As a home-stay student with a Japanese family, I became used to being asked by my host mother where I was going every time I left the house. If it had been my own family, I would probably have responded “Out!” before leaving as quickly as I could, slamming the door behind me. I was trying to avoid my parents interfering in my plans but I soon realised my Japanese home stay mother didn’t really have a hidden agenda behind her inquiries – she was simply curious, and wanted to show she cared.
In the Japanese corporate world, there are hidden agendas, but the same thirst for “information for information’s sake”, continues. A constant niggle I hear from people who aren’t Japanese who work in Japanese companies is the sheer quantity of questions, often on seemingly irrelevant details, that they have to deal with from their Japanese colleagues.
These non-Japanese staff worry because they fear that their answers might be seen as commitments and they want to sort out the business case or the strategy before they give the full details of a plan. Or, like my teenage self, they are just concerned that there is some kind of ulterior motive.
I sense that Japanese colleagues are frustrated by this – they want to know the details as soon as possible because they need to feed them back into their network in Japan. If they have “overseas” or “global” in their title then they are supposed to be the instant expert on what overseas operations are doing, regardless of how complex the local cultures and markets are. Their knowledge is currency, or “neta” as it is known in Japanese – the inside scoop on how things really are. Japanese people are so used to the idea that in Japanese society nothing is as it really seems, they assume that those who claim to know the real story are the ones with the power and intelligence.
By contrast, many Westerners are surprisingly incurious about the world beyond their immediate sphere. Multinationals run on US lines tend to function on explicit knowledge – distributed through regular updates amongst a select group of global managers, maybe via a weekly phone conference, where predetermined targets are matched against actual figures, and arguments are had about any shortfalls. As a result, US type multinationals send far less headquarters staff out to work in overseas operations than Japanese multinationals, which feel that they need to have a mole in every operation to keep HQ in the loop.
I have some sympathy with the worries of non-Japanese staff. Information casually shared with Japanese colleagues does have a habit of escalating up the Japanese hierarchy and turning into formalised fact, to be thrown back in the face of the overseas staff when commitments never given are not met. Also, Japanese headquarters staff, who are so used to sharing knowledge in informal ways, fail to share it more explicitly with their overseas colleagues.
Information flows need to be two-way to work. Maybe I should have responded to my home stay mother by asking her what she was doing during the day. She might have been pleased to know I cared.
This article originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly
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