By: Patrick Shaunessy
When I think of Japanese business, one of the first things that comes to mind is the image of the “salaryman.” This is the name given to millions of Japanese businessmen who for the last fifty years have been the backbone of industry in Japan. Whether making a long commute on a metro subway or driving to a rural factory, these salarymen, on average, face a ten to twelve hour day. According to their contracts, they are generally obliged to start work at nine and end no later than five, but many of them stay and work until all hours of the night. “So what keeps them there?” you might ask. Is it money? No. Most salarymen are never compensated for their overtime. Is it ambition? Perhaps, but it’s not the same kind of ambition that drives people to work long hours in North America. Is it the amount of work? No. Most of them could theoretically finish their work in the allotted eight hours. So what is it? What keeps these men there through the night and sometimes into the early morning? The answer is loyalty. Being loyal to one’s company and coworkers is one of the most prized values in Japanese business and is a practice that is deeply rooted in their culture.
Unlike North America, there is not a lot of emphasis put on individual fulfillment in Japan. On the contrary, the Japanese choose to place a great deal of importance on social harmony. Every group, from the corporation, to the school team, to the basic family itself, struggles to achieve a harmonious balance that upholds its integrity. This means that certain aspects of individuality must be sacrificed if the group is to be successful. As a society, the Japanese draw much strength from the group. It is a system of support and comfort that gives them a sense of identity and purpose. Being ostracized from a group, therefore, is one of the worst things that can happen to a Japanese person.
One place where the practice of exclusion is most readily observed is at school. Children learn from a young age that conformity is an important survival skill in their society. Those who differ from the norm usually find themselves the victim of bullying. To some extent, this can also be said of North American schools, but in Japan the accepted practice is to identify the child being bullied as the problem. Teachers condone bullying as a means of social regulation and students who are persecuted are expected to change in order to fit in better. Since no other children will stand up to the bullies for fear of becoming a target themselves, victims of such harassment often find themselves completely alone. The devastating psychological impact of this experience has contributed to one of Japan’s most unique social problems: “hikikomori” or shut-ins. These are people who withdraw from society completely, and spend all their time locked in their rooms. In extreme cases this behavior can continue for well over ten years. Although not everyone that ends up a “hikikomori” is a victim of bullying, it is an example of the profound impact that social ostracism can have in Japan. This is why you will find very few Japanese people willing to say or do anything that disrupts the status quo. On the contrary, they will do what they can to maintain it.
The salaryman is no exception. In a company, nobody wants to be seen as lazy or uncommitted. Working such long hours is a way for the salaryman to demonstrate his dedication both to the company itself and to his coworkers. In the world of business, so-called lazy or uncommitted workers aren’t necessarily subjected to bullying the way children are. Rather the traditional solution is to strip them of their responsibilities, give them a desk by the window, and reduce them to the function of a potted plant. The shame of such relegation is meant to bring the wayward employee back into the fold. Instead of dismissing underachievers, companies take responsibility for them by trying to straighten them out. It is actually rare for a company to fire somebody outright. In extreme cases, an employee would most likely be encouraged to resign voluntarily so that nobody loses face. Maintaining an imperfect harmony is more important than bringing an unpredictable reality to the forefront.
In this way, qualities such as arguing, being aggressive and forcing issues are not desirable in Japanese business. They are actually perceived as somewhat distasteful. Consequently, many North American business men and women complain that the Japanese can be vague and difficult to do business with. Rather than simply approach an issue and solve it quickly, the Japanese prefer to take their time and find the most suitable course of action. Indeed, it can be hard to get a simple yes or no answer from them on even the most basic issue. They like to consider everything thoroughly and examine it right down to the last detail. This practice has earned them a reputation for corporate inefficiency, but has also earned them one of world’s best reputations for quality.
Even if it is better, from an international standpoint, to adopt business practices that are spontaneous, pro-active and aggressive, the average salaryman has been trained since childhood to respect and uphold the sanctity of the group. Acting in contradiction to this fundamental belief would be almost unthinkable. Not only would such behavior damage the group dynamic, but it would also be perceived as selfish.