Mar 23, 2009

Keiretsu Girl

Awhile ago I promised a post about what it’s like to work for a Japanese company. So, here it is. I’ve worked with the Japanese for 13 years now, two different companies, both automotive and both part of large Japanese conglomerates (keiretsu) dating back hundreds of years

In Japanese culture the group is most important, individuals are secondary. Harmony is sought above everything else. Not surprising for a country the size of California with 1/3 the population of the US. You had better get along with each other because you’ve got no place to go to get away. Another factor contributing to the group mentality is they lack the diversity we have in the US. Although there are some ethnic groups, for the most part they all share a common heritage.

The American way of doing things is to be outspoken, demanding and independent. The Japanese way is to seek consensus and acceptance and above everything else don’t stand out. To understand this difference see the two diametrically opposed sayings from our two cultures below:

American: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Japanese: The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

The groundwork for a new proposal or idea is laid well in advance. This gives them time to meet and discuss with many different people so they clearly understand where everybody stands. There are no surprises sprung in meetings. Couple this consensus decision making with an aversion to risk and you end up with a looonnnnggg time between idea generation and project kick-off, a major source of frustration for Americans. Especially since kick-off is followed by demands to complete the project as quickly as possible.

Their risk aversion comes from the fact that mistakes are generally held against you for a long time. It’s not like in America where we love to see people overcome adversity. In Japan, once you’ve messed up you have a really hard time climbing your way back up in their eyes.

Yet, even with these differences, they seem to love anything American. It’s almost as if they are envious of our ability to be bold and brash. I think this is where their love of the Great American Pastime, baseball, comes from. They also have adopted many of our Holidays, (Christmas, Halloween), any excuse to have a party and do something “American”. Their willingness to accept the religious days of other cultures is not surprising. They are very accepting of different religious beliefs and follow two major religions themselves, Buddhism and Shintoism. Not one in one family and another in the next, but both in each household.

In most ways it’s no different than working in an American company, I have had both good Japanese bosses and bad and I have made a lot of friends. What is different is the daily exposure to a culture different than my own. Makes you see things about yourself that you normally wouldn’t notice. Overall, I have found it to be personally and professionally rewarding.


  1. As an Earthling,I have a deep and abiding respect for a people whose culture spans millenia!
    As an American,I have to ask, 'What's this button for?'..

  2. Sling - they don't over-engineer nearly as well as the Germans do.

  3. As an Australian, I have to say I love the fact that we all snadpaper each other with our differences...and I don't understand how my sister's japanese daughter in law has ostracised my sister, and forbidden her son from seeing her all because she divorced a husband who had another illegitimate family...the woman always at fault... I don't understand this...

    I wish i felt less upset by this..and I know i should not generalise...but I don't think that the combination of irish Australian and japanese works very well in this instance.

    Ahhh not a racist..but think that our ways are as good as any and as old. Also a lot of damage in our family from WW2 POW's and all that...I feel bad saying all this but it is the truth of what i feel. If the daughter in law had been kind.... I have real trouble with what i feel is a hive mentality... are we still friends..?

  4. MC - of course we're still friends. Like any culture you get the good with the bad and when the bad lands smack in the middle of your own family it's understandable to have strong feelings.

    As far as how Japanese women are treated, they are subordinate, hard to swallow but that's changing. They are about 20 years behind us in that respect.

  5. This was very interesting to me! I find aspects of both cultures very appealing...but I have to admit, I would be frustrated by the delay in getting projects going/done. I am way too impatient for that. :)