In the previous section on the role of the salaryman in Japanese business culture, we left our 27-year-old salaryman, Tanaka-san, just as the HR division promoted him to his first management job as a team-leader. In that job, Tanaka-san managed five people in the IT division of the major Japanese consumer electronics company where he has worked since graduating Tokyo University in 2002. Now we will skip ahead a decade to 2017.
In the intervening years, Tanaka-san’s seniors often noted that he worked hard, he worked long hours and often at weekends, he ensured his team followed company rules, and he avoided unnecessary risks. They noted that his managers and peers liked and respected him and that, although intent and determined, he was neither argumentative nor headstrong. Tanaka-san’s managers noted his skill when he needed to organize his co-workers support for his managers’ decisions and policies at the regular department-level committee meetings (‘ringi’). The company promoted him to section manager when he was 29 years-old, then to assistant department manager at 32 years-old. On April 1, 2017, as part of the company’s annual reorganization (most Japanese companies complete internal reorganizations each April 1), the company promoted the now 37-year-old Tanaka-san to department manager. His superiors, including the company’s directors, have high hopes for him: they often tell him that if he continues this way and does not make a serious mistake, the company might make him divisional general manager before he is 45. That’s a long wait, but not nearly so long as all those long-forgotten years at cram school felt.
After work, in the bar at the rail-station where he starts his daily 1 hour commute home, his friends Suzuki-san and Yamaguchi-san (two of the many friends he made during his induction course when he first joined the company), a few of his closest juniors and his immediate manager, laugh and tell him how he is the company’s golden boy. They wonder whether he might not make divisional general manager at 40? Tanaka-san smiles and says he’ll try, but privately he knows his wife wants him at home more. Five years ago, Tanaka-san married one of the girls from the company’s marketing department. She left the company soon after and Tanaka-san, his wife and their sole child, live with his parents at the house they custom-built to suit two families after they married. Tanaka-san’s wife often says his salary is already enough, that he should spend more time with the family and less time at the office. Tanaka-san often feels torn: he wants to spend more time with his family, but he also knows his company and co-workers need his time. He hopes he can manage to keep balance in his life.
Since entering the company at 22 years-old, Tanaka-san has worked hard to make sure that as he rose up the corporate ladder, he kept his ties with the network of colleagues he met during his induction, and that he keeps his ties with the colleagues he added to his internal network along the way. Tanaka-san knows that in the future, when he reaches sufficient authority to start implementing the radical changes of which he never speaks, but which he knows the company needs for its survival as competition hardens, he will need the support of his internal network. In common with all successful salarymen at large Japanese companies, Tanaka-san understands and respects the very strong Japanese corporate hierarchy; he never opposes his managers and always supports their decisions, even if at heart he might disagree. He also knows that if he earns a bad reputation among his co-workers, the company’s Board will consider it too risky to further promote him, so he strives to balance being a good manager while insisting on accuracy and timeliness.
When Tanaka-san graduated from Tokyo University, his professor (who knows many of the executives at the company where Tanaka-san works) told him to stick to corporate policies and wait patiently for the right opportunity to make his mark. Even now, 15 years after graduating, Tanaka-san, in common with many successful Japanese businesspeople, often refers to his professor when making key business decisions. As a young salaryman, Tanaka-san realized that if the company did not promote him to a junior management job before his 30th birthday, it might never promote him; if so, he might well try his chances at one of the small foreign subsidiaries that often approached him. He saw from his co-workers’ experience, that if he did not make departmental manager before his 40th birthday, he probably never would. Having now achieved that, his next goal is to become divisional general manager before his 50th birthday, which will leave him 15 years to reach the executive ranks before retirement. He looks at his friends, his juniors and his manager, and is glad about those childhood years of cram school, glad that he has always followed the safe path, glad that he has always followed the company’s rules, glad to have so many future opportunities as opposed to many of his friends who have few fresh challenges left to look forward to.
- They are incredibly loyal and dedicated to their employer.
- When faced with a conflict between company duty and family duty, most will do their company duty first.
- They are consistent.
- They never criticize their employer, co-workers, or managers.
- They are reliable.
- They can often be obsessed with detail.
- They research every option.
- They are conservative.
- They always seek consensus.
- They make decisions in committees (‘ringi’) together with their co-workers and managers.
- If needed for the good of their employer, they will move mountains.
- They do not take unneeded risks.
- They conform.
If you are a foreign company executive starting business in Japan, respect the above noted qualities and work with Japanese in a way that enables them and you to win. Don’t force them to take unnecessary risk, don’t pressure them unnecessarily, and you will forge some of the strongest, most profitable, and most enduring relationships that you have anywhere you do business.
I will also add that it has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to spend the last two decades living among them and doing business with them.