Although it has recently gone through difficulties, Japan is still the Number three world economy behind China and the USA and is a major export destination and overseas investor, with branches of its international companies all over the world. If you are dealing with Japan or working with a Japanese company, what do you need to know?
1 Relationships are key
The Japanese spend a long time building relationships before doing business with new companies. Study how to approach them, Make contact and exercise patience and persistence, both qualities the Japanese admire. If you are working in a Japanese company and reporting to Japanese managers the qualities to display are hard work (putting in the extra hours and being available when needed, even outside office hours) and loyalty, prioritising your boss’s work and making him/her look good.
2 The team is king
When working with Japanese companies talk in terms of ‘We’ not ‘you’ and ‘I’. The Japanese are team players. This means they operate by consensus and sacrifice personal lives to the team. Go out and spend personal time together with them. The Japanese tend to criticise westerners as ‘bad team players.’
3 Indirect is best
Working with Japanese colleagues and managers you have to learn to read between the lines. They will hint at things rather than say them directly to save face and not to cause insult. By the same token, Japanese colleagues will not open gifts in front of you, to save face if they or you don’t like the gift. When asking questions or clarification take the responsibility for understanding on yourself. Not, ‘Can you explain?’ but ‘Can I be sure I’ve understood correctly?’
Some colleagues complain that Japanese managers can be very direct. This is usually because a senior manager wants to teach a subordinate how something should be done. But I agree, it sounds harsh and impolite to western ears.
4 Diplomacy rules
Some managers liken Japanese business to diplomacy. There are so many etiquette rules. Business cards, for example, are a record of your company not just a contact device so they have to be presented and treated with respect. Diplomacy determines where you sit in a meeting and who leads the discussion. There are so many other things to discover. Just learn it bit by bit.
5 Watch out for Senpai/kohai
Senpai is the teacher or mentor. Kohai is the student or mentee. This is an honoured relationship in Japanese companies. It means a senior manager will school a junior manager in the ways of the company. Foreign staff often first notice this when a senior manager shows interest in the local language or culture. If you experience this, don’t fail to follow up. It will be the key to your success in the company and the ‘go to’ person when you have problems or need to understand things about company operations.
When a Japanese manager wants to suggest new ideas in his/her company he/she introduces a ‘process of nemawashi’ – of collective discussion. Everyone in the loop must discuss, often at several levels of the company, and everyone must sign off the new proposal. This is called ‘Ringi-sho’. Allow at least three months for the process of nemawashi to go through the system. The waiting can be frustrating but once agreed action happens fast.
7 Position of women
I’ve written he/she but more often Japanese managers are still ‘he’. Apparent ignoring of or ‘rudeness’ to western women in junior management I think is unfamiliarity, as much as, if not more than sexism. Japanese women usually leave work after marriage or when they have children, and become full time home-makers. This is changing as lifetime employment gives way to shorter term contracts. Senior Japanese women managers are extraordinarily dedicated and competent – and often single and in even more of a minority than western countries. Many Japanese managers simply don’t know how to deal with female executives – hence the occasional perceived lack of consideration in their behaviour.
There is so much more to tell you about Japanese business and how to work successfully in Japanese firms or with Japanese companies. A day on the business culture as a complement to your Japanese language studies will transform your understanding of this endlessly fascinating society.
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