UPDATE: When I read the blog on my Etisalat-serviced Blackberry over the weekend, I was horrified to see that the text of this post was substantially abridged to just three paragraphs and slightly edited for flow to remove all references to Dubai (excluding the title). When I finally got to a computer today, I see that it appears unedited, even on my Dubai computer. I remain perplexed as to what would be deemed critical of the UAE in this post that could have been material subject to censorship. –Curzon, 13 December.
I haven’t yet publicly explained to MF readers, but I recently relocated my permanent residence from Tokyo to Dubai. I’ve since been publishing most of my thoughts on my new life in the region at ComingAnarchy.com, a more appropriate forum for the material, and you can read dispatches from the region in recent posts that appeared here, here, here and here. However, I am still remain closely involved in Japan, and will continue to blog here on topics that relate to Japan and Asia. I am also on a flexibly but ultimately fixed term assignment in the Middle East and plan to return to Japan afterwards.
A move between civilizations such as this clearly reveals contrasts between cultures. From the mere provision of services, to the exotic types of food, to the very manner in which human beings interract, many things are different. I could list dozens of example, but it’s primarily the quirky differences that stick in my mind. For example, did you know that the number of bathrooms in apartments and houses in the Middle East is the number of bedrooms, plus one? Apparently Arabs are loathe to share bathrooms, even with family members, so every 2LDK has three bathrooms (the additional bathroom is for guests) and one 3LDK with a maid’s room I saw during my house hunt had five bathrooms! There are also similarities between the two cultures when viewed from the Western perspective — Arabs, like the Japanese, are polite and formal when first meeting, prefer their commercial transactions to be relationship-oriented, and don’t allow their women equal social participation.
One stark contrast with regards to culture that sticks in my mind is the decision-making process. I’ve become accustomed to the concensus-based approach to making decisions in Japan, to the extent that Japan’s norms are natural to me — take time to hear all opinions, discuss pros and cons, think some more, and then eventually wander towards a decision. This works fine in Japan, but it’s completely different in most of the rest of the world, and in the Middle East, I’ve seen some important decisions made at the drop of a hat. What’s more, when I need to decide things that involve other people, I see the Japanese decision-making process reflected in myself, and I would observe that it has the power to drive people crazy. “Make a decision already! Or get back to me when you’re finished!” That’s something I’ve heard several times in both the personal and commercial context over the past few weeks.
The Japanese decision-making process works great in Japan, and is an important part of the culture, but it simply doesn’t work overseas, where decisions are, by comparison, streamlined. This is something that the Japanese must understand if they engage non-Japanese parties in discussions or negotiations, and many major trading companies with global operations and bureaucratic institutions of government have carefully internalized their decision making procedures so as not to send mixed messages. It still takes them a long time to come to a decision, but at least it helps to prevent them appearing indecisive, weak, or send out mixed messages.
I have been thinking about this for the past few days and just this morning read that Obama is avoiding a private chat on the Futenma Base relocation with Hatoyama at the Copenhagan environmental summit. (Regular readers know that I was very critical of the DPJ scattershot approach to foreign policy before they took power, and specifically addressed the absurd and painful procedure used to review the Futenma Base relocation in previous blog posts.) When queried on this, the White House press secretary answered that the two leader met two months ago and nothing has changed since. Therefore…
Therefore what? The Japanese logic concludes that, therefore, all levels of America’s foreign policy and defense apparatus should continue to join in with the decision-making process. The Western logic is just the reverse — the natural conclusion is that there is nothing further to discuss, as what needs to happen now is for Japan to come to a decision and then tell America their decision.
Or as I’ve heard a few times since coming to Dubai: “Make a decision already! Or get back to me when you’re finished!” That Hatoyama is trying to involve Obama in the nemawashi process in the Futenma Base relocation is yet another example of how the DPJ are rank amateurs. During the LDP years, administrations were at least good at holding off American officials while the internal decision making process went forward, and thus avoided public disagreements, sending mixed messages, or appear not to have a clue. The DPJ needs to realize that the consensus-based decision making process is unique to Japan and does not work internationally. Taking such a long time to come to a conclusion is painful enough for most non-Japanese to tolerate, and becoming pulled into the decision making process is bound to end badly. When will Hatoyama realize this, and what damage will be done to the US-Japan alliance in the interim?