Steven's Blog

Don’t be a Japanologist

Japan-fatigue is real and can be fatal to your success and career. Don’t try to explain how Japan is different to executives in your head office. While such conversations are great for dinner parties, talks with students, and war stories with friends, unless executives in your head office are interested in Japanology as a hobby, it’s best to leave Japanology to academics. Executives will find discussions only frustrating and tedious.

The more you try to explain Japan to executives in your headquarters, the less they will be inclined to listening. Even if they believe you have a point and might be right, they will begin to wonder if Japan is worth the effort when say China, for example, is so much simpler—or least the China problems are tangible and efforts to address them yield faster results.

So, how do you convincingly explain Japan to executives in your headquarters who know little or nothing of Japan and have no experience in Japan? You don’t.

The CEO of a European company in Japan talked about his difficulties in explaining Japan to executives in the headquarters, usually about why something can’t be done as they might expect in any other country. The headquarter executives are often skeptical, and simply don’t get it. The conversations about Japanese problems rarely go well.

For example, this CEO tried to explain how Japanese sales staff are conservative and risk-averse. They prefer to wait for orders rather than seek new business. They are reluctant to take on new products. They are slow to move on any new initiative, rarely proffer ideas to improve the business, and typically wait to be told what to do. This is what it is like in Japan.

Or is it? You can almost picture overseas executives rolling their eyes.

To resolve any issue you must first identify cause. As I have written before, the cause of any issue is never “because this is Japan.” It is always something else, and usually something you can address.

So, for example, had the CEO above addressed cause in explaining his challenge, the discussion would likely be more productive. Imagine the following conversation.

My predecessor in the business had a very different approach to management and leadership from my own, which I have come to understand from discussions with my staff. He tended to be dictatorial. He would issue orders from above and staff were expected to execute. Even senior managers had little latitude in decision-making. People were promoted based on seniority, and while there was no formal seniority-based promotion system, one existed in practice. If you did not mess up and were patient, you would rise in the ranks and your salary would go up. There was no reward for performance or success. However, any failure would put your career at risk. There was no upside gain for taking individual initiative for the business, only downside risk.

The cause is clear, tangible and understandable. Without knowing anything about Japan, an executive can relate. Now you can talk about the effect.

For many of my staff, we have been their only employer and their experience at our company is all they know. As a result, many have been conditioned to view individual initiative and change as risks to their careers, and none of them have experience in proactively generating ideas to help improve the business. They behave much like government bureaucrats at home, because the government bureaucracy functions much in the same way as our business in Japan used to.

This makes sense. The effect has nothing to do with Japan because the cause is not Japan. Now you can talk about what you intend to do. 

My first order of business is to change the culture of our organization and change behaviors so that we are more like our other operations around the world. I believe that the majority of our staff and managers can learn and change their ways with some help. Some exceptional staff are actually ready now to do things differently, and they are my vanguard. There is also a small number of staff who, in my view, won’t change even with support, and we will need to decide what to do with these people. I would like to talk with you about how I intend to change our business here.

See the difference? The issues are now tangible and addressable, and not one of them has been ascribed to “Japan.” Even if you think that the issues described above are common to many companies in Japan, so what? You are neither a policy-maker nor an academic tasked with finding solutions for Japan’s socio-economic ills.

Your task is to improve the business you lead, and that is always eminently feasible. Click To Tweet

Leave the rest to the Japanologists.


2 thoughts on “Don’t be a Japanologist

  1. Change management takes lot of time and energy with commitments from the top yet many of non-J CEO/senior management leave less than 3 years unfortunately.
    I heard some stories that whatever J managers explain to HQ, HQ tend to think they are giving “just an excuse of not doing well”, not explaining why they are not doing well.

    • In my experience, significant change in a business rarely requires more than three years, but only if you do it right. If a leader starts off by blaming issues on Japanese culture, that already causes a major delay in action. If a leader identifies causes and begins to address it, in my experience, noticeable progress can be made within six months and usually less. Not having enough time in one’s tenure in order to effect change is also a kind of excuse.

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