Tags: Japan

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

by Anna
Published on: January 23, 2021
Categories: Uncategorized
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[ 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.

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