“I never saw it, it wasn’t me!” These are often words uttered by children in the face of being caught doing something that they shouldn’t be doing. This is commonly known in the West as lying, and something that should have been beaten out of us by the time we leave primary school. Likewise, if you saw someone else committing the crime, it is the proper and “right” thing to do to tell the truth of what you saw. At no stage is your position in this transaction question, as you would be doing the right thing.
This is one example of the cultural differences between Japan and the West described in “The Japanese Negotiator – Subtlety and Strategy Beyond Western Logic”, written by Robert M March. This book gives practical insights and pragmatic advice on negotiation with Japanese people and groups, and covers a range of topics including negotiations amongst Japanese themselves, Japanese negotiation strategies with foreigners, the likely roots of conflict, Japanese attitudes to contracts, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, and the human element in all negotiations.
The first time I consciously became aware of the above example, I was living in Kyoto on the eastern side of Yoshida-yama, and living next to me was an American guy. Due to our close proximity and common interests, we had gotten to know each other quite well. We had the same landlady, who was unfortunately a complete battleaxe. She was constantly harassing us about paying rent, and maintaining the property etc.
One day, my friend from downstairs said in passing that he would be going home for over a month for summer holidays. Very early one morning in the subsequent weeks, the landlady arrived banging on the door- where is the guy downstairs, and what’s the story with his rent? I promptly replied that I really didn’t know they guy at all (it’s not so common in Japan for people to know their neighbours), hadn’t seen him for a long time, and didn’t know where he was.
Is this lying? Some would say yes, as I was not telling the truth about what I knew. However, I had no interest to involve myself in their problematic relationship, and did not want it to be my problem, and thus in Japan, this was an acceptable answer. Therefore, even though she knew that I was not telling the truth, it was an appropriate answer, she knew not to try to involve me, and my relationship with her remained unaffected.
In “The Japanese Negotiator”, March explains in detail the virtues of silence in Japan, and how keeping your mouth shut is often the best way to stay out of trouble. The above example would be defined as an “avoidance strategy”, one of the most popular and comfortable ways of ensuring one doesn’t get involved in an unwanted problem. An historical symbol highlighting this are Japan’s famous Three Wise Monkeys – See no Evil, Speak no Evil, Hear no Evil. These three monkeys, Mizaru (見猿), covering his eyes, Kikazaru (聞か猿), covering his ears, and Iwazaru (言わ猿), covering his mouth, sit at the Tosho-gu Shrine in the tourist area of Nikko near Tokyo.
Thus, by keeping my mouth shut regarding my friends situation, I maintained my relationship with both him and her, and avoided a problem for me, all good results. Was this still the “wrong” thing to do?