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

by Anna
Published on: January 16, 2021
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[ 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. 

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