Japanese business culture


Company harmony, salaryman networks and Japanese business

5.  company harmony, salaryman networks and Japanese business

In the previous section on the role of the salaryman in Japanese business culture, we left our typical salaryman, Tanaka-san, as he took up his first post-rotation position in the IT department of a major Japanese consumer electronics company. Now we will skip ahead a decade to today, April 5, 2004.

In the intervening years, Tanaka-san has been noted by his seniors for working hard, staying late, ensuring procedures are followed and avoiding unnecessary risks. They have noted that he is liked by his managers and peers and that while intent and determined, he is not argumentative or headstrong. They also recognized that he could organize support for his managers' decisions and policies at the customary department-level committee meetings ('ringi') used by Japanese companies to ratify such decisions and policies. At age 27 he was made a section manager, at age 31 he was promoted to junior department manager and then at age 35 he has just (in the annual April 1 reorganization) been promoted to department manager. His superiors have high hopes for him and have told him that if he continues this way and does not make a mistake, he will be divisional general manager before he is 45. That's a long wait - but not nearly so long as all those years at cram school felt.

After work, in the bar at the rail-station where he starts his daily 1 hour commute home, his friends Suzuki-san and Yamaguchi-san (two of the many friends he made during his induction course when he first joined the company), a few of his closest juniors and his immediate manager, laugh and tell him how he is the golden boy and wonder whether he might not make divisional general manager at 40? Tanaka-san smiles and says that he will try - although inside he knows that his wife wants him at home more and is already saying that his salary is enough and he should spend more time with the family and less at the office. Tanaka-san married one of the girls in the purchasing department at his company 5 years ago. She left the company soon after and is now at home (they live at his parents home after having rebuilt it to suit 2 families) looking after their baby.

As with most salarymen over age 30, his friends Suzuki-san and Yamaguchi-san pretty much know how their careers are set. Suzuki-san did not get promoted to section manager until 30 and has been passed over by younger men for the more senior positions - he hopes that by continuing to work hard and making no mistakes, he may be promoted to department manager at age 45 or 50 based on seniority. Unfortunately for Yamaguchi-san, when he was 27 he was made responsible for a project that went massively over budget and was late - he is still just a senior clerk but now gets given more responsible assignments because of his age. Fortunately his close relationship with Tanaka-san ensures that he is respected amongst his co-workers and he hopes that in time, maybe age 40 to 45, he will be considered for a junior management position based on seniority (and assuming his past mistakes are forgotten).

"..Tanaka-san understands and respects the very strong Japanese corporate hierarchy - he never opposes his managers.."

Tanaka-san has worked hard to ensure that as he has risen he has not broken the bonds with the network of colleagues he made when he first entered the company and which he has constantly added to since. He knows that in the future, when finally he has sufficient authority to start implementing radical changes that he has quietly considered (but never spoken of even to his closest friends!) and which he feels are necessary for the company's future well-being, that he will need the support of his internal network. As with all successful salarymen at large Japanese companies, Tanaka-san understands and respects the very strong Japanese corporate hierarchy - he never opposes his managers and always does his best to support and justify their decisions - even if at heart he might disagree. He also knows that if he earns a bad reputation amongst his coworkers, it will be seen as a potential risk by his seniors, so he strives to be a fair and good-natured manager while insisting on accuracy and timeliness.

When Tanaka-san was graduating from Tokyo University, his professor (who even now Tanaka-san refers to when making certain business decisions), told him of the importance of adhering to corporate policies, of being patient and of waiting for the right opportunities. Even as a young salaryman, Tanaka-san recognized that if he was not promoted to junior manager by age 28 he probably never would be. He saw from the experience of others that if he did not make departmental manager by 35 - 40 he probably never would. His next objective is to become divisional general manager and he knows that he must make that position by 50 if he is to have a hope of making an executive position before he retires. He is glad that he has always followed the safe path, glad that he has always followed the strict procedures laid down by the company - glad to be on the path up as opposed to many of his friends who have few fresh challenges left to look forward to.


All over Japan, in Japanese companies large and small, you will meet salarymen like Tanaka-san, Suzuki-san and Yamaguchi-san. Their collective attitude is what defines today's Japanese business culture and to succeed doing business in Japan, you need to understand their motivation, especially the way they perceive risk, so that you can apply your foreign business culture in a way that is sensitive to theirs. Most of Japan's salarymen exhibit a similar set of qualities that will affect the way you do business with them:

  • they are loyal and dedicated to their company,
  • if faced with a conflict between company duty and family duty, 99% will do their company duty first
  • they are consistent,
  • they never criticize their company, coworkers or managers,
  • they are reliable,
  • they are obsessed with detail,
  • they evaluate all options,
  • they are conservative,
  • they make their decisions in committees ('ringi'),
  • if necessary and for the good of their company, they will move mountains to help you,
  • they conform

Respect those qualities and work with them in a way that enables them and you to win while not placing them in a position of unnecessary risk, and you will forge some of the strongest, most profitable and most enduring relationships that you have anywhere you do business.

I will also add that it has been the greatest privilege of my life to spend the last 13 years living amongst them and doing business with them.



Japanese business culture

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