Monday, May 5, 2014

Changing The Culture Of Japan Inc

Think of Japan, and most people either think of sushi, karaoke or the bubble. While sushi a source of protein, and karaoke, depending on your point of view is fun or a waste of time, most people will regard the bubble as a modern miracle. Japan literally rose from ashes to the second strongest economy in the world.
After pulling itself from a ruinous defeat in the Second World War, Japan dusted itself off, and in a few short decades, transformed itself from one of the poorest nations on earth, to one of the richest there have ever been. This was no easy feat. It is still a source of pride for most older Japanese people. What worked in those days, will not work today. If Japan does not recognize this face and act upon the changes that are occurring at an ever-quickening pace, Japan will be on the bottom of the pile, again!
The last statement is not dramatic, it is a fact that Japan is losing out due to old ideas and a seemingly stubborn refusal to change the way they do business. 25% of the population is now over 65. Entrepreneurship is nonexistent. It all starts with the people they hire.
There is a very mixed message being sent out by Japanese businesses and it seems to be quite indicative of the uncertainty and fear that is gripping the heart of the veterans of the bubble, from the realization that maybe all things Japanese are not necessarily the best.
On the one hand many businesses are going on a very audacious drive to implement an “English only” work environment in order to ensure a seamless flow of communication into and out of the company, and improve ties and relations with partners, customers and clients around the world. But on the other hand, all too often, companies are shunning returning graduates who have either “missed the recruiting boat” (that sees tens of thousands of freshmen employed by corporate Japan every April), or are deemed too “un-Japanese” to fit into and adhere to Japanese corporate culture.
This attitude is starting to hurt Japan now, as insular Japanese companies lose out to the more open minded and cosmopolitan workforces of rivals across Asia and the rest of the world. However it also hurts the career prospects for Japanese university students. Faced with the prospect of being shunned by their own countrymen, if they study abroad they feel forced to shun the valuable experience that is gained from studying in an international university environment, building an extensive network of alumni and simply mixing with global minds. This is a travesty to Japan, not just to the students themselves, but also to the potential universities that would gain from having contact with someone from a country as steeped in culture and history as Japan, which still has a lot to offer the world.
Japanese workers are still as highly skilled as their business rivals worldwide, and in the right environment they and their companies will prosper. But that environment has to be nurtured by the key decision makers, and instilled at all levels of the corporate culture in Japan. That culture needs to be one that sees itself as part of a global community and not a lone ranger in a big bad world. It will have to stop using phrases like “we Japanese…” that highlight differences and perhaps even allude to a baseless snobbery. The bubble is gone and for a return this xenophoebic speaking must end. It will have to do away with all the barriers that enable a modern business to function, and respond effectively to, the ever-changing international environment that is global business today.
It is unlikely that Japan will ever attain the heady heights of the bubble, nor is it desirable. However if Japan wants to reestablish itself as a major force in global business, it is going to have to recognize that being global leaves little room for xenophobia and that the practices and insular thinking that took it into the bubble have no place in the 21st century.

By Satoru Aoyama

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