The salaryman in Japanese business culture

The salaryman in Japanese business culture

In the previous section on the central role of the company in Japanese business culture, we noted that Japan is the land of the company man, or to use the colloquial Japanese term the ‘salaryman’. Japanese politicians know that understanding Japan’s salarymen and their families is essential to success at the polls: similarly, understanding them is essential to understanding Japanese business culture and succeeding doing business in Japan. In this section, I will try to give you an insider view based on my experience dealing with hundreds of Japan’s salarymen during more than two decades doing business in Japan.

The Japanese term ‘salaryman’ traditionally includes all white-collar male employees, whether newly recruited graduates or seasoned middle-managers, but does not include Japanese executives, directors, or senior managers. Salarymen and their families make up a sizeable chunk of Japan’s middle-class and Japanese government policies tend to reflect their mood and priorities. The oft quoted reason for Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s huge popularity in the late 1990s, was that his unpretentious background and mannerisms allowed him to relate well to the concerns of the salarymen and their families. Many Japanese commented that he acted like a salaryman and talked like a salaryman in phrases that ordinary Japanese could understand.

Understanding what motivates the typical Japanese salaryman is very important if your company wants to succeed doing business in Japan. Many foreign company executives will ask “Why do I need to understand about salarymen? I’m not a politician; I’m an executive meeting with executives and senior managers. How are salarymen relevant to me?”. First, almost every executive, C-level or otherwise, senior manager and manager aged 45 or older in a Japanese company, very likely started as a 22-year-old new employee and rose through the salaryman ranks to become first a team-leader, then a section-leader, then an assistant manager, then a manager, and then an assistant general manager, before entering senior management. Second, the male employees at the typical foreign company’s Japanese office are salarymen and the female employees probably have similar concerns to those of the male employees. Understanding what motivates salarymen helps in just about every decision a foreign company needs to make when starting business in Japan: deciding where to place its Japanese subsidiary office, deciding who to recruit as its subsidiary company President, understanding why a candidate wants to work at its Japanese subsidiary, and so on.

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. In a sense, Tanaka-san’s business life started when he was just 2 or 3 years old. He is an only child whose parents knew that if he were to become a respectable salaryman working for a secure and respectable Japanese company, that company would only recruit him if he graduated from a top university. Tanaka-san’s father was a general manager at a Japanese multinational consumer electronics company and earned a good salary, but to put two children through a top university would have been beyond his father’s salary, so Tanaka-san, as with many Japanese born after 1980, is an only child.

By the time Tanaka-san was 3, his mother had already investigated which kindergarten, which grade school, which junior-high 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 who researched and decided. Tanaka-san’s father left home each weekday at 7:00am for the 1½ hour commute to his office near Tokyo Station. By the time his father returned home to Tama City at 10:00pm each night, he was too tired to do anything but eat his late dinner and sleep. On Saturdays he would also go to his office, 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 Tanaka-san’s mother researched the decisions and his father approved them.

From age 3 – 6, Tanaka-san attended kindergarten, from age 6 – 12 he attended grade school. From age 6, Tanaka-san also attended cram schools in the evenings and on holidays to make sure he would pass his junior-high school entrance examination. He passed, so from 12 – 15 Tanaka-san attended the junior-high school his mother had chosen a decade before. He continued cram school on weekday evenings, weekends, and holidays, now needing to make sure he would pass his high school entrance examination. At 15 years-old, Japanese children must choose just one free state high school to apply for, but can also apply for any number of private high schools (which typically cost around $10,000 a year in tuition fees). In February of his 15th year, Tanaka-san sat the entrance examination at one of Tokyo’s top state high schools and as a backup, his parents paid the $250 fee for him to sit the entrance examination for a top private high school. Tanaka-san’s cram schooling paid off: of the 1,600 students who sat the entrance examination, he was one of the 400 who passed (saving his parents around $30,000 in private high school’s tuition fees). Tanaka-san attended high school from 15 – 18, but continued to attend cram school on weekday evenings, weekends, and holidays, now needing to make sure he would pass his entrance examination for Tokyo University (Japan’s most prestigious state university). After years of dedication, hard work, detailed study for 12 hours a day including weekends and holidays, and not breaking the rules at school, Tanaka-san was one of 5,000 students (out of 15,000 who sat the examination) to pass Tokyo University’s entrance examination in February of his 18th year. Four years later, on March 31, 2002, Tanaka-san graduated from Tokyo University. In the previous summer, he had competed strongly at the university’s career fair and had proudly accepted an offer from a major Japanese company. On April 1, 2002, the day after he graduated, Tanaka-san proudly joined the mass of daily commuters as a salaryman in his new black suit and white shirt.

When Tanaka-san started work at the company, he had no idea (and neither did the company) what job in what department he would eventually occupy. Together with 500 new employees, he entered the six months’ induction course and upon completion HR placed him in a junior job in the company’s accounting division. He made a lot of friends during induction training and even though those friends moved to different divisions and offices, he will stay in contact with them throughout his working life.

During the next 5 years, the company’s HR division rotated Tanaka-san through 5 different departments starting on April 1 each year: one year in accounts, one year in patents and intellectual property, one year in production, one year in purchasing, and one year in sales. Tanaka-san’s supervisors liked that he did not make mistakes, did not take risks, and got on well with his co-workers: at the end of his fifth year, the company put him into a team-leader job in the IT division. He again made many new friends during those rotations and they will also remain his friends throughout his working life, even though they too now work in other departments in other offices.

At 27, Tanaka-san has already begun to build a strong network of relationships in the company. Next we’ll look at how valuable Tanaka-san’s network is as he ascends the corporate ladder.

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