Clash Course

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2001

Japan is running out of workers, and it already faces a critical shortage of IT talent. As more foreigners come here to work and live, this country -- and its new residents -- are in for plenty of culture shock.

by the Editors of J@pan Inc, with primary reporting and
writing by Associate Editor KYOKO FUJIMOTO

clashWe here at J@pan Inc magazine know a thing or two about culture clash. Half of us are gaijin and half Japanese. Our parent company, LINC Media, a digital incubator of sorts, has well over 15 nationalities represented -- and we're all in the same building. Culture clash is a way of life at LINC. (Disclaimer: our coverage isn't influenced by LINC or fellow incubatees.) We go on retreats at the base of Mt. Fuji to get drunk, play team-building games, and smooth out our differences. If anyone knows the hard work that goes into overcoming culture clash, it's us. We deal with it every day. You could even say that it's become a way of life for us.

The same cannot be said for Japan at large. While not racist (generally), most Japanese are definitely unaccustomed to having "foreign elements" present within their tightly knit business units. Only 1 percent of the workforce in Japan is gaijin, about a quarter of a million highly skilled souls. (The nonskilled can't even get work permits.) A survey by the International Institute for Management Development revealed that Japan ranked last (out of 47 countries) when it comes to the ease with which companies can hire foreign workers (for more on this issue, see "Hiring Problems," page 4, November 2000).

Change is brewing. Japan faces two critical issues that will lead inevitably to more foreigners working here: a dire shortage of qualified IT workers (in an increasingly infotech world) and a rapidly graying population.

The latter issue we won't deal with here. But Kenichi Yanai, executive VP of the executive and engineer search firm IMCA, makes an interesting point. He notes that while the Japan:US population ratio is roughly 1:2, the figures change to 1:3 when talking about the working age population -- people in their twenties to forties. "Japan cannot survive this way," Yanai says. "We need people from everywhere."

Whether that means Japan will start accepting unskilled workers is an open question -- it could just as easily lead to a robotics boom -- but one thing is abundantly clear: in this New Economy era, Japan desperately needs skilled foreign IT workers, and knows it.

Last August, Prime Minister Mori paid a visit to India to help make it easier for Japanese companies to hire IT workers from that country. He made a similar visit to China a few months later. (Sixty percent of the gaijin working in Japan are from other Asian nations.) Meanwhile, back home, recruitment firm Pasona announced plans to bring 10,000 Indian IT workers into Japan -- roughly equal to the size of the nation's current overall Indian community -- and, to put it coldly, "rent" them out to Japanese companies. For its part, the government announced in late November that it would permit 30,000 additional foreign IT workers to reside in this country by 2005.

Nevertheless, Japan would rather build its own domestic base of IT talent and, though aware it could never fill the shortage, is making moves to do so. The government, for example, is creating an "IT Coordinator Certificate," which will certify Japanese tech workers who have both high-tech and management skills. Japan has certification standards for everything from haircutters to cooks to abacus users; the fact that it's now making one for IT workers shows a new, if belated, awareness of IT's importance.

Such certification efforts are also being applied to the Asia region in general, for example with the Southeastern Asia Region Computer Confederation, a multigovernment project whose aim is to create standards for testing, evaluating, and classifying the area's IT workers. While MITI is working with other governments on this project, the country is working to simplify the process of hiring foreign IT workers.

What it boils down to is that there will be a lot more foreign IT workers in this country a few years from now. And that means culture clash. The purpose of this article is to increase our readers' understanding of the issue and show examples -- often funny, sometimes depressing -- of clashes that have already occurred. Most of the tales below are culled from casual Western meets formal Japanese, but the wisdom to be garnered from them can be applied to a wide range of cultural conundrums.

On Taking the Initiative
Independent thinking versus group thinking has to top the list. It's a cliche, but "the nail that sticks out will get a pounding" sentiment is still very much alive in Japan, and, generally speaking, everybody in a Japanese company tries to be like everyone else, or tries not to stick out too much. Ikuo Nishioka, the president of Mobile Internet Capital, was once in charge of hiring engineers for his division in a big Japanese company. He noticed that the Japanese fresh out of college tended to be "all white" -- that is, they'll be whatever color you would like them to be in the company, but at the beginning they're all white, a blank slate. Nishioka feels that foreign grads, in contrast, know exactly what color they want to be.

Shigehito Suzuki, CEO of online job-search firm (a spinoff of LINC Media, down one floor from us), used to work both in the US and in Japan as a vice president for AT&T. He feels the same way as Nishioka -- Japanese can do the things they are told to do very well, but they don't have much self direction. "I've seen many excellent Japanese workers who can do their given work well," he says, "but I don't know many who can take the initiative."

Of course, in traditional Japanese companies, where large numbers of college grads get hired at the same time, the same training, promotions almost at the same time, and the same kind of salary, there may simply be no point in showing initiative. There are no young executives in companies like that.

Hiroyuki Mizuno, head of the Hiroshima Prefectural Institute of Industrial Science and Technology, related an interesting tale in one of his columns for the Japanese tech publication BCN. He once attended a huge Japanese company's first "raising ventures meeting," where many intrapreneur wannabes were given a chance to present business plans to the president and board members. Mizuno was surprised to see everyone getting bashed for their ideas. In subsequent venture meetings at this company, none of the employees "ventured" much, mostly submitting no-risk business plans that looked pretty much the same. The nail that sticks out ...

David Leangen, president and CEO of a Montreal-based startup called Konova, says Japanese are in fact highly creative, but that the system keeps them down. "What I noticed working in a Japanese corporation is that there are a lot of very brilliant people doing some amazing things -- very creative people, very intelligent. It's really the business climate and the cultural climate that doesn't encourage people to be intrapreneurial and to really push their inventions and creativity." Leangen worked in the R&D division of one of Japan's major trading houses, where he saw "a lot of really neat stuff" just sitting around. "If people were more encouraged to do something with it, they'd definitely have a lot more business opportunities."

Being the resident gaijin, Leangen was able to take the initiative with no social repercussions: Konova's technology, which presorts the data on networks for easier searches, was one of those "neat things" he found lying around. Were his Japanese coworkers resentful? More like relieved. "You could tell they had been wanting to do this," he says. "They were very encouraging about my doing this venture."

But why did it take a foreigner to seize the opportunity? Richard Matsumoto, a second-generation Japanese-American working in Tokyo, and the only non-Japanese working for Fujitsu System Solutions, uses metaphors to explain it. Imagine, he says, the way a career ought naturally to develop: When you are young, you are on a train. You're not driving, not in control, and you go wherever the train takes you. After a few years, you get to drive a car -- you're driving, but limited to wherever the road takes you. When you have yet more years behind you, you get to drive a boat, and find your own way on the open sea. After a few decades have passed, you get to fly a plane. It's a little more risky, but you get complete freedom and can navigate to wherever you want to go. The Japanese salary man, Matsumoto believes, never leaves the train.

no funOn Rules, Restrictions, and Meaningless Meetings
Foreigners working in or simply dealing with Japanese companies usually get frustrated by the rules and restrictions they encounter. Nathan Bryan, the founder and CEO of Internet solutions company Gaijins, says the manager of the building his firm is in has a tendency to put restrictions on just about everything. "They love putting up signs," Bryan says. Being a former semi-pro skater, Bryan often skates to work. (You know what's coming.) One day, he saw a sign reading "No In-Line Skating." He asked the reason, and they first said that the wheels would make marks on the floor. When he pointed out that the hard wheels of the trolleys used by the package deliverers made more marks than the soft wheels of his skates, they fell back on the rule being "a building policy." When kick-boards became popular and several people started using them as transportation, there were soon signs up reading "No Kick-Boards."

Not all the rules in Japanese companies are spoken or posted. Aston Bridgman, an employee at NEC -- and the only foreigner in his department -- likes making use of flex-time working hours, wearing casual clothes around the office, and taking a break whenever he wants to. He can't help but notice, though, that nobody else seems to be taking advantage of the flex-time, and everybody still wears suits.

Ellen (anonymous, but from Australia) says she'll never understand why her Japanese coworkers -- she's with a subsidiary of a foreign-affiliated company -- feel obligated to do overtime in the evenings, even when there's clearly nothing to do. M (anonymous, from Myanmar), who has worked for two Japanese and one foreign-affiliated company (gaishi), says that in the systems integration firm she works in now, "Just doing your job doesn't necessarily mean you're doing your job right." You also have to actively report everything to your boss, she says, which results in spending an inordinate amount of time either in or preparing for meetings.

"In Japanese companies, meetings are usually meaningless," says Nishioka, who spent years in a Japanese company and was chairman of Intel Japan before starting Mobile Internet Capital. "There are only a few people discussing something in meetings, because in some cases it is considered rude to give different opinions. And what's more, the decision is usually already made before the meeting through what's called nemawashi (negotiations behind the scene)." Nishioka says he didn't experience meaningful meetings until he moved to Intel. For the first time in his professional career, he says, he saw meetings where everybody actually discussed the topics and gave their opinions: "And sometimes what seemed to be the best solution at first turned into a totally different conclusion." (It's remarkable to many foreigners that that would seem remarkable to anyone.)

meetingWhat was even more surprising to Nishioka back then was that at Intel there was a consensus that you must work for yourself and your family, not for the company. At one of his first executive meetings, a vice president sitting next to him abruptly got up and left before the meeting was over, telling Nishioka that he had a dinner appointment with his family. When the chairman of that meeting -- now the chairman of the company, Andy Grove -- realized the VP was missing, he asked the agitated Nishioka where he had gone. Nishioka told the truth, but, to his disbelief,

Grove said he hadn't realized how late it was, apologized, and adjourned the meeting.

Nishioka now thinks everybody should work for themselves and their families first, and he's kept that policy at Mobile Internet Capital.

Most Japanese companies, of course, don't have this policy. Bridgman tells of a colleague who had been transferred from NEC Australia to NEC Japan and was asked to stay in Japan for three years. When the colleague reached the end of his second year, his Japanese boss back in Australia told him to return in a month because of an imminent company reorganization. He asked his boss what the reorganization would be like and what his job definition would be after that, and he requested more time to prepare for the move back. When his boss wouldn't tell him anything and insisted that he return immediately, the colleague refused and later changed jobs, insisting he'd never go back to a Japanese company.

"He should have obeyed his boss," says a Japanese salaryman, upon hearing the story.

On Titles, First Names, Seniority, and Meritocracy
Japanese companies love job titles. They have various titles in different companies, such as kakaricho, shunin, kacho, bucho, et cetera that can all be translated into one thing: division manager. And even though the titles can start to get pretty unwieldy when you start adding the prefixes and the suffixes -- sub-kakaricho, for example -- people still tend to address each other by last name followed by title. When Nishioka was the head of the computer division research center at the Japanese company he worked in, he was called "Nishioka-jigyo-bucho," and his subordinate was referred to by his name plus "fuku-jigyo-bucho." When Nishioka suggested everyone drop the titles, at least in everyday conversation, he encountered strong opposition. One coworker told him that it would be very disappointing for someone who had worked so hard for a title to be addressed without it. Another told him that not using titles would be an embarrassment in front of clients, who would assume the company had lost a sense of authority.

But's Suzuki believes that people who value their titles do so because they are not confident. He says he's worked with many people in the US who exude authority, even though they insist upon being called by their first name. "People who are protected only by titles tend to show them off," says Suzuki. "Unfortunately, I see many people like that in Japan."

promotionBridgman at NEC feels frustrated by not being given more authority to do his own work, even though he has the second-most senior position in his division among people in his age group (35). "I don't care about the rank, but if I want more authority here, I need the rank," he says. "But in order for me to be the manager, the guy above me has to be the manager first -- because it's not my turn to be manager!" Bridgman says the coworker next in line for the manager position is in fact brilliant and deserving, but notes that even he will have to wait for a long time because at the moment there are enough managers. "I'm sure he could get a much better position and better pay in other companies," says Bridgman, "but he's happy that he works for NEC, a big company, so I don't think he would go anywhere else."

Some competent Japanese do actually move on and get better positions and pay in other companies, especially in gaishi companies. Suzuki was one of them. Even though his rank and pay were among the top of his 280 douki (people who entered the company at the same time and thus get roughly the same treatment), he got a much better position and higher pay after he was headhunted by AT&T.

One good thing about the Japanese system is that if you are in fact incompetent, your chances for success are much better than they would be in a meritocracy-based company. If you're a typical Japanese with a typical level of education and got into your company in your early twenties, as many Japanese people do, you'll probably never have to worry about getting fired and will likely be promoted up to section manager just for sticking around. Suzuki says that even at Intuit Japan, where he served as president, length of time spent at a position somehow morphed into a criterion for promotion. He disliked this so much that he asked HR to get rid of the information.

maidOn Men and Women
Gender issues are an area ripe for culture clash as Japan brings more foreign workers aboard. Ellen from Australia says that one day her boss was in a meeting with one of her young male coworkers. When the meeting was over, the coworker asked her to clean up the coffee cups, despite the fact that she hadn't even been in the meeting. "It can be not only sexist," she says, "but quite humiliating!" She also notes that many men in her company, even ones not in management positions, tend to make surrounding females into photocopying girls. "Unless you were actually being paid to be a secretary, this would not happen very often back home, because it would be immediately labeled as sexist," she points out.

A Japanese woman who worked for a Japanese company for a while and then moved to a gaishi company had the opposite experience. She was so used to serving tea while in the Japanese company that she was surprised -- and even touched -- when her non-Japanese boss at the gaishi company apologetically asked her to serve tea, saying, "Sorry for asking this, but there's nobody else to do it right now."

"Kima," a Japanese woman, tells of her experience working as an administrative assistant for the Silicon Valley branch of a major Japanese accounting firm. Men sent over from the Tokyo headquarters who were given American secretaries, she says, found them impossible -- and downright frightening -- to deal with. For a Japanese male accustomed to docile office ladies back home, working with an American woman not afraid to say point blank, "I don't have to do that -- it's not in my job description" can be culture shock at its most bracing. "The Japanese men would seek me and the other Japanese secretaries out, even if we belonged to a completely different section, and ask us to do work for them," says Kima. "I was really annoyed -- mostly at the American women, actually -- but I didn't say anything." (Administrative assistants in the US are not exclusively female, of course, but in this case they were.)

Not all foreign women working in Japan harbor resentment toward the nation's male-centered society. M from Myanmar acknowledges that there are fewer opportunities for women to become managers in her company, but she accepts the fact as is. She says she knew from the beginning that she couldn't become a manager, especially considering she's the only non-Japanese out of some 6,000 employees. But she says the system is OK for her. She has a 2-year-old son and wants to spend time with him, so in her situation putting in the effort wouldn't be worth it. Of course, it all depends on where you're coming from and what you're used to: "I think women in Myanmar are more like Japanese women in the old days," M says.

IMCA's Yanai says he sees some changes in some of Japan's newer and more energetic tech startups. "New companies are more open to people from other nationalities, and also to women," he notes. Matsumoto at Fujitsu, who moved from the travel to the IT industry, feels the same. "This industry is more rational," he says, "and has an atmosphere more accepting of many kinds of people."

On Headaches From Headquarters
When Japanese companies go overseas, they tend to send Japanese managers to become the head in overseas branch offices. Tei Gordon, who used to work for huge Japanese trading companies in the United States -- Mitsubishi and Marubeni -- says there was a joke among local hires that Mitsubishi Trading Company was actually Mitsubishi Training Company. "It was pretty well-known that there was a very quick glass ceiling for local staff," says Gordon. "You might be able to make it to the middle management level, but never beyond that. Most local people realize that very quickly and that's why they only stay for a few years. You get good training there, and use that experience as a spring-board to the next job."

Nishioka laments this fact: "Japanese people sent to overseas branches to become the head there are usually bucho-level people. But there should be plenty of people overseas who are better than Japanese buchos." Nishioka explains that this system happens because the top people in Japan can communicate better with Japanese buchos, who don't seem to realize that communication with local consumers is more important than communication with Japan.

From the archives:
This letter form a reader we published in our October issue is a classic and speaks to headaches from headquaters.

Somewhere Under the Rainbow

Colours (not colors) are just the tip of the iceberg when trying to promote a global brand or global campaign in Japan. William Hall ("Colors Matter," page 40, July 2000) provides the kind of research in black and white that serves as tangible backup when trying to convince staff from the dreaded head office in a faraway land.

The representatives from head office land, overlooking not just "well-meaning" but also well-informed opinions from local staff (most of the time), like to wade into the marketplace assuming they know how the very staff they have placed here should be marketing. Images, logos, body copy, and visuals all come under discrimination. Even the types of media to be used in Japan can be affected by a nasty term called "global buy," which looks good on paper (on someone's desk in head office land).

Speaking of colours, perhaps it's less stressful and maybe more useful to look to the future. The colour grey was apparently chosen to represent the year 1999; what will be the colour that best represents 2000? A new colour for danger--Snow Brand white? A colour that arouses the sense of having more with no change in actual value -- ¥2,000 pale brown? A colour to represent the face of Shibuya -- ganguro brown? A traditional colour for Japan's hot summer -- edamame green? And perhaps a colour for the unification of Tokyo (if things go according to plan) -- Yomiuri Giants light grey?

PS: Any research on how important after-hours business entertaining is? Have got a few expense claims I am having trouble explaining to head office ...

Craig Pettigrew
Tourism New Zealand, Tokyo

Many foreign companies operating in Japan seem to have realized the value of having a local in charge -- most of the presidents in them are Japanese. Allen Miner, former president of Oracle Japan, thinks the best thing he did was give the president's position to a Japanese replacement.

Of course, having a competent local person in charge won't save you from bad, interfering decisions from headquarters. One anonymous source who used to run things in Japan for a US-based computer maker says he felt frustrated when headquarters insisted on bringing a huge notebook PC to the Japanese market. "Japanese people don't commute by car," he protested. "Who would carry a huge notebook PC like that on a train?!" His protest fell on deaf ears, of course, and the product, predictably, flopped in Japan.

Nishioka almost had a similar experience at Intel, when he joined the company in the early '90s. In Japan at that time, PCs didn't sell as well as stand-alone word processors. To many Japanese, he says, the PC was just an overly complicated machine that required you to type in strange, cryptic commands. Many Japanese thought they needed special skills to use the PC, whereas word processors were very easy to use, usually came with a printer installed, and were affordable and fun to use. Intel headquarters wanted Nishioka to focus on getting as much market share as possible by making contracts with all the PC makers. But for Nishioka, the more important task was to first teach the Japanese how useful PCs could be, something not on headquarters' agenda. "I really had a hard time trying to convince them, but the good thing was that they listened to me and finally understood me."

On Being Excluded by Really Nice People
Of course, the crudest form of culture clash is outright discrimination, and there's no denying it -- discrimination exists in Japan, big time. One of the biggest culture shocks for foreigners working in Japan is adjusting to the often out-in-the-open discrimination that goes on. The editor in chief of this magazine was told point blank that he couldn't rent his first apartment of choice because he was a foreigner, but that he could only rent his second choice because, while he was an American, he was a white one, not a black one. This was explained in a very matter-of-fact, completely unabashed, and even friendly and helpful way. One source for this story heard a rumor that the company she's with wouldn't employ Koreans, even Korean Japanese. She wonders why she, a non-Japanese herself, was accepted by the company but Koreans appear to be barred.

glassboxBridgman feels he has not been treated fairly at NEC. He says there's not only a glass ceiling, but a glass box. He can't have the company credit card or taxi ticket, whereas Japanese staff with his title can. "I don't care about money, but there are too many restrictions around me," he says. He also notes that in his contract there's something not in the Japanese employee's contracts: "Don't do drugs."

But Bridgman may be one of the lucky ones. At least he's able to work in Japan at a job he likes and get paid a fair amount. Recruiting consultant Yanai says that he's seen many programmers, especially from China, get paid amazingly poor salaries in small Japanese software companies. "Many high-class engineers who graduated from top schools in their country come to Japan and work for those companies," he says. "In some of them, half the employees are from China." Such workers would get even less money in their home countries, so they find work in Japan if they're able, study Japanese during their early jobs, and then move to other companies to get fairer wages.

One rumor is that Sony is more open to foreigners than most big Japanese companies. After a foreigner stays with one of the company's branch offices for two years, he or she can choose to be transferred anywhere in the world -- except Japan.

Despite the complaints, nearly everyone we interviewed agrees that people in Japan are basically very nice. Matsumoto says he feels the wa ("groupship") here in Japan, and feels he is part of it. Of course, he's had negative experiences, but after living in Japan for about eight years, he says he's comfortable and happy. "Just because Japan is a homogenous country, it doesn't mean one bad experience can symbolize the whole world in Japan." He's now very happy in Fujitsu System Solutions, a nearly 100 percent Japanese company, more so even than the other two companies he's worked for in Japan -- one of which was a gaishi company.

Even Bridgman admits that Japan is a nice place to work: "The company takes care of the employees very well. They became the guarantor for my apartment, and people help each other so well in NEC. I do bitch about what happens in the company a lot, but people here are really nice. I appreciate that."

Looking Forward, and Lessons Learned
The above stories and shared wisdom belong to the beginning of a process that will take several years to unfold. Japan is indeed "opening its interface to the world," as someone once said in the pages of this magazine, but it's not an overnight process. The most encouraging signs come from the tech startups, which, as noted above (and as we've noticed in our reporting), seem to be truly open and diverse. No doubt a few of these startups will succeed on a grand scale and set an example for other Japanese companies. (Although Karel van Wolferen, author of The Enigma of Japanese Power, offered a different scenario to our editor in chief a few months back: once they succeed, these companies will be brought back into the fold and made to conform to traditional Japanese business culture.)

What can foreigners working for or planning to work for Japanese companies do to reduce the culture clash? Learn teamwork, for one. Yanai says he hears complaints from Japanese companies who hire foreign workers that they can be too aggressive, and can't work well in a team. "That's one of the reasons companies that require teamwork tend to hire only Japanese," he says.

Many foreign workers here agree with this advice, but Matsumoto points out that you don't have to kill your personality, either. Being a nisei, when he first began working in Japan, he tried too hard to be Japanese, partly because he looks Japanese, speaks Japanese, and everybody expects him to act Japanese. He even wondered if it would have been easier if he looked completely foreign and didn't speak the language.

He turned for advice to his parents, who had gone through their share of culture clash when they immigrated to the US. They taught him that he didn't have to become Japanese. "To be happy, they said, you can't adjust yourself to accommodate other people's needs," he says. "Since then, I feel more relaxed and comfortable." Although all foreigners working in Japan try to adjust at least a little to the Japanese way of doing things, Matsumoto tried to conform a bit too much -- he may have inherited his Japaneseness more than he realizes.

We'd like to keep following this story as it develops, and possibly publish a follow-up piece six months or a year from now. If you have experiences, advice, and related knowledge to impart, please email us at

It hasn't escaped us that one of the byproducts of this magazine is increased cultural understanding.

Thanks to our cast ...

joey tanya reiko tomo george kenzo

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