There are well-known similarities between Japan and Germany – they are both manufacturers of exports which are in demand across the world, they have excellent engineering skills and leadership in manufacturing and craftsmanship. Furthermore, both are serious about their work, precise in time keeping and execution of their work, and are reliable and trustworthy.

Many German and Japanese companies are similar – Toyota and Volkswagen, BMW and Honda, Thyssen Krupp and JFE Steel, BASF and Mitsubishi Chemical, Siemens and Hitachi, Leica and Nikon, etc. Both countries recovered after WWII through their hardworking attitudes.

So says Ulrike Schaede, Professor of Japanese Business at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego. However she also sees four fundamental differences, particularly with regard to the average white collar worker.

1. Life priorities

Most Germans (so long as they are not consultants or lawyers or top executives) will leave work somewhere between 5 and 6pm at night, so they can return home to eat dinner with their families or meet friends. However it is almost unheard of for a Japanese salaryman to leave at such a time on a regular basis. Even without counting “service” overtime (unpaid) that most Japanese put in, the average working year is 350 hours longer in Japan than in Germany.

This is because Germans believe that they have a contract which pays them for 40 hours of work a week with their employer and therefore if an employer wants more hours, then they should pay more. If a Germany employee can’t finish all their work on time, then they will either try to work more efficiently, even skipping lunch, or they will blame the employer for giving them too much work to do.

Work life balance in Japan has come to mean how to have better day care facilities so women can work, but in Germany it means a good balance between work and private life for all employees.

2. Process and result

Both Japanese and Germans believe there is a correct way of doing things. Consumers read instructions for the products they have bought and workers obey the rules. But the big difference is that Germans also value the result and getting to the result in the most efficient way. So they are fine if someone finds a quicker way to do something. If too long is taken on a business process, they start to become impatient. in fact they become downright rude. However for the Japanese, the process is just as important as the result. It should always be done the same way by everyone, then no one will feel left out. For a new way to be accepted, everyone has to agree. There is no room for individual initiative.

3. Say what you think

Germans on average are much more direct than most other nationalities. In fact they like to share opinions with others. Japanese people feel “debate”has negative connotations. Schaede says she has found it very hard to have discussions about politics world affairs or business with Japanese people, which to Germans means it is hard to make friends.

4. Customer service

German customer service is the exact opposite of Japanese customer service. Whereas a Japanese server might say ” I am sorry to have kept you waiting”, in Germany the customer expects to have to wait to be served. In fact if you turn up too close to closing time in a shop, you might be refused service. The belief is that shop assistants have rights too – to go home on time. There is no concept that the customer is more important than the employee.

As Schaede says – and as a cross cultural consultant, who am I to disagree – there are two learnings from this. One is the importance of understanding cross cultural differences at a profound level if you are going to do business across borders. The second is that when you have a multicultural team each will have different priorities and different processes to reach a result. These are deep rooted and it will be difficult to bring everyone round to one point of view.

Related articles