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Speak Out in English Japan: Learning to Communicate Logically

Presenting information logically in English is an essential skill for communicating in business, education, and international relations. Here are some tips.

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A young businessman pointing to an empty presentation board on a tripod with a stick. (FriendlyStock.com)

In the current international turbulence, the ability to communicate effectively is more important than ever. Yet, confident English communication is one of the biggest challenges that Japanese people face. 

This second article in the series takes on the challenge of expressing oneself logically in communication with others. 

Second of three parts

Read Part 1: Speak Out in English Japan: Leading Through Communicating 

Part 3: Speak Out in English Japan! How to Make Communications Better for an International Future

First, I would like to explain the outline of what logical thinking skills are for Japanese and foreigners. For detailed information on logical thinking skills, there are already many books in the United States and Japan. Two I recommend are Designing Technical Reports by JC Mathes and Dwight W Stevenson (1976, Macmillan Publishing, New York), and Technical Writing and Professional Communication: For Nonnative Speakers of English by Leslie A Olsen and Thomas N Huckin, (1991, McGraw–Hill). However, there are also others. 

Many universities in the United States are leaders in logical thinking skills. They, too, have courses to teach these skills even to international students.

What Are Logical Thinking Skills

Let me begin by sharing some problematic examples of communications lacking logical thinking.

A Stereotype Japanese Company Business Letter Could Ruin Your Overseas Business.

In this first example, a Japanese company is responding to an inquiry from an American company that is asking if a certain product could be supplied at a lower price.

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As April is the end of the cherry blossoms seasoning in Japan, we are now enjoying May’s fresh foliage. We are pleased that your company has been prospering more than ever and we appreciate your continuous support for our business. As you may know, the current Japanese economy is still in stagnation due to the weakness of the yen and a flood of expensive imported materials from overseas. Without exception, we have also faced to drastically reduce our product cost to cope with competitors …

Moreover, the verbose and apologetic response continues. The manager of the American company in question reads it with impatience.

[…] However, your demand is beyond our capability. Taking into consideration the above reasons, your request cannot be accommodated. We regret this very much, however, we hope to continue our good business relationship in the future.

The bottom line is that if you send a letter like this to prospective customers, they will never contact you again.

Using Logic for Persuasive Power

As I explained in Part 1, there are three important international communication skills. First, specialized skills (professional skills) in the person's field of activity. Second, having the English ability necessary to fully participate in the specialized field in the international community. And the third is logical thinking ability. 

It is this last English skill, "logical thinking" which is the most important theme for Japanese. The reasons derive from several controversial points in the Japanese language. I will discuss them in succession.

This illustration from the book Sappelen by Mark Ramen depics a manager swooning over a presentation while other employees listen doubtfully. (Daniel Hentschel via Wikimedia Commons)

Avoiding Ambiguous Expressions

Ambiguous expressions unique to Japanese, compared to English, are to blame for the fact that the words and actions of Japanese people are more likely to be misunderstood in the international community. But that is not the only reason. 

The Japanese have been a nearly homogenous society. Therefore, when communicating with each other, an explanation of each word is not necessary. However, this becomes complicated ー like international relations ー if the other party has a different history, culture, and customs

Unfortunately, the other party may not be able to understand your point at all if it lacks logic in persuasion. 

This is one reason behind the misperception of foreigners that the Japanese are dogmatic or cunning. Outsiders only see the Japanese making decisions on their own without explanations that foreigners can understand.

Remembering Logic in Presentations

When giving a speech or presentation at an international conference or other venue, a manuscript is usually prepared in advance. Writing the manuscript first in Japanese and then translating it into English is a common pattern. However, caution should be observed.

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When making a presentation, you should consider that there are ways of speaking that are not acceptable in the international community. The reason is simply that they lack logic. Intentional use of logic, on the other hand, can help keep the speaker convey their points. The outcome is more likely to be persuasion, rather than surprise at the reactions of foreign counterparts to their remarks.

Recently, more and more Japanese companies are making efforts to improve the English level of their employees. For example, a large manufacturer where I once taught technical English introduced TOEIC. Even so, since it is basically a mark-sheet test. It does not test the logic of the examinee's thinking. 

The same applies to the Japan Practical English Test (Eiken). Both tests may be indicators of the basic English level of employees. However, they are not an evaluation of skills that can persuade people of different ethnicities in the international community, which should be the purpose of learning English. 

One well-known example of the failure to communicate logically and effectively is the comfort women issue. It has become an international issue subject to irrational criticism from China, South Korea, and even the United States. 

International Rules for Creating Logical Letters  and Documents

Once you become accustomed to reading letters and documents that comply with international rules, reports from Japanese government offices and firms are difficult to accept. The method of assigning items (headings) and item numbers, the attributes and levels of each clause, and the structure and flow of the entire document are messy. 

They are also problematic when used in international documents where the US national standards of ANSI/NISO Z39-18-2005(R2010) generally apply. (These standards can be downloaded from the website.) 

It can be said that there is no need to comply with the US national standards because they are documents for domestic use by Japanese government offices and firms. But out of necessity, Japanese documents are translated into English and sent overseas. 

If they do not conform to international rules, they will be rejected by US authorities and managers. Even if the same document is divided into domestic and overseas, the international community simply suspects that Japan has a double standard of opportunism. Therefore, following the same logic for both is more efficient.

A Look at Some Examples

Looking at United Nations documents, it is easy to see that they comply with the ANSI standards. Also, since not all documents presented to the UN from the outside conform, the UN is making an effort to conform to the ANSI standards. If Japan's proposals are to be endorsed by UN member states, the submissions should be in line with international rules.

In addition, there are International Organization for Standardization (ISO) documents that are used not only in the United States but worldwide. In the form of various quality and environmental standards, they are familiar to Japanese people. 

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Although there is no ISO standard for document preparation (I confirmed it with the ISO Secretariat), the ISO standard document is also aligned with the ANSI document standards. 

Furthermore, research reports of international conferences and reports of large overseas companies comply with ANSI and ISO standards. Therefore, these can be regarded as similar to international rules. Importantly, these rules are reasonable, logical, and easy to understand for the international community.

Japanese working in an international environment should get into the habit of creating documents that conform to these international rules. Even if a document is intended for domestic use, it is both practical and efficient to follow this habit on a daily basis. 

There is also another benefit. Documents written in accordance with international rules are also easy for the general Japanese public to understand. 

Comparing Japanese Documents and International Rules

An example is shown in the table below. Strangely, Japanese characters and English characters are mixed. Documents of ministries and agencies seem to use many other symbols indiscriminately, and they are not strictly standardized as government agencies. 

On the other hand, as shown in the right column of the table, the item numbers of documents are consistent and comply with international rules. Also, the attributes and levels of clauses are clear and easy to understand. However, these Japanese government documents deviate from international rules even in the way item numbers are assigned.

How to Put Item Numbers in Business Letters and Documents (©JAPAN Forward)

Using the table above as a guide, if the subject in the lower position is the same level as the upper item but different content, the item is positioned in the same configuration but its numbers advance. In other words, the next number changes from 1→2,  1.1→1.2 and so on.

It seems that Japanese document writing style has been inherited by the lower-related departments of local governments in Japan. Consequently, it seems that most official documents in Japan do not comply with the international rules. 

It may not be easy to change this practice due to its long history. But today's society is complicated and information is wide-ranging. Therefore, it seems that the traditional document style can no longer be effective.

Conclusion

In a document that complies with international rules, the most important items are generally written first. Less important items are written later. 

People in important positions in Europe and the United States are very busy on a daily basis. Furthermore, the volume of reports they read is enormous. For efficiency, it is common to read the first few lines of a document to decide if it is worthwhile to read more. If the most important part of the letter or report contains a greeting of the season, it will convey no substantive information and be discarded. 

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This cannot be dismissed as simply a cultural difference. If your counterparts or intended recipients in business or government don't read and understand, you can't begin to take the next step.    

Misa Ejima successfully delivers her presentation in English at GEM Talks on June 18 at United Nations University in Shibuya, Tokyo. (© GEM Talks)

Continues in Part 3                                                 

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Author: Hirokazu Sato

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