Non-Japanese participants to JCO’s sessions often express their incredulity when their supposedly polite Japanese colleagues are suddenly answering their phone albeit being in the midst of a conversation with them.
“They just left me standing there…” says one German employee in a Japanese company.
Another observation that seems to clash with the notion of the proverbial Japanese politeness and punctuality is that expatriate colleagues may be prone to arriving late to internal meetings.
From a Japanese point of view, however, this behavior is by no means contradictory, as one important aspect of Japanese culture cannot be overlooked: the significance of hierarchical relationships!
Of course, Japan is also becoming less hierarchical in the 21st century, so usually, the younger generations no longer feel compelled to run after the taxi their CEO drives off in, bowing deeply.
Nevertheless, the hierarchy continues to play an extremely important role. This code of conduct clearly states how you have behave towards people you interact with, how to address them and what angle to bow in to just give a few examples.
(Image: even mannequins are the pinnacle of politeness in Japan!)
In the spoken language, for example, there are three distinct politeness levels, each with different verbs and nouns that you have to adhere to if you want to avoid embarrassing yourself, your group or even the person you are talking to. These 3 levels are based on whether someone is higher in the hierarchy than yourself (e.g. the customer), lower in rank (e.g. a supplier or employee) or on the same level (for example, a colleague in your team).
Since in Japan, as often quoted, the customer is not just “a king, but a God” it becomes obvious that even during a conversation among colleagues, incoming calls from a customer or the boss calls must be answered immediately.
Coming back to the topic of Japanese that are late to internal meetings:
If a Japanese is still in a (phone) conversation with a customer or the boss although your internal meeting is about to start, it is clear who gets the shorter end of the stick.
In other words, in Japanese business culture, it is safer to arrive a bit too late to a meeting with colleagues than to insult somebody that is higher in the hierarchy by abruptly ending the call/discussion.
So, the Japanese usually do not even get to choose who they would rather inconvenience as the hierarchy always wins out.
Our advice: please do not take such incidents personally, but rather try to empathize as your Japanese colleagues cannot help but navigate all these hierarchical levels the best they can!