Three Simple Words for Building Trust in a Japanese Office

BY Michael Gakuran – Gaijinpot.com

Being a foreigner in a Japanese company can be a daunting experience. Differing work ethics and cultural gaps pose many challenges to employees who hail from overseas, even after mastering the Japanese language to a high level.

Office expectations are not always communicated clearly and, even for new Japanese employees, it can be tricky to fit into the company without the background knowledge of business etiquette. Although there’s no single list of points that can address this issue, there are some key concepts that go a long way towards bettering the situation.

One exceptionally useful management concept that helps foster better communication between employees is the notion of ‘Hou-Ren-Sou‘. It’s a play on words – a homophone for the Japanese word for spinach – and is comprised of three characters, each an abbreviation of a separate word that together result in stronger collaboration and better information flow within the company.

The three pillars to this concept are as follows:

報告 (ほうこく) – Reporting
連絡 (れんらく) – Informing
相談 (そうだん) – Consulting

Together they produce 報・連・相 (ほう・れん・そう).

When being entrusted with an assignment, company employees are expected to follow this protocol. Failure to do so results in concern from management about your ability to get the job done and a missed opportunity to strengthen relationships and build trust with colleagues. Building trust within the company is one of the most incredibly important aspects of working with Japanese people (although certainly not exclusive to Japan), and it greatly affects all current and future projects you may deal with. As I heard it put at one PR seminar ‘80% of the work and success in public relations is building trust within the company’.

Although hou-ren-sou is not the definitive answer to building good relationships with Japanese colleagues (there are many other cultural and linguistic points that can be made), it is a good starting block.

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Reporting (Houkoku)

When entrusted with a project, reporting back to your boss on the status of your work is essential. To what degree will depend on the company and the work itself, but a useful gauge is to note when your boss asks you ‘what is the status of the project?’. If you’re hearing this, it means you haven’t reported enough.

To really understand this point, it’s necessary to put yourself in the position of your boss and consider things from their point of view. This can be tricky if you’ve never been in a managerial role yourself, as you may not be able to fully appreciate the plethora of things a manager must constantly be aware of.

However, thinking of others (which in many cases means thinking of things from the perspective of others) is the cornerstone of success in a Japanese company because it grants you the ability to anticipate needs before they are spoken – a trait highly valued in Japan.

Your boss likely has greater things to worry about than following your project closely, so a frequent report on what’s going on will help them to fit the pieces together with other things going on in the company and in turn enable them to trust you, which leads to greater things down the line.

Informing (Renraku)

Informing sounds very similar to reporting, but the key thing to note about this pillar of the trio is that the informing is done to the stakeholders – usually colleagues and those involved or affected by your project. This is linked to the Japanese concept of nemawashi – ‘digging around the roots’ referring to preparing a tree for transplant. Again, this is all ‘common sense’ if you’re good at putting yourself in the position of others.

If you don’t let your colleagues know about a project in advance, they will be very surprised to learn about it when it is formally announced, usually at a company meeting. This in turn will lead to them feeling ignored and they will likely become an obstacle to the project’s moving forward.

Discussing the details in advance and gauging their opinion and thoughts will safely lay the groundwork for moving a project along smoothly, and as a bonus you’ll likely also pickup ideas and advice you hadn’t thought of in the process.

Consulting (Soudan)

Finally, we arrive at consulting. If you’ve been given a project to handle, chances are you have somebody senior to you. Even if not, there’s always somebody who is better than you. Asking for advice, confirmation or feedback on parts of the project is crucial to seeing it through successfully. This could mean many different things, from having a senior point out a serious flaw you had missed, to needing your boss’s approval to use a chunk of the company budget or simply receiving wisdom from those more learned than yourself.

This also links in with ‘informing’ and ‘reporting’ because it allows other people to be a part of the project, fostering stronger team spirit and good relations with colleagues. The project then becomes a group effort and responsibility shared (although you remain ultimately responsible for the work). This teamwork culture is another big part of life at a Japanese company.

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As you can see, just delving into this single business concept has uprooted and touched upon many different norms found within Japanese business culture. While certainly not the only way of doing things and perhaps not the best, it is an inescapable part of communication that goes beyond mere language learning. Success in Japan and dealing with Japanese businesses hinges on one’s understanding and skilful application of this sort of knowledge. It may not come naturally at first, but keep trying!

Have you experienced difficulty getting your ideas recognised at a Japanese company or suffered with poor relations with colleagues? Let me know in the comments!


Michael Gakuran Michael Gakuran is fluent in Japanese and resides in Tokyo. When not out exploring haikyo, he’s writing up thrilling tales of adventure on his website ‘Gakuranman’ and teaching advanced Japanese on the website ‘Gakuu’..