Urlich Fobian
6 March 2019

A Quick Glimpse at the Unwritten Japanese Law of the Work Place for South Africans

“Japan functions on the basis of everyone sharing certain assumptions, where each person knows his part in a larger whole. The foreigner sits outside and is threatening. If he comes in, that’s the most threatening of all.” – Pico Iyer


Pluto was a Planet

If you have ever had the honour of working with the Japanese, whether in South Africa, Japan, or anywhere else for that matter, you will have noticed that although there is no denying their intelligence, sincerity and well-trained set of manners, there are usually a few awkward moments where what was understood by the listener and was supposed to be conveyed seems to be as far apart as Pluto (which we now are fairly sure doesn’t exist) is from the earth. It should not be implied that all Japanese speak poor English. That is certainly not the case (however it is surprising in Japan that the general English level is significantly lower than in other countries where the official language is also not English). Rather, what creates a barrier to understanding the other is that the Japanese have created a very strong and well-established culture that is in strong contrast to many Western, African and sometimes even other Asian countries’ cultures.

When it comes to concluding contracts and discussing business negotiations or alternatively when it comes to essential communication within the workplace, saving time is always of the essence for any company. This article aims at sharing a few of the unwritten laws that underlie the strength of the seemingly effortless operation of the “larger whole”.

A Killer called Karōshi

The Japanese are very good at many things but one that is especially impressive is their ability to name almost all situations, feelings, conditions, things, etc. As an example, you may have heard of the term “Karōshi” (過労死) which translates into “death from overwork.” Although some may laugh this off as weakness, it is a real problem and has been for a fair while in Japan. However, naming it and subsequently creating legislation (“Act on Promotion of Measures for Karoshi, etc. Prevention”) has made significant advancements, granted very slowly, in combatting this issue. Karōshi and the South African situation is a whole other article on its own. So, for now let’s get back to the one at hand.

The Face, The Truth and the Air

As in the case of the South African Constitution, the Japanese Constitution is the supreme law of the land and although a lot shorter and less progressive than South Africa’s, the human rights included in each are similar in many respects. Interestingly, unlike the South African “Bill of Rights” their chapter is titled “The Rights and Duties of the People”.

Their culture is extremely aware of the duties towards each other and withholding one’s own feelings, thoughts and ideas is always suppressed if it could disturb the peace and atmosphere of the group / office. This reflects the intention of the preamble which strongly renounces war and violence. Take a look at the following extract:

“We, the Japanese people, desire peace for all time and are deeply conscious of the high ideals controlling human relationship, and we have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world. We desire to occupy an honored place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time from the earth. We recognize that all peoples of the world have the right to live in peace, free from fear and want.”

Although South Africa also has a strong push for peace, it is more internal (freedom for all in the land from the atrocities of Apartheid) whereas the Japanese are more outwardly focused towards all nations and pledge, in a sense, a commitment to peace. This is important to bear in mind.

What is further of interest is that the Japanese Constitution is used in a much more indirect manner than the South African Constitution. The Constitution is used to create a basis for other legislation which would subsequently be used in pleadings rather than simply quoting the Constitution. This may also have to do with the fact that there is no Constitutional Court. The Supreme Court of Japan operates as the highest in the county.

For the Japanese, the group is of more importance than individuals and the same applies in companies. Although Japan, as with other nations, is adapting and changing certain aspects of its culture influenced by the “global village” syndrome the change in respect of their very traditional workplace model (hierarchal and male driven, one job for an entire lifetime and unions that are supportive of employer most of the time) is slow in evolving.


With the above in mind, the following three terms may be very useful when negotiating with a Japanese counterpart or company as well as when meeting with a Japanese Employee:

建前 (Tatemae)

The word 建前 (Tatemae) loosely translates into “constructed facade” or “to show face”.  The group is more important than the individual as mentioned earlier. This is true in every respect and specifically in the workplace where group dynamic and peace are more important than the feelings of the individual. This is one of the factors playing into the very long working hours which prevail still today in Japan and sometimes lead to Karōshi.

I have always believed being told you are passionate when speaking or completing a task is a compliment however, I have received comments of this nature in Japan only to realise that this is actually viewed often times as a negative quality – drawing attention to the individual rather than the group is viewed as selfish rather than productive. This was a rude awakening and to be honest, created a little dent in my ego!

In negotiations it is vital to realise that although the Japanese may not necessarily agree with you or your proposed approach they may come across so polite that you do not realise that they are actually uncomfortable, or the that negotiation is on a knife’s edge until it is too late.

The same must be said as a warning for talking to an employee. They may not show that they are struggling or unhappy however this could just be “Tatemae”. Although this may seem unimportant, it must be kept mind that these unwritten rules are more adhered to and known than the actual law. The same therefore applies to “keeping face” as opposed to abiding by the contract of employment.

Another simple example is working hours. Many directors of Japanese companies in South Africa have relayed to me that the Japanese employees usually work extremely hard, a quality generally always appreciated, but that at the same time, even if no overtime is required, they will remain at the office until the director or their boss, at least, leaves the office, even if their contract of employment entitles them to leave, say, for example at 18:00.

本音 (Honne)

The word 本音 (Honne) refers to the “true intentions” or “true feelings” of the individual and are usually kept hidden. In sensitive contract negotiations with Japanese, getting a grip on the “Honne” of a transaction can be time-consuming and overlooked if mislead by “Tatemae”. However, pushing for the true intention too soon could come across as aggressive and jeopardise contract negotiations.

空気を読む (Kūki o Yomu)

One important unwritten law incorporating the above two terms is “reading the air”, 空気を読む (Kūki o Yomu) . This involves evaluating the atmosphere and in essence protecting it. The Japanese will usually take a non-aggressive stance and their “reading the air” has a lot to do with this. It is suggested that the foreign counterpart or negotiator equally be aware of the atmosphere in order to correctly read the “Tatemae” and to distinguish it from the “Honne”.

People and the Law

This is not written by a physiologist or a sociologist but rather an attorney (currently a consultant while conducting research in Japan) who believes people form the basis of the law and successful negotiations start with understanding the laws of the country, whether written or not.

The above concepts may seem fairly foreign to you but note that they are more than just culture, these unwritten laws are often adhered to more strictly than the actual written laws. To put it in other words, although Japanese are adherent to the written laws on a “Tatemae” level their “Honne” will always persuade them to fall back to the unwritten law which may be hidden behind an artificial “air”.

Let me reiterate that this is not a negative analysis of the Japanese culture. On the contrary, there are many attributes of Japanese society and behavior we could implement into  South Africa, including the manner in which we apply laws as well as negotiate. Simply put, they have manners many western countries have traded for a hard Rule of Law approach. However, if one is not aware of these manners you may find yourself down a garden path that leads to a desert.