To Understand the Japanese Business Environment, Visit a Parking Lot

When parking an automobile, most drivers in western countries go headfirst, driving forward into their parking spaces. However, drivers in Japan are taught to carefully back into parking spaces, tail first. You will see this in any shopping mall, airport, or home parking spot across the country.

Front-first parking is obviously quicker, maybe even safer in the short term. A big-box van driver with poor rear visibility might find it less dangerous than back-in parking. Besides, there is no rule against it. Why not just drive in headfirst, get the job done, and worry about the exit later? And it seems to save time, right?

In Japan, most drivers definitely back into parking spots. It is the way they are taught, making it a standard cultural practice. It takes more time to back into the parking spot, what with trying to align the vehicle, ensuring proper distances, and constantly adjusting left and right, all while trying to avoid hitting other cars. But all this effort is a set-up for an easy exit, the final stage of the parking experience.

In short, Japanese are taught to put in the time now in order to make future steps easier, safer, and more efficient. This mindset also works for personal relationships and in the business world. For example, in Toyota’s internal corporate parlance, this is called, “Work Now, Smile Later,” but it applies across industries. Even when they are in a hurry, Japanese are trained to take time now to prepare to do it right in order to make things smoother, safer, and easier when it comes time to exit this phase and begin the next steps in the process.

Those with a “let’s just do it” style of driving (or conducting business) will certainly balk at this idea. It’s better to dive right in (or drive right in), they say; do it and do it now. Surely, working quicker with limited steps is more efficient. In a dog-eat-dog world, if we don’t act quickly, someone else will eat our lunch. And if everyone was so meticulous and slow, nothing would ever get done. Sure, it might be perfect, but it would take all day, and what good is that when everyone is late, frustrated, and frazzled?

Who can say which way is better? Indeed, both options are valid choices, but in Japan, people are generally going to choose the method with the larger up-front cost and easier, safer payoff. This applies both in parking and in business interactions. If everyone knows what to expect and if a proper level of preparation has been made, all sides can move forward with confidence, almost automatically. This mindset also bubbles up to the society at large, enabling sustainable, longer-term, win-win community relationships and projects.

In the end, the choice is up to you. But by following these unwritten rules, by thinking of others in tight, complex environments and by taking time to do the work up front—by choosing the back-in approach—you can reduce dents, scrapes, and accidents and ultimately move forward carefully with well-planned, sustainable results.

Maybe it will even increase the resale value of your car.

Harold Archer

Harold Archer is a Canadian, long-term salaryman manager at Toyota Motor Corporation, based in Japan. Currently assigned to Lexus International, he works on the Lexus and GR Toyota branding team, most recently assigned to the global PR group. He loves cars, bikes, planes, trains, anything that moves, and working across cultures and regions. He was one of a handful of team members for the 2014 Toyota 5 Continents Drive Project, driving first in Australia before expanding to all continents.


  • Until you park at Costco and you realize that none of the Japanese can easily load their trunks because they backed their cars in and the huge Costco shopping carts won’t fit, so it takes them ten minutes to unload their cart, but about a minute for me, as I back out and drive away.

    • Good point Matthew, I know exactly what you mean. And those Costco carts, certainly never squeeze between cars.

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