Steven's Blog

It’s Never Because “This is Japan”

Address real root cause, and you can accelerate change in your business. Blame your ailments on Japan, and you will remain permanently stuck.

It’s up to you.

What is it about Japan that makes companies as they are? Below are a few statements from a company manager, many of which you might find familiar in your own experience in Japan.

• The company’s stated values are always the exact opposite of the way the company actually is.

• It does not matter how hard you work, nothing ever changes, so there is really no point in putting in much effort.

• Everyone here is highly risk averse. It is better to make no decision rather than to make a decision that might be wrong—or worse—viewed as wrong. As a result, nothing gets done. Progress on everything is slow.

• The best department to work in is the strategic planning department. Everything they do is abstract with no deadline. You can do what you want and never be held accountable.

• There are never any decisions made in meetings, and most meetings are useless. I usually read the news during meetings.

• I was once asked what motivates me to work. I responded, “because I get paid,” nothing more. What else is there really?

• There is no way to fire people here. If you have a non-performer in your department who you want to get rid of, the only way to do so is to give them excellent reviews recommend them for promotion or transfer. That way, they become someone else’s problem. As a result, incompetent people tend to get moved into higher and higher positions of leadership.

What do you think? Any of these sound familiar? Have you experienced any of these in your own business, or perhaps something similar? What do you think is the cause of what ails this company?

I have read these statements to groups of CEOs in Japan, most recently at a private CEO breakfast series I run, and asked why this company is the way it is. Both Japanese and non-Japanese CEOs provide a lot of explanations why this goes on in Japanese companies. A few examples of what they say are below.

1. “It’s the Japanese education system. People are not taught to think independently.”

2. “It’s the importance of saving face in Japan. People do not want to be embarrassed.”

3. “It’s because of how much Japanese people value wa or harmony in Japanese society. People avoid conflict and confrontation at all cost.”

4. “It’s because of the hiring system in Japan. People come in as graduates during the hiring season, and stay with the company their entire lives. There are few outside, mid-career hires. No new blood, no new thinking.”

5. “It’s because of the importance given to consensus in decision-making in Japan, so no one person ever has to take individual responsibility.”

6. “It’s because Japanese people prefer acting based on precedent. They resist doing anything different or new.”

These are all reasonable answers that show a keen understanding of Japanese culture and society. Nothing can be done about these kinds of causes. After all, no one person can single-handedly change Japanese culture or Japanese society.

There is just one problem.

The company described so derisively is not Japanese. It’s a French company in Paris.

I based the statements of the manager on Corinne Maier’s book, Bonjour Paresse, in which she describes her experience working at the French utility EDF.

How often, if ever, have you ascribed to a problem you think is peculiar to Japan, a root cause you think is peculiarly Japanese? How often have you said, “That manager is typically Japanese?” Or “Our distributor is a conservative Japanese company?” Or “We have a traditional Japanese business culture around here?”

Banish ascribing root cause of any problem to Japan from your speech and your thoughts. Click To Tweet

For whatever you think ails your business in Japan, Japan is never the root cause. It is always something else. And that something else is never something so immutable like Japanese culture. It is always something that you as a leader can change, as many of your peers in Japan have done already with success.


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