Fukushima Revitalisation Seminar- Renewables, Symbolism and Honour

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Fukushima Revitalisation Seminar- Renewables, Symbolism and Honour

Posted on 11 September 2014 in Cultural Awareness, Market Insight -
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I recently attended a “Fukushima Revitalisation Seminar” organised by the Japan Local Government Centre (CLAIR) London hosted by the Japanese Ambassador. We heard Sir David Warren speak about his experiences as the British Ambassador in Japan at the time, from the Vice Governor of Fukushima Prefecture about the steps they are taking towards Revitalisation and also from Anne Kaneko, a business woman who ran her manufacturing company from there.

Of particular interest to potential investors was hearing about the stringent food safety inspections taking place on all products grown there making them “the safest food in Japan” plus Fukushima’s goal of making renewable energy the main focus of their energy mix for the future. The Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute opened in April 2014-a research hub to promote R & D in this area with international links.

It was also very poignant to see how many people are still displaced from their homes and very evident that Fukushima is still being equated with its nuclear legacy regardless of the hard scientific facts. We got a chance afterwards to taste the Award Winning Sake from Fukushima and see a wonderful display of Okiagari Koboshi dolls which had been decorated, amongst others, by Prime Minister Abe and several famous Japanese Premiership Footballers. These dolls, shaped in a way so they always come back up, are given at New Year to bring prosperity and luck and have since been used as a symbol of Fukushima’s perseverance and resilience-two qualities that are respected very highly in Japan. Symbolism is an important part of Japanese life as are their numerous good luck charms and rituals associated with them.

What moved me was Anne Kaneko’s story of how her business was in the process of being bought out at the time of the disaster. Although they lost many customers on the coast, the Japanese buyer still honoured the price agreement and the sale went through not long after the disaster struck. This, to me, captures an honourable aspect to business in Japan-once an agreement is made, it sticks even under such unendurable circumstances.

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Japanese Collectivism Vs Western Individualism

Posted on 19 August 2014 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training -
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Japanese Collectivism versus Western Individualism-Can they work together?

On a recent trip to the Edinburgh Fringe festival, I heard two interesting stories from two Westerners who took part in traditional Japanese apprenticeships-one in the art of Rakugo and the other in Taiko drumming. Both apprenticeships were gruelling, hierarchical and involved lots of menial tasks and hard graft before being allowed to partake in the actual performance. They initially supressed individualism and ego-based ambitions thus increasing the work ethic and loyalty to the group-all strong tenents of Buddhism and Confucianism.

Needless to say, I was very impressed by their ability to endure this training. As Westerners, we are fundamentally individualistic in our societies and expectations. From the moment we learn to talk, we are encouraged to speak our minds, share our successes and make independent choices for ourselves. Not quite “every man for himself” but the idea of putting the needs of the group before our own is not particularly attractive or rewarding when there is so little importance placed on it. In the business world, we are mostly incentivised for individual achievements and a reasonable amount of self-promotion is generally accepted.

Anyone spending time in Japan knows this is not generally the case there. Awareness of how your actions affect group dynamics and playing down personal achievements by showing humility are still common behaviours. Although the value system amongst the younger generation is slowly shifting towards individualism, there is still an emphasis on collectivity and group loyalty, especially in the large corporations, which contrasts with some Western organisational cultures. For further insights into this, I recommend you look up Kazuo Inamori’s “Amoebe” management style implemented at Kyocera or read about the “Inamori Way”. Again, this style has strong links to Buddhism and was an incredibly successful style.

Values so deeply ingrained in religion, culture and society can make it hard to operate within different value systems. As Japan globalises and more Japanese are working in individualistic cultures, they are having to learn to harness the power of the individual and find their own place amongst them. Understanding, adapting and a certain amount of “acting” can be incredibly effective.

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Adapting to Cultural Differences-Abe’s Visit to the UK and Australia

Posted on 25 July 2014 in Cultural Awareness -
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I was interested to see how Prime Minister Abe’s recent trip to Australia differed from his visit to the UK in May. Political agenda and geographical differences aside, there were some interesting moments where Abe had to adapt accordingly to different cultural expectations of behaviour. In the UK, I saw him at an “Invest in Japan” seminar and also at a Dinner hosted by the City of London Corporation at the Guildhall-both very formal and business orientated. The Guildhall was grand and historical and the correct formalities were followed with great pomp and circumstance. Abe mirrored this with a fairly formal Japanese speech introduced with the required humourous reference to alcohol we Brits seem to appreciate plus a mention of our traditions and our long, shared history. He then opened the floor to questions, one of which I thought was slightly inappropriate and indicative of our ” need to be heard” individualistic culture. Finally, he was presented with a “made in Britain” silver horse statue, representing his birth year in the Japanese Zodiac.

Now skip to Australia, where he gave a warm speech in Parliament in English honouring their ancestors, used a rugby scrum analogy and even mentioned WWII. On the subsequent tour with their Prime Minister Tony Abbott, he engaged in jocular banter and drank Australian wine. He was presented with a gift of Australian made RM Williams boots-proudly displayed by both men in a pose that caused consternation in some quarters about the overt display of machismo. I thought Abe looked slightly uncomfortable in this pose- the Japanese representation of macho-ness is very different-but he was certainly able to adapt to this more relaxed attitude to state visits.

In both contexts, the tone of his speeches engaged their audiences well using cultural assumptions of what would appeal to them. Stereotypes are never true across the board in such diverse societies. However, when operating in different cultures, it is essential to have a general overview and understanding, so that presentations and behaviour can be tailored accordingly. Naturally Abe had the support of briefings and PR machines, which I am sure, for a seemingly introverted man, helped him immensely on these visits.

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Football Fans Cleaning Stadiums & Students Cleaning Toilets: What does it tell us about Japanese culture?

Posted on 7 July 2014 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training -
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Having taught in Japanese schools, it came as no surprise to me that the Japanese football fans were cleaning up after themselves in the stadium in Brazil. Every day, children had to clean the school, including the toilets. I recently told some British primary children about it. Although they recognised that it would foster pride, they still couldn’t totally understand it. For the Japanese, this kind of behaviour is natural and is evident in all parts of society. When I first got to Japan, at 7am one Sunday morning, an old man knocked on my door gesturing to me wildly. I was expected to come and clean the steps in my apartment building along with the whole community! I know several friends who were expected to come in early to their office jobs to help clean and keep the place tidy-notably it was only the women though. I even had it written in my contract when working for the Japanese Government to keep my desk tidy.

This sense of social responsibility stems from the expectations of respect and consideration for others. These traits are woven into all aspects of Japan’s group orientated society. Every group member has a responsibility to help it run smoothly. It is often expected that individual needs are second to that of the group and the Japanese learn to cover up real feelings to maintain harmony. It would be unusual for any Japanese child to have refused to clean because it is “not fair”-a phrase I often hear from my own children. It is not fair to put other people out by not pulling your weight. Consideration for others is so important and they expect others to do the same.

As you can imagine, this culture conflicts with western individualism. If expectations of what behaviour is considered respectful are not communicated, frustrations and distrust can arise. As always, understanding and adaptation are the key. We can learn lots from their wonderful culture as shown in Brazil. I don’t think we will ever see British children cleaning school toilets though!

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