Working with Japan

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Working with Japan

Posted on 28 May 2015 in Inter-Cultural Training, News -
Sarah Parsons speaking at the Scottish Parliament with the Cross Party Group Convener, MSP Alex Johnstone.

I recently said a few words about “Working with Japan” at a “Japan Scotland” Networking reception at the Scottish Parliament, co-organised by the Cross Party Group on Japan, the Japan Local Government Centre, London and the Japan Exchange and Teaching Alumni Association (JETAA) Scotland Chapter. It was great to see so many existing links & Japan related interests there. The audience included MSPs, the Japanese Consul General to Scotland, JETAA members, representatives from local councils & universities with links to Japan, local businesses including some who have succesfully entered the Japanese market plus Hitachi Rail Europe, who have just signed a contract with Scotrail.

With such a mixed audience and with such a short time slot, it was quite challenging to encapsulate what “Working with Japan” means. For those looking to break into the Japanese market, naturally a good USP and knowledge of market is needed. For those looking to attract Japanese investment, reliable partners and workforce plus attractive financial incentives are paramount. However, the key to working with Japan in any sense is successful relationship building, nurtured with integrity and patience (frustrations abound in most cross-cultural transactions) and trustworthiness. Some may argue these are out of date values in a fast-paced global world with instant access to information. Structurally, barriers to market entry are falling and Japan is becoming much more open with Abe’s globalisation strategy. I totally agree that now more than ever before, Japan offers so much potential for working with foreign partners. Still within this, relationships, which culturally form a backbone to Japanese society, are key.

There is sometimes a misunderstanding as to what constitutes a successful business relationship with the Japanese and how to maintain it. Although it is not a deep, dark mystery, it can seem significantly different to our more individualised methods and can at times seem impenetrable and a lot of hard work to those preferring a “quick fix” or to those who believe that “business is business” wherever you go. Many Japanese ex-pats who have lived long enough overseas have become very skilled at adapting to Western methods but there is still very much a default position of preferring to deal with Japanese suppliers/clients, mainly because the many facets of Japanese relationships are implicitly understood. Reciprocal obligations, risk aversion, face saving, consensus building and hierarchy still feature heavily in Japanese culture and although Japanese society is changing and becoming less group orientated, these are all still elements that need understanding and navigating within long- term business relationships.

There are many viable options out there to help you work with Japan-Japanese speakers who can connect you up with their language skills and effectively build the relationships for you, researchers who have immense knowledge of the market but in some cases no real connection with their contacts or agencies with business matching capabilities that leave you after the matching has been done. I prefer to help companies and organisations understand how to form successful relationships and give them opportunities to network, using carefully nurtured relationships. If this appeals to you, I would love to work with you.


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Breakfast Meeting with Haruno Yoshida-All about Womenomics

Posted on 20 May 2015 in Cultural Awareness, News, womenomics -

This week, I was lucky enough to have been part of a small group of Japanese and British women who attended a breakfast talk with BT Japan’s first female CEO Haruno Yoshida to find out about her life and how she recently made headlines by becoming the 1st ever female executive of the Japanese business association-the Keidanren.

Yoshida san was obviously not destined to follow the traditional wishes of her family by entering a suitable company where she was expected to find a good husband and then leave to bring up a family. Her life took a different turn-she left Japan and worked her way up the ranks in the Telecommunications industry of the 80’s in North America, often having to compete in a man’s world with weekend golfing and business trips away from her daughter whilst having to prove she was 2 or 3 times better than her male counterparts. This obviously caused her grief as a single mother. However, significant life events plus her passion for her job have all led her to this current moment, where she is able to wield significant influence within a tide of change that is sweeping Japan-womenomics-or more precisely, getting women to enter the workforce and contribute towards Japan’s economy.

In which direction it will flow, we do not know yet. All we can be certain of is that the time for change is now. Japan has reacted slowly to this up to now and has been left with a declining birth rate and low figures of female labour participation and women in leadership positions compared to other developed countries. Womenomics is now a key policy of Abe’s government mainly because of economic necessity and it has opened discussion and will hopefully pre-empt the necessary cultural changes for the empowerment of women.

Restrictions to Japanese women’s progression in the workplace lie very heavily within their cultural and societal expectations of women. Corporate culture has become so ingrained with prohibitive recruitment practices, male-orientated career advancement opportunities and inflexible work expectations that in order to get ahead, some women still have to work within very masculine environments and simply don’t want to do that. In some cases, they don’t get recognised or promoted for their talents and predictably, give up on rising through the ranks, especially if they have a family too with a lack of support for childcare. After having children, many do not re-enter the workforce and a high percentage of those who do mostly do so on a part-time, temporary basis. It is almost unthinkable that a single Japanese mother could work her way up within a major Japanese corporation and become CEO. I meet many young, ambitious Japanese women outside of Japan forging successful careers-it is indeed a poignant part of Yoshida’s story that her rise to success was mostly done outside of Japan.

Her main motivation now is to ensure that opportunities for enjoying a fulfilling job alongside bringing up a family should be available for her daughter. Let’s hope that her voice and those of other Japanese women can ensure that womenomics is not just all about economics but actually gives women an environment where they can be a valued part of the workforce and be inspired to participate within it.

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Consensus and Protest in Japan

Posted on 24 November 2014 in Cultural Awareness, News -

Japan’s recent mid-term election announcement has been widely discussed. Questions being asked include: “Why is Abe calling a mid-term election given the lack of viable opposition within Japanese politics and the need for decisive action?”  Other comments in the press suggest that he is stalling for time and diverting attention away from important issues.

Regardless of what prompted this decision, it has thrown up some interesting reactions towards the style of consensual style of decision making that comes naturally to the Japanese, especially since Abe has acted in a very decisive and individualised manner prior to this. Anyone who has worked within a Japanese environment will know that getting consensus can be time consuming and can seem fairly inactive and diversionary in comparison to other styles of decision making. It is, however, a mistake to assume that consensus means agreement-more likely an acceptance or approval that some things need to happen to keep the group-in this case Japan-functioning.

Of course, in Japan’s current political and economical environment, there are going to be voices of dissent and dissatisfaction. Protest and disagreement can be difficult in Japan, where open criticism is not the norm and keeping the harmony is important sometimes to the extent that people are expected to keep individual opinions suppressed and think of the effects on the group-in this case society as a whole. I often think how difficult it must be for those faced with the devastating effects of the nuclear fallout in Fukushima where thousands of people are still displaced from their homes resigned to the fact that without restarting nuclear power, Japan as a whole will face ever increasing energy bills and reliance on imports for their energy.

Demonstrations traditionally have a bad public image with scant press coverage in Japan-two recent acts of self immolation protesting against the decision to change the constitution towards self-defence brought criticism upon NHK, Japan’s broadcaster, for not reporting them in their main news coverage! In more individualised cultures, this would be seen as “sweeping negative things under the carpet”-something that is not tolerated in our cultures of open criticisms. More on this in my next blog…

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Womenomics: How attending the British Japanese Parliamentary Group Annual Reception made me consider the role of women in Japan

Posted on 21 June 2014 in Inter-Cultural Training, Market Insight, News, womenomics -
Traditional Japanese Dancers

I attended this reception at the House of Lords overlooking the river Thames in glorious sunshine. A fitting setting for such a wonderful gathering of people from the Japanese and British worlds of politics, business and culture. It was lovely to see such love and respect between our two countries yet still such differences in culture and traditions. We were entertained with some traditional Japanese dancing by old and young Japanese ladies dressed as geisha and maikos. My Japanese friend, who has trained in traditional dance, explained how the dances represented the seasons and how difficult they were to perform. To my eyes, the younger girl’s dance conveyed fragile beauty, modesty and a hint of submissiveness whereas the older ladies dance was somehow more powerful. Some of the older Japanese men watched attentively, respectful of the traditions as well as its representation of Japanese femininity. I am not sure the same reaction came from the British audience, although it was greatly appreciated.

It led me to wonder about the difference in gender roles between our two countries. Japan knows it is losing out economically with such low labour participation of its highly educated female workforce. The Government is putting “female friendly” incentives into place and has prioritised “womenomics”. This is being discussed on various levels; by brave Japanese women, by Western women who have grown up in very different cultural contexts and by politicians and business leaders, who need to support it. The lack of flexible working practices and recruitment processes that will support women rising to decision making positions needs to be addressed. It won’t help that the responsibilities of caring for an ageing population traditionally fall on women. A major shift in corporate culture may happen out of economic necessity. However there is still a long way to go to adapt deeply ingrained gender roles and expectations of female behaviour (see following articles and read my previous blog for some examples). I will be watching with great interest and support.

Press Briefing on Womenomics by Professor Yoko Ishikura (video)

Shinzo Abe: Womenomics will be Key to Japan’s Revival

Top Japanese Lawmaker Urges Women to be More Visible

Japan’s Part Time Workers Have Had Enough

Outrage in Japan as Lawmaker jeered for being single and childless

Japanese Government to prioritise firms that employ more women

Japan to reward companies adding women to payroll

Akio Adachi’s Graduation Speech from GLOBIS talking about women (video)

Abe Joins Caroline Kennedy in “Womenomics” Push

Japanese Women and Work: Holding Back Half The Nation: The Economist


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Abe’s Visit to the UK-Opportunities to Collaborate with Japan

Posted on 6 May 2014 in Inter-Cultural Training, Market Insight, News -
Japan Prime Minister Abe Toast Speech Guildhall

I was incredibly excited to have seen Abe twice on his recent visit to the UK on May 1st. He gave a speech at the “Invest in Japan-A Regional Roadmap” Seminar I attended, organised by JETRO in London, to support Governors from Mie and Hiroshima Prefectures and Mayors from Fukuoka and Kobe Cities in their efforts to promote their prefectures and tell foreign investors about the attractive incentives and support packages available to attract FDI. He then went to meet David Cameron, who released a joint statement and then he gave a key note speech at the first ever Japan UK Conference “Collaboration in Research and Education” to discuss how this relationship can be further developed.

Japan's PM Abe makes a toast after speaking at the Guildhall in London

I was then honoured to have been invited to a Dinner in the evening at the Guildhall, which was a grand occasion with excellent food, English wine, sparkling sake from Abe’s own prefecture Yamaguchi and Suntory Whisky. He gave a very stirring speech about “Redefining Japan UK Relations” with poignant references to the Choshu 5, outlining his commitment to the EU Japan EPA, the future of Abenomics, womenomics, the opening of the Japanese market and opportunities for collaborating with the Olympics. The shared respect and love between the two countries was very evident as was the growing interest in the current changes taking place in Japan.

The next day Abe visited the Olympic Stadium to sign a Memorandum of Cooperation between UK and Japan to help British businesses share their expertise from the London Olympics and win business at the Tokyo Olympics. As I write this, he is in Brussels negotiating the EPA and the EU are expected to be satisfied that Japan meets most conditions for talks to proceed. All in all, a successful visit signifying not only the close ties between our two countries but the real opportunities that are there for co-operation and investment. 安倍総理 お疲れさまでした


UK Japan Joint Statement

New Agreement to Help Companies Win Work at Tokyo Olympics

Abe’s Speech at the Guildhall

Abe’s visit to UCL Japan and UK Conference “Collaboration in Research and  Education”

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