Professor Moody on American Foreigners in the Japanese Workplace

Stephen J. Moody is Associate Professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University. His research deals with intercultural communication, primarily between Americans and Japanese in professional settings. His articles appear in journals such as Applied Linguistics, Journal of Pragmatics, and Language in Society. He is the author of the forthcoming volume Humor, Identity, and Belonging: Constructing the Foreign in American-Japanese Interaction and co-editor of the volume Navigating Friendships in Interaction: Discursive and Ethnographic Perspectives. Steve received his PhD in East Asian Languages from the University of Hawaii and an MA in Economics from The Ohio State University. In his free time, he enjoys scuba diving and spending time with his wife and their five children.
Yui Kurosawa '26 interviewed Dr. Stephen J. Moody on October 27, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Stephen J. Moody of Brigham Young University.

Every workplace includes foreigners who do not speak the local language natively. What makes the Japanese workplace different? And given Japan's unique context, how successful are foreigners’ attempts at conformity? 

I've spent most of my time just looking at Americans in Japanese workplaces, so I don't know how to compare that to other workplaces. So it's actually not clear to me that Japan is unique in how they deal with foreign workers, or if it's just dealing with the same problems that everybody else has when they have workers who don’t speak the local language. There's definitely a belief that Japanese workplaces are sort of different -- there's this long-standing idea of "Nihonjin-ron," or "folk theories of Japanese-ness" --, and the dominant understanding of that in sociolinguistics is that it's not true, that it's just an ideology. “We believe that we're different in all of these different ways,” but it's not actually true. And I wonder if this is a case of that, where we figure that the Japanese workplace ought to be different because of Japan's historical resistance to foreign migrant workers. But once the foreigner begins working in the Japanese workplace, I'm not convinced it's actually different from another foreigner in another workplace in another part of the world. Maybe the primary difference is that there's just more attention to foreigners in Japan, that a foreigner in a Japanese workplace is noticed in a way that they may not be noticed in the U.S. workplace because Japan is so ethnically homogenous. Japanese are very aware of a foreigner's presence. 

For the second part of the question, on how successful foreigners' attempts to conform are, they're sort of expected to be foreign and therefore don't really have to conform. But on the other hand, if they want to try to conform or to fit in, it's also going to be a bit more difficult because they're not expected to. 

A lot of your research concerns the complex identity of being a “gaijin” (foreigner) in the Japanese workplace; you note self-mockery and humor as a strategy many foreigners employ in response to being excluded. What does this look like in practice? 

I should first note that when I speak of foreigners in my research I mean Caucasian Westerners. If you have an American who's second-generation Japanese and looks Japanese, they'll report different types of experiences. So when Caucasian Westerners feel that they're not really treated as part of the group, they would just make fun of that fact. They would play up the fact that they're a "dumb gaijin" as a way of highlighting the fact that they feel like they're being treated like one. Although, in a lot of my observations, I didn't necessarily think that their colleagues were treating them like a "dumb gaijin", for whatever reason, they would feel like that and would respond by making fun of it, which was a way of allowing them to point out that they feel like they're viewed as a dumb foreigner. If you actually come out and accuse people of being racist or xenophobic, people tend to not react well to those sorts of accusations. So the strategy of just making fun of it is a way to still point it out, but in a way that allows the other people to not get defensive about it and just laugh along with it. It's a way for these foreigners to try and feel like “OK, now I'm joking around with everybody, we're all laughing about the same thing that kind of makes us feel a little closer” -- even though the target of what you're laughing about is the fact that I'm different. 

Now, some might tend to see this kind of self-deprecating humor as an attempt on the part of gaijin workers to "fit in" with Japanese culture by being humble. There's a lot of belief that the Japanese are more humble, and also self-deprecating compared to a typical American or Westerner who tends to be kind, prideful, and boastful. So we use those characteristics as a way of contrasting Japanese and American cultures. But is that actually true? Certainly, you have Americans who are willing to be self-deprecating, and Japanese who are willing to brag or boast and so if you're going to try and apply that to every individual in both countries it's probably not going to hold up. So some gaijin might buy into the ideology and thus be self-deprecating for that reason. If so, that's probably due to nihonjin-ron ideology or some similar presumption. But, it's also an attempt by participants to just joke around and have fun, which is important to relationship building. There may be an element of trying to conform to beliefs about Japanese culture, but a lot of it is also just typical relationship-building. 

I've encountered this myself. When I meet with someone from some company and I give them a gift, I'll say something like, "tsumaranai mono desuga" or translated, "Oh it's nothing much, but here it is," because you're supposed to say this. That's what they teach you as a Japanese learner. 

Once, I actually had a Japanese person actually respond by saying, “Oh, I forgot to say that when I gave you my gift, so let me try that again.” What that's implying is that there is this understanding that you're supposed to behave this way, but also that people don't always do it right, including Japanese people. And I think that could also be the case with self-deprecating humor as well. People don't always do it. But when you do it, there's recognition that you're trying to do this in a Japanese way. Japanese people will actually appreciate that because they recognize your willingness to learn and try to be "one of us." That sort of attitude really does seem to go a long way toward developing more acceptance. 

Japanese uses a complicated system of honorifics, or “polite forms,” in the workplace. However, sociolinguistics research tells us that polite forms are not always polite. Rather, they’re used to help workers conform to a defined social role so that they can present an on-stage identity. What exactly are polite forms, and if their main purpose is not politeness, what is their effect on the workplace? 

Conformity is definitely an aspect of it. New employees in a Japanese company will go through extensive training on how to use honorifics, which means it's not a natural way they've been speaking Japanese growing up. This means that honorifics are being used explicitly by companies as a way of telling people how to act toward other people based on their social role. But it's not that the honorifics themselves are creating those social roles. Some people claim that, but I don't believe it. The use of honorifics reflects how the Japanese were trained to behave. So I think that causality is in the other direction. Because you train people to recognize these hierarchies, you then get the use of honorifics as a reflection of the trained or preferred social structure. Language develops because of the existence of the social structure. Because you can absolutely find cases of people in Japanese companies not using honorifics with people that they should. But that will generally be in contexts where those social hierarchies aren't as important. So for instance, if you know that a subordinate and a boss are in their actual workplace, they're using honorifics between each other; then they go out to eat after work. Now, everybody's on the same page, they'll drop those honorifics and start referring to people with nicknames and all these other kinds of things that you wouldn't hear in the workplace. But the senior-junior relationship hasn't changed -- what's changed is the social context. And the language is reflecting that you've moved from one context to another. 

If you were the chief diversity officer at a big Japanese corporation, working to ensure the inclusivity of foreigners in your company, what would you do? 

I don't want to suggest with some of the research that I've done that it's prescriptive. I've looked at what foreigners do in workplaces in response to how they feel they are being treated. For instance, for one paper I wrote, I used a case study of two people as an example – where one person tried really hard to conform and fit in but ultimately didn't. The other one didn't try at all and was outspoken to the point of being rude at times about his Americanness. Yet, he was treated more like a part of the group than the other one. When I present the research, I get this question of, so should people just go in like a bull in a china shop and start acting like an American? Would they fit in better if they did that? I don't think that's the takeaway. I think the takeaway is that it's OK to have your own personality. It's OK to have your own set of expectations for fitting into a Japanese company; it doesn't mean you have to be Japanese, it just means you fit in a lot better by finding a balance between "being yourself" while trying to still show a desire to follow the norms and the culture of the workplace in which you're in. 

Japanese and Korean are often cited as the languages with the most extensive system of honorifics. Many scholars have noticed, however, that as contemporary societies become more egalitarian, honorific systems erode. Do you agree? Do you think Japan would benefit from a shift away from honorific systems of speech? 

I think it's that the honorific systems are eroding because societies are becoming more egalitarian, not that society is becoming more egalitarian because we're moving away from honorific systems. So to look at a society that has become more egalitarian, and as a result of that, is using less structured honorific speech, and to say that, therefore, we should have Japan move away from honorific systems as a way to encourage more egalitarianism, is going in the wrong direction, in terms of the causality.

If you could really just go to Japan and tell everybody to stop using honorifics, would that mean that the next day whatever issues we're having with too rigid hierarchies are just going to go away? I doubt it. I would tend to look at the use of honorifics more as a way to tell me where we're at in terms of establishing egalitarian social structures or not, rather than as a tool to enforce them. 

But don't you think that if we did tell every Japanese person to stop using honorifics slowly over time because language builds culture and sets the tone for what is considered acceptable, Japan would change? I feel like if you switch the way we use language, then at least people will start thinking differently, even if it's very incremental, and over time, it would erode systems of hierarchy. 

You’re right that we communicate what our culture is through our language. But if you told everybody to stop using honorifics, over time, are we going to start viewing our bosses differently? I don't know. I don't think it's the only variable. But I guess what I'm thinking is that if I'm seeing contemporary societies become more egalitarian as a result of eroding honorific systems, that observation in and of itself doesn't mean that I should then go and get rid of honorifics as a policy issue. But if I'm trying to gradually shift a culture over time, is language going to be a part of that culture? Yes. So we need to acknowledge that as well. You're right. 

Japan ranks notoriously low in global gender gap rankings. Do you think the Japanese language enforces gender inequality? 

I'm thinking of one example that I did observe where there was a work group that had primarily men, and there was one female worker. I noticed that everybody called each other by their last name, except her and one other person by their first name. And the one other person was the newest, a junior fresh out of college. But she'd been around for a decade and it was those two that they referred to by first name and everybody else by last name. He told me in private that it made him feel like he was being treated like a baby. If that's a common way to refer to women versus men, that can develop a feeling or a culture where we make women feel like they’re less competent than their peers. I don't think that language just by itself is the genesis of that. I don't think the fact that we might refer to men and women using different titles or naming conventions causes it initially, I think it reflects the underlying organization. But then to your point earlier, it also might reinforce it. 

What could American workplaces learn from Japanese workplaces, and vice versa? 

I'm not so sure about specific aspects of American workplaces that Japanese workplaces would benefit from, or the other way around. But working together and more interaction between the two is beneficial. Because what I'm trying to avoid is suggesting that, oh, American workplaces are better, here and here. There’s the stereotype about business culture between the two that Americans are more creative. The Japanese are more efficient. So you'll get new ideas developed by American companies, but then the Japanese companies will take those ideas and perfect them. That’s a stereotype that's been in place since the ‘80s. We might be tempted to say that Japanese workplaces could learn to have more creativity from American workplaces, and American workplaces could learn to have more discipline and stronger work ethic from the Japanese workplaces so that they could be more efficient. I would want to avoid saying that. Because my concern would be that if you took the Japanese workplace and started making them behave like an American workplace, to try and generate more creativity, they would actually lose their efficiency and their work ethic. There’s a consequence to changing culture. 

The whole idea of what we call diversity and inclusion really should be about benefiting from everybody's strengths together, rather than trying to force inclusion or conformity to particular values or beliefs. Because when you do that you potentially destroy what makes diversity good in the first place. Set a common goal, and have different people – whether that's different workplaces or different individuals – working toward that goal while recognizing that each of them brings something different to the table. That’s where we benefit. 

Yui Kurosawa '26Student Journalist

Gabriel Synnaeve, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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