Living & Working effectively in Japan

Japan – Working style & Culture

Japanese firms are built on social networks organised through a structure similar to a Japanese family. Although new firms are following more varied models, the traditional company in Japan is seen as a family serving the nation and customers. You can see this in, for example, Matsushita’s company anthem: ‘For the building of a new Japan, let’s put our strength and minds together, doing our best to promote production, sending our goods to the people of the world, endlessly and continuously, like water gushing from a fountain.’

Relationships within the group are vertical, rather than egalitarian, stressing superior/subordinate roles. As such, upper-management tends to create an image of themselves as parents and the employed as children. This structure abstractly resembles a pyramid. Within this pyramid are clearly defined levels of authority and rank. The top levels are occupied by a handful of older executives, while the lower ranks consist of many younger employees. One’s placement in the pyramid predetermines how much deference one must show those above him/her and the degree to which one will receive deference from those below.

Japanese corporations and financial institutions hold 60-70% of all shares outstanding on the Japanese stock exchange. They are considered political shares that eliminate the threat of takeovers; therefore, the shares are never sold. Such investment and self-ownership also serves to lessen the meddling influence of investors. The banks, which are often closely tied to particular manufacturers and conglomerates, have been almost the only source of finance for industry. They hold large portions of the shares of companies within their own corporate group; thus in the hierarchic order banks wield a great amount of power. These banks also have the power to give and deny approval to the city banks (attached to the keiretsu conglomerates) for their lending strategy. However, elite bureaucrats in the government’s Bank of Japan and Ministry of Finance (MOF) wield even greater power for they control the pace and direction of the economy through various devices such as special privileges, licenses, and tax breaks. The central bank and the keiretsu conglomerates have not yet succeeded in its attempts to gain independence from the MOF, which still has the final say on most financial projects. These corporate groups, known as gurupu or keiretsu, are highly diversified, clustered around their own banks, real-estate agencies, insurance firms, and trading houses. The gurupu have in many respects replaced the zaibatsu, which pre-1945 were organised around holding companies. This substitution of banks for the old holding companies created a closely-monitored and tightly-controlled network of banks and their investments (buttressed by Japan’s central bank) which inspired the consequent economic miracle. Keiretsu was originally a name for another, more closely knit corporate conglomerate. They consisted of similarly hierarchically-structured systems of subsidiaries, suppliers, subcontractors, and distributors all associated with a particular manufacturer. This system in its modern form may involve hundreds of companies. They borrow and lend internally and take few risks. The chief function of the small business in Japan is to provide cheap labour for firms higher up the hierarchy. Collectively, they serve as a shock-absorbing cushion in times of economic recession. This feature explains Japan’s high bankruptcy rate, since small businesses exist and go under in such high numbers.

Role of Women

The role of women in Japan is evolving. In Confucianism, women are placed lower than men on the hierarchy. Many Japanese continue to believe it is in the best interest of the culture and the children for women to remain in the home and care for the family. Consequently, inside the household, the woman’s role is critical. She handles the family’s finances, oversees the children’s education, and is in control of everything domestic.

While the constitution enshrines equality, it is not a reality. However, Japan’s aging population, labor shortages, and economic crisis are forcing greater acceptance of women in the workplace. It is estimated that nearly 45% of the workforce is female.

70% of women leave the workforce when they have their first child, although many return when their children are in university. Lack of childcare facilities is often cited as the reason; the government is beginning to address the situation. These career breaks mean women do not generally reach the same levels as men. Few women hold professional, technical or managerial roles. In 2012, they comprised 77% of part-time and/or temporary workforce.

Women face challenges with the demanding working hours. If married, their domestic responsibilities can make it hard for them to work late into the evening like their male counterparts. They are also excluded from golf outings and karaoke bars, where many business discussions take place. Japanese women claim they face a “bamboo ceiling”, which is thick, hard, and not transparent.

Recently, there have been some changes and 4.5% of company division heads are women, compared to 1.2% in 1989. Women of exceptional skill and talent may succeed in senior positions, but even university-educated women may be frustrated when trying to secure challenging or creative positions. Many, therefore, try to work in international companies. This is especially the case with married women. Moreover, many women are delaying marriage so they can enter the workforce and participate in more meaningful career.

A 2012 report by McKinsey found that women are underrepresented in boardrooms — filling only 2% of such positions.

In 2014, Prime Minster Abe’s government set a goal of having women comprise 30% of managerial positions by 2020. He has asked that all listed companies appoint at least one female manager. In response, major Japanese companies are setting specific targets.

In the lower house of the Diet, women hold only 8% of seats, with 19% in the upper house.

 Tips for Businesswomen

It is important for businesswomen to conform to the local standards and dress conservatively. Business is serious in Japan and clothing is a sign of status and position in the hierarchy. It is best if a Western woman wears flat-heeled shoes so that she doesn’t tower over her Japanese colleagues.
“The nail that sticks up gets hit with a hammer,” is a Japanese proverb. Determine the dress code and amount of jewelry that can be worn based upon how Japanese female staff dress. You don’t want to stand out any more than you already do.Given the desire to maintain group harmony, Japanese businessmen generally try very hard to work well with visiting businesswomen.

Age is respected in Japan. If you are under the age of 35, it is a good idea to focus on your professional achievements rather than discuss your age.

The presumption is that a foreign businesswoman has achieved a high level of status within her organization, since they chose her to conduct business in Japan. As long as the businesswoman is knowledgeable in her field, she will be treated with respect.

Foreign businesswomen have a great deal more visibility than foreign businessmen. This can be used to their advantage as Japanese businessmen may remember them more readily and they may be able to schedule certain appointments more easily.

A businesswoman may often be the only woman at a meeting. There may be some traditional Japanese businessmen who think that it is her role to serve tea or take notes. The best course of action is to ask a Japanese clerical person to take on these responsibilities.

The Japanese may not be comfortable including businesswomen in after-hour activities or on the golf course. If you are part of a team that includes men, ask for a debriefing from your team the next day so you know what was discussed.