Japanese Negotiating Style

More Than an Interested Bridge Partner

Hugo Dobson, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield [About | Email]

Volume 4, Issue 1 (Book review 5 in 2004). First published in ejcjs on 4 May 2004.

Michael Blaker, Paul Giarra and Ezra Vogel (2002) Case Studies in Japanese Negotiating Behavior, Washington: United States Institute of Peace, Paperback, ISBN: 1-929223-10-2, 171 pages.

This book provides a welcome addition to an excellent series of studies published by the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace, which has thus far included expositions of Chinese, Russian, North Korean and German negotiating behaviour. This reviewer has been fortunate enough to review two of these volumes in the past (Dobson 2000; Dobson 2001). Continuing to demonstrate a strong sense of the zeitgeist, the most recent addition to this series places the focus on France (Cogan 2003). However, the starting point for this study is the oft-heard remark that Japan has no negotiating style, or, alternatively, simply adopts a Western approach. Unsurprisingly, the objective of this book is to beat down these straw men and posit a national style of conducting foreign relations. This objective segues neatly with a number of recent studies that have sought to explore what might be termed, Japan’s “quiet diplomacy”.

The contributors to this volume could not be more qualified: Michael Blaker, well-known scholar of Japanese politics; Ezra Vogel, author of the (in)famous Japan as Number One: Lessons for America (1979); Paul Giarra, leading defence and security analyst; and Patrick Cronin, expert on “the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none”, as Mike Mansfield, former US ambassador to Japan, described US-Japan relations. The authors understand Japan’s style of negotiation through a triumvirate of culture (cue concepts such as uchi/soto, honne/tatemae, and the mentality of an island nation), domestic institutions, and Japan’s international position in relation to the US. Thankfully, the cultural factors are dealt with carefully and emphasis is equally placed on conflict and dissension. The four case studies of important bilateral negotiations bring these three factors into stark relief: (1) orange imports, from 1977 to 1988; (2) rice imports, from 1986 to 1993; (3) the fighter support experimental (FSX), from 1985 to 1989; and (4) the US-Japan bilateral security relationship, from 1991 to 1996.

In the first case study, Blaker explores the negotiations surrounding orange imports to Japan through a “shock” hypothesis, understood both as a technique employed by the US to bring about its desired results and a mechanism employed by the Japanese to make sense of events. This chapter details meticulously the individuals involved and their personal relationships and elucidates how an apparent diplomatic defeat could be re-interpreted as a successful instrumentalisation of reactive and defensive techniques to extend negotiations over a period of 14 years. Many of the techniques that constitute a “coping” approach are also highlighted in Blaker’s second case study of the more controversial and emotive issue of rice imports. Once again, the importance of domestic actors is clearly described in addition to the practices of consensus-building and issue avoidance/minimalisation.

Thereafter, Blaker’s third case study shifts the focus from trade to security by exploring Japan’s desire to develop its very own fighter plane, the FSX, and the negotiations as to the degree of independence from the US in achieving this goal. This chapter emphasises the lack of consensus on the Japanese side, the failure to read and understand information correctly, and the fact that “[a]tmosphere, perceptions, and politics were crucial, penetrating and permeating the process in significant ways” and creating an incrementalism that facilitated US input into the development of FSX (page 87). The final case study by Vogel and Giarra widens the attention from the specific to the broader changes in the US-Japan security relationship, including the Nye Initiative, revised defence guidelines and US bases in Okinawa during the 1990s — a time when the alliance was seen to be drifting. This is a much more detailed and sustained exploration of negotiations, possibly reflecting the role of the two authors in the process, which pays due respect to the individuals involved, domestic institutions and international context.

Cronin’s conclusion brings together the common themes of the four case studies and highlights the defining characteristics of Japan’s negotiating behaviour:

…the Japanese tendency towards reactive and defensive ‘coping’; the need for crisis and external pressure, or gaiatsu, to force and empower a final top-level official to close a deal; the emphasis on thorough preparation, or nemawashi, and internal consensus building; the use of back-channel talks to float trial balloons or advance new ideas to move a sterile official process; the step-by-tiny-step approach or the protracted parsing of issues into finite details and infinite discussions; the figurative or literal sucking of teeth in reaction to abrupt changes of position or perceived major US demands; and a desire for confidentiality, even secrecy, until all aspects of a negotiation have been concluded. (page 147)

Although not many observers of Japan will be surprised by these conclusions and might demand more detailed and nuanced consideration (for example, of Japan’s creation of gaiatsu, rather than its knee-jerk reaction to it), the contribution of this volume lies in the case studies that provide a great deal of rich empirical data not available elsewhere. What is more, some interesting points raised could provide the basis of future research, such as Japanese concepts of communication and the use of body language in international diplomacy, in addition to the role of groups such as delegations and benkyōkai.

Nevertheless, this reviewer does have a number of criticisms and gripes. Although the authors recognise this problem, there is an unfortunate onus placed on the bilateral relationship with the US. Case studies of Japanese negotiating behaviour with China, a region like the Middle East, or in a multilateral forum would have provided an interesting contrast and transformed this book into a genuinely original contribution to the extant literature and a necessity on all reading lists. It could be argued that the Conclusion ought to have been expanded from nine pages, possibly at the expense of the relatively long fourth chapter. In addition, the repeated references to technical Japanese terms in the text is pointless from the viewpoints of both the speaker and non-speaker of Japanese. An index, usually a useful device, has been included in previous publications in this series, but seems to be an odd omission in this volume. As regards punctuation, there is a rather annoying tendency to use exclamation marks needlessly. Finally, although the text is, by and large, free of typos, there is an abundance of misspelled Japanese names. For example (note also that Japanese name order and macrons have been ignored in the book), former Minister of Agriculture Hata Eijirō, becomes Eishiro (page 58); former Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro, becomes Hosakawa (page 68); former Prime Minster Hata Tsutomu, becomes Tsutomae (page 113); the National Defence Academy’s Professor Nishihara Masashi, becomes Masahiro (page 124). Worst of all, former Minister of Agriculture Tanabu Masami becomes Tanabu Makoto (page 50 — possibly confused with the Socialist politician Tanabe Makoto). Checking the names of some of the principal actors in the events described ought not to be an onerous task.

In short, this book provides a useful addition to an excellent series. As the avowed aim of the book is “…that tomorrow’s negotiators will enter talks with greater understanding and sensitivity to Japanese culture” (page 156), diplomats constitute the obvious market. However, it should prove to be of interest to scholars of all aspects of Japanese politics. Although the goal of comprehending the negotiating behaviours and diplomatic styles of other nations is a worthy one, this reviewer was left wondering how long it will be before a study of US negotiating behaviour is commissioned. The authors acknowledge that this series provides an opportunity to re-consider US diplomacy, since the history of US interaction with the outside world could hardly be regarded as an unbroken string of diplomatic successes.


Cogan, Charles (2003), French Negotiating Behavior: Dealing with La Grande Nation, Washington: US Institute of Peace.

Dobson, Hugo (2000), A Review of Scott Snyder, Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior, Washington: US Institute of Peace, 1999, International Peacekeeping, vol.7, no.2, pp.186–7.

———(2001), A Review of Richard Solomon, Chinese Negotiating Behavior: Pursuing Interests through ‘Old Friends’, Washington: US Institute of Peace, 1999, International Peacekeeping, vol.8, no.3, pp.141–2.

Vogel, Ezra F. (1979), Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

About the Author

Hugo Dobson is lecturer in Japan’s international relations in the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield, UK. His research interests are divided into two broad areas. The first includes “traditional” topics of international relations, chiefly multilateralism and norms, addressed in publications such as Japan’s International Relations: Politics, Economics and Security, Routledge, 2001 (co-authored); Japan and United Nations Peacekeeping: New Pressures and New Responses, RoutledgeCurzon, 2003; and Japan and the G7/8, 1975-2002 RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. The second includes the “visual” in international relations, explored in publications such as “Japanese Postage Stamps: Propaganda and Decision-making”, Japan Forum 14 (1), 2002; and “Mister Sparkle meets the Yakuza: Depictions of Japan in The Simpsons”, The Journal of Popular Culture, forthcoming, 2004.

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