Japan and the world stage
I n November 2010 I packed up my London life and followed my Japanese husband to his homeland. Once installed, I started to ask people about the outlook for Japan. The answers were bleak. The picture painted was one of paralysis: twenty years after the bursting of the economic bubble, Japan still lacked direction or hope. Then came 11 March 2011, with its threefold disaster: earthquake, tsunami and nuclear malfunction. What now for Japanís sense of direction, her cause for hope? How would this seismic, economic and social devastation affect Japanís position on the world stage and her ability to contribute to global progress?
I decided to run a mini survey exploring Japanís perceptions of herself: her strengths, weaknesses and opportunities at this critical time. Although the findings are not statistically significant, based on only 35 responses, I think they deserve note for two reasons. Firstly, they arguably represent the views of those best placed to comment: people who know Japan intimately and are in a position to make international comparisons. The Japanese respondents (89% of the total) all have had significant international exposure (three quarters of them responded in English and most of the rest have either lived abroad or worked for a non-Japanese company); the 4 non-Japanese respondents have all lived in Japan for at least 10 years. Secondly, there was a striking level of consistency in the results. The first two questions in particular yielded particularly clear answers. So, to anyone, like myself in the process of building business relations with Japanese people, the findings will, I hope, offer vital insight. To me, they confirm a mentality as far from western as I could imagine and provide thought-provoking glimpses into the future of international business.
Here is what I was told, as far as possible in the respondentsí own words (please note: the grammar of the responses has been left unchanged to preserve the nuances).
What are Japanís greatest strengths?
A Spirit of Harmony
Japanís greatest strength is its 'group consciousness', its 'sense of one-ness', the ability of its people to 'band together and work in co-operation for the sake of the greater good'. There is a 'moral of living harmoniously within society', typical of a 'traditional Asian agricultural community'. This makes Japan a very safe society in which to live and work, with 'less crime than other modern societies'. In the business context, 'commands from authority are faithfully followed at every level of the organisation' - 'without question', 'without doubt'. This ability to co-operate to achieve a given aim is made possible by a strong 'awareness of equality. No one is special. If one person has a pain, everyone shares that pain'. 'This is why Japan has been able to bounce back after many historical, economic and political struggles over time.' Most recently, this characteristic was seen following March 11th: 'After the earthquake and tsunami, the entire Japan became one to solve the problem. As evidence, the brave 50 samurai went to Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to shut it down. They all put their life on the line.' Meanwhile, in the sports world, 'the recent win by the Japanese womenís soccer team ... depicted the essence of the Japanese spirit.' Through 'incredible strength and teamwork ... something unthinkable happened'.
Another strength which came to the fore after March 11th is the 'ability to persevere in spite of challenges'. 'In the face of unexpected calamity, the Japanese people ... were able to overcome such adversities through practised patience, and this may be part of the cultural conditioning in Japan.' There is 'an ability to accept and deal with the inevitable', an 'inner strength in the face of disaster', 'goodwill and toughness of mind to overcome harsh situations'. 'As a farming nation, we were always living with nature', which gave rise to a quality of 'patience and adaptability which is at the bottom of Japanese peopleís character.' This 'resilience' is also connected to 'weak political leadership'. 'For a long time, Japanese government has been unreliable. Japanese people have had to develop diligence and endurance' and learn how to maintain a 'morally decent life under any circumstances'. In the workplace this quality manifests as 'industriousness', 'diligence' and 'one of the highest levels of work ethics' in the world.
What are Japanís greatest weaknesses?
Lack of individuality
Japanese children are taught: 'The nail that sticks out gets hammered down'. Unsurprisingly then, we see a 'lack of individuality' and of the 'attitude of accepting diversity' in Japan. 'We have a tendency to reject what we consider to be different.' 'We feel guilty to be too outstanding' and are 'not tough enough to stand up for our own beliefs'. 'Passionate people get laughed at.' The result is 'an extreme level of risk averseness' and in particular, 'a lack of initiative and aspiration among the young'. 'No one challenges, no one takes initiative, and therefore thereís no leadership.' This lack of leadership is evident, 'both on the business and the political side', but especially the latter. Japanese politicians are 'immature', constantly 'pointing fingers at one another.' 'In politics today, no one trusts one another. They just pull in different directions and it doesnít lead anywhere.' 'Prime Ministers change every year' along with their administration, and have 'no long term goals or strategies'. 'Instead of leaders taking responsibility, they just quit.'
Failure to see the bigger picture
'Japanese people do not ask questions.' There is a 'lack of systems thinking', a 'tendency to focus on the parts' as opposed to the whole. This 'attention to detail ... particularly on the political side ... generates an inability to see the big picture'. 'No one is thinking of a bigger purpose than feeding themselves.' This blinkered vision is evident in the general 'lack of political and social participation'. It also leads to a 'lack of global outlook'. 'Japan is becoming the frog in the well who does not know the ocean.' 'We lack an awareness of the need to understand other countries' cultures, even though we are the minority on the international stage.' Failure to see the bigger picture also manifests in the shortage of 'innovation and the ability to think out of the box ... There are not many who utilise [their] talents in an innovative way.' 'We easily come up with ideas for improving things, but we find it difficult to invent a new idea.'
Weakness in verbal communication
Japanese people often claim to communicate through 'ishin-denshin Ė the ability to understand each other without talking'. The flip side is the 'inability of the average Japanese person to effectively communicate through words' not only their 'will, purpose and direction', but also their 'feeling and condition'. 'Our weak point is that it is hard for Japanese people to express their thinking logically or explicitly ... This is mainly because our country is an island and for many years there were no foreign invasions. In other words ... Japan is a country of mono culture.' Hence, the weakness in 'communicating with people of a different culture', the 'inability to explain things appropriately to people who are different'. In general conversation, as in business communication and decision-making, 'Japanese people tend to rely too much on tacit knowledge', instead of 'discussion' and 'debate'.
What is Japan uniquely placed to offer the world?
A Commitment to Customer Satisfaction
'Japan can contribute to world standards in customer service.' The norm in Japan is for 'meticulous', 'considerate and detail-oriented service to the customer'. As an example, cashiers will 'never throw change at you in Japan', instead counting it out in front of you before carefully handing it over. The same commitment to customer satisfaction is seen in product design. 'Japan-made products are specifically aimed at satisfying the comfort of the consumer.' In the design process, 'even when something seems impossible we sincerely think it through and find a way to complete the product' to the satisfaction of the customerís needs. This ability to tailor products and services to customer needs is of growing importance and therefore a potential differentiator for Japanese exports: 'In the past, there were a few clear customer segments, but as society grew, the segments subdivided into many smaller ones. If we can be flexible, we would be able to supply to the whole world'.
A Commitment to Ecological Energy Supply
Japan can contribute to global progress through its 'know-how on securing and developing new energy sources'. 'Japan should take the initiative to promote nature preservation and ecological society. We should send out our message ... [about] global environmental protection.' 'We will make a contribution to the world' by promoting 'scholarly research projects and establishing funds' in the field of new energy. History has forced Japanís hand in this field: 'Since March 11th 2011, Japan has become center-stage in how [it] will address the dangers of nuclear energy reactors and the storage of its radioactive wastes.' Meanwhile, 'the direction which Japan will take to rebuild [the areas devastated by the tsunami] would offer the world a look at alternative renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar or geothermal.' The atomic bombings of 1945 also contributed to Japanís determination to become less dependent on nuclear energy: 'We can say to the world that it is a good idea to get rid of nuclear, because we are the only country to have suffered from nuclear bombing and nuclear power plant disaster.'
Reflecting on the answers to the first two above, I am left with the image of a people capable of jointly overcoming any obstacle in the pursuit of a shared goal Ė but struggling to discern what those goals should be. It strikes me that this combination might yield exciting possibilities, if mapped onto the prevailing western mentality, which produces plenty of good ideas, but can falter at the implementation stage, when greater teamwork is required. More generally, in times like these, when old orders are collapsing in Japan and beyond, it is crucial to work out what strengths must be preserved from the past, how they can be adapted for present needs and what new wisdom and skills are necessary for the future. The answers to the third question in this survey may provide some pointers. As the global customer-base demands ever more customised products and services, the ability to understand and satisfy customer needs could become critical to commercial success. And, as populations continue to soar and fuel supplies dwindle, an early commitment to sustainable energy and the technology to create it, will undoubtedly rise further up the business agenda. For both of these, the world would do well to look to Japan.
Tania Coke is a business consultant, mediator and performing artist living in Tokyo. She is also currently helping to launch the RSA Japan Fellowsí Network: email@example.com