A View From The East

Dec. 21, 2004

Despite vastly increased contacts over the last four decades, Western managers continue to be confounded by their Japanese counterparts' business behavior--but certainly not for want of information. An avalanche of books and articles have been published on Japanese culture and management. Indeed, "For most Western businesspeople, lack of information is less of a problem than is lack of insight into why Japanese companies behave in ways that seem inconsistent or contradictory," say Noboru Yoshimura and Philip C. Anderson, coauthors of Inside the Kaisha: Demystifying Japanese Business Behavior. Unique in both its origins and its concept, Inside the Kaisha focuses on salarymen, the whitecollar middle managers whose beliefs and socialization are the bedrock of large Japanese enterprises (kaisha), and who are the kind of managers that Westerners are most likely to encounter. Yoshimura is, in fact, a salaryman, a middle manager at Banker's Trust in Tokyo who received an M.B.A. from Cornell University, where he was a student of Anderson (who now teaches at Dartmouth College). In their research for the book, the coauthors interviewed 50 Japanese salarymen and came to the conclusion that "organizational mechanisms, not Japan's national cultural identity, govern business behavior." While Yoshimura and Anderson admit that they can't reduce Japanese commercial conduct to a set of rules, they found four recurring themes that characterize the salaryman's perspective: the importance of context, learning from behavioral models, the drive to avoid embarrassment, and the primacy of process over content. "Outsiders see Japanese behaving very differently in 'similar' situations, whereas Japanese view the situations as being quite different. Correct conduct depends completely on the situation," the authors observe. Yoshimura and Anderson warn Western managers and companies to question those who advise them to be more like their Japanese counterparts. "It seems to us that the kaisha has an organizational consistency all its own, so it is not practical to try to build hybrids that have both Japanese and Western characteristics," they conclude. A different approach to the East-West divide is taken in Different Games, Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other by Haru Yamada. A senior lecturer of linguistics at the University of Westminster, London, Yamada contends that because American and Japanese cultures value different kinds of social relationships, they play different language games with different sets of rules. A key difference of the two cultural "playing fields," Yamada says, is that "the American field is one where individuals play out self-reliance and practice explicit communication. The Japanese field, on the other hand, is one where interdependent group members accommodate each other through implicit communication." Yamada's insider information, she warns, will not close deals or "magically sweeten cross-national relationships." Insights into communication and social patterns can, however, "reduce the bewilderment and frustration that often accompany cross-cultural communication between Americans and Japanese." Among the giants of Japanese business, Konosuke Matsushita stands out for a number of reasons. He was one of the central figures in the post-World War II Japanese economic miracle and built a gigantic corporation with innovative management and marketing techniques. During his tenure, revenue growth at Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. grew by $49.5 billion (in 1994 U.S. dollars), more than the growth of Honda Motor Co. under Soichiro Honda ($35.5 billion) or Sony Corp. under Akio Morita ($33.7 billion). Largely unknown in the West, Matsushita died a national hero in Japan. In Matsushita Leadership: Lessons from the 20th Century's Most Remarkable Entrepreneur, John P. Kotter profiles--from Matsushita's early years of poverty and tragedy to his later accomplishments as a businessman, philanthropist, and social and political activist--a fascinating, yet flawed leader. Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor, writes admiringly of Matsushita, but also reveals a complex man who as a public persona behaved like a saint, but in private screamed at key executives, relied on sleeping pills, and kept a mistress. Matsushita is less an exhaustive biography than it is an exploration of what can be learned from the executive's life and legacy: "The story of Matsushita Electric Industrial demonstrates how great business strategies, when implemented well, are not just the product of rational economic analysis, but have a powerful visceral component relating to personal history. The story of Konosuke Matsushita shows how great leadership is not a static quality, but a crucial element that evolves over decades, often built on a base of pain, not privilege."

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