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We are coming to the end of the final quarter of the financial year for most Japanese companies. There will be a greater sense of urgency than in previous quarters, not only to make the numbers, but also to find tangible proof that the strategies in place are the right ones, or if they are not, to draft some radical proposals for the President to make at the end of April, when the year’s results must be declared.
It’s a predictable part of the annual cycle, but I sense that in recent years, the feeling of crisis is stronger than ever. So many Japanese companies understand that their very existence on the global stage is under question and the cheaper yen will only provide temporary respite from this.
The usual bottom up accumulation of midterm plans, based on projections of the previous years’ sales, a chat with customers and ”putting a finger in the air”, all jammed into several A3 sized sheets of paper, won’t do this time.
Some companies will announce, or already have announced, radical restructuring plans, but behind such plans is still the huge question of why the company exists at all – a question that most Japanese companies take very seriously, as so many believe that contributing to society, not just by keeping people in employment, but by making a positive impact on the future shape of the world, is at the core of their being.
This means they have to venture into the touchy feely territory of vision, values and corporate culture. Something which I believe they are pretty good at communicating to customers and employees in Japanese, but not outside Japan.
Words and numbers are not enough – there need to be stories, heroes and artifacts. Japanese companies have plenty of these, the question is how to communicate them globally.
One example is Alpine Electronics, the Japanese car audio manufacturer. The current chairman, Seizo Ishiguro, talks of how when he headed up the US operation, a cassette deck was returned to the company riddled with bullet holes by an unhappy American customer. The cassette deck is now in Alpine’s museum, as a reminder of how the key to Alpine’s survival in global markets is the highest possible quality and customer satisfaction.
This is a very tangible artifact, and a great story. Somewhat gentler is the brush painting bought by Sazo Idemitsu, the founder of the Idemitsu petroleum company, when he was 19, at an auction, of Hotei (often known as the Laughing Buddha) pointing to the moon. Apparently he often told employees to “look at the moon” (the big picture) not at Hotei’s finger (the details). In other words that Idemitsu was in the petroleum industry not just to make money, but to benefit society.
Intriguingly, in the painting Idemitsu bought, the moon is not depicted at all. It’s as if the artist is telling us to go and look for the moon for ourselves. The challenge Japanese companies face is ensuring that this kind of subtlety does not get lost in translation.
This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly
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