Steven's Blog

Chauvinism in Disguise

Once when I made an offer on buying a house in Japan, the owner initially accepted, and then immediately rejected my offer after learning I was not Japanese. For me, such experiences are by far the exception and not the norm. Nonetheless chauvinism, racism, and xenophobia exist in Japan just as anywhere else, and while outrage might be justified, I have rarely found outrage helpful. Chauvinism often masks a deeper concern. What is presumed conventional wisdom is often chauvinism in disguise.

The CEO of the Japanese office of a successful non-Japanese investment company told me about a Japanese company looking to sell off a non-performing subsidiary. The CEO and board of the Japanese parent refused to entertain offers from any company not Japanese.

Like subsidiaries in other Japanese corporate groups, this subsidiary had long served as a dumping ground for unremarkable yet loyal and close-to-retirement managers to finish out their careers.  Lifetime employment had been a tacit social contract with employees.

Tacit or not, a contract is a contract nonetheless, and one the leaders of the parent company were loath to break regardless of growing financial pressures. They presumed a Japanese buyer would understand and continue to employ the subsidiary’s staff, whereas a non-Japanese buyer would fire people without compunction.

The underlying concern here is adhering to a tacit commitment to employees, and you don’t have to be Japanese to get that. A non-Japanese buyer who approaches the Japanese seller making it a priority to decide how best to treat the employees as part of any possible deal would likely get a hearing.

The Japanese have no monopoly on Japanese Chauvinism. Often I have heard American and other non-Japanese business leaders insist upon hiring a grey-haired Japanese man from their industry to serve as local CEO under. The presumption is only old Japanese men with industry contacts who will be taken seriously and can succeed in growing the business. Yet I have seen such men also fail spectacularly at great loss to the business. Lousy leadership is lousy leadership no matter the country or culture.

The underlying concern here is hiring a business leader who takes the business to success, and being Japanese is no prerequisite. Some of the most successful CEOs I know in Japan are not Japanese and among them many don’t even speak Japanese. A number of them are not even men! Non-Japanese people have led to tremendous growth and success companies in Japan like Adidas, Godiva, LVMH, Michelin, Lenovo, BMW, and Cartier to name a few.

And what about non-Japanese chauvinism? In my experience from time to time, a non-Japanese business leader in Japan will insist upon hiring an American or other non-Japanese for a key role. The assumption is non-Japanese move fast, take risks, propel innovation forward, proffer provocative opinions, and communicate bad news candidly and promptly, among other such traits so-called atypical of non-Japanese managers.

Yet I know from experience that non-Japanese can be just as tentative, risk-averse, reactive, and opaque in communication as some of the most mediocre of Japanese managers I have met. At the same time, I have also known Japanese managers who behave in ways considered atypical among the Japanese, similar to the best of American managers and others in the world.

The underlying concern here is hiring excellent people. Nationality is no guarantee. Excellence is rare by definition no matter the country. Yet excellent people exist in every country nonetheless, even in Japan—as long as you are willing to look.

When you encounter chauvinism in business, Japanese or otherwise, seek the underlying concern first. Address the concern if it makes sense to do so, and you have a better chance at success.

When you encounter chauvinism in business, seek the underlying concern. Click To Tweet

And does it always make sense to address the concern? No. You always have options, and sometimes you are better off just walking away. The very same day that the owner of that house reneged on my offer, my wife, my son, and I toured an open house that turned out to be far better in all respects that we had nearly bought. I made an offer and the Japanese owner happily accepted. It is in that house where we live today.


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