Any number of cultural landmines can set off a misunderstanding between Korean and Japanese businessmen, especially when they’re over a certain age.
You read about the historical reasons for the hard feelings, but from what I’ve seen it’s just as often due to a clash of manners.
On one side there’s the ultra-conservative, slow and measured Japanese approach, and on the other is that prized virtue of Korean business: speed.
One time at my previous company here in Tokyo, my middle-aged Japanese boss managed to set off a new Korean customer in every possible way, all at once.
And I was inserted into the affair solely because I was seen by him as an American, and theoretically neutral, buffer.
My boss was having trouble understanding the rapid-fire English of the Korean company’s director of purchasing during conference calls, but that was far from his biggest problem.
It was the way the Korean – gasp! – demanded simple, direct answers to his questions, as well as his taste for cutting-off standard-issue Japanese fence-sitting with loud, sudden confrontations.
It was all so utterly un-Japanese, and my manager couldn’t stand it. After these brutal calls would end he’d often cap it with an annoyed “Tsk! Tekitou!”, a word that, in typically inscrutable Japanese fashion, can inexplicably mean either “proper”, or “irresponsible” (the latter clearly applying here).
(It all reminded me of an interesting fact: in Japan, the expression “A rolling stone gathers no moss” actually has a negative meaning: to a Japanese it means you cannot gain wisdom if you move around too much)
Of course, part of my company’s problem was the shaky foundation for our Korean business relationship to begin with.
During the initial bid process, our company was far too slow in delivering a quotation to them, so we lost the business, with the Korean purchasing guy swearing us off for as far being too unresponsive to work with.
This time, our typically slow reaction time even continued post-mortem. Due to somebody not CCing somebody, our slow-motion quote preparation sadly continued, despite the deal being already dead.
But then suddenly and unexpectedly, a week later the Korean company changed its mind, offering us another opportunity. Blind luck allowed us to use the now-completed previous quote.
We then won the new race because we appeared to be “first”, when actually we had been last and had been lapped.
This dubious victory would foreshadow everything that followed.
Now the plan was to fly to Korea, with my boss insisting I go too: “They just don’t want to see a Japanese face over there, nothing’ll get done. They want to see native white-man face.”
He started off the meeting with some of that stilted yet charming Japanese meeting small talk.
Nervous that our dubious victory would be discovered, he let the small talk linger too long. I could see the Korean purchasing manager fidget with his fingers, cross his arms and then glare at me. It was not having the intended softening effect; he wanted the meeting to start five minutes ago.
Things then went downhill.
My boss offered innocently: “You should visit our factory next you come Japan. It very near Sea of Japan coast, very delicious crab meat there.”
Korean purchasing manager: “It not SEA OF JAPAN! It name is EAST SEA!!”
Somehow we innocently tripped the political landmine about the correct name of the strait that separates Japan’s north coast and Korea.
I don’t remember how we got the meeting started after that, but we did and managed to even convince the guy and his lady assistant to join us for the traditional sales dinner and drinks, and even set up golf for all of us the next morning.
After the meeting snafu, I decided I’d steer the conversation as much as possible during dinner.
As the Hite beer started flowing, I felt some of the meeting tensions relax, and I pounced.
As I filled our Korean supplier’s glass, I teased them with my U.S. Melting Pot wisdom: “Imagine if you weren’t separated by the Japan, East Sea or whatever the hell you call it, and had to live together!”
But the next morning, as we teed up on the first hole, the tekitou problem quickly reared its head again.
My boss, in the same overly earnest-looking manner our Tokyo office does its mandatory group calisthenics every morning, started to stretch to prepare for his shot. It took him a couple of minutes, and our Korean customer sat there stewing impatiently:
He then did this same elaborate, careful stretching on every hole’s tee shot, just like Ichiro’s famous batter’s box knee bends before each at-bat.
I probably shanked half my shots worrying about these two guys. On the 13th hole I think, the Korean casually cracked open a beer right before his tee shot. My Japanese boss raised his eyebrows at the sight of him striding lazily over, putting the beer down and teeing off without any practice swings.
The round seemed to be heading toward a calm, merciful ending after we putted out on the 18th hole.
Suddenly, I looked down and saw that one of the golfers that had been a hole ahead of us had forgot one of his irons on the green, and I picked it up. Right away he came back for it, walking right up to me and snatching it without stopping or saying “thanks”, giving only a cursory nod.
I didn’t think too much of it, but then heard my Japanese boss scoff loudly at such a display of brusque manners: “Mata tekitou (irresponsible again!).”
Our Korean customer, mellowed by now, smiled at this. He then asked me what tekitou meant. I fidgeted diplomatically, and told him, “proper”.