Archives: January 2021

The power of being a “Gaikokujin” in Japan [Part 3]

by Anna
Published on: January 25, 2021
Tags:
Comments: No Comments

How Gaikokujin can help balance tradition and innovation

[ Written by Anna Pinsky and David Wagner ]

In this segment, we feel it is worth calling out an often overlooked benefit of having gaikokujin work alongside Japanese in organizations:  balancing tradition with innovation.

It is precisely because of the “outside” perspective that “gaikokujin” bring that means they can find a way forward by challenging long-held traditional organizational assumptions while unearthing what aspects of the past stories and rituals have untapped potential to help the organization grow and adapt in the future.

Readers who have lived in Japan already know how different the “real Japan” is compared to the image portrayed in the media with segments on sumo wrestlers or geisha.  Indeed, typical Japanese employees these days are more likely to have an interest in football or baseball than sumo wrestling or karate.  

This may seem like a glib point but there is a more serious angle for organizations – for anyone wanting to create a workplace that takes advantage of both tradition and innovation, it may well be the non-Japanese employees who can speak with equal credibility about observed customs.   

Take the sphere of sports or well-being as one example. You will find that it is non-Japanese who are increasingly likely to dedicate themselves and espouse the values of traditional Japanese martial arts.  Then there are individuals, like Alex Kerr with his initiatives to restore traditional Japanese housing, who have played a significant role in revitalizing interest around different aspects of traditional Japanese culture. (In addition, Kerr’s decades of longevity in Japan garner deep respect by many Japanese for his willingness to learn, accept and integrate Japanese tradition. )

Translating this to aspects of tradition in organizations, there is the example of the ritual of the “chorei” or “morning corporate recitation” still practiced by many traditional Japanese firms.  Starting at 9:00 a.m. sharp, it is done not only to remind everyone of the organization’s values but also an opportunity to work together as a team as purpose and meaning are confirmed.  It is an important aspect of unison and commitment and an opportunity to see and be seen.  

It is easy to discount practices such as the “chorei” (reciting the organization’s values together at the start of the day) as outdated or an inefficient use of resources, but the value of rituals has increasingly been recognized as a way to help individuals and organizations handle the challenges of the pandemic – “The Power of Ritual” published this year by Casper Ter Kuile is just one example.  Another is George Kohlrieser who specifically highlights the benefits of ritual in Japanese organizations in his article “The Hidden Perils of Unresolved Grief” (published in the McKinsey Quarterly in September 2020): “Japanese organizations are known for rituals when there are senior-leadership transitions, giving space & time for the organization to recognize the past & move into the future.” 

Patience with change through internal promotion leads to predictable leadership shifts:  As is the norm in many long-standing Japanese organizations, gradual promotion of long-time devotees who know the company deeply is the safe way to go.  Decades of experience among trusted relationships is a safe recipe for continuity.  As a result, “outsiders” are often not the first preference of choice when it comes to top positions of leadership.  This becomes another challenge for non-Japanese in their quest to integrate and become accepted over time.  But this, too, is gradually changing particularly in non-traditional organizations and Japanese companies seeking global growth.

In short, it’s all about adopting and adapting.  This is in line with the cross-cultural communication theory of “style shifting” in order to accommodate cultural norms and also lies at the heart of managing tradition with innovation.  How does a non-Japanese “fit in” to a traditional environment where innovation needs to thrive?  How can non-Japanese integrate tradition and rituals to adapt to different ways of getting things done?   It is precisely because of the “outside” perspective that “gaikokujin” bring that means they can find a way forward by challenging long-held traditional organizational assumptions while unearthing what aspects of the past stories and rituals have untapped potential to help the organization grow and adapt in the future.

Anna Pinsky specializes in organizational development and transformation with 15+ years experience advising global organizations in Japan and across Asia. 

David Wagner is a 35 year veteran of achieving behavioral adaptation inside 550+ organizations across Japan, Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East.

View from Yamadera (山寺) in Yamagata Prefecture in the autumn

The power of being a “Gaikokujin” in Japan [Part 2]

by Anna
Published on: January 23, 2021
Categories: Uncategorized
Comments: No Comments

[ Written by Anna Pinsky and David Wagner ]

How “Gaikokujin” can make it safe to bring all of your “selves” to work

Due to the limited number of non-Japanese working in Japan, it is probably safe to say that most Japanese organizations have limited experience harnessing non-Japanese as work partners.  While some Japanese organizations are very experienced and skilled at multicultural collaboration, many still do not know how to attain the full benefit of the diversity that comes from being from a different country or culture.

Even so, over time inclusion and diversity have become more prominent for businesses in Japan.  Recent corporate governance reforms being considered by the Japanese government to increase women and non-Japanese in executive positions in Japan is just one example of this ( Will Japan follow recent global trends to create more ethnically diverse corporate boards?  ). 

However, while gender and nationality are regularly highlighted aspects of diversity, diversity of thought is often overlooked. Whereas the nail that sticks up in Japan gets hammered down, there is little room for the squeaky wheel to get the grease.  Herein lies the challenge for working in Japan in a multicultural setting.  How to maximize and synergize global teams in Japan?

It is clear that each individual in an organization brings a unique perspective based on life experience and skills. However, often in Japan, the organization can place too much emphasis on common experience or shared mental models in order to get quicker alignment with group norms.  Furthermore, in high context cultures such as Japan which focuses on implicit understanding through “reading the air”, the pressure to conform means there can be considerable risk in expressing diverse opinions or aspects of one’s own identity. This tends to reduce overall risk taking within the organization. And it is non-Japanese employees who are often uniquely positioned to be catalysts in cultivating a safe environment for diverse teams to work optimally, effectively and efficiently.

Making it safe to express more diverse views 

In the same way that our “gaikokujin menkyo” – or “foreigner license” – allows us to sidestep many social expectations, being non-Japanese means we can also be seen as providing a safe place to exchange views. Precisely because we have not been brought up in the same cultural context that dictates more narrowly what is OK or not OK to say or do, non-Japanese employees can provide a place in which Japanese employees can more freely express opinions or ideas, or even parts of their identity, that might otherwise produce risky outcomes in certain circumstances.

For example, we have both been in situations in which experienced Japanese employees have sought us out (informally or formally) to share views and sense-check ideas first before taking them to their colleagues.  This may also be thought of as a form of “nemawashii” or “consensus formation” before a formal decision is made, but It is not uncommon to observe quite a different level of animation and energy as individuals feel less inhibited to “think out loud” knowing that they will not be judged on general social expectations.

English language as tool to cut through hierarchy

English language also acts as a kind of freeing mechanism for idea exchange because it does not come with the “cultural baggage” that Japanese business language does, such as the relationship in hierarchy that dictates which verb form or conjugation to choose or the word selection that is influenced by one’s gender.  Unlike Japanese business language, English language does not require that a person change how one speaks depending on whether the person is senior or junior in the hierarchy chain.

For this reason we always encourage non-native English speakers who are not confident outside of their mother tongue of Japanese not to worry about speaking perfect English but rather focus on using English as a tool for communication.

The focus on perfect English grammar, instilled from a very young age by the education system in Japan, may prevent many Japanese from using English openly for fear of making mistakes, but those who overcome this mindset necessarily permit themselves to enhance risk-taking as communicators.  This leads to increased confidence, enhanced assertion and enables Japanese employees to play a more active role in increasing the impact within their own team. Furthermore, this becomes especially useful for organizations in which employees need flexible communication styles in varying cultural contexts, moving from external Japanese clients to international conference calls.

All of this is not to say we feel Japanese should use English any more than non-Japanese should speak in Japanese.  It is always contextual, based on the situation, the players and the goals at hand.  Even so, it is clear that in the change journey, non-Japanese can collaborate to empower Japanese business partners to realize the full benefits of team diversity by creating conditions that make it safe to express the multiple facets of diversity that each individual brings to an organization.

Anna Pinsky specializes in organizational development and transformation with 15+ years experience advising global organizations in Japan and across Asia.  

David Wagner is a 35 year veteran of achieving behavioral adaptation inside 550+ organizations across Japan, Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East.

Mt Fuji seen from Mt Jinba in the winter

The power of being a “Gaikokujin” in Japan [Part 1]

by Anna
Published on: January 16, 2021
Comments: No Comments

[ Written by Anna Pinsky and David Wagner ]

The name says it all:  Outside (外 ), Country (国), Person (人) – Outsiders.  That is how non-Japanese are often viewed in Japan.  And that is the mind-set many Japanese have when it comes to non-Japanese. 

People who come from outside Japan are certainly welcome to visit, but even now, with a persistent labor shortage, the idea of non-Japanese as partners in prosperity is challenged by centuries of isolation and doubts about long-term devotion to the country.  Compared to Europe and the United States, immigration numbers speak for themselves.

So how does this play out in the workplace?  How can team synergies develop and grow among people who may not expect “gaikokujin” to stay long-term?  How can organizations achieve long-term targets if relationships are not nurtured at optimal levels?  

In the first in this series, we look at how “gaikokujin” can be catalysts for change towards  more effective workplace environments and working relationships in Japan through the lens of culture and hierarchy.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast…..

There are many desirable aspects of society that make Japan much more attractive as a place to live and work compared to other countries: be it group orientation of “shuudanshugi”, consideration for how one’s behavior impacts others (such as that expressed in the concept of “meiwaku wo kakenai”) or even just the ability to sit with silence and not feel the need to push in with self-promotion.   

However, these aspects of the culture which cultivate a more productive and collaborative working environment can also have the opposite effect when paired with traditionally hierarchical Japanese organizations.

The Japanese language and traditional structures in Japanese society foster organizational structures that are hierarchical and rigid. This creates an environment in which it can be very difficult to challenge assumptions through questions towards those positions of power or higher up the hierarchy.   

This is observable long before one joins a company.  Take, for example, the kohai/sempai concept (“junior”/”senior”) in Japanese education.  Even these terms are difficult to translate into English because they are imbued with assumptions and expectations of what can be done or said depending on your position in the hierarchy.

The same unspoken rules apply in organizations depending on whether you are the boss (“joushi”)  or more senior in position, versus being a subordinate (“buka”) or in a more junior position.  Cultural rules based on position in the hierarchy often mean that a question interrogating an existing approach or disagreeing with an opinion can be seen as attacking or threatening when directed towards someone in a more senior position in the hierarchy.  

Such behavior is the exact opposite of what is required for a productive and effective work environment based on research by Amy Edmondson into psychological safety which describes an environment in which “people feel they can speak up at work without fear that their manager or colleagues will think less of them” *

…. and gaikokujin eat culture for lunch

However, this is where a gaikokujin employee can have magical impact!  Being non-Japanese means that a gaikokujin can sidestep the unspoken expectations of behavior embedded in the hierarchical relationships and ask a question to individuals across the hierarchy more easily than a Japanese colleague. In fact, there are numerous times when we’ve found that as a non-Japanese, we can ask the question to someone senior that might be on everyone’s mind but they are afraid to ask. This is because as non-Japanese, we are not necessarily held to the same cultural expectations as Japanese.  Thus, there are less assumptions and fewer expectations made about how we should or should not behave.

In addition to the hierarchy of relationships there is also the minefield of saving face (mentsu wo tamotsu).  For anyone who has taught classes or run meetings and conferences in Japan, you’ll relate to being met with silence when you ask if there are any questions. Then as soon as you step out of the room, you are bombarded with questions from people who were too afraid to ask for fear of “losing face” in front of colleagues. 

Gaikokujin – a license to cultivate effective organizations 

While saving face may be a universal human trait, asking questions through assertive initiative is not the norm for many in Japan.  Yet using what we call “gaikokujin menkyo” – a “foreigner license” – permits us to do many things Japanese either cannot or will not do freely or unconstrained.

The ultimate question faced by long-term non-Japanese in the workplace, whether Japanese or non-Japanese owned and operated, is how well the organization promotes integration.   That is a leadership issue.  We have both worked in Japanese traditional and non-traditional firms as well as non-Japanese companies.  What is clear is the corporate culture varies.  Being a “gaikokujin” is no different than Japanese in so many organizations.  Where the rubber meets the road is company leadership, values and role-modeling of behaviors that support a culture of clear, open and inclusive communication for all employees.

*https://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/hr-must-build-psychological-safety-so-employees-feel-safe-speaking-up

Anna Pinsky specializes in organizational development and transformation with 15+ years experience advising global organizations in Japan and across Asia.  

David Wagner is a 35 year veteran of achieving behavioral adaptation inside 550+ organizations across Japan, Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East. 

Early morning at Dentsuin Temple
page 1 of 1

Welcome , today is Tuesday, October 26, 2021