Categories: cross-cultural communication

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

by Anna
Published on: January 25, 2021
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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
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