The Japanese Art of Rejection: The “No!” Drama

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 How the Japanese flag looked to me during a couple of experiences

Mr. Narita's Japanese Flag

“Our Prime Minister needs a speech.”–the mysterious Mr. Narita

Barely after my feet had hit their first tatami mat in Tokyo, I was introduced to the mysterious and very well-connected Mr. Narita. This, thanks to a very hip German Calvin Klein male model look-alike friend, “Axel”, whose smooth style and luck had brought him to the base of Mr. Narita’s pyramid of power. Without realizing it at the time, I was going to be the target of two Japanese head-hunting expeditions—one corporate, one governmental.  In the end, I learned two very useful lessons about the recruitment styles and strategies one could encounter in being recruited in Tokyo. About these, more below (and later, in Part II).

Huh? Me?

Mr. Narita was highly intelligent, personable, articulate and complimentary. After the briefest of acquaintanceships with me, he asked me to consider working as a writer for a certain large-scale language school, well-known in Tokyo, with which he had some influential affiliation. I gladly accepted the invitation to apply, which led to the series of very peculiar interview events to be described in Part II.

Very quickly after that, he made me another and more interesting offer that went something like this: “Michael-san, you are clearly a very good writer.(Note: based on what evidence available to him at that time, I was and remain uncertain). We would like to ask you a favor. (Note: somehow this “we” didn’t sound like the pro forma ant-hill group-mind talk routinely expected of Japanese executives. Somehow, it seemed like a “royal ‘we’”.) I listened for more.

Then he dropped the bomb: “Our prime minister needs a speech.” I asked, “What kind of speech?”—while wondering how he would know what the prime minister wants and why he would be considering me. Mr. Narita replied, “Well, as you may know (Note: I didn’t), the prime minister will be visiting Washington soon….to deliver a speech in the White House, to the president of the United States.” Boom! That grade-eh? light bulb exploded in my head. I got it.

The Japanese Godfather  Prime Minister

To demonstrate the authenticity of the request, he left our tea cups in his very upscale home to fetch something: photo albums—featuring numerous photos of him buddying up and posing for the camera with the then Prime Minister, who, in the interest of his personal pride, even if not national security, shall remain unnamed. Of such photos, there were plenty. To compound the evidence, Mr. Narita demonstrated that the Prime Minister was the Japanese equivalent of godfather to his son.

When—in keeping with my occasional modesty—I asked, “Why me? You have a government brimming with Harvard political science and governmental studies PhDs. Why not work with one or more of them?”, he replied, “We want this to be a private communication.”

Sights on the White House

Agreeing to do it, I set about writing the speech—a one-pager to be delivered face-to-face to the then president—also to remain unnamed—in the space of about three to four minutes, on a topic near-dear-and-clear to the heart of the then prime minister: Pacific Rim community affairs. I crafted what I thought was a perfect match between the prime minister’s agenda and the president’s psyche—ideological bent and all. I finished and submitted it—and waited.

The wait wasn’t long, despite the notorious delays that Japanese organizations have always been susceptible to in virtue of what is called “ringi-sho”—a “circulation document” for review, approval and stamping by all of those involved—from the bottom up— in the decision-making/allocation process, even for simple things like ordering extra pens for the office.

“Root-binding” and  Bottom-Up Rubber Stamping

The “ringi-sho” is an intra-organizational version of an organizational phenomenon called “ne-mawashi”—“root binding”, a process in which all the involved staff, like individual roots of a plan(t), must be interlaced and bound together before anything will be allowed to sprout, e.g., as an approved and confirmed deal between a Japanese organization and a second party. My speech may have been subject to both. Hence, my surprise when it seemed to take so little time.

Ah, Yes….Ah, No

Mr. Narita met with me and told me that the speech was very good, but that, in my speech, the nuance of one word (that rhymes with “détente”) had what “we”, he said, felt were inappropriate associations. Moreover—and this was the main point—despite the prime minister’s excellent spoken English, the speech was simply too much for him to memorize. Ooops! Memorize?  As the Japanese say, “Hatsu mimi desu!”—“First hearing!”…i.e….”That’s the first I’ve heard about this.”

My unexpected shot at a career as a Prime Ministerial Speech Writer missed the mark—big time. But, in retrospect, I scored a bulls-eye in understanding how the always-and-ever-polite Japanese say “no” in their traditional, charming and inimitable way. Of course, Mr. Narita was not a full-time recruiter. He was, I imagine, too busy frying bigger, rather than catching smaller fish like me. But his manner and tactics revealed some commonalities in the Japanese art of recruiter rejection.

The Japanese Art of Rejection: First Lessons

First, even though I had just been given “bad” news, I somehow felt pretty good. That’s one of the earliest first signs and consequences of the Japanese rejection style I observed. My speech was “very good” and the main fault wasn’t mine—it was the Prime Minister’s. “We don’t want you, but you are very good!” This is a variant of “Welcome to my humble home!….But please keep the visit short.” (Another common occurrence in the mazes of Japanese etiquette.)

Second, in Japan, when the door of opportunity closed, it almost never audibly slammed shut—call it “clear soft closing without clear closure”, a more elaborate, creative, comforting  and convincing form of rejection than our “We’ll keep your resume on file.” One reason for this is the inveterate, deeply entrenched Japanese distaste for face-losing embarrassment, unnecessary humiliation and crystal clarity. Keeping things “aimai-na”—ambiguous—can unequivocally be described as a Japanese talent, in daily life as well as in business.

The Noh in “No”

Such was my first encounter with the Japanese recruitment rejection art—the “No!” drama, staged, steeped in and executed with the same taste, skill, refinement and engagement as Noh, the more intentionally entertaining Japanese art form,  itself.

It was also not to be my last with Mr. Narita.

[Note: You can look ahead to the second act of Mr. Narita’s “Too-good-to-be-true, too-good-to-be-hired ‘No!’ drama” in Part II]

By Michael Moffa