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HQ invariably gets it wrong about Japan

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One of the dubious delights of running an international business in Japan is dealing with the Mother Ship or its regional hub spin-off.

Trying to explain Japan to those who don’t know it has always proved tremendously character building for me. Having left the corporate treadmill to work for myself, I mistakenly thought I had kissed goodbye to all that pathetic nonsense. Alas, the long arm of ignorance regarding Japan continues to reach out and challenge me.

Today, I live the frustration vicariously through my clients here in Japan. They have to deal with their version of hell — HQ or regional hub “know-nothings” located outside Japan.

Joint ventures and partnerships are a fun time. Japan is low on the detailed contractual side of the equation. In Japan, the basic idea is that we don’t need reams of legal language because the venture will or won’t be a success based on how well we can trust each other and work collaboratively.

If it doesn’t work out, then we should walk away and not bother with courts, litigation, claims and compensation. We need to focus on the bigger picture of success and how to achieve it, and so a handshake is all we need.

A typical day in the life of the Japan representative is explaining to HQ why the Japan business is not tracking as expected when the agreement was previously concluded.

In one client’s case, the original expectations proved to be a misalignment of skill sets and targets. The Japanese side had the sales force to cover the market but not the expertise to cover it appropriately. Sales were uninspiring compared with the original expectations in the business plan.

What was the Mother Ship’s solution? Fly in the Americans from HQ to berate the Japanese at board meetings about their poor sales performance. Shame them into action to sell something. The local representative was encouraged to keep the pressure on by using these same name and shame tactics between board meetings: the verbal-beatings-will-continue-until-morale-improves type of approach.

The U.S. HQ-led strategy was going down a treat with the local Japanese partners, of course, as trust and collaboration rapidly disintegrated.

Training delivered locally, to those selected from within the existing sales force, was the better solution. This sounds like a logical step, but convincing HQ to do so was painstaking. The HQ’s view was to send in trainers from the regional hub, which in the Asia Pacific generally means Singapore or Hong Kong.

Who did they choose to send to Japan? The HR team was the preferred option which, excitingly, meant a rapid fire, fast-talking Chinese team member coming to Japan and conducting the training in English.

“It’s okay, the team can speak English”, is how HQ normally sees it whenever language and cultural issues are flagged locally. That assumption of English capability is extremely optimistic in my experience.

Machine-gun style delivery of English, combined with an unfamiliar accent and no cultural sensitivity, is just one of those genius combinations that many an HQ unleashes on the innocent and blameless.

English comprehension of 50–60% is the maximum we can probably expect from staff up until lunchtime, after which it rapidly spirals down. This is not a very effective way of training local staff in Japan. Delivering the training in the mother tongue, with cultural understanding, is the base line. On top of that, having trainers who are highly skilled is where the leverage can really be applied.

The whacky ideas of HQ are often amusing, at least for the first 15 seconds of hearing them, but the global training approach has proved fraught with failure. “The training was completed, check the box”, is not an outcome. Taking the training and applying it to deliver higher productivity is the only acceptable outcome. This is a bit difficult, though, if you can’t understand most of the training in the first place.

Globally delivered training in English rarely produces any residual value for firms, so you have to wonder why HQ keeps repeating the same mistake? It doesn’t have to be like this. It’s time for organisations to wise up and listen to the local representative’s advice on what works best in Japan.

Custom Media publishes BCCJ ACUMEN for the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

© http://bccjacumen.com/

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

35 Comments
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In other words, instead of fast-paced training, it should be mollycoddling and simple, repeated instructions. In Japanese, if possible. Learn to reproduce elementary school.

-3 ( +8 / -11 )

I actually enjoy being the go-between with Japanese and western companies, though as the author says, it can be quite difficult getting the westerners to understand that things that work in other countries will not necessarily work in Japan. What he didn't mention is that the opposite can also be true, though the Japanese side are generally more receptive to the idea that there will have to be alterations made for western markets.

I've been fortunate to work on two projects in the past year that went really well, as both sides were flexible and willing to adjust accordingly to make things work, while still being firm in the things they felt important. This made for mutual respect, and the projects overall went really well.

In other words, instead of fast-paced training, it should be mollycoddling and simple, repeated instructions. In Japanese, if possible. Learn to reproduce elementary school.

Gotta love cultural superiority.

1 ( +9 / -8 )

Gotta love cultural superiority.

Who says it's cultural?

This guy is trying to sell his expertise. Of course he is not going to tell us the success stories of the Mother Ship solution because he might not know any due to the nature of his job. And his recommendations come across as Japan is not internationalised enough to cope like Singapore or Hong Kong. It's not really a cultural thing it is due to his own alleged superiority as interpreter of the situation.

-2 ( +7 / -9 )

I was saying your statement was cultural superiority.

-1 ( +8 / -9 )

I was just re-interpeting in a slightly sarcastic way what yet another hawker consultant seemed to be saying: "Hey, Japan is different. There are so many failures. You need me to help." But thanks for your criticism. I will try to bear in mind how words come across.

-6 ( +3 / -9 )

yet another hawker consultant seemed to be saying: "Hey, Japan is different. There are so many failures. You need me to help."

Whether or not he is needed, the fact is that pretty much any company that tries to come into Japan without proper consultation is setting themselves up for failure. Japan is different, and there are so many failures. Having someone who can act as a cultural bridge increases the odds of success significantly.

2 ( +9 / -7 )

I was saying your statement was cultural superiority.

I guess it cuts both ways sometimes. When it comes to Japan there is another type of racist cultural superiority which sometimes tries to masquerade as cultural sensitivity and local knowledge. It basically suggests that Japanese people are so fundamentally different and delicate than all other human beings that they need to be treated very carefully, as if they were some kind of uncontacted tribe in the Amazon. Dr. Greg seems to be saying that only he has the special skills and understanding to communicate with this tribe.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Yeah, but it is in the nature of "cultural consultants" to see and highlight culture as the reason for everything and not politics, regulations, bureaucratic inertia, corruption (all external to the company and internal as well), economics, education, incompetence, luck, quality of products or others I can't think of now. Their livelihoods depend on it. Maybe they do some good here and there though.

-4 ( +4 / -8 )

Dr. Greg seems to be saying that only he has the special skills and understanding to communicate with this tribe.

I'm curious about which comments from the article lead you to this conclusion.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

M3M3M3Dec. 27, 2015 - 10:37AM JST

I guess it cuts both ways sometimes.... It basically suggests that Japanese people are so fundamentally different and delicate than all other human beings that they need to be treated very carefully, as if they were some kind of uncontacted tribe in the Amazon.

Exactly, when really it boils down to Japanese upper management doesn't have the social or linguistic skills to operate in the international business arena, and they're too lazy and arrogant to remedy the problem. We all know that Japanese lower management is nearly always an exact copy of its higher echelons and thus the failings of the few spread to the body whole.

On a personal level I work in a big Japanese company where everything is still done by paper and hanko. The reason..... cultural differences?.... nope, it's the simple fact that a lot of our higher management can't operate a PC and don't know how to write an e-mail.

3 ( +8 / -6 )

Yeah, but it is in the nature of "cultural consultants" to see and highlight culture as the reason for everything and not politics, regulations, bureaucratic inertia, corruption (all external to the company and internal as well), economics, education, incompetence, luck, quality of products or others I can't think of now.

How do you not define politics, regulations, bureaucratic inertia etc as part of the culture? And why would a 'cultural consultant' ignore these? It would make them not very good at their job.

And on top of this, I'm curious as to where you are getting your information from - do you know a number of cultural consultants?

it's the simple fact that a lot of our higher management can't operate a PC and don't know how to write an e-mail.

And you don't think that's a cultural difference?

1 ( +6 / -5 )

StrangerlandDec. 27, 2015 - 11:10AM JST

How do you not define politics, regulations, bureaucratic inertia etc as part of the culture? And why would a 'cultural consultant' ignore these? It would make them not very good at their job.

They don't, they excuse them.

A bit like economic protectionism, which is really all about neo-mercantilism, being excused by Japanese snow is different from any other snow therefore foreign ski wear can't be allowed into the Japanese market or Japanese have smaller intestines than Americans therefore US beef imports to Japan should be highly controlled.

do you know a number of cultural consultants?

I do and their feminine forms of Japanese often tells you a lot about their real experience in the trenches of Japanese business.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

Ah, the other benefit of a wishy-washy concept like culture is it can be expanded to cover everything from politics to psychology, especially in Japan where it is generally accepted as the basis for all behaviour and the very reason for difference, and therefore a good sales point.

-3 ( +4 / -7 )

They don't, they excuse them.

Ahh, now I get what you are saying. You are saying that they don't properly chastise Japan when they are consulting, and therefore are excusing Japan.

Sorry, but any 'cultural consultant' who inserted in their own political opinions and condemnation wouldn't be any good at their job. A proper consultant needs to simply report things as they are, so that both sides can make their own decisions as for how to proceed. Anyone who started condemning either side's culture for any reason would not be good at their job whatsoever. There is a time and place to be political, but for 'cultural consultants', that time and place is not when they are consulting. You call this 'excusing', whereas anyone good at their job would call it 'stepping back'.

A bit like economic protectionism, which is really all about neo-mercantilism, being excused by Japanese snow is different from any other snow therefore foreign ski wear can't be allowed into the Japanese market or Japanese have smaller intestines than Americans therefore US beef imports to Japan should be highly controlled.

A good consultant would explain that some Japanese people think that Japanese snow is different form other snow, and this is the reason why they would not want to use foreign ski wear, and therefore in order to succeed in the market, this perception needs to be overcome.

I do and their feminine forms of Japanese often tells you a lot about their real experience in the trenches of Japanese business.

This makes me pretty skeptical of your experiences. The few 'cultural consultants' I know don't speak particularly feminine Japanese, they speak business Japanese.

3 ( +7 / -4 )

StrangerlandDec. 27, 2015 - 11:31AM JST

This makes me pretty skeptical of your experiences. The few 'cultural consultants' I know don't speak particularly feminine Japanese, they speak business Japanese.

I work with very few Japanese, under 50 who, speak keigo properly... let alone a single foreigner.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Ah, the other benefit of a wishy-washy concept like culture is it can be expanded to cover everything from politics to psychology, especially in Japan where it is generally accepted as the basis for all behaviour and the very reason for difference, and therefore a good sales point.

This is a pretty ridiculous comment, particularly because of the claim that culture is a 'wishy washy' concept. And though you may not like it, culture does include pretty much everything from politics to psychology, and is the very reason for many differences. If not, then what is?

I work with very few Japanese, under 50 who, speak keigo properly... let alone a single foreigner.

If not a single foreigner speaks keigo properly, then how would you as a foreigner be able to evaluate it?

Anyways, I do agree that not many foreigners I've met speak perfect keigo, and that many young Japanese don't either. But that said, "content is king", and as long as the person get get across both parties wants, concerns, and issues, keeping both parties happy, some misplaced keigo is fine. If perfect keigo were required for business, then by your definition, business would be at a standstill since most Japanese under 50 do not speak it properly.

Now that all said, you've significantly shifted the goal posts. Your original comment was claiming that they spoke feminine Japanese, then you shifted it to not being able to speak proper keigo.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

M3M3M3: Dr. Greg seems to be saying that only he has the special skills and understanding to communicate with this tribe.

Strangerland: I'm curious about which comments from the article lead you to this conclusion.

Pretty much everything I guess. He says Chinese people from Singapore shouldn't be presenting in English because their accent is 'unfamiliar' (meaning bad/non-native). He says training should only be done in Japanese (which he speaks), but apparently that's not enough because the trainer must also be culturally sensitive (something which probably means living in the West and Japan for decades like him)... but that's not enough either because they also need to be ‘highly skilled' (which probably means being a 'Certified Coach for Stakeholder Centered Coaching', and a 'Certified Trainer in Effective Communications and Human Relations' (from his linkedin page).

He is just describing himself while excluding everyone else!

Also, why is it that 99% of business consultants/corporate trainers/life coaches/executive recruiters are white anglophone men? You never see Germans or Italians peddling these kinds of services, yet European companies seem to be doing just fine in Japan. It makes me wonder whether it's the English speaking corporate world that is somehow culturally disconnected rather than Japan.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This is a pretty ridiculous comment, particularly because of the claim that culture is a 'wishy washy' concept. And though you may not like it, culture does include pretty much everything from politics to psychology, and is the very reason for many differences. If not, then what is?

How about starting with power, for example? The exercise of it. Power determines "culture." Economics too. On a more macro level we can see how similar ways of living are determined by power and access to resources (feudalism, capitalism, mercantilism, etc). These ways of doing things - culture - are in response to these. Not the other way round. But in Japan "culture" becomes the ideology. This means that it is accepted as the reason/excuse for everything, and therefore hides how power (the political-economy) is exercised and arranged. This is great for those, like many Japanese themselves, who like to see "culture" everywhere and promote it as an explanation and a solution. I am sceptical myself, but if it makes people a living, well, good luck.

Do I know consultants, you asked before. Yes, and some are just as sceptical as me. But, like most people in this system, we keep doing it as long as someone pays. We get an angle and sell ourselves.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

A good consultant would explain that some Japanese people think that Japanese snow is different form other snow, and this is the reason why they would not want to use foreign ski wear, and therefore in order to succeed in the market, this perception needs to be overcome.

Even better would be if the corpse of that now ancient anecdote were laid gently to rest. It originally involved skis (Head) rather than skiwear. The story continues to be passed around like a treasured heirloom among jaded foreign residents, along with other favourite bits of Japan lore ("Japanese say only Japan has four seasons", which I believe you sensibly debunked, presumably because like me, you've heard it only as a story told about Japanese).

Foreign skis and skiwear have been easily available here for a very long time now. I was buying skiwear over 20 years ago, and it was no problem at all getting foreign brands. So the value of the original story is limited, even if it is applicable or instructive in any way at all.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

He is just describing himself while excluding everyone else!

Well he may be describing himself, I don't see that he has excluded other 'cultural consultants' though. I think he's just describing the position.

It makes me wonder whether it's the English speaking corporate world that is somehow culturally disconnected rather than Japan.

Six of one, half dozen of another. It doesn't matter whether it's the English speaking corporate world that's different from the Japanese corporate world than vice-versa, the fact is that there is a difference, and that's where 'cultural consultants' come into play.

How about starting with power, for example? The exercise of it.

Which is a cultural concept. In North American companies for example, the president holds a lot of power and can exercise it, while in Japan, the presidents don't hold as much power, and therefore cannot exercise it as easily.

Power determines "culture."

Or culture determines power.

These ways of doing things - culture - are in response to these. Not the other way round.

I disagree - culture often determines who has power, and the access to resources that they hold.

To be honest, I see a lot of bitterness about culture in this thread, which in turn is directed at the author for having dared to mention it, but the reality of the situation is that culture is very real, and whether or not the Japanese are justified in their belief in its effects, they do believe it, and therefore the effects are real. A good consultant will be able to recognize all of this, and consult accordingly.

Even better would be if the corpse of that now ancient anecdote were laid gently to rest.

I've never actually heard the anecdote myself, but whether or not it's true, it served as a good example for me to explain how consultants should explain how things are, not how they think things should be.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

What was the Mother Ship’s solution? Fly in the Americans from HQ to berate the Japanese at board meetings about their poor sales performance. Shame them into action to sell something. The local representative was encouraged to keep the pressure on by using these same name and shame tactics between board meetings: the verbal-beatings-will-continue-until-morale-improves type of approach.

The same berating happens here in Japan. It is just done in the same language and you have bowing at the end. The staff at my company get stuck in hours-long meetings which are very unproductive and a serious waste of time. The writer's anti-American and anti-Chinese bent is evident and explicit throughout the article.

“It’s okay, the team can speak English”, is how HQ normally sees it whenever language and cultural issues are flagged locally. That assumption of English capability is extremely optimistic in my experience.

Machine-gun style delivery of English, combined with an unfamiliar accent and no cultural sensitivity, is just one of those genius combinations that many an HQ unleashes on the innocent and blameless.

English comprehension of 50–60% is the maximum we can probably expect from staff up until lunchtime, after which it rapidly spirals down. This is not a very effective way of training local staff in Japan. Delivering the training in the mother tongue, with cultural understanding, is the base line. On top of that, having trainers who are highly skilled is where the leverage can really be applied.

The whacky ideas of HQ are often amusing, at least for the first 15 seconds of hearing them, but the global training approach has proved fraught with failure. “The training was completed, check the box”, is not an outcome. Taking the training and applying it to deliver higher productivity is the only acceptable outcome. This is a bit difficult, though, if you can’t understand most of the training in the first place.

++++++++Whose fault is that? Don't say you can speak the language and then bitch about not understanding it. Maybe since the writer knew the level of the trainees, he could have said something beforehand. Don't blame staff motivation on English level and the training. I see this in Japan all the time. I work at one school where the staff don't even try to speak the language. They give up quickly and 'May I speak Japanese?' is the next thing out of their mouths. Japanese generally don't like speaking or hearing English outside of when it is absolutely necessary . They are stuck in their ways and even with a basically stagnant economy over the past 20 years, are devoid of any innovative ideas and rank low among industrialized nations in productivity according to OECD statistics. They seem to think that patching a problem for now is a real solution. Like it or not, English is the global language of business. Can't fit in? The world will move on without you. Reality check coming soon. Maybe the BCCJ needs one too.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Can happen for sure. HQ has no idea about Japan and makes decisions based on erroneous assumptions. This is one of the real downsides of working for a foreign company in Japan.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Perhaps it is Japan that is getting it wrong. That is why the economy has been in the doldrums for so long.

Years ago many Japanese said that no smoking coffee shops would never work in Japan. It took a foreign company to prove them all wrong. Sometimes the foreigners are right and the Japanese are wrong.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Gaijintraveller.

The obvious word being "Sometimes". So far the hit to miss ratio looks poor ask any overseas franchise most don't make it here for long(Cinnabon, etc)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think Cinnabon is still here. I went to one in roppongi a couple months back.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

@MocheakeDEC. 27, 2015 - 01:42PM JST

The same berating happens here in Japan. It is just done in the same language and you have bowing at the end.

Like it or not, there are some things you can't do when you are an outsider versus an insider. And recognizing this fact will help lubricate a lot of things.

English is the global language of business.

But you are selling in Japan. And while English IS the global language of business, you cannot really expect everyone to be so good at it you can speak at maximum stroke and expect people to follow, and even if they do, to not feel resentment.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

"What was the Mother Ship’s solution? Fly in the Americans from HQ to berate the Japanese at board meetings about their poor sales performance. Shame them into action to sell something. The local representative was encouraged to keep the pressure on by using these same name and shame tactics between board meetings: the verbal-beatings-will-continue-until-morale-improves type of approach."

How's that different with how Japanese companies deal with poor sales or failure? Okay, granted, there is no karoushi or picking weeds along the station tracks from the US HQ, but still.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

How's that different with how Japanese companies deal with poor sales or failure?

It's not, but:

1) It's ineffective

2) Anytime an outside group comes in and berates, it's not taken well. That goes for everyone in the world.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@M3M3M3

I guess it cuts both ways sometimes. When it comes to Japan there is another type of racist cultural superiority which sometimes tries to masquerade as cultural sensitivity and local knowledge. It basically suggests that Japanese people are so fundamentally different and delicate than all other human beings that they need to be treated very carefully, as if they were some kind of uncontacted tribe in the Amazon. Dr. Greg seems to be saying that only he has the special skills and understanding to communicate with this tribe.

Could not have said it better myself. ;)

@Kazuaki Shimazaki

Like it or not, there are some things you can't do when you are an outsider versus an insider. And recognizing this fact will help lubricate a lot of things.

Exactly dear, I come from Planet Earth...you come from Japan....I'm human but you are japanese.(or pretend to be?)....what does that tells you? wink wink

But you are selling in Japan. And while English IS the global language of business, you cannot really expect everyone to be so good at it you can speak at maximum stroke and expect people to follow, and even if they do, to not feel resentment.

But what? They expect the rest of the world to adhere to their culture and "customs" but they blatantly refuse to learn and speak a foreign language in a decent and understandable way. This issue goes both ways.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

But what? They expect the rest of the world to adhere to their culture and "customs" but they blatantly refuse to learn and speak a foreign language in a decent and understandable way. This issue goes both ways.

For the most part, Japan doesn't want the world to adhere to their culture and customs, UNLESS you are in Japan. The concept of when in Rome do as the Romans do is not a uniquely Japanese concept as the left idiom shows.

And if we take this guy's story literally, this company does seem to understand they need English speakers and their staff (at least the guys that have to listen to these lessons) does have some English ability. They just can't handle full speed English, which is a rather tall order if you are not immersed in an environment where you have to do that all the time.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Both English and Japanese fluenc can be achieved with the right programming. Look at HP and other companies and they only speak English internationally worldwide internally.

Mix the English level by a bit but no 30yts later should be easier. I'm now fluent in a few languages due grave! And living in a few countries. Hard to teach someone from scratch.

Same for any language.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

"the reality of the situation is that culture is very real, and whether or not the Japanese are justified in their belief in its effects, they do believe it, and therefore the effects are real." - comments

This could be said of many cultures.

Power is the ultimate culture. In nearly all environments the person of greatest power has cultural advantages, as suggested, at a macro level.

A unique, culture specific interaction, might make up the micro experiences.

What percent of navigation in Japan is made up of these micro experiences?

That's a lot of data to process. Obviously, employing a navigator is the most efficient business practice.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Kazuaki Shimazaki says: "Like it or not, there are some things you can't do when you are an outsider versus an insider. And recognizing this fact will help lubricate a lot of things."

Indeed, sometimes true. The case of Olympus springs to mind.

However, no one seems to argue that Nissan should not have brought in an outsider, who did what no insider could have done.

It should be also be taken into account that the outsider's plan is often internally sabotaged. The outsider does not necessarily have to be a foreigner. This also happens when Japanese companies merge and even happens when there is rivalry between department inside a company.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The outsider does not necessarily have to be a foreigner. This also happens when Japanese companies merge and even happens when there is rivalry between department inside a company. - comments

Power is the ultimate cultural leverage point.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Shimazaki-san has hit the nail on the head with the "insider" comment.

Change in Japan is like turning a very large ship...it requires patience, perseverance and persistence.

Like most countries, vested interests will always hinder change.

If you want things to work in Japan you have to have the 3 P's to garner the respect required. Flying in arrogant and unqualified HR people from Singapore is the quickest way to destroy and chance of success you ever had.

The number of truly successful (ie, bat at or above their global presence in the Japanese domestic market) on the fingers of two hands.

There is a very good reason why you will find that most Japanese (in business) who dislike foreigners have actually worked for a foreign company in Japan.

Pip Pip

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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