Shutting Up "Sekuhara Sam"

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2005

How to get "Sekuhara Sam" to keep his thoughts to himself when he's around your valued employees.

by Andrew Silberman

If ever there was a sad use of human resource development budgets, this must be it. Everyone who really needs sensitivity training will either find an excuse to miss or undermine it; and those who do attend diligently and participate actively probably had no real reason to attend in the first place.

The stories you read and the advice I give should also help you weed out the true "Sekuhara Sams" and instill a better work atmosphere in your office. This will in turn help you attract and keep the best professionals of both genders. My goal here is to show you some basic examples of how bad buchos (department managers) get themselves (and you and your firm) into trouble, and an easy action you can take to reduce their damage.

One of the most harmful "bad buchos" we've come across in Japan is Sekuhara Sam. Ask any professional woman in Japan to offer an example of sekuhara -- sexual harassment --and I bet she'll say she has too many stories to share. And she'll usually refer to them as "awful," "disgusting" or "gross." You'll read a few samples below.

First, a few reminders for the foreign managing director in Japan:
1) Sexual harassment is an imported concept -- hence sekuhara is written in katakana. As such there's quite a bit of misunderstanding about the topic. In fact, one American leader summed up the difficulty of defining any gender issue here as, "Most times she doesn't get what it is, he never gets it, so they just don't get it."

As an example, in our training of first-year staff at a major Japanese trading company, we started each morning of their off-site training with an easy, five-minute jog down to a soccer field for some light stretching and aerobics. A group of five women (the only five women out of 60 first-year hires) complained that they, "as women," should be allowed to skip such physical work. Equal treatment? Not yet!

2) Sexual harassment showed up on the U.S. radar screen in the early 1980s, and that's in a country where women have played a major role in the labor force since the 1940s. As the examples below will show, Japan is more than 20 years behind.

3) Companies like Citigroup now have a mandatory diversity program that covers harassment (we've facilitated their training) -- hopefully you won't need one. But if your company has stories like the doozies that follow, you might be headed there. Consider that they're all true stories, as told by eyewitness female professionals (quoted directly whenever possible). Given the family-oriented nature of this magazine, these are far from the worst examples we've heard:

A toast to forget
A major Japanese entertainment company's female staffer was leaving her job to get married (we don't know if she felt compelled to do so, as is often still the case, or she genuinely wanted to leave). At her farewell dinner, her boss stood up to give a toast. "I don't really remember much about Naomi-chan," he said, "but I do remember she had really big tits and I'll miss seeing them every day. Ha, ha ha. Kanpai!"

The amazing thing is, while both the woman who told me the story and of course the woman leaving the company felt embarrassed, no one said anything.

Nomikai no thanks!
While you can still find calendars of naked women in some buchos' offices, the worst offenses occur in the after-hours nomikai, social drinking sessions, which are semi-mandatory for "smooth relations." As these anecdotes show, this smoothness can be pretty rough on the women. At one such nomikai,

"When I was with Ky**hu Electric, my ex-boss and peers started talking about their 'tits preferences' in front of me at a post-work nomikai. I forced them to stop."

And another: "My ex-peers started the oh-so-typical 'size matters' kind of talk out loud at a nomikai and asked female peers about their preferences. The shame!"

Or when talking about holiday plans around the water cooler, "Oh, it would be so great to go with a few of you women to Okinawa so I can see you in bikinis -- must be nice." As the "they don't get it" business leader commented, "While a man might (or might not) feel uncomfortable if women were to talk about or to him like this, most women feel threatened. That's the difference."

The direct hits
And then there are the direct comments or actions taken toward women that a man rarely (if ever) faces:

"You know I'm considered 'thin' by most people. Well, after my first baby, this particular Sekuhara Sam commented, 'I guess it's true; after having a baby all women become fat.' "

Andcomments, to offer such toasts, to take such actions. But you know it isn't, so what can you do?

I recommend that your company or team creates a rule that goes beyond harassment and covers each and every dialogue or group communication. The rule is simple: Did everyone (not just the speaker) feel better after this interaction? If not -- and certainly the women above did NOT -- then apologies are in order.

Discomfort is in the body of the receiver
Harassment experts insist the definition of "uncomfortable" should be left in the hands of the receiver. And the definition will differ for various recipients. We all know that one person may laugh and another feel offended by the same action. Is this fair? Yes. It's just as fair as letting your customers define the quality of your product or service and your staff define your leadership ability.

Al Campanis was a major league baseball executive who was fired 20 years ago for racist comments he uttered during an interview on ABC television's "Nightline." I still remember my father's response: "No one talks that way anymore... and the smart people don't think that way anymore either."

Now it may be a while (another century?) before you get Sekuhara Sam to stop thinking like a little boy, but maybe you can get him to keep his thinking to himself -- at least whenever he's around your valued employees. @

Andrew Silberman is President and Chief Enthusiast for Advanced Management Training Group, K.K., founded in 1992 with the on-going mission of "Developing Global Thinkers!"

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