An executive from a small company visits a bank to discuss financing. Three bankers come forward. Bows and meishi (business cards) are exchanged. The executive peruses the three cards, his bewilderment growing. The titles are new to him. What can they mean? Who’s high and who’s low? Who should be spoken to first? How to tailor his language to suit the respective ranks of the three men?
It used to be so simple. In your 30s you were a kakaricho (sub-section head); in your 40s, a kacho (section head); in your 50s, a bucho (division head); in your 60s, maybe something higher, if not on your way down and out. In any case, the corporate hierarchy was simple and clear; you knew who you were talking to and what degree of deference his rank demanded (the masculine pronoun is called for; this was overwhelmingly a man’s world, as to a large extent it remains to this day).
The simplicity and clarity are gone, says Shukan Post (May 18). Who’s higher, our visiting executive finds himself wondering – the fuku shitencho (vice-branch manager), or the shitencho no dairi (branch manager’s representative)? The first title seems more impressive, but the holder of the second is (at least looks) senior. A dilemma! With so much in business depending on personal relationships and first impressions, it’s important to know, in this highly hierarchical society, where you and your interlocutors stand with each other.
It was 20 or so years ago, says Shukan Post, that corporate titles first began to proliferate. The baby boomers were entering their working prime, and there simply weren’t enough titles to go around. Titles fuel pride and motivation. Proud and motivated workers work harder and better. Employers got creative. They devised “vice”-this and “vice”–that, or “representative” of this and that, or tanto (in charge) of this or that. What had once been more or less standardized throughout the corporate world grew starkly individualized.
The trend lately is gathering speed. Each company seems to have its own hierarchy, its own titles. The confusion sown is not necessarily bad – it may end up leveling barriers that hold a lot of people back. But in the meantime it’s bewildering. A fuku shitencho at one bank, for example, may meet a fuku shitencho at another bank and find the identical titles signify very different ranks. At Toyota, Shukan Post says, ranks vary from department to department, a “group head” in one department being senior, a “group head” in another being junior.
Well, it’s all in a day’s work. As society ages, more and more people are retiring, shedding their titles and all their weighty significance. Free at last! What a relief! “You want to know who I am? Ask my name, not my rank! Look at my face, not my meishi!”
So one might think. Actually it’s not so simple, Shukan Post finds. The habits of a lifetime die hard, if at all. One new retiree, at his wife’s urging, decided to get involved in local politics. He attended an assembly meeting – but how was he to introduce himself, with no card and no title? At a loss, he had recourse to his old corporate rank, which, being a high one, aroused not respect but resentment – he was “arrogant,” said others, his wife among them. He gave up, and has yet to work out how to arrange the rest of his life.© Japan Today