“Us” vs “Them” in Japanese Business

Yvonne Burton, Business Editor

Last week I attended the virtual book launch of my colleague Laura Kriska for her new book The Business of WE, and it had me thinking about the past. In the nineties, when I lived in Japan, it was still the height of “We, the Japanese” and how that was meant as a way to keep the Japanese separate from the rest of the business world. To keep Japan shrouded in their “Us-ness” versus the rest of the world, “them.”  This sense that Japan could participate in the business world but stop the influences of operating in such a global world from impacting them, from touching them, from changing them. To keep their distinct culture and business culture of “We, the Japanese” fully intact. To be in the world, but not of it, in a way.

On many levels, there are still strong remnants of this mindset even in this age of globalization, and it does more harm than good. It stalls growth and evolution. It hinders progress and innovation.

“Us” vs “Them” within Companies

Laura’s book reminded me that this thinking applies not just to people, cultures, and nationalities, but also to the structure within companies. How some departments are viewed as of higher importance than others. For example, sales versus marketing, the business side versus the technology side, R&D vs Production, or client-facing versus non-client-facing.

In the case of many Japanese corporations and their branches worldwide, we can add headquarters versus foreign regional or local offices to the “us” and “them” mentality.

Most people who work for Japanese companies know this pain point. Most decisions come from headquarters with not enough input—or no input at all—from regions/localities who know the ins and outs of their business best. This causes tremendous frustration, rifts, and rivalries and contributes to the loss of productivity and low morale. It ultimately leads to a negative impact on a company’s financial bottom line.

The HQ Status Quo

I encountered this time and time again when building the first iteration of my business years ago. Making a pitch to Japanese organizations for programs that catered to the needs of the Japanese businesspeople in the Tri-State area, I was often told that HQ in Tokyo doesn’t want to deviate from their plan. The Japanese ex-pat manager who is on his two- or three-year stint in the States is not willing to try anything new, even if it will better serve employees and customers. They just want to keep the HQ status quo until his tour is over and he returns to Japan.

The HQ tradition is strong in Japan. But to be global means more than just doing business on foreign soil.

Yes, many functions have to be centralized from HQ, but input and contribution from foreign branch leaders who are impacted by these decisions is essential. This is one of the keys to creating successful strategies that work at the global and local level.

Finding ways to be in the global world as well as to be of it will lead to growth and evolution, progress and innovation.

Yvonne Burton provides services to Japanese firms operating internationally and companies operating in the Japanese market. To learn more, please visit burtonconsulting.biz.