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Japanese Business Practices: What’s the Rumpus?

SNA (Tokyo) — Business consultant Andrew Abbey joins What’s the Rumpus to discuss the cultural features that make working in Japan something special.


Michael Penn: Welcome to another episode of “What’s the Rumpus?” Today I have a gentleman whose name is Andy Abbey, so thank you for joining us.

Andrew Abbey: It’s my pleasure, nice to be here.

Michael Penn: We’re going to talk about Japanese business practices, and I’m not really sure what he’s going to tell us, so I hope that I’ll be excited and you’ll be excited by hearing what he has to say. First of all, why don’t you tell our audience a little bit about yourself?

Andrew Abbey: My name is Andy, I’ve been working here in Japan for sixteen years or so, and during that time I’ve started a couple of businesses, one of which is a business skills training company. Our focus there is on cross-cultural communication, so that means basically we help, the core of our business is either helping Japanese people work in a global environment, or non Japanese people working in Japan. We work with things like how to present in Japan, negotiation skills, change managements, general business manners and business practices. So, yeah, those are our main focuses.

Michael Penn: Ok, well, broadly speaking, I mean of course every culture has its peculiarities, but is it really true that Japan is so different in its business world than any other country?

Andrew Abbey: To some extent that’s true, I think we all tend to over exaggerate how different Japan is. However, on a certain number of key scales; everyone’s on a kind of a continuum, a spectrum, and for certain areas most people would tend to agree Japan is towards an extreme on some of those things.

Michael Penn: In what direction would it be extreme? How would you characterize it?

Andrew Abbey: For example, there’s a tendency in Japan to focus very much on extreme details, which is less true in some other cultures. Our advice to someone doing business in Japan would be, you need to provide more details and more background information to your Japanese counterparts than you might do with, for example, an American counterpart.

Michael Penn: I see. And is this focus on details, is it something that is a strength of the Japanese business world, or is it a weakness, or is it both in some ways?

Andrew Abbey: I think it’s both. I mean it’s absolutely a strength in the sense that a lot of things work extremely well here that don’t work well in other countries. The train system is one good example. The parcel delivery system is another example of things that work incredibly well, partly due to, I wouldn’t say excessive, but extreme attention to detail. Now, unfortunately, I was late arriving for our appointment today. That’s extremely rare, because the trains run on time and that’s partly through on the input side the attention to detail. So, it is absolutely a strength. It’s occasionally a weakness, because it means things sometimes get done much more slowly, and one of the reasons they get done slowly is because some things that I might feel are not necessary have to be done to proceed.

Michael Penn: So you don’t want to jump out on the fly and do what needs to be done quickly… they’ll wait until everything is set up?

Andrew Abbey: Yes, exactly right. So I think that is as you said, it’s a strength and a weakness and in the right situation, it’s wonderful. In the wrong situation, it’s frustrating.

Michael Penn: Right, well I think any long-term resident of Japan will agree with what you say there. Well, you know, people overseas (I’ve lost touch, I’ve been here a couple decades and I’m sure you’ve probably been here quite a while too) most of their interaction or image of Japan comes through movies and mass media. So when you are dealing with these foreign businessmen and businesswomen coming to Japan, what do you find to be their biggest misconception about the Japanese business world?

Andrew Abbey: I think one misconception is that Japan is a super high-tech society. In some ways, it is, for example, living in Tokyo, it’s almost certain that your home internet is much quicker than it is anywhere in the States for example, or in the UK, that’s very likely to be the case. If you walk around looking at giant screens and drinks machines on the station platform that will scan your face and suggest a drink based on what kind of person you are, then yes. On the other hand, in some respects Japan is still very much a paper business. The level of physical paper forms that have to be done to conduct what would in other countries be an automated transaction is quite surprising. Fax machines are still used by lots of businesses here, which I still find extraordinary, but lots of Japanese people still have fax machines in their homes. So, I think that’s one misconception, that Japan is and isn’t a high tech society.

Michael Penn: Yeah well, absolutely, that’s one of our pet peeves as well about Japan is these gaps somehow in modernization. In some ways, it’s right on the cutting edge and other ways you’re like, why are you still doing this? Nobody does this anymore!

Andrew Abbey: Yeah, and there’s a lot of, the bigger and older the organization the more resistance there is to changing anything.

Michael Penn: So when you are training foreign businessmen who are actually here doing face-to-face interaction with Japanese, what was the main message you want to get across to them? I mean, is it really so so important that the business card be handed with two hands?

Andrew Abbey: So the main point is that the business card is part of the introduction. It’s basically the equivalent of shaking hands. It’s pretty much always done on a first meeting. It’s not an afterthought, the card is not a means of communicating your phone number and email address to the other person. It is actually part of the introduction, and as a result you should always have your cards. When you present your card, you should present it so that the person can read it. It’s not so you can read it, the other way around. You present it with both hands, and you should hold your card lower than the other person if the other person is a customer, or is in some other way senior to you in this situation. Japanese people have a very good knack of divining somehow who should hold the card higher or lower, and I think that’s quite challenging for foreigners. It’s not so important in the sense that Japanese people of course understand that foreign people don’t follow the same business practices, so if you don’t do it right nobody thinks you’re a fool or an idiot or rude or whatever. What you do have is an opportunity to create a good impression and make your counterpart think, “okay, this person is showing some respect to Japanese culture and has done some research and has done some preparation before coming here before our meeting.”

Michael Penn: So it’s not so much a penalty but a bonus?

Andrew Abbey: Right, I think so. That’s how I view it, and that’s how I encourage other people to view it, and most people are happy to take that bonus because it’s an easy bonus. It’s not such a challenging thing to learn how to bow correctly or hand over the card and study it and check both sides and, you know, show respect to the card is not such a challenging concept.

Michael Penn: And your students, the businesspeople, how… I mean obviously there’s individual variations, but how willing do you find them to be willing to conform to the Japanese business culture, and is it actually always best for foreign businessmen to try to fit in and act exactly like the Japanese businesspeople?

Andrew Abbey: I think on the surface things like the business cards and the bowing, most people are very happy to just take that on board and go, “okay, that’s how we do it here. No problem.” On the other side of it, on the communication side of it, I think some people find it extremely difficult. You’ve been here a long time, I’m guessing you’ve grown to accept over time that some of these things are things that can’t be changed or can’t be changed quickly.

Michael Penn: Well the way I put it is this way: I think that long term foreigners kind of go through different stages. At first, everything is kind of like “wow, this is a really interesting, stimulating different kind of culture.” And then there’s like, “okay, I’m learning I want to know how to do it better.” And then, maybe you go through the phase where you’re like, “okay, I want to do it exactly the way the Japanese do it.” And then finally you come to this new area, which is like, “I’m not Japanese. I’m a foreigner in Japan, and I’m going to play this way when it makes sense and this way when it makes sense.”

Andrew Abbey: Yes, I think so. I think when I said that we can put everyone on a continuum, if you are here and Japan’s here, we’re not, we wouldn’t say yes you need to move all the over here. More that you need to make an adjustment, and that may be that well, sometimes I’m going to do it the Japanese way and sometimes I’m going to do it my way.

Michael Penn: So, about this slow decision making process? I don’t know, maybe this is a little bit not terribly kind to say, but sometimes I get the feeling in Japanese organizations that what decision making is all about is avoiding individual responsibility. For example, I actually sometimes call it “Japan’s system of collective irresponsibility.” Do you find that as well?

Andrew Abbey: I think there’s some truth in there, and as with some of the other things we’ve discussed there are pluses and minuses to this, and I think that on the plus side, I think, there’s a general feeling that if a decision is made at a Japanese company, there is a commitment to that decision. Even if people initially didn’t like it, now the decision has been made and a consensus has… we’re in, and we’re all in, and that’s what we’re gonna do. The flip side of that is, perhaps the Western concept of individual responsibility isn’t quite as strong in the Japanese decision-making process. Now, you can take that as a pro or a con depending on the situation, but I think there is a different feeling of responsibility here.

Michael Penn: So I certainly see the advantage in the sense that people feel responsible to their team and to their organization, and therefore everybody is kind of pulling together in one direction. This sometimes is one of the more delightful and impressive things about Japan: that people do have sort of a responsibility or a sense of honor even towards their organizations. At the same time, when things go wrong, what was it they say, “Success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan.” You kind of get that sense very strongly in Japan.

Andrew Abbey: Yes, I think so, I mean I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, on balance. I think if you have a difficulty caused by a counterpart, it might be difficult to get the satisfaction that you want of that individual owning up, not owning up’s the wrong word, but of taking that as being something I did. That may not be desirable, or it may be they were better off to go with, well, the organization has taken responsibility for this. I think the Japanese perspective might be that because we’ve got consensus amongst the group, somehow, it’s taken us a long time but we have consensus among the group we now can avoid disagreements. We can avoid conflicts going forward. It’s taken us a long time to reach the decision but we don’t need to argue about it now.

Michael Penn: All right. Well before we wrap up, is there any other major aspect about Japanese business practices that we should touch on for the audience before we head for the door?

Andrew Abbey: Yeah, I think there’s, so we talked earlier about misconceptions and I think one of the other misconceptions about Japan is about efficiency. I think in the West because of Japan’s manufacturing industry we have an image that Japan is a very efficient country. That is perhaps true in certain industries, however it’s not always true. Now we talked a little bit about paperwork and banking and so on but I think this manifests itself throughout a lot of Japanese business. People work very long hours here without a corresponding increase in output. I think that’s something that’s… it’s perhaps starting to change, and I think we’ve had a couple of high profile cases lately in the news.

Michael Penn: There’s a lot of criticism about it, was it the Takahashi case at Dentsu and others?

Andrew Abbey: Yep, yes, and I think I feel a little bit sorry for Dentsu in one sense because I think they’re bearing the brunt of a systemic problem. It’s not a Dentsu problem, it’s quite a lot of Japanese companies have this same issue. Dentsu are kind of becoming the fall guy for a problem that really ought to be addressed on a wider level than at one company. I think that’s starting to change. One of the big Japanese beer manufacturers is one of my clients and they’re very proud of the fact that they might have to cut their overtime rate by 30% over the last three years through having a clear policy that this is something that’s important that we need to work on: work-life balance and not having those kind of issues. There are companies in Japan where that’s being taken seriously these days.

Michael Penn: All right. Well, I want thank you for coming to “What’s the Rumpus” this week.

Andrew Abbey: It’s been my pleasure.

Michael Penn: We’re here in Japan and it’s important to get out to the world a little bit more about what we’ve learned through our experience of being here and some of the unique features of the country.

Andrew Abbey: Yeah, it’s an interesting culture, there are a lot of things, there are a lot of positives and a lot of challenges. It’s an interesting place to work.

Michael Penn: Well thank you very much.

Andrew Abbey: Thank you.

Michael Penn: And thank you for joining us, we have more shows being scheduled believe it or not, so we’ll be back pretty soon. Thank you and goodbye.

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