According to Senoo Teruo, formerly of headhunters Korn Ferry Japan, it is a mistake often made by Japanese people joining foreign companies that they simply try to follow what has been done before by their predecessors. Foreign companies expect you to “find your own way to achieve greater results” – “the level of self reliance and independent, pioneering ability is incomparably higher than that of Japanese companies”. Japanese people who were at elite Japanese companies and fail to understand this are branded as “disappointing and useless.”
Ueda Osamu, Professor at Nagoya University of Commerce, says that in American companies, it’s important to know in advance that the organisation is more military-like and the chain of command is very clear (something we often reference in our Japan Intercultural Consulting training). Hiring is done by direct supervisors in American companies, rather than by the HR department as is the case in Japan. If you don’t get on with your boss, in a Japanese company one or both of you are likely to be transferred elsewhere within the company in a few years, so it is often best to just put up with it, and wait.
However in an American company, because your manager is in charge of personnel affairs, their orders are absolute, and if you fail to produce the expected results, you can be fired. Senoo agrees – “there are far more yes-men in foreign affiliated companies than in Japanese companies… Japanese people think foreign companies are more equal in terms of hierarchy, so it’s OK to argue with superiors when you disagree, but that is a complete misunderstanding. When given an order in an American company, it’s common to respond with “Yes, great! Let’s do it!” – to show at least a positive image, to start with.
Their comments are mostly to do with American companies in Japan, but in my interactions with British companies with operations in Japan, I have certainly seen similar frustrations – particularly around wanting their Japanese employees to be more proactive, and willing to change how things are done.
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