This brings us to another common attribute of the Japanese worker: modesty. Everyone works for their company. Employees are not there to ensure their own individual success. If they accomplish something, it is more an accomplishment for the company than for the individual. For instance, in 2002, Koichi Tanaka, an employee of biotech bigwig Shimadzu Corporation, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He declined any special reward from Shimadzu for his achievement and allowed the patent for his invention to remain in the company’s name. He did not receive any share of the royalties. Putting the interests of the company, or any group for that matter, first is something that is highly valued in Japanese culture. Tanaka’s humility, even in the face of great personal achievement, has brought him much acclaim and respect from the people of Japan. While this degree of humility might be almost unthinkable for most people in North America, it is a principle that many Japanese adhere to firmly.
Part and parcel of this modesty is the ability to know one’s place. Japanese business is structured around a strict hierarchy, and seniority is something that is not taken lightly within this system. Not respecting your seniors can have negative consequences. Even in English class, for example, the presence of a manager or executive could sometimes cripple any chance for discussion. Not wanting to contradict their superior, the other students would usually take their cue from the boss, and agree with his opinion on most issues. They would also curb their English ability so as not to upstage him.
Within the company, the most basic level of this hierarchy is that of the sempai (senior) and kohai (junior). This is a relationship that is formed as soon as a new employee enters the company, and it continues for their entire career. It is the responsibility of the sempai to usher the kohai into the company and show him the ropes as it were. In exchange for this service, the kohai must respect his sempai by being obedient. He is also expected to cultivate both a professional and personal relationship with his sempai.
In addition to performing various miscellaneous duties for his sempai at work, the kohai must go drinking with his sempai when invited. Drinking is an integral part of corporate culture in Japan. It is a way to let off steam and deepen friendships among coworkers. Turning down an invitation to a drinking party without a valid excuse is not looked upon favorably. While this obligation is not as absolute as it was fifteen or twenty years ago, it is still taken very seriously. Workers who avoid the drinking culture might find that they have inadvertently compromised their chances for professional advancement.
So both at work and at play, the average Japanese worker is very much devoted to his company. He respects the authority of his superiors; he takes care to cultivate personal and professional relationships with his coworkers; he focuses on improving himself as a company member; and he works hard to contribute to the company’s success. In exchange, he is looked after by his superiors and has the security of belonging.
However, the recent recession in Japan has somewhat threatened this traditional family-like corporate model. Businesses have had to lay off large numbers of employees in order to stay afloat. In addition, the relocation of certain sectors of the Japanese manufacturing base to developing Asian countries like China, Thailand and India has contributed to a large increase in unemployment. Lifetime or even long term employment with one company is becoming less of a reality these days. Nevertheless, change is not something that happens quickly in Japan, and many companies are trying to preserve their traditional business practices as much as possible.
Yet despite this attempt to adhere to tradition, the role of women in Japanese business has definitely changed as a result of the recession. Unlike North America, Japanese women do not enjoy equal opportunity in the workplace. Traditionally, they occupy the lowest tier in the business hierarchy. Referred to as “office ladies” or “OLs,” women typically perform menial tasks around the office and are there primarily to serve and entertain their male counterparts. Most of them don’t work at their company past the age of thirty. They are encouraged to marry young and then retire in order to raise a family and manage a household. In Japan, many people still believe that the woman’s rightful place is at home. Recently, however, the struggling economy has forced many women out into the workforce. As a result they are starting to occupy higher positions within companies. Yet even still, women have limited options for professional advancement and they receive less money than their male counterparts working the same job.
Over three years that I taught English in Japan, I had the opportunity to work with many Japanese business men and women. Many of them would roll in for their late afternoon English class with the knowledge that they still had several hours of work ahead. Often a number of them would be late, or would not come at all, because they had more pressing company business. I was curious about the Japanese business ethic, and often asked many questions of higher level students in an effort to understand it better. While I admit that I don’t always agree with or understand the way they do things, I do respect the dedication that many Japanese employees have to both their company and fellow coworkers. It is very different from the highly competitive North American business approach. When I think about our way of doing things, I wonder if we haven’t to some extent lost sight of our responsibility to one another; and whether we haven’t become isolated from each other as a result. Though it can be taken to extremes, at least Japanese employees enjoy a unified company environment that affords them security and a sense of purpose. Perhaps one thing we could learn from their culture is how to forge such enduring social bonds against a system that is ever seeking to drive us apart.