resources: Japan in Context - Transcending Stereotypes

Doing Business with Japan, part 2.

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Japan is often considered somewhat mysterious by Westerners. On the one hand, Japan turns out the best television sets, quality cars, great high-tech gadgets, and yet on the other hand a Westerner believes this is a paradox because the Japan also retains sumo wrestling and wear kimonos on special occasions. Westerners have an image of Japan still being caught in the trappings of Eastern civilization. Naturally, it takes some time to begin to unravel these mysteries and begin to see the Japanese in context.

Likewise, the Japanese often approach Westerners with a stereotype based on images of American movies and television. The Japanese "salary man" might approach the negotiating table hoping to find their Western partner is a John Wayne, somebody who exudes confidence, who knows where he wants to go, who sees the big picture, who can tell everyone the right thing to do, and who will take responsibility.

Knowing a bit more about Japanese history and culture can smooth over problems in international partnerships. First, it's important to know a little about how the Japanese think about themselves.

Geographical and Historical Influences: the Closed Country

Both in Japan and abroad there is some debate about how "unique" Japan is. Of course, Japan is unique in the sense that every other national and cultural entity is unique. But there is also much that Japan shares with other countries.

Asian countries share some geographical traits which have had an influence on the development of Asian cultures. Basically, the Himalayas disrupt the jet stream and cause monsoons, heavy rains which come through in the spring and again in the fall. As a result, the change of seasons tends to be much more pronounced than they are in other areas of the world. Also, the heavy rainfall makes this area ideal for things like growing rice. Rice agriculture requires much more cooperative effort (i.e. for irrigation and harvesting) than most types of farming common in the West. This may help to explain the "community values" often observed in Asian countries.

Japan, being the only major Asian country never colonized by the West, developed a rich and independent culture. In fact, in the late 16th century, Japan expelled the foreign missionaries that had begun to have a significant influence on it and the rest of Asia and for the 265-year Edo period (1603-1868) Japan was for all practical purposes closed to foreign contact. The arrival of the American Admiral Perry's "black ships" in 1853 eventually influenced Japan to reopen itself to foreign trade (the US was hoping to gain a convenient refueling stop).

Although the American arrival was a catalyst, there were also many internal influences stirring at the time: a Dutch outpost in Nagasaki, an infusion of rumors and technology from the outside world. Within ten years, Japan becomes eager to adopt Western technology. They went on fact-finding missions to Europe and start to bring back bits and pieces of philosophy and institutions and apply them eclectically at home: banking, education, even parliamentary government . As a result, today's Japan has a deceptively Western appearance. In actuality, these institutions, while familiar, often function in drastically different ways in Japan. The discrepancy can make Japan all the more baffling to outsiders.

Japan enters the world stage

Japan's avarice for things foreign and Western made it apparent that if it was to compete successfully with its newfound Western counterparts, it must have its own colonial empire and own reserves of natural resources critical to technological development. This appetite and the growing irritation at Western countries for their exploitation of Asia epitomized in the Cocaine trade, led to the Pacific arena of World War II.

Ironically Japan's defeat in WWII ultimately led to quite a rich postwar culture and economy. Japan went from being viewed as the nation which produced cheap trinkets and imitations, to a nation whose technology, economy, and social organization have come under the scrutiny of the West and other nations as a model for emulation and high esteem. At the same time, in a single generation, Japanese standards of living went from a very basic no-frills, low-tech existence to a level not exceeded in many Western nations.

Japanese Culture and Creativity

The myth of rags-to-riches tends to be idealized in the US where companies started by young entrepreneurs supposedly can build large empires over a relatively short period. The Japanese ideal, on the other hand, is to perform well enough in college entrance exams to become a student in one of a handful of prestigious universities -- in other words, to work through the system, rather to attempt to begin something of one's own. Entrance into a top university virtually guarantees a position in a government ministry or a prominent company. One’s status is determined from the outset; upward mobility for Japanese individuals and companies is almost entirely unheard of.

Because of this perceived lack of individual initiative, Americans have been known to deride Japan as not being a land of creative people. The Japanese are aware of this stereotype and indeed have something of a complex regarding it. But it is really true? There are preconceived notions of what constitutes creativity in the West, and those may not necessarily translate to Japan.

One of the stereotypes is that basic research is done well in the US whereas the Japanese are good at manufacturing and refining things. Are we to somehow say that the Japanese possess an "incremental" creativity but Americans posses a "revolutionary" one? The real issue is one of cultural values and attitudes towards the creative process. In much of the West, we value totally new and radical ideas and we have institutions such as the Nobel Prize which reward it; but we don't necessarily spend time thinking about how to take these creative ideas and put them in practice.

That's where the Japanese are different. The Japanese phrase "plus alpha" is illuminating. It has been translated as "and then some," meaning that on top of what's expected, there is some additional effort that can be made. In business, this tends to mean that instead of making the big leap, the Japanese are frequently interested in making the small incremental tweaks and modifications that make a great idea into a useable product. "Plus alpha" modifications are in fact a kind of creativity, and one which can be of great benefit to American companies who are doing business in Japan.

Some Western companies could learn a lot from Japan's propensity for micro-managing product features based on a particular customer and making that extra "little effort." Although it may not always seem prudent to the cost-conscious, that "plus alpha" can make the customer happy enough that it can help ensure the long term success of a product and even a company.

Doing Business with Japan:
setting up shop
Japan in context
beyond Japan
resources: doing business with Japan
Japan business links small is beautiful kamo's community
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