Japan is an exciting place to be working for Blackboard.  I work as sort of “the Blackboard Diplomat in Japan.”

This country has the second largest economy, the 10th largest population with about 127 million people, and over a thousand higher education institutions.  Just in the greater Tokyo area, known as the most populous urban area in the world, over 35 million people live and more than 100 universities reside.

That equals a lot of opportunities for a global education company like Blackboard to help enhance traditional teaching and learning.

However, Japan is the most challenging market for non-Japanese companies.  As the culture and language have uniquely evolved since 660 BC, there are very limited things in common with Western cultures, which makes it difficult for foreign companies to understand the Japanese education and business culture.

Since the root of the Japanese language is completely different from others, such as Latin-root languages, so many terms and expressions in Japanese can’t be simply translated.  They just don’t exist in English (or vice versa).  Translation is not just a text conversion of one language to another.  It requires conveying the contextual meanings to the target audience in their language and culture.  If you don’t, you will definitely be lost in translation.

This requires that I speak Japanese to our partner and English to Blackboard team, while adding supplemental explanations to convey contextual meanings.  I always end up speaking three times more than other people in the meeting, and my jaw hurts some evenings.  But, in our business, we can’t be lost.

Sometimes I receive questions about the intricacies of Japanese culture, which are difficult to answer succinctly:

  • “Why do Japanese people often apologize to one another?”  Saying one is sorry is a natural expression in Japanese conversations.
  • “How deeply should one bow when meeting a person in such-and-such situation?  Bowing is a natural cultural manner in Japan and very difficult to explain.  Doing so would be like answering the question “Why do Americans high five each other?”

Similarly, members of our Japanese partners have attended Blackboard Sales meetings in the United States and asked me questions like:

  • “Why are there bowls of candy on every table?”  It would be very impolite to eat something during a business situation in Japan.
  • “Breakfast, snacks, lunch, snacks, dinner, dessert . . . why do people in the United States eat every hour?”  And, frankly, I still wonder: Can someone tell me why?

Explaining cultural differences is part of a mediator’s work, and to enable Blackboard team members to fulfill our global mission (to educate and innovate everywhere), we must understand and respect many different cultures – doing so will help make Blackboard a truly global education company.  My role, as “the Blackboard Diplomat in Japan,” offers me a very exciting opportunity to work with our partners here in Japan and help my colleagues fulfill our mission.

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