Sumo or Judo: how Japanese firms embrace or exclude diverse staff
I miss not being able to see the hatsu basho (January sumo tournament) that is now under way in Tokyo, as they don’t show sumo on the television here in the U.K. anymore. It would be great if Harumafuji, the new Mongolian second ranked ozeki, does well*, but it seems this year will be another challenging one for sumo’s credibility, particularly in the way it deals with the foreign rikishi wrestler.
When I was still working at my Japanese company in Japan, trying to develop and implement policies to improve the career opportunities for our “foreign rikishi,” in other words our non-Japanese employees, we had many discussions about what we nicknamed “sumo vs. judo” problem.
The sumo vs judo problem
In a “sumo” company such as ours, the traditional view was that in order to become a senior manager, you needed to join the company (the “sumo stable” or beya) at an early age and spend several years doing menial jobs, pouring the beer for everyone and living in a company dorm.
The sumo equivalent would be cleaning out the sumo beya stable, making chanko nabe stew and undergoing grueling training. So if any foreigner wanted to become a manager, that was fine, but they had to have undergone the same process as other Japanese employees.
Learning the “kata” – knowing the form
As for training, this was mostly on the job, learning from your seniors, as indeed in sumo, where the kata, or form of sumo, is learned by observing others rather than through any formal guidance or manuals. In fact, there weren’t many manuals or formal appraisal processes at all in our company. People just “knew” how to behave and what was expected of them.
For many Japanese companies, this changed in the 1990s. This was partly due to the restructuring needed to deal with the slowing down of Japanese economic growth, but also a recognition that the Japanese company had to become more diverse, not only in terms of nationalities, but in the gender and career background of its staff. It was not only the foreigners that objected to being treated like sumo, but other Japanese people, particularly in the younger generations. Also, the vagueness and lack of transparency often led to cover-ups, verging on what could be deemed corrupt practices.
No point in forcing conformity to the Japanese way on diversity
If you force diverse groups of people to conform to one mysterious way that can only be learned through many years’ apprenticeship, a way most easily learned by a group who share one particular cultural background, then those who deviate from this norm will find that, despite their best efforts, they are only a pale imitation of the mainstream group.
In other words, if you want all employees to behave like traditional Japanese salarymen, then hiring people from nontraditional groups is pointless, because they end up being unhappy, fake Japanese salarymen, or, more likely, quit.
My colleagues and I contrasted sumo with judo, which is also a Japanese origin sport, and has much of the same Japanese ethos regarding the importance of kata and diligence through practice, but is much more transparent in its rules and its teaching methods, a prerequisite, I assume, for it becoming an official Olympic sport for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. I have to say though: I find sumo more charming and fascinating than judo.
* Unfortunately he didn’t. He made a majority of wins 8 to7, and did better in the March tournament that has just ended – 10 wins to 5 losses.
This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly.
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