Doing business in Japan information
by Venture Japan
In the previous section on the central role of the company in Japanese business culture, I noted that Japan is the land of the company man, or to use the colloquial Japanese term the 'salaryman'. Japan's salarymen are the people you will be doing business with and understanding them is an essential part of understanding Japanese business culture and succeeding in the Japanese market. In this section I will try to give you an insider view based on my experience dealing with hundreds of salarymen during the past 13 years doing business in Japan,
The Japanese term 'salaryman' generally includes all white-collar male employees from newly recruited freshman to general managers but does not include Japanese executives and directors. The salarymen and their families make up a sizeable chunk of Japan's 'middle-class' and the Japanese government and its policies is pretty much a reflection of their mood. In fact an often quoted reason for the popularity of Japan's Prime Minister Koizumi, is that his unpretentious background and mannerisms allows him to relate well to the concerns of the salaryman (in my wife's words "He acts like a salaryman and talks like a salaryman in phrases that ordinary Japanese can understand").
Understanding what motivates the typical Japanese salaryman is critical if you want to really succeed at doing business in Japan, because it will help you in just about every decision you need to make, from deciding your Japanese office location to who to recruit as your subsidiary company President. To understand the salaryman, how he influences Japanese business culture and doing business in Japan, we will study Tanaka-san, a 35 year-old 'rising star' salaryman who is a departmental manager at a large Japanese corporation. Tanaka-san is a real living salaryman and a business acquaintance of mine (although I have changed his name for this section).
In a sense, Tanaka-san's business life started when he was just 2 or 3 years old. He is an only-child - his parents knew that if he was to become a respectable salaryman working for a secure and respectable Japanese company, he would be recruited by that company only after graduating from a top university. Tanaka-san's father is a general manager at a Japanese multinational consumer electronics company and earns a good salary, but to put 2 children through a top university would have been beyond his father's salary, so Tanaka-san is an only-child.
Tanaka-san's mother investigated which kindergarten, which junior school, which middle school and which high-school would best enhance his chances of entering a top university. His father approved the decisions, but it was Tanaka-san's mother that made them. By the time his father returned home to Tama City, after a 1½ hour commute from the east side of Tokyo, he was too tired to do anything but sleep. On Saturdays he would be at his office and so the only time Tanaka-san ever really spent time with his father was on Sundays, when his father would do his 'family service'. So his mother researched the decisions and his father approved them.
From age 8, Tanaka-san attended cram schools and throughout his middle and high-school years, he studied 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, to ensure his entry to that top university. After years of dedication, hard work, detailed study and not breaking the rules, Tanaka-san graduated from Tokyo University on March 31, 1990. In the previous October he had competed strongly at the career fair organized by the university and had proudly accepted an offer from a major Japanese company. On April 1, 1990, the very day after he graduated, Tanaka-san proudly joined the mass of daily commuters in his new blue suit and white shirt - he was now a freshman salaryman.
When Tanaka-san first entered the company, he had no idea (and neither had the company) what position he would eventually occupy. Together with the other new employees, he entered the 3 month induction course and upon completion was assigned to a junior position in one of the company's offices. He made a lot of friends during induction training and even though those friends were dispatched to different offices, he will stay in contact with them throughout his working life. During the next 3 years, Tanaka-san was rotated through 4 or 5 different departments - 6 months in accounts, 6 months in patents and intellectual property, 6 months in production, 6 months in purchasing etc., until eventually he was assigned to a longer-term opening in the IT division. He again made many new friends during those rotations and they also will remain his friends throughout his working life, even though they too may be working in other departments in other offices. Even at just 25 years old, Tanaka-san has already begun to build a strong web of intra-company relationships - a network which will be important to him as he ascends the corporate ladder.
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