Posts filed under ‘Cultural Communication’

Decoding Japan: Perception of Time

By Jessica Ding

I recently realized that we severely underappreciate that the 24-hour standard of time is commonly used across the world. Imagine if every country or even state you traveled to operated on entirely different time; maybe a certain place has 130-second minutes, or they don’t even have minutes at all. Fortunately, the measurement of time is a standardized concept, no matter where we are.

On the other hand, although the time measurement of the 24-hour clock or 12-hour variant is universal, the conception of time differs drastically between individuals and cultures. It is a construct of social expectations and can be seen as fluid and flexible, rigid with punctuality, or a mixture of the two.

A little over a week ago, I returned from my trip to Japan as part of the Kakehashi Project, a youth exchange program between Japan and the United States funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. Kakehashi promotes deeper mutual understanding between the citizens of Japan and the United States and heightens potential interest in Japan.

From this learning opportunity, I recognized that a prominent difference between Japan and the U.S. is the concept of time. The U.S. is a monochronic culture while Japan is both monochronic and polychronic.

A Mono-what?
Monochronic cultures like to handle tasks sequentially and only one at a time. They value a certain orderliness and sense of there being an appropriate time and place for everything. Time commitments are taken seriously and digression is not appreciated. Think of a typical U.S. business meeting with a client scheduled for 2:00 P.M. All of the associates meet on time or early because showing up after 2:00 is considered impolite and unprofessional. The meeting lasts for the scheduled length of time with no interruptions. Other examples of monochronic cultures include Canada and Northern European countries.

On the Other Hand…
Polychronic cultures like to handle many tasks at the same time. Polychronic time involves normal, expected interruptions because polychronic cultures are relationship-oriented. Plans change often and easily according to different circumstances. If you live in Hispanic, Arab, African, or Asian regions, you likely experience a preference for polychronic culture.

Until the Meiji Restoration that began Japan’s Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, Japan was only a polychronic society. However, with the emperor’s enforcement of North European work-related values during this reform, Japan attempted to refashion its temporal conception within the workplace. The result was a compromise that is fairly unique to Japan: a combination of monochronic and polychronic perspectives.

During my time in Japan, I experienced both sides of this view of time.

Sokan: Where Efficiency and Feedback Coexist
A prime example of a strict adherence to time at work was at the assembly line at Sokan, a professional manufacturer of packaged preserved healthy snack food. At this company visit, I observed that many activities followed sequentially from activity A to B to C; workers specialized in one task and passed it onto the next person or machine for the subsequent step. The average factory worker effectively produced 1,333.33 packets in an hour and Sokan packaged four tons of food a day. However, Sokan also demonstrated its polychronic facet through its employment of just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing. It goes beyond the single concept of keeping track of units per hours by concentrating instead on effectively communicating and ordering deliveries only when needed to maintain a balanced inventory. During a feedback session with the UNC students, Sokan exhibited the Japanese strength of planning out time needed to gather feedback and adjust actions accordingly when they asked for our recommendations on how to maximize sales of their products. The main principle of Sokan’s JIT manufacturing is the minimization of waste, which can only be achieved through the combination of monochronic and polychronic uses of time. If working in Japan, be prepared to embrace both monochronic and polychronic time to maximize efficiency.

TSK: Where Managers Socialize to Improve Consensus
We also had the opportunity to visit TSK Laboratory, a leading manufacturer of medical, surgical, and ophthalmic instruments, where its employees similarly displayed an application of both monochronic and polychronic time. Specifically, Shane Johnson, the managing director, said he followed a strict monochronic schedule while on marketing roadshows but observed polychronic time after hours. Every day at a roadshow, he woke up at 5 A.M., arrived to work at 7 A.M., had meetings throughout the day, and went to dinner at 7 P.M. with his colleagues. After work, however, Johnson followed Japan’s polychronic sense of time. Japanese employees continued to interact after the workday in social activities like dinner; however, these after-hours events don’t follow a time schedule. The after-work gatherings, Johnson said, were not officially required but neither were they really optional. The social bonding fostered relationships, therefore, increasing ease of nemawashi, a Japanese term for making decisions through group consensus. The trust created from the after-work sessions also strengthened amae, a harmonious behavior described as gaining closeness through dependence and loyalty. If you travel on business to Japan, don’t be surprised to be joining employees after hours for dinner and other events. To build trust, you’d be mistaken to excuse yourself from this time where you would build trust with company employees.

How a Homestay Taught Me to Relax
I also observed Japan’s combination of monochronic and polychronic time while not only visiting corporations but also through daily experiences. The meetings, lectures, and tours on the trip were monochronic and precisely on time according to the itinerary. Every deadline was met, and I realized that the Japanese people follow a processive approach to planning. As part of the Kakehashi Project, we all had overnight homestays with Japanese families. When three of us stayed with our host family, we followed the schedule of pick-up and drop-off as detailed by the program, but the other activities we engaged in to develop relationships with them were spontaneous and not as planned. The beginning and ending times of dinner were not set, as we talked long into the night with the family in an effort to get to know them. The next morning, after the family insisted we take our time getting ready and that we were under no deadlines, we strolled around their farm and visited the beautiful Unganji Temple at a leisurely pace. We focused on the experiences and gaining closeness rather than handling tasks on a timeline. Even at the end of orientation, my group took longer than the recommended time to say our goodbyes to our host family — the close relationship we developed with them actually made them cry. Through this homestay, I realized that the relaxed time we spent with the family helped us build a relationship. In Japan, be sure to accept invitations that will help you forge cordial relations with the hospitable people in this wonderful country.

Benefits of Polychronic Time
Before I went to Japan, I only believed in monochronic time because I assumed it made me more efficient. I tend to enjoy separating work from free time and prefer that nothing goes over its scheduled time and overlaps with others. Every day, I have an estimated timeline of when and how long I will do each activity, and I find comfort in that. However, the Kakehashi Project exposed me to the advantages of integrating a polychronic perception of time into a society. After-hours socializing time builds relationships. It increases efficiency and communication, and interruptions are managed well because of willingness to change plans often and easily. People are the main concern. If you visit Japan, make an effort to get to know the hospitable people and learn about the unique Japanese business models that are different from those of the United States yet still very successful.

My advice to you is to do your best to observe how a culture reacts to time. Time is central to daily experiences, so learning about the preferences of a culture will tell you a lot about what a culture values. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity from the Japanese Ministry to study for a week in Japan as part of the Kakehashi Project because I learned how to understand that cultural backgrounds and personal preferences have an influence on how people perceive time.


March 31, 2018 at 12:02 pm Leave a comment

The Effect of Authority Conceptions on Communication in Japan

By John Onderdonk

I’m convinced that you can never truly understand a country’s culture until you visit for yourself. Written materials are invaluable in painting a picture of a country’s culture, but they are doing just that—painting a picture. Nuance is lost in the broad-brush approach that authors need to take in trying to capture complex institutions and interpersonal interactions in under 200 pages. When I decided that I wanted to learn more about southeastern Asian cultures, I knew had to go beyond the books and experience the cultures for myself.

To that end, I had the pleasure of immersing myself in Japan for eight days with 22 fellow UNC Tar Heels, visiting many sites to learn more about Japanese industry and culture. The in-country experience helped solidify much of what we learned during the pre-departure sessions and readings, but it also provided a more nuanced perspective, most notably in the Japanese conception of authority and how it affects communication in Japan.


Through reading the 7 Keys to Communicating in Japan before our departure, we learned about the Japanese authority conception that shapes the country’s industry, social life, and communication. Companies engage in a hierarchical, status-based chain of command where age and experience are the supreme determinants of authority. This authority conception spills over into social aspects of Japan’s culture, and our pre-departure readings suggested that respect for authority matters much more in Japan than in America. During our time in the country, we visited Sokan Foods and TSK Labs. These two company visits allowed us to witness the Japanese authority conception firsthand, and they provided depth and concrete meaning to our pre-departure knowledge.

Sokan Foods Authority Conception

In our visit to Sokan foods, I witnessed a traditional Japanese conception of authority. The laborers in the factory treated their superiors with the utmost respect, demonstrated by deep, reverent bows. Additionally, hōshin kanri—which is the Japanese process of consensus decision making—was on full display when we participated in an impromptu focus group session to suggest ways to expand their products into American markets. The Japanese people work hard to research and build consensus rather than making hasty, ill-informed decisions. Finally, lower ranking members at the meeting did not contribute to the dialogue due to their secondary relative ranks. Our visit to Sokan foods confirmed many of my preconceived notions regarding Japanese authority, but it provided tangible examples that helped solidify my understanding. If you have a chance to visit a Japanese company, expect to be blown away by the high levels of consensus-building and respect emphasized by the Japanese authority conception.

TSK Labs Authority Conception

The visit to TSK Labs served to solidify my pre-departure knowledge while also challenging some of those preconceived ideas. Prior to visiting TSK Labs, I didn’t grasp the concept of amae—which is the Japanese conception of corporate authority as a parental role. In my Americanized thinking, I viewed a rigid, hierarchical authority conception as inherently disciplinarian. However, this warped conception could not have been further from the truth. As Shane Johnson—who presented on behalf of TSK Labs—explained, the owner of the company asks each employee what his or her dreams are, and he makes it a mission of the company to fulfill those dreams through his leadership role. The visit also revealed departures from the rigid hierarchical structure through Shane Johnson’s ability to bypass his immediate superiors in contributing to product innovations. As a result, TSK Labs proved to be much more egalitarian than the typical conception of Japanese companies. This visit enhanced my understanding of the Japanese authority conception while making a clear case for the existence of cultural diversity across companies. While top-down leadership structures are the norm in most Japanese companies, some leaders clearly welcome innovative solutions from employees of all levels and backgrounds. Should you ever do business in Japan, expect to see wide variety in leadership styles between different companies.

Photo by Graysie Carreiro

Visiting Japan opened my eyes to new and different perspectives regarding the role of authority in an organization. I believe these perspectives to be invaluable to any aspiring business leader, and I strongly you to take the plunge and immerse yourself in a foreign culture as a means to increase your cultural understanding.


March 29, 2018 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment

How to Navigate High-Context Communication in Japan

In this fourth installment of a seven-part series of reflections, Alexander Banoczi describes what he learned about how context affects communication during a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Global Immersion in Japan. Twenty-three UNC students traveled in March 2018 as guests of the Kakehashi (The Bridge for Tomorrow) Project, sponsored through the Japan International Cooperation Center with funding from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

By Alexander Banoczi

The bright lights and sea of people felt oddly familiar in downtown Tokyo. A native of a town five train spots from New York City, I felt at home in the busyness of it all. Because of this, I began to witness the similarities of both cities; not until I looked more closely did the subtle differences begin to arise.

One experience stands out vividly in my head. Four police officers, clothed in blue uniforms, were directing traffic near a busy traffic intersection. As I viewed this from afar, I was taken aback by just how different this simple action was from the US. These Japanese police officers did not utter a word; when cars would approach, they swiftly moved to their designated crosswalks, put their hands slightly up, and smiled. All foot traffic stopped in unison at this command. When the cars passed, the police officers moved to the side and bowed, showing respect to the individuals that followed their directions. To a foreigner, it was as though each person was communicating telepathically. This is a night and day difference compared to New York City; loud yelling in gruff voices, people crossing when told not to, and all around chaos.

During this visit to Japan through the Kakehashi Project, I knew that our group would encounter stark contrasts between the high-context culture of Japan and the low-context culture of the US. Even so, I was shocked by the frequency with which I found examples of these vast differences. How can we adapt to Japan’s high-context environment? What can we do to avoid communication mistakes? Hopefully, this passage sheds some light on how to be more in-tune with the subtleties around us in a high-context society like Japan.

High vs. Low Context. High-context cultures rely heavily on implicit, nonverbal communication. On the other hand, low-context cultures rely more on verbal, straightforward communication styles. Let’s compare the contexts of each culture using separate business meetings. The high-context meetings starts with a group of tight-knit, close counterparts. They’ve built trust over years, and their relationships are the true driver of business productivity. These meetings can almost be conducted on looks and facial expressions alone; these nonverbal cues elements hold more clout than any words said. On the other hand, a low-context meeting involves individuals with more shallow, undeveloped relationships. Verbal messages hold power in the discussion, and they overtake any non-verbal expressions that go along with it. These people are more focused on themselves, the agenda, and leaving quickly. When contrasting cultures collide, problems are bound to appear. What are some pitfalls we see when differing contexts go head-to-head?

When Kindness Causes Confusion. The word “no” seldom appears in the Japanese vocabulary; even in heated disagreement, you may never hear the word “no” spoken aloud. In a high-context culture that strives for harmony, the word no creates a rift in conversation. To evade this disruption, Japanese professionals use nonverbal cues instead; silence, lowered eyes, and sharp breath intake are commonly used in place of the word. Problems arise when we, as a low-context culture, are not trained in the intricacies of these motions. We may continue on with a conversation without ever realizing that our Japanese counterpart has “said” no numerous times.

Aizuchi: a Kind Interruption. In Japanese conversation, a short “uhuh” or “hai“(yes) placed in the conversation shows a speaker that you are listening; it is the equivalent of strong eye contact in the United States. For a low-context individual, this subtle message poses a mountain of problems. When we hear “yes,” it immediately gives feedback that our audience agrees vehemently with what we are discussing. On the other hand, this word “hai” simply shows that one is following the conversation in Japan. Imagine yourself, an American professional, walking out of a business presentation in Japan. You smile wide because your audience continuously said “hai” and nodded along throughout the speech. While your mind equates this communication as a success, these prior messages give no indication of how your audience actually feels.
Does this difference in communication style seem imposing? It sure did to me before visiting Japan. An avid talker and self-diagnosed extrovert, I had no idea whether I could adapt to a high-context culture. In the end, I did, and you can as well. Here are a few tips below that I used to become comfortable with a culture completely different from my own:

There’s No Place Like Home(stay). During on trip as a part of the Kakehashi project, we had an opportunity to experience overnight homestays with families in rural Tochigi Prefecture. My time with the Ishii family was a stress-free environment that allowed me to slowly absorb the nuisances of a high-context culture. From using aizuchi (verbal cues used to show that one is listening) during Ishii-san’s many stories to reading the silence in between discussions, her relaxed attitude made me feel as though it was okay to struggle at times. In addition, her husband was an amazing example to follow in terms of nonverbal communication. A quiet man with a peaceful aura, he did not say much over the wonderful dinner feast they prepared for us; instead, he would interject with an emphatic “mmmm” when we told stories about our lives in the U.S. Through this simple communication tactic, we knew that he felt engaged in our discussion even when he did not share his thoughts verbally. In essence, locate people who understand your inexperience and practice, practice, practice until it slowly becomes second nature.

Think Outside the Box. Put yourself in the shoes of somebody from a high-context culture. By focusing not on what you would do in a situation, but what they would do, can help speed up understanding of situations.

Final Thoughts. Japan is a magnificent culture with kind and smart people. They understand that somebody new to the culture will have missteps, and they want to help you succeed in a high-context culture like Japan. Continue to learn, try, fail, and try again.

March 29, 2018 at 3:50 pm Leave a comment

Social Organization: An Eye-Opening Homestay in Japan

In this third installment of a seven-part series of reflections, Bianca Wu describes what she learned about how social organization affects communication during a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Global Immersion in Japan. Twenty-three UNC students traveled in March 2018 as guests of the Kakehashi (The Bridge for Tomorrow) Project, sponsored through the Japan International Cooperation Center with funding from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

By Bianca Wu

When I was in Japan for a UNC Kenan-Flagler Global Immersion, one of my most interesting experiences took place in a store at the mall. After making my purchase, the young sales associate came around the counter and bowed and thanked me profusely for coming into the store. I remember thinking, “Wow, the customer service in Japan is unbelievable! This would never happen in the U.S.” I had heard that Japan and the U.S. were different in terms of how people treat each other. The U.S. is a more individualistic society compared to how connected the Japanese society is. In Japanese culture, the idea that an individual is always part of a collective group is emphasized in all social situations. Being “others-focused” permeates Japanese families, religion, and sports.

This spring break, I had the opportunity to learn more about the Japanese culture, businesses, and government through the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Kakehashi Project. Over the course of nine days, we spent time in Tokyo and in the Tochigi prefecture. The highlight of my trip was having the opportunity to do a homestay with a local family in Tochigi. This unique, memorable experience pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me understand more about the interactions and social organization of Japanese families as well as the society as a whole.

Onuma Family: Japanese Hospitality in Action
The Onuma family welcomed us with so much kindness and warmth. I am grateful to have met them and the three adorable children: Kie, Shuto, and Io. Obaachan (“Grandmother”) cooked us a variety of dishes, using ingredients grown on their family’s farm. I felt anxious before meeting the Onuma family, but their warm hospitality made me feel right at home. During our stay, Kie and Shuto gave us a kendo demonstration. This was the first time I had seen the sport practiced in front of me, and I learned that the significance of practicing kendo is to instill control, discipline, and respect. The sport has no winner because the main focus is to teach children how to encourage and nurture one another with etiquette. Even in Japanese sports, the emphasis is not on the individual but rather on teaching the importance of practicing peace towards each other. Watching Kie and Shuto helped me gain a deeper appreciation for the art of kendo and made me realize how sports can go beyond just competition. Witnessing a kendo demonstration is a great way to understand more about the Japanese “others” orientation.

Ikka Ichimon: Unity as One Family
Another significant component representing the social organization of Japan is through the ideology of ikka ichimon (one house, one crest). Before going on the trip, I read in The 7 Keys to Communicating in Japan how ikka ichimon describes the symbolic image that is unique to each household and unites the family as a clan. You can see the family crest in various areas of Japanese organizations, from home to school to work.  The Onuma’s family symbol was throughout their house, and it was even ingrained above their alter honoring Buddha and their ancestors. Even on Kie and Shuto’s kendo uniforms, I saw characters that signified a connection to their family. The idea of ikka ichimon serves to bring families closer together and emphasize loyalty within a group. Observing small nuances in Japanese culture, like the various family emblems, will make you notice how much the Japanese society emphasizes group orientation.

Buddhism and Shinto: Two Religions Coexisting
On the last day of our homestay, Obaachan and Okaasan took us to visit a local Buddhist temple hidden in the forests. The area was very serene with the sound of a running stream in the distance. After climbing a steep flight of stairs, we were greeted by the monk who oversaw the temple, and he welcomed us to pay our respects. With Shintoism and Buddhism as the two main religions in Japan, the presence of both religions has influenced the way Japanese people interact with one another. Because of Buddhism and Shintoism’s complicated history in Japan, the teachings of both religions focus on being accepting of others and treating people with dignity and respect. Anyone is welcome to visit a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, which creates an inviting and inclusive environment for everyone. During our short time in Japan, we visited numerous temples and shrines in Tokyo and in Tochigi. Each one was unique in its own way, and I encourage you to take the time to visit different religious sites. I found it inspiring to see how accepting and respectful the Japanese people are towards different types of religions.

Politeness Beyond Words
As I gave my last hug to Obaachan, I saw tears stream down her face, which left me speechless and incredibly touched. Despite only spending one night with the Onuma family and not being able to speak the same language, I will always remember the many laughs and memories we shared. Obaachan’s willingness to open her home to us is a true act of selflessness and hospitality. We were welcomed to Japan with open arms, and my trip to Japan made me aware of the importance of true generosity and benevolence. The emphasis on having an “others” mindset in Japan can enhance group harmony and loyalty. When visiting Japan, understanding how the social organization of a culture influences communication and relationships is crucial for appreciating Japan’s politeness and courtesy as well as the emphasis on group values.

March 27, 2018 at 5:25 pm 1 comment

Japanese Environment: To Prosper in Natural and Human-made Harmony

In this second installment of a seven-part series of reflections, Annabel Chung describes what she learned about the environment and culture in Japan during a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Global Immersion in Japan. Twenty-three students traveled in March 2018 as guests of the Kakehashi (The Bridge for Tomorrow) Project, sponsored through the Japan International Cooperation Center with funding from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Annabel has been studying the Japanese language as an undergraduate at UNC.

By Annabel Chung

Out of the many shrines and temples I visited during my stay in Japan as part of the Kakehashi Project, Meiji Jingu left the deepest impression on me. Meiji Jingu is known as a Shinto shrine built in honor of the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. It is neither the oldest nor the largest shrine, but its location near Harajuku, one of Japan’s most famous shopping districts, distinguishes it as a place where the balance between natural and human-made worlds can be observed. After all, who would have thought that lying next to Harajuku, the heart of Japanese street fashion, a shrine of sacred history slept?

Torii: The Sacred Gateway between Past and Present

Torii in Japanese means a dwelling for birds. Unlike its literal definition, however, torii refers to a gate traditionally made from wood that usually serves as the entrance to a Shinto shrine. As I learned from reading The 7 Keys to Communicating in Japan, torii represents the transition from the realm of the profane to the sacred. It is not a portal to be taken lightly. Independent of religious beliefs, I’d recommend paying respect to the sacred realm that you are about to enter by bowing once before passing underneath the torii and once more when you leave the realm.

The grand torii that guards the entrance to Meiji Jingu marks the immediate boundary between Harajuku and the shrine. Even from a distance, all I could see was endless green beyond the torii. The dense forest that greeted me upon entry seemed to protect the shrine from the touch of time as urbanization flourished outside the forest’s borders. Unlike the hustle and bustle of the Harajuku streets only a couple of minutes away, I visibly saw the pace of life slow to a trickle within the forest. People lingered, clung, and stopped. With his camera aimed at a tiny current of water, one man crouched to the ground, silent and unmoving in order to capture the perfect moment frozen in time. Here was a scene that would be hard to find in the streets of Harajuku where any slackening of the speed would disrupt the flow of the crowd and be considered rude. Although everyone had a smartphone in hand, this sign of modernity didn’t so much disturb the natural harmony as it identified us as visitors of a different dimension. The trees that grew tough and tall alongside the pathway to the shrine created an impenetrable barrier beyond which no skyscrapers or existence of a modernized world could be seen. Even the air was refreshingly clean, untainted by the smells of artificial perfume, cigarette smoke, or car exhaust. By passing underneath the arch of that first torii, I indeed felt that I had set foot into a space that was no longer part of urban Tokyo, but a dimension suspended in a sacred past.

Trees: The Spirit Guardians Living Among Us

shrineAs I passed beneath two more torii, I ventured deeper into the forest and its sacredness, until I finally reached the sanctuary where the main shrine slept. The two immense trees on either side of the shrine instantly caught my eye. They towered above the roof of the shrine and appeared as signs of vitality and longevity. Upon further inspection, I found that the tree on the left was actually two trees tied together. Likewise, the tree on the right had around its trunk a thick braided rope made from straw that clearly marked it as special. Our student leader, Graysie Carreiro, explained that Japanese people considered trees tied with this kind of rope the dwelling place of spirits and, thus, imbued with a divine power shrine2worthy of worship. This spiritual attachment to nature captured my romantic imagination. Later when a wedding procession walked past the front of the shrine, I couldn’t help but wish that something otherworldly and divine truly lived within these trees. Instead of two plain trees, I visualized the bound trees as the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, watching over the ritual that would bind two fates together in matrimony like theirs, too, were many years ago. If only we all saw spirits and gods in everything, I think we would learn to live more humbly and respectfully like the Japanese people do.

Strawberries: The Link Between the Natural and the Man-made 

Leaving Meiji Jingu, I gave thanks to the sacred realm for allowing me to freely traverse it and receive its rejuvenating energy. I now better understand why The 7 Keys to Communicating in Japan called torii the connection between the natural and the human-made worlds. In hindsight, I can see how this appreciation for balance between the natural and the human-made serves as the underpinnings of life in Japan.

strawberriesOne instance I thought of was the Tochigi prefectural government’s presentation on the local characteristics and industry. Tochigi prefecture is also known as the Strawberry Kingdom because it ranks number one in the nation’s strawberry production for 50 consecutive years. When asked by one of the students why Tochigi ranks number one, one of the Tochigi representatives answered that Tochigi was blessed with abundant and pure water resources and excellent winter sunlight that lasted longer than it did in other prefectures. Only after first thanking the natural resources in the region did the representative move on to mention the Strawberry Research Center located in Tochigi and its accomplishments in developing genetically-modified strawberries. Unlike U.S.’s concerns of GMOs, Japan celebrates its GMO advancements that, for example, make planting strawberries year-round possible. After personally tasting the Tochiotome, Tochigi’s most popular strawberry strain, I also saw the benefits of GM crops. In fact, my fellow participants on the trip did so as well, and now that we are back in America, many still long for the taste of Tochiotome. The wider acceptance of GMOs in Japan and the multiple safe strains of GM strawberries successfully developed made me question whether the U.S. should start lifting the taboo placed on GMOs and similarly adopt a positive view on GMOs as products of progressive agricultural techniques that enhance, not mutate, the gifts from nature.

My visit to Meiji Jingu helped me to understand better Japan’s balance of nature and urbanization. When you visit Japan, I encourage you to also actively seek out instances when you can observe the coexistence of the natural and the human-made for this balance is core to the Japanese way of life. I believe that there’s no place better than Japan to experience a world where past and present, humans and gods, technology and nature can prosper in harmony.





March 26, 2018 at 9:42 am 2 comments

The Journey After Dinner: Experiencing the Language of Japan

In this first installment of a seven-part series of student reflections, Harrison Cho describes what he learned about language and nonverbal communication during a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Global Immersion in Japan. Twenty-three students traveled in March 2018 as guests of the Kakehashi (The Bridge for Tomorrow) Project, sponsored through the Japan International Cooperation Center with funding from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The nine-day experience in Japan included an overnight homestay, which is where Harrison learned the most about Japanese culture.

By Harrison Cho

We were gathered in a gymnasium in the Japanese countryside. Here, our UNC group members were introduced to their respective homestay families. Although we were given dossiers on our families before our initial meeting, details were sparse. My family, the Taguchis, were tomato farmers; they had experience with ten previous homestays; they practiced magic as a hobby. As timid Americans, the most important aspect on the dossier was the level of English that was spoken. This description indicated that the Taguchi family “somewhat understood” English. While our experience in Tokyo demonstrated that English was a lingua franca derivative of globalization, the countryside was a different story. This suspicion was confirmed when the word onsen was brought up in the first moments of our introduction. As Taguchi-san explained the concept in his best English, a translator happened to overhear. She casually turned to us and simply said: “Hot spring.” I looked again to my classmates. We exchanged glances and laughed nervously. While our group knew little about the experience of a communal hot spring, we felt like that we had learned enough to know what exactly we were getting ourselves into. The future that lay before us remained uncertain.

You can read all the communication manuals, phrase books, and travel guides you would like. You can listen to podcasts or watch YouTube videos. Even with this background, I do not believe one can be prepared for the hospitality that underlies all interactions in Japanese culture. After dinner, we were on the road to the baths. We spent he 20-minute drive in eager anticipation of our coming experience. Staring into the endless darkness of the Japanese countryside, our homestay family’s van finally pulled into the onsen. At the giddy suggestion, and perhaps persuasion, of our homestay father Taguchi-san, three North Carolinians were about to embark on an unfiltered experience. The Taguchi family and UNC Group 12 exited the car together and approached the entrance of the onsen.


An onsen is a public bath house. Separated by gender, people of all ages wash together in a communal area about the size of a small pool. The onsen was separated into interior and exterior portions, where one could freely choose to soak under a roof or under stars. After disrobing in your respective locker room, you walk into the interior portion and shower off and rinse away any dirt in a separate area. After this, you can sit and soak within the very warm water to your heart’s content. Taguchi-san did his best to walk us through this process upon our arrival in the locker room. At that point in time, all we Americans could do was extrapolate from hand motions and body language. It was time to wash.

After the showers, we sat in the exterior portion of the onsen. The night was somewhat chilly and the sounds of rushing water echoed into the night sky. With no English to be heard, with no sounds of rushing cars, with no bright iridescent lights, the uncensored experience began to sink in. Sitting in the searing water, thousands of miles away from home and with limited ability to communicate, a sense of inner peace began to wash over me. Up until that point, my concern about ineffective communication had reached new heights in this environment. Never in my wildest dreams had I expected to be relaxing in the Japanese countryside. I was at peace; I was content to be enjoying the bath. Despite my lack of Japanese, I was experiencing bliss in its purest form. How did I end up here?

While the Talking Heads may label this as a “once in a lifetime” situation, nonverbal language had taken me to this point in time. The unspoken Japanese personality came alive the moment we entered the bathhouse. No language was needed to recognize the burgeoning sense of community that existed at the baths. As Americans, we do full appreciate all facets of language. We tend to view language as a crucial source of data in our everyday lives. As such, situations of incomplete information are stressful. Because we often depend upon speech to guide our actions, I believed I was lost the moment I entered the onsen. Things began to change with Taguchi-san’s commitment to our happiness. As he shuttled us to the bathhouse and happily pointed us to the locker room, he gave us the time to explore our own understanding of the Japanese language. The situation began to elucidate itself as I watched his body’s expressions and hand gestures, as I listened to his voice’s cadence and rhythm. Although a clear spoken language gap existed, Taguchi-san’s message was easily understood. After the wash, we drove home. All were pleased and ready for sleep.

The First Excursion: Before the Onsen

Overall, very little verbal communication took place during our time with Taguchi-san. His delicious food, generous portions, and kind family all warranted speeches in Japanese. Despite our inability to proficiently communicate, we experienced a mutual understanding of gratitude between the Taguchi family and our small American group. We were grateful for his willingness to open himself up and show his true character. As such, I believe the Taguchi family presented us with the most realistic portrait of Japanese life.

In terms of hospitality, Taguchi-san knew no bounds. His willingness to accommodate my broken Japanese and his unbridled joy in showing us around demonstrated a compassion unseen in America. His ability to meld spectacle, optimism, and curiosity into a single situation incentivized me to interpret my surroundings. This process began the moment we met him. All it took was a simple bow.

The moment we left after our initial meeting, he pointed to the horizon. We explained that we were going to the top, to the yama, to the mountain. The heavily forested mountainside lay in the distance as the sun began to set. We drove as he explained the town that sat within Tochigi’s countryside. “What is there to do here,” we asked him. At first, Taguchi-san did not understand. One of us brought up Google translate and showed it to him as we sat at a stoplight. After reading, he nodded his head and simply stated, “Nothing!” We laughed for the moment. For the next 15 minutes, we stared in awe as Taguchi-san wound around several hairpin turns along the densely forested mountainside. Finally, a view emerged. I began to understand why he happily schlepped us across the countryside and up a mountain. We pulled over next to a small truck. A man walked his cat around the edge of the mountain as he stretched his legs. We all emerged from the car and took in the scene. Taguchi-san smiled as he beckoned to the spectacle. Words will not do it justice.

A deep reverence for nature exists at the center of the Japanese language. The character for mountain, 山, is shaped like a mountain. Taguchi-san understood the raw power invested in this sight, invested within nature. In America, experiencing the beauty of this kind of site would first take a several hour hike. In America, there would be separation between the concrete nature of the mountain and the abstract beauty it held. In the Japanese language, this is different. To best represent an abstract concept such as nature, the Japanese language has ingrained itself within its concrete writing style. As such, this approach conveys complexity in a concise manner. As an American, I struggled to see this concept over the course of my trip. As I walked through Tokyo or visited companies, I felt we had experienced concrete sites and concrete communication in order to ease our transition into this experience. Once I walked upon the mountain, this concept became easier to grasp. An overwhelming sense of warmth washed over as I took in the trees, the gravel, the man with his cat, Taguchi-san. Given Taguchi-san’s hospitality, an uncensored portrayal of the Japanese countryside was unfolding before my very eyes. It was a grand perspective.

The Final Word

My time with Taguchi-san taught me to evaluate the world on a broader scale. America’s linear communication encourages us to increase directness and productivity, yet does not allow the time to examine a situation laterally. Throughout our visit, we heard multiple speakers mention this concept of lateral thinking, but we never truly were given an opportunity to employ this behavior directly. Taguchi-san, with his trips to the bathhouse and mountain, demonstrated that the basic tenets of communication begin with the unspoken and are communicated through the abstract. Given his incredible generosity, it is only fitting to etch this experience into the immutable slate of the internet. Although I could write more about my experience in Japan, I hope that my time with Taguchi-san tells you enough.




March 25, 2018 at 4:03 pm 2 comments

Insights into Communication in Japan

Konnichiwa! Perhaps you’ll soon be traveling to Japan on business or study abroad. If you landed on this page, you’re likely doing some of what we did at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill to prepare for ourMarch 2018 trip to Japan: reading about how to bow and exchange business cards, learning a few basics of the Japanese language, and perhaps even watching a YouTube video on navigating the digital “keypad” you’ll find on many Japanese toilets. However, to prepare for our 10-day global immersion in Japan sponsored through the Kakehashi Project, we dug a little deeper by reading a 2017 book, 7 Keys to Communicating in Japan.

This book, which we recommend, helped us learn how language, the environment, social organization, context, authority, nonverbal communication, and time (aka LESCANT) differ in Japan from the U.S. and how these elements affect Japanese communication and culture. However, what was more interesting was to actually travel to Japan to experience these concepts in action.

We hope you’ll enjoy this week’s seven posts on LESCANT and take away some tips for your upcoming trip or gain insight about the fascinating country of Japan. To learn more, you can also search #Kakehashi2017 on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and “Kakehashi” on LinkedIn to read more posts by our UNC students as well as by students from other universities who traveled with us through Japan.

March 25, 2018 at 3:42 pm Leave a comment

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