Worlds Collide - Part One: In the Mind of a Salaryman

Worlds Collide - Part One: In the Mind of a Salaryman

I often get letters from foreigners working inside conservative Japanese companies, many of which are famous brands, telling me how sick they are of watching the malaise. Younger talent gets wasted, senior managers are incompetent, and foreigners are treated as curiosities or temporary guests rather than contributing employees. The writers wonder how it is possible for such companies to survive economically and how they are still able to produce world-class products.

I'm going to head into deep water today and say that the contradiction is because of Japan's unique combination (and clash) of three cultures, at work in every conservative company, and which form an integral part of the Japanese salaryman's psyche. If you can understand the interaction of these social forces, at least the waste and lack of change will start to make sense.

First, there is the long-term underlying philosophy of feudalism. That is, the practice of autocratic, top-down management, in which the successful "shacho" runs his empire like a slave ship. On his right you'll find the galley slave driver, the COO, and seated below him, the head slave, the Sales Manager. I've seen many CEO's run their companies like tyrants, and while personally I refuse to deal with them, you've got to admire how they can extract profits from the staff.

Unfortunately, feudal structures lend themselves to slow or no change, and abuse of power by the top cadre. Long decades of toil in commoditized markets have taught such CEOs that employees are to be herded and worked hard, and that has served them well. However, now they are being out-herded on one side by China, which has even cheaper, more aggressive feudalism, and on the other side by foreign finance and management techniques. Thus their empires are coming apart. The senior guys at Fuji TV, Daiei, and many other companies are learning this the hard way.

Secondly, there is the concept of suffering and enduring, or "gaman". I often tell my fresh foreign managers that to suffer in Japan is a pure act, and one which helps define the depth of your convictions and commitment to those around you. This has parallels in the West when soldiers perform acts of valor, but in Japan, you can find righteous suffering everywhere - in the home, on TV, and at work. This sense of suffering as a virtue is, in my opinion, why well-bonded Japanese work teams stay in the office late then go out and drink hard, even when there doesn't seem much point in doing it. Effectively, they're dedicating themselves to the religion of the group and are earning each other's respect through their commitment.

This is especially hard for foreigners to understand when it's eight o'clock at night and they've got a hot date or a lonely spouse waiting. While I appreciate that a foreign staff member might want to live a life out of work hours, unless they can understand that overtime is a symbolic act which strikes a chord of satsifaction in the supplicant, they'll never be part of the group.

So the question is; should you stay after hours just to help other team members feel good? Probably on occasion, long enough to show that you care - but then you can also enjoy your foreigness and head out on time sometimes as well. If you find you can't put up with the disapproval of leaving "early", forget about trying to change the group's culturally very deep value system - and instead just go find another job...