Original thinking, versatility, adaptability to change: Where are these to be found in Japanese companies?

By Michael Hoffman

As the Reiwa era dawned in 2019, “lifetime employment” was dying if not dead. Likewise the core virtue that sustained it: “company loyalty.”

A tacit agreement between employer and employee was the nation’s mainstay through the decades of postwar  rebuilding. From the employee, wholehearted, self-sacrificing devotion. From the employer in return, full job security, regular raises and promotions, and, in effect, an identity – one belonged to a company as one belongs to a family, and took pride in so belonging.

“Japanese dream,” “Japanese miracle,” were the encomiums drawn from admirers worldwide. In 1950 Japan was a wasteland; in 1960, resurgent; in 1970, resurged; in 1980, a superpower. Economists and business leaders from less thriving countries asked, What can we learn from Japan?

The 1980s were the beginning of the end. The “bubble” burst. The system caved. Not only that. Times had changed. Security, so welcome a boon after wartime chaos, in peacetime came to be taken for granted. The company’s protective embrace grew stifling. Employees discovered the private life and found they liked it. Loyalty faltered. Loyalty to what? To company over self? Why? Why not, for example, accept a better opportunity elsewhere if one arose? Or seek it if it didn’t? It was sought, did arise. Quitting, once unthinkable, grew thinkable and doable.

It worked both ways. Employers were freed too – to fire, lay off, “restructure.” A weakening economy calls for tight bookkeeping. Were high-salaried senior employees worth their very expensive keep? Perhaps a junior employee could do the same work for less? Or a part-time staffer for less still? Laws restricting temporary hiring were loosened; part-time employment soared; the hiring freeze of the 1990s spawned a “lost generation” of lifetime marginal workers, now in their 50s and 60s, marginal still at an age when many of their fathers were top executives.

The 2010s saw the beginning of a recovery. Young people fresh out of college could again reasonably aspire to fulltime employment. They grew up in the lost generation’s shadow, knowing what it had been through, relieved to be spared the worst. Their ambitions, generally speaking, were modest: a fulltime job, a living wage – an ordinary life.

This somewhat lengthy introduction brings us to the point, around which revolves a new phrase, or rather an old one – old concept, at any rate – given new life: shachiku, “company animal.” Neo-shachiku, we should perhaps say. Are you, asks Spa (Feb 21-28), the “company animal type?” 

If stability is the goal – and the COVID pandemic, upending it for so many, deepened its luster – this is the road to it. Postwar circumstances bred the type. Do ours?

Instability comes in many forms. That of 70 years ago is not that of today. For all its troubles, the current generation by and large has at least tasted freedom, prosperity and the sort of individualism once branded selfish. Now it’s a virtue. Is there any going back?

Not en masse, Spa says. The sacrifices it requires – of soul, say some – may outweigh the rewards. On the other hand, “soul” is abstract, airy; stability – steady job, dependable income – is the hard ground beneath our feet, valued the more for having once given way.

Are you the type? Consider these questions, says Spa:

Do you take pride in your company? – to the point of using its logo as your Zoom icon? Does company business come first, or does private life? Do you begrudge overtime? Do you follow company procedure over a better way you’ve found yourself? Do you take your phone with you on holidays, keeping in touch with clients and colleagues? Do you take holidays? What about this: A competitor makes you a tempting offer – would accepting it (or even considering it) constitute betrayal, in your own eyes? Your boss imposes quotas that strike you as out of touch with reality. Do you speak truth to power, or silently swallow the implied reproach that you’re just not trying hard enough?

 It’s obvious which answers to which questions reveal the company animal. Strangely enough, Spa finds,  the bosses in whose hands your fate may lie are as often put off as turned on by the very qualities that would seem to pave the way to self-preservation. First is the suspicion that they are fake. The 1950s would have taken them at face value; 70 years of social evolution have rendered them a little rank. Secondly, the type is flawed in a fundamental way. It lacks qualities superfluous in the 50s but necessary now – original thinking, versatility, adaptability to sudden change, the prevalence of which is itself a sudden change. All said and done, the company animal is a dinosaur. Best shed the armor and cultivate other virtues.

© Japan Today

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Even Japanese elites struggle to make a living these days, which shows how bad the economic malaise is in Japan. I go to the top restaurants in Ginza to see foreigners dining with expensive food, while Japanese people order a little alcohol but not much expensive food. Chinese investors have taken over most core assets in real estate over the country, and Southeast Asians are closely following from behind. The xenophobic feeling of Nihonjinron has completely evaporated from the Japanese business world, and these business elites will leave Japan if they have an opportunity outside of Japan.

I witness a few hundred years old businesses around Osaka being sold off to Chinese business elites who think 20-100 million USD are really cheap. The Japanese elites sold off these businesses without a second thought about national pride or anti-China/anti-foreigner sentiment.

This same phenomenon is quietly happening across Japan only with Asian elites, so this is why you don't see the media reports on the stealth economic takeover storm of foreigners across Japan because J-elites don't want people to realize the decline of national power. In fact, there is a rising trend of Japanese people moving abroad and not looking back.

In answer to the article's question, the Japanese business world does not give a damn about Nihonjinron anymore since the material situation in Japan keeps getting worse. In the political realm, Japanese elites have to receive money from "filthy Koreans" of the Unification Church (Korean is the most hated group in Japan), and this fact demonstrates how bad, fallen, and hypocritical the world of Japanese top elites is.

If foreigners take over Japanese companies, they won't give a thought to Japanese traditions or anything else relevant to the Japanese. Only profits are what mattered, and I hope Japanese people learn a thing or two to open their minds away from the Galapagos syndrome.

-13 ( +11 / -24 )

Original thinking, versatility, adaptability to change: Where are these to be found in Japanese companies?

Now that’s a good question(!)…; I’d need to take the rest of the day off to talk about this.

-5 ( +6 / -11 )

In some ways, Japanese companies have done a better job at innovating than their American countertops. For example, Toyota came up with the brilliant and highly successful Prius, while none of the American auto companies came up with anything similar, not even a copycat. Tesla is a start up, so its new ideas came from the ground up. By the way, in 2022 Tesla had the best selling car model in California, the first time an American company achieved that feat for many years. Toyota is still number one in overall sales in the state, but Tesla has the best selling model. Meanwhile, The Big Three continue to embarrass themselves.

It seems to me that big companies having a hard time innovating successfully is nothing new. In that regard Japanese companies are no worse than anyone else, and maybe a little better.

2 ( +5 / -3 )


Let me set up a committee to have meetings to decide whether to have a series of meetings to urge companies to have meetings to discuss this.

2 ( +7 / -5 )

Companies are humans, humans are living organisms - animals; according to Darwin, species that adapt to the new environment have the best chance to survive. Wake up Japan...gloating that you're the third largest economy in the world is idiocy, there's a huge gap between 2nd and 3rd.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

Original thinking, versatility, adaptability to change: Where are these to be found in Japanese companies?

There are quite a few reading JapanToday who won't want to hear this. You can thumb down this comment in protest instead.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Original thinking, versatility, adaptability to change: Where are these to be found in Japanese companies?

Now that’s a good question(!)…; I’d need to take the rest of the day off to talk about this.

Good one, lol.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Original thinking, versatility, adaptability to change: Where are these to be found in Japanese companies?

They lead to demotion or firing. I have experienced a downsizing in a JP company and what happened and continues to happen is a tight circling of the wagons of the buchos and above who will not let go and they will keep only loyal employees in their protective shrunken circle, doesn't matter if you are adaptable, versatile or a genius.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

The president of my company is a bully, a cheat and a liar and earns several million yen a month. I haven't had a pay rise for 20 years. Not sure I'll ever be using my company logo as a Zoom icon.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

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