Worlds Collide - Part Two: The Conservative Identity Crisis

Worlds Collide - Part Two: The Conservative Identity Crisis

A third major contributing factor to the salaryman's psyche is the continuing impact of WWII - yes, even today. During the 1950's, Japan almost became a communist nation - the principle of group dependency had been one of necessity after the war, and the socialist ideal of everyone being treated fairly and equally was extremely attractive to a population that was struggling to recover. Then there was this new constitution which seemed to say that instead of one group holding ultimate power, no one would. Japan then renounced war and its right to arms (other than for defence purposes).

The socialist ideal of putting the needs of the group first became strongly embedded in the education system, and is still alive and well in the infant and primary school systems today. Such a system discourages diversity, and instead educates kids to consider the feelings of others in the group and to help them along, in a formularized fashion. I've seen two of my children go through this training, which is persistent and pervasive, and the result is that they are both now deeply "group dependent".

Although this sounds like an ideal foundation for creating a unified and caring society, in fact it has robbed Japan of its next generation innovators, so badly needed for post-industrial development. Instead of becoming pioneers, young people want to work with their friends in group-friendly companies (i.e., big companies). That is why Japan, of all countries in the world, has far more entrepreneurs in their fifties rather than their twenties.

And only now are educators starting to realize the folly of trying to create a kindergarten utopia. Children, in my opinion, need social competition at all levels to make them healthy, independent adults. Luckily for older people, a stint overseas will often undo this conditioning - so I like hiring Japanese staff just after they have returned from international study or work.

So now you have this interesting juxtaposition of most Japanese having been educated in essentially a socialist value system, then having to move out into the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism. In the context of a Japanese company, this makes for a group that wants everyone treated equally, and believes in making personal sacrifices. However, please don't forget that you've got the guy at the top, the Shacho, making tons of cash and receiving all kinds of privileges. How do people reconcile this contradiction?

Mainly, I feel through the efforts of the older employees, the position of Shacho is deified and he/she becomes a kind of demi-god - someone to be respected but no longer one of us. He/she, and the other senior managers who become like high-preists, are removed from ordinary society and exist in their own special space. In the meantime, the regular employees focus their socialist-leaning team efforts at enemy companies. Due to this, he's not one of us, the employees are OK about Shacho is making lots of money, arriving late, and being chauffered around.

In the good old world of factories and technology, this complex overlay of capitalist, socialist, and feudal values favors the largest players and the incumbents, who have incrementally developed systems to sustain the hard grind of their work. The problem is, these days newcomers such as Mikitani at Rakuten and Masayoshi Son at Softbank are applying cash and breakthrough technology (not just commoditized, incremental technology) intelligently, and are starting to rip up the playing field. Along the way, they are inspiring young, impressionable employees to also break with tradition, and try a less structured, more performance-oriented job. Thus, the average employee in their twenties now changes jobs between 2-3 times before turning 30.

Another huge contributor of change is the foreign companies, Goldman Sachs and Lone Star being examples, who in the last 20 years have graduated from polite guests to becoming real players with real financial clout. Many of these companies are creating a new level of expectation among young Japanese employees about what a company should like and how it should be motivating and rewarding risk and effort by younger staff. This image is reinforced by the recruiting magazines and free papers, such as Hot Pepper, who convey the sex appeal of foreign and technology firms in their pages.

Now that you've gotten an eyeful of my theory on what drives conservative Japanese companies, if you're working for one, what can you do about it? To be honest, you can't do that much. Just enjoy the ride for at least two years, then try switching to a more modern employer, or a foreign one. Those two years, especially if you worked at a larger brand-name firm, will really stand out in your resume and be your meal ticket to something better.