The recent Upper House elections resulted in a resounding victory for the Liberal Democratic Party, and is ostensibly a mandate of support for Abenomics. The question remains whether Prime Minister Abe will use this political capital to implement the real change that Japan so desperately needs. So far what we have seen is a recycling of what made Japan, Inc. successful in the past–a low Japanese yen to help spur exports and government spending to support the domestic economy. However, Abe seems reluctant to take on real reform to support economic growth that would require uncomfortable changes in attitude and practices. Such reforms include liberalizing the agricultural sector, bringing more women into the workforce, and lifting laws that overly protect labor.
The Japanese word for superficial actions that belie real intent is tatemae (pronounced TAH-TAY-MA-EH). The word for real intent is honne (pronounced HOWN-NAY). Skillful use of honne and tatemae is a fundamental part of success in Japanese society. However, I have found at times that the use of tatemae borders on the ludicrous.
For example, when a Japanese government official was recently asked what was being done to make daycare more available for women who wish to enter or remain in the workforce (daycare is in desperately short supply because of a shortage of childcare workers), he explained that this is why the Japanese government is supporting the robotics industry. The reasoning being that someday soon we will be able to entrust our children to the care of android nannies.
The owners and leaders of many small to medium size businesses in Japan, most of which have not yet benefited from Abenomics, have been justifiably critical of the government’s approach. However, the same owners and leaders are often guilty of the same behavior as the government in their own organizations. Like in Abenomics, they recycle old tactics that are comfortable and worked in the past, but that will not take the organization to where they want it to go. They create their own tatemae to avoid uncomfortable questions and conflicts. In extreme cases, they begin to believe their tatemae. While Prime Minister Abe has the excuse of the need for political capital to stay in office long enough to effect change, what is the excuse of a business owner and leader?
Real leadership and change is about honne and not about tatemae. As owners and leaders of small to medium size businesses, let us serve as a model for government leaders to emulate. Let us take charge of change and growth in our own organizations. Only then will our criticism of government be meaningful.