Deeper Insight into Japanese Brexit Demands

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Deeper Insight into Japanese Brexit Demands

Posted on 6 September 2016 in Cultural Awareness, Japanese Corporate Culture, News -

The recent set of guidelines issued by the Japanese Government to the British Government and the EU regarding Brexit apparently took Downing Street by surprise but were inevitable given that Brexit has pushed all the Japanese cultural buttons.

Generally, the Japanese avoid instability, uncertainty and unpredictability. Given that group harmony, inflexible hierarchies and love of consensus are all still powerful forces within Japanese business, they find people from more individualistic cultures scarily unpredictable in their decision making and individuality. Admittedly, they had the Brits pegged as a safer bet in this respect and were lured into a false sense of security about the outcome of the vote from a very London-centric view without foreseeing the anarchic side to the British public or the discontent simmering away in the regions. They also invested heavily into the UK on a basis of trust in the commitments made by the previous government and the potential withdrawal of these benefits that they saw as ‘firm’ commitments has been interpreted as a breach of trust rather than a result of democracy.

Trust and Obligations

This trust within long-term relationships is so integral to the business environment in Japan and relationships are carefully formed so that everyone knows what to expect from them. Even today, many Japanese living overseas still deal with Japanese companies for services-it’s just easier and everyone knows the obligations involved, some of which seem unrealistic and unnecessary to non-Japanese. They include: avoiding loss of face, never upsetting the group harmony, keeping everyone informed so there are no nasty surprises and always show respect and loyalty to your boss/employer or the group as they are the ones who ultimately look after you. Ideally it’s better if you do this without anyone having to actually directly tell you this but a dressing down does occasionally happen and the government are not shy from dictating what businesses should do- the state holds immense authority and control over the private sector in Japan.

So in a sense, it’s totally natural that the Japanese reacted the way they did. The obligations from the long term-investments the Japanese made into job creation, training, education in the UK are in their eyes not being reciprocated. The feedback, detail & reassurance needed by the Japanese to ensure there are no nasty surprises/loss of face, to achieve harmony and to enable long-term planning are not currently forthcoming from the British Government. For obvious reasons really-no-one actually knows what is happening and they are starting from scratch with this. We may be used to some level of unpredictability in our decision making processes and turn-around once decisions have been made but the consensual decision-making Japanese are not. The rhetoric coming from the UK may be one of stoicism-let’s get on with it, stop complaining and see it as a positive opportunity for change. However, this is really unsettling for the Japanese. The current uncertainty surrounding Hinckley Point will just exacerbate this and market us as being unreliable and liable to renege on our long-term commitments.

So how do we go forward?

The British Government needs to be better advised regarding Japan-they already made themselves look unfavourable to the Japanese when not only a week after attending the opening ceremony of the Hitachi Rail Factory in the NE and lauding a massive investment from Nissan in their Sunderland factory in September last year, George Osbourne was straight off to China urging them to bid for HS2 contracts before the hybrid bill had been passed. Although the vote for Brexit was never really about rejecting Japanese investment, there is great sense of betrayal from the Japanese companies who invested in the areas of the UK where the Brexit vote was high. We will need to work very hard to re-build the trust and show the Japanese we appreciate the investment and the obligations that go alongside it. The Japanese side will also have to realise we can’t meet all these obligations and don’t always react well to being told what to do-that caused enough problems with the Brexit vote!

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Japan, Gender, Heels and Female Empowerment

Posted on 16 August 2016 in Cultural Awareness, womenomics -

Recent courses in Japan teaching women to wear high heels as a form of empowerment in the workplace have been very popular and throw up interesting contrasts with popular feminist opinion in the UK, where the Government recently launched an inquiry after a petition calling for a ban on the practice of forcing women to wear high heels in certain workplace environments got over 100,000 signatures almost overnight.

Issues of female empowerment are indeed complex and nowhere more so than in Japan where gender roles are very ingrained. With one of the largest gender gaps in the developed world, Japan has a real social, demographic and economic need for women to embrace empowerment and move towards equality in the workplace.

This particular form of ‘female empowerment’ appeals to Japanese cultural norms. One of the creators of the courses implies that since Japanese women are too shy to express themselves in a culture where women are still not expected to stand out or put themselves first, they can get extra confidence from this. According to The Japanese High Heel Association (JHA), “stilettos both improve a woman’s posture and give her greater assurance of her place in society.”

However, in a country where female receptionists until very recently were still referred to as ‘office flowers’, in certain companies women are sent home from work if they are not wearing enough make-up and are given specific advice in corporate inductions on how to have their hair, encouraging heel wearing as a specific form of career empowerment may well perpetuate the fixed gender roles and a feminine archetype that has evolved within this patriarchal society where young women are primarily judged on looks and specified feminine behaviour above ability. A recent example of a travel agency who tried to get business men to fly with them by advertising an offer of travelling in the company of ‘beautiful’ female university graduates was taken down under protests but the fact that it was even thought up in the first place shows an underlying attitude that may need to be adapted before any sustainable progress in the womenomics agenda can be made.

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Doing Business with the Japanese with a Pack of Ramen at Farnborough

Posted on 14 July 2016 in Cultural Awareness, News -

I recently visited the Farnborough Air Show to meet a potential client (UK company) and took the opportunity to have a look around the show. Naturally, I honed in on a Japanese company exhibiting there and got talking to the representatives, who gave me the set piece in excellent English about their product. Once we had established I had lived in Japan, the conversation turned to the highlights of the different regions where we all lived and of course, as in any conversation with the Japanese, food. Soon, they had given me a pack of instant ramen they had stashed under the counter, some cute promotional biscuits and an invitation to go and eat with them when I next go over there. Anyone observing this from a Western business mentality would have thought I was blagging free food and an invite out to dinner (why not) but in fact I was doing business the Japanese way. Instinctively, I knew the right topics of conversations and how to start building up those relationships. Whether I get direct business from it or can build up my network, this will have been a good business transaction for us both. Interestingly, the British company they seem to want to do business with is one whose rep has a long experience of working with the Japanese, understands how to form those relationships and indeed met them for dinner when out there and has regularly visited their stand at Farnborough.

This is where the differences in business cultures cause misunderstandings and ultimately less than optimal outcomes-the Western business mentality gets inpatient with the long-term and sometimes vague nature of the relationship building that goes hand in hand with doing business with the Japanese and want to talk ‘results’ and ‘objectives’ straight away. They can’t see the value of Japanese presentations that seem to hone in on promoting local food and sake instead of actually giving out defined business strategies. The Japanese business mentality instinctively mistrusts potential business partners that aren’t aligned to their own values. All very solvable and actually quite enjoyable. Especially if you enjoy Japanese food..

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Re-building Trust in Japan UK Business After Brexit

Posted on 28 June 2016 in Cultural Awareness, News -
Japan UK

Cultural Differences

Disliking change more than most, the Japanese are reeling from a decision making process that differs culturally from their own. Characteristics of the British summed up by Der Spiegel as an “inner independence in addition to myriad anti-authoritarian defiant tendencies” stand in sharp contrast to the Japanese preference for hierarchy, conformism and putting your individual needs behind that of the group/company. Decision making in Japan is purposely consensual to get buy in from everyone so that unpredictable decisions are almost never made.

The traditional paternalistic role of a company In Japan where loyalty and trust work both ways (full time workers can rely on the company to look after them and the company can, to a certain extent, be allowed to tell them what to do) will explain why those Japanese companies who have invested heavily in areas such as the NE and who openly expressed their preference to stay in the EU, were hit hard by the high percentage of Brexit voters in these areas.

We now risk being seen as untrustworthy-not a good thing since trust is one of the basic cornerstones of doing business with Japan.

Building a Culture of Trust

However, the future of Japan UK business can be bright if we can re-build trust and mutual understanding. There is a very positive attitude towards doing business with Japan in the UK. I have been working with Tokio Marine HCC, who have been outstanding in their positive attitude towards working with the Japanese and building up this culture of trust. Many of the larger Japanese investors initially chose the UK because of access to the single European market (no-one knows if that will survive) but also because of many shared values and careful relationship building. Some of these companies have formed large Japanese communities in the UK creating a culture of trust through investment in training, local employment, educational and cultural links.

Business Opportunities

The vote for Brexit may have been a vote for many things but it should never become a vote against UK Japan business.

Although Brexit may have been a harsh lesson for the Japanese in the uncertainties of globalisation and shake their trust in the British market, I can’t see all their companies immediately jumping ship (their customary risk-averse nature may well prevent this especially when the future of the EU is so uncertain) nor them stopping doing business with British companies. Although it can take many years of relationship building to create successful business with Japan, long-termism is its reward. The CEO of Hitachi declared at Hitachi Rail’s opening ceremony in Newton Aycliffe that they were there to stay. Although Japan has been criticised for protecting less than lucrative (zombie) companies within their long-term networks, this non western business mentality may well be something we are thankful for in the short-term until that trust can be re-built and the future is more certain.

Japan is a long term investor in and trade partner with the UK and should remain one of our key business partners given their current globalisation imperative and a need for us to trade with other countries outside of the EU. The BoJ has been asked to free up cash for their companies in the UK-let’s hope our government can reciprocate by negotiating beneficial trade agreements and financial incentives.The vote for Brexit may have been a vote for many things but it should never become a vote against UK Japan business.

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The Japanese Relationship with Humanoid Robots

Posted on 25 April 2016 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training, Market Insight -
Hitachi Robot

When I go into British companies to talk about Japan, I often get asked, “Why do Japanese people love Robots so much?” Although the development of Artificial Intelligence is happening on a global scale with robotic manufacturing technology no longer dominated by Japanese companies, they have developed a close relationship with and acceptance of “humanoid” robots as seen by the recent examples serving in shopping centres, banks and hotels (although technically this one was a dinosaur). With a rapidly ageing and decreasing population (with no real signs of immigration filling the gaps) alongside limited child-care facilities, the use of humanoids is certainly attractive for Japan’s current social challenges. Last year, PM Abe opened Japan’s Official Robot Revolution Initiative Council and called on the nation’s corporate sector to “spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of our economy and society.” The humanoids that are being developed by Japanese companies such as Soft Bank (Pepper) & Hitachi (EMIEW3) can express themselves, have good mobility and seem to offer an alternative to the “human” experience.

Japanese Acceptance of Humanoids

The Japanese have never had much of a problem forming strong emotional bonds with substitutes for human connection. Look at their relationships with manga characters and let’s not forget they were the country who gave us virtual pets such as Tamagotchi. Many of these create intense emotional connections. The social media network LINE’s AI school girl character had men falling in love with her. I have often heard people quote the Shinto concept of ‘animism’ in Japan (meaning that all objects have spirits) to explain the emotional relationship between Japanese people and robots.

Cultural Factors Needing Consideration

A recent symposium* on the acceptance of humanoids comparing the UK and Japan showed that there is a significantly lower acceptance of humanoids in the UK and alarmism that they may take away jobs and render humans useless. Findings from the same symposium stated that: “In order to further social acceptance of the humanoid across cultures, designers of robots need to consider cultural factors in their potential users.”  Japan must culturally assimilate these humanoids outside of Japan to avoid an inward focus of their technology. They may be leading the way scientifically with face recognition yet facial expressions of Japanese people can be quite hard to read and even come across as indiscernible to more expressive cultures. The ritualistic set phrases used in different social interactions may foster a sense of intimacy for Japanese users, but may prove too distant and again “robotic” if used elsewhere.

However, to meet Japan’s current social challenges, humanoids may well be a solution-recent Nomura research indicates that almost half of the jobs in Japan could be managed by robots. However, I still remain unconvinced for their substitute as a child-care option..

*4th International Symposium on New Frontiers in Human-Robot Interaction-April 2015, Canterbury UK: Differences in Social Acceptance of Humanoid Robots between Japan and the UK.

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