days, it occurred to me that the lack of a dame moto mentality in Japan may be formed very early in their life, with their deviation value determining which universities they will apply for. It almost looks like they are expected to restrain themselves, and not pursue their dreams. I think one of the advantages of youth is to have unrealistic and crazy dreams.

If they are told to stay in their assigned group and follow a path determined by others, they will never develop a “go for it” mentality. They are deprived of the opportunity for trial and error and to design their own life. They will lose motivation to think things through and make decisions for themselves.

It may simply be laziness. To apply, one needs to collect information, think about what to say, and so on. It requires effort and hard thinking. It may require support from other people and organizations. They do not want to or are not willing to make efforts to do so.

This tendency is not just limited to applying for something or among young people. I find that many Japanese do not ask for better treatment even if such a request is legitimate. I used to hear that Japanese do not complain or ask for better service. If they are assigned to a hotel room with no view, for example, though a room with a view was guaranteed in advance, they do not protest. Asserting one’s right (not simply complaining) and asking for legitimate service logically requires energy and organized arguments and reasoning. Many do not want to build the case for themselves and demand the service they deserve.

Taking this a step further, there is little notion to “go for it.” Many Japanese will have difficulty understanding the nuance of this expression. It is not as serious as “risk-taking.” It is much lighter and casual. If you want to engage Japanese in new activities or tasks, you need to keep in mind that they do not understand the nuance.

Dealing with Japanese, it helps to be aware of this mentality. I think it also shows up in the lack of questions during a question and answer period following a lecture with a Japanese audience. Asking questions in front of many people is nerve-wracking if you want to ask the “right” questions. Few ask questions with a dame moto mentality, even if they might learn some significant information and end up with new findings or analyses. If you want to engage Japanese, you need to take care to allow the dame moto mentality to surface and flourish. When asking Japanese something in a dame moto manner, you needs to be aware that many will take it as a serious request and not as a casual “go for it.”

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.