Japanese business culture


The Japanese company in Japan's culture

3.  the Japanese company in Japan's culture

In the previous section on Japanese business culture, we briefly looked at one of its obvious aspects; politeness and manners. Now lets take a look at the core pillar of Japan's business culture - the company

Webster's Dictionary defines 'business culture' as "..the shared attributes, goals and practices that characterizes a company or corporation.." and 'the company' occupies a uniquely important place in both in Japanese business culture and society.

To a great extent a Japanese man and his family are socially ranked by the reputation of the company he works for and the position and prospects he has there. In the US and Europe, the success of entrepreneurial economies has to an extent supplanted social casting by employment, but in Japan, entrepreneurs are not accepted so readily and are often seen as eccentrics or misfits. In 2004 Japan is as much as ever a nation of 'the company man', in colloquial Japanese called 'the salaryman'. One of the reasons why Japanese so ritually proffer and accept business cards at meetings, is the sense of pride in belonging to his company that a Japanese salaryman has. Business cards are a very necessary part of any first Japanese business (or social) meeting and this is the reason most likely to be given by your Japanese company President when strongly (and wrongly) suggesting that you must incorporate as a kabushiki kaisha if you want to succeed doing business in Japan.

One of the reasons for the central importance and influence of the Japanese company in Japan's social hierarchy, is that despite the recession of the 1990s, Japanese business culture is still dominated by the concept of 'lifetime employment'. A young man, entering a large corporation such as NEC immediately after graduating from university at age 22, anticipates that he will retire from that same company when he reaches age 65. For the majority of employees at Japan's major corporations, that promise of lifetime employment still holds true. Even in smaller companies where labor liquidity is higher, good employees may well stay with one employer for life. These long-term relationships create very strong bonds between a company and its employees and of course between co-workers and managers.

"What many foreign companies often see as impenetrable barriers to Japanese business are more often strong bonds of personal trust.."

In a typical Japanese office the words used to informally refer to senior and junior employees are often the same words used to describe the hierarchy of a human family. This 'corporate family' often stretches out to include numerous subsidiaries and even third-party suppliers. It is not unusual for very strong ties to exist between large companies and their suppliers because the employees doing the buying and selling may have occupied the same positions within their respective companies for 10 years, 20 years or even longer. What many foreign companies often see as impenetrable barriers to Japanese business are more often strong bonds of personal trust established over long years. If you try to win business by breaking those bonds, you will probably fail miserably - far better to swim with the tide (at least initially!) and work around or within those bonds, for example by creating a partnership with the trusted seller. That is how Japanese companies work together.

In Japan, the company man is the norm and the company he works for very much shapes his and his family's social expectations. I should also note that in most Japanese industries (and certainly within large Japanese corporations), it is presently unlikely that you will encounter a female decision-maker. In the US and Europe, working couples are the norm and many senior manager and executive positions are held by women - in the Japanese business culture it is still usual for most women to marry between ages 25 - 30 and then leave their careers to tend to the home or raise children. Most Japanese women do not return to work even though they may have excellent skills and experience and might want to continue a career. In fact a good source of skilled and dedicated employees for a foreign company's Japanese subsidiary company is women looking to return to work after having left their original Japanese employer to start a family.

Based on discussions with numerous Japanese customers and counseling Japanese employees over the past decade, here a few examples of how the company that a Japanese man works for will affect his, and his family's, life:

  • if a Japanese man wants to marry a girl from a 'nice' family (an attribute valued highly in this still semi-feudal society), she and her family want to be assured that he has a good steady job with a reputable company - either that or he needs to be otherwise wealthy, successful and reliable,
  • when a Japanese person applies to rent an apartment in a respectable suburb, the landlord's agent will want to know in detail which company the applicant works for, how long he/she has worked there, how long the company has existed and what its revenues and paid-in capital are,
  • if two people are competing for the same apartment, the person working for the 'better' (where better is defined as wealthier and longer established) company will be preferred by the landlord,
  • if a Japanese person changes company after renting an apartment, he/she is obligated to inform the landlord who may decide to evict the tenant if the new company seems unreliable,
  • if a Japanese couple want to buy their own apartment or house, the bank will expect that the man is working for a reputable company that has been in existence for some time and that he has been in continuous employment there for at least 3 years, often more if the loan is substantial,
  • when Japanese parents are competing to get their child (Japan is now dominated by 1 child families) into a good school, even at kindergarten level, the 'quality' of the father's employer and his length of employment with that company are key factors that will be considered.

Added to the very conservative Japanese attitude toward corporate failure and the pressure on Japanese men to 'conform', it is easy to appreciate why a successful Japanese salaryman will be reluctant to consider entering the small newly created Japanese subsidiary office of a foreign company - unless he thinks it is an exceptional career opportunity (in which case you have probably identified a rare and extremely valuable candidate) or he, or his head hunter, has negotiated a compensation package superior to anything he would ever get from a Japanese company.

4.  the salaryman in Japan's culture >>

Japanese business culture

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