On the morning of March 11, 2011, I picked out a tie, checked myself in the mirror, and then left the house to go to Tokyo without knowing that I would never again leave that house the same way. It was only hours later that the massive 3/11 earthquake struck Japan and its deadly tsunami ensued.
My wife, son, mother-in-law, and my wife’s aunt were all in the house at the time. It was knocked off its foundation, and was left listing but did not collapse. The four of them evacuated as tsunami sirens blared. We were just a stone’s throw from the beach.
They fled by car but got no further than thirty meters. A crevasse had opened in the road trapping the car. So they fled on foot—two elderly women, my wife, and my then four-year-old son in tow—to a local school rapidly repurposed as a public refuge.
I was separated from them seventy kilometers away in Tokyo. On the twentieth floor of my office, I could feel the building begin to sway—just as it was designed to do. A piece of Venetian glass fell from its niche and shattered on the marble floor. A woman screamed. Someone vomited.
It was two days before I could rejoin my family. We checked the damage to the house together. It was only then that we realized we would never be able to live there again. I nonetheless consider us lucky compared to what others endured.
We spent a few days in a twelve-mat tatami one-room apartment owned by relatives in Tokyo before we had to vacate it for other relatives from the north who had greater need. I took my family to Colorado to stay with my sister and her family, and then returned to Japan alone to sort things out.
Just before the quake, I had closed a large piece of business with an early client—a family owned Japanese manufacturing business. It is the kind of medium-size business that is so common in Japan. Founded just after the war, it had grown with Japan’s economic miracle. The second generation ran the business at the time. They had paid me the full amount of my fee in advance, and having that cash made a difference to me during that time of crisis.
I called up my buyer a few days after the quake, and explained what had happened to my house and that I was in no position to start work with them. Their facilities in the north had been devastated. They weren’t ready to start with me either. We agreed to reconnect again in a month.
By the end of April, I had new housing for my family, and was up and running again. I called my buyer—and he was shocked to hear from me. At the time, the news media was full of stories about the rapid exodus of non-Japanese expats, leaving Japan to its own devices, like fair-weather friends, but could you blame them? He had assumed I would do the same, absconding with his company’s money. We started work on our engagement by May.
Some in the United States had urged me not to return to Japan as the American news media hyped fears of radiation. Yet the idea of fleeing Japan for good had never occurred to me. Japan is my home, my wife’s home, and one of the countries to which my son claims citizenship. Japan is the home of my business. It is where I have my strongest relationships and ties. Japan is a country I love, and not the only one.
Even though I did not have to, and certainly had other options, I threw my lot in with the Japanese. I stood with them. I remained in Japan to make the best of a difficult situation by choice—one that the vast majority of Japanese did not have.
Since then, I have done more business with that client than any other single client of mine. I have been told by people to whom I have recounted this story that my success with this client is because I behaved in a way that adheres to Japanese business culture. Yet I had thought I was merely doing the right thing. Japanese culture had nothing to do with it. I treated my client the same way I would have wanted to be treated if roles were reversed.
I often hear how difficult it is for non-Japanese firms to do business with the Japanese. I hear about how you have to understand and respect Japanese culture or how there is a particular Japanese way of doing business with the Japanese that is nuanced and mysterious. Myriad of Japan experts position themselves as gatekeepers to the elusive ways of Japan—like shamans to the spiritual world.
However, there is nothing particularly enigmatic or even unique about the Japanese. They are like any other people—mostly valuing the same things as everyone else. They are just as fallible and varied even among themselves like the people of any other country in the world. The Japanese are human like all of us and behave in ways familiar to everyone—if you know how to see.
You can forget about whatever cultural imperatives of the Japanese that someone might be trying to persuade you. Click To TweetMost so-called cultural ‘truths’ are contradictory anyway. As a leader, are you supposed to seek the assent of others in decision-making because of the Japanese cultural penchant for consensus, or are you supposed to issue clear and precise directives from on high because of the Japanese cultural expectation for hierarchy and order?
People who justify actions based on Japanese cultural traits are merely rationalizing what it is they wanted to do all along for their own reasons. Anyone can cherry-pick from Japanese culture to convey whatever narrative suits them.
Not long ago, I attended an onstage interview with the board chair of TEPCO—the company that presided over the notorious meltdown of its Fukushima reactor following the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami. He spoke at length optimistically of all the current management priorities of TEPCO’s leadership as if reading from something designed by a PR department. In my view, no one was more qualified to comment on the company’s governance than him.
So when the time came for questions, I asked him what had changed in the way the board governed the company since the Fukushima crisis. He reiterated TEPCO’s current management priorities in response and said nothing about governance. He asked me if he had answered my question. In avoiding it, he in fact had.
I wondered though. Has this chairman decided to stand and throw his lot in with the Japanese people like I had? Or has he and TEPCO merely decided it was not worth it and fled, much like many of the expats in Japan after the quake? Neither behavior can be described as Japanese or non-Japanese, but only as human.
Long before corporate social responsibility became a thing, Peter Drucker used to say that the purpose of a business is to contribute to the environment. By environment, he meant the social and economic environment of the business’s community, not the natural environment in today’s parlance. A business, in essence, ought to make people’s lives better in some way. Nothing is more important.
If you lead a business in Japan and want to be successful here, missives about the Japanese and their culture are unlikely to help. Forget about tactical targets, business objectives, your tenure in Japan, or the next steps in your career just for a moment.
Rather, how can your business better contribute to your environment? What are you doing to throw your lot in with the people of Japan? These questions are far more fundamental.
Decide with whom you stand.