Out of Japan: Dread that forged a race of yes-men

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TOKYO - When Nissan decided to set up a car plant in Europe, they sent a number of fact-finding missions all over the continent to decide where to locate the factory. Fairly quickly the company narrowed down its options to Britain or Ireland, based on economic criteria: labour costs, tax and investment incentives and overall government policy towards Japanese investors.

They then drew up a list of three possible sites - one in Ireland and two in Britain. The Irish option was ruled out eventually because of concerns about transport within the country and connections with the rest of Europe.

According to Toshiaki Yasuda, a Nissan executive who was later to spend a lot of time in Britain, the final decision to opt for Sunderland over the other possibility - which will be nameless - was taken on very specific grounds. 'It was quite simply the friendliness of the local population, and their openness to Japanese people. You know, we Japanese are very sensitive to what other people think about us.'

The dread at losing face or being exposed to ridicule is spread throughout Asia, but in Japan is felt particularly acutely. As a people, the Japanese suffer from a degree of anguished self-consciousness and insecurity which is perhaps unique. It has led to both the most exquisite code of social etiquette, and, on its darker side, to the most brutal bully- boy tactics, as seen in the invasion of Asia 50 years ago. It is at the heart of what Westerners dealing with Japanese counterparts in business or government describe as Japanese 'inscrutability' or 'opacity'.

Businessmen who make their first trip to Tokyo are frequently frustrated by going to meetings where their Japanese hosts answer 'yes' to every question, only to find that there is no follow-up to what they presumed had been agreed upon. After the second or third trip they begin to realise that saying an outright 'no' in Japanese is the height of impoliteness. It involves loss of face both to the person saying it - implying he is not capable of fulfilling the request - and to the person to whom it is said - implying a rebuttal that would strain, if not sever, the relationship. Slowly the aspiring entrant to the Japanese market becomes attuned to the Japanese 'no', which comes in the form of a 'yes, but' or a 'it might be difficult'.

This national self-consciousness is, if anything, aggravated by the government and bureaucrats, who never tire of reminding the population that they are a unique people who are destined to be misunderstood by foreigners. The Ministry of Education maintains an English-language curriculum in the schools that enables students after years of study to read Shakespeare, but not to speak even the simplest phrases, so that ordering a cup of coffee while on holiday becomes a major ordeal fraught with dangers of embarrassing misunderstandings. This is one of the reasons why so many Japanese prefer to go on foreign holidays in groups with a Japanese-speaking tour guide.

Insecurity is also at the root of the perverse interest taken by many Japanese in how much foreigners - which usually means Americans - dislike them. One of the most serious mainstream daily papers recently published a long article with a diagram illustrating the relative toughness of 40 prominent US individuals in their statements about Japan. At the toughest end of the scale were two of the most reknowned 'Japan-bashers' - T Boone Pickens, a businessman who tried in vain to get a seat on the board of a Japanese company, and George Friedman, author of the book The Coming War with Japan. Blessedly, the article concluded that the number of absolute anti-Japanese hardliners was on the decline.

My favourite display of self- consciousness is in the everyday experience of seating etiquette in Tokyo's subway trains. If a passenger gets into a carriage where the bench seats are not crammed full, those already seated will automatically shift up or down to make one more place available, without being asked and apparently without even looking up. It is a simple act of courtesy, but none the less touching.

However, once the seats are full, an old lady getting on with several shopping bags is likely to be ignored. If someone does take the risk of standing out from the crowd by offerring her his seat, she would first refuse, then apologise - 'My debt to you will never end' or 'There is no excuse for what I am doing' - and bow repeatedly, and both parties will blush bright red. Sensitive indeed, as Mr Yasuda observed.