Japanese Collectivism Vs Western Individualism

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Japanese Collectivism Vs Western Individualism

Posted on 19 August 2014 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training -

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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Has Japan Changed?

Posted on 9 March 2014 in Inter-Cultural Training, Market Insight, womenomics -
Yanaka, Tokyo

After 16 years away from Japan, I recently returned on business to Yokohama and Tokyo and the question everyone was asking is: has it changed a lot? My answer would be yes and no. No, because on the surface the same levels of politeness are still evident in the service industry including uniformed subway staff ushering everyone through the station and apologising to everyone about disruptions at the station, overly attentive service and packaging still very evident in department stores with store managers greeting shoppers upon the opening of stores and female lift attendants directing and helping people plus there is the same high level of convenience including ice-cream vending machines now! The “kawaii” culture is still influencing products and advertisements and some British companies have embraced this too (I will blog about this separately).

Kawaii goods on sale on Ginza. popular amongst older generation too

Ice cream vending machine on subway


Yes things have changed in a sense of  there being more altruistic activities: people on the streets campaigning about anti-nuclear, collecting for Tohoku and dogs for the blind. There was a lot more evidence of homelessness and poverty out in daily life. With all the talk of Abenomics, it was interesting to see whether any of his policies had caused visible changes. Let’s start with globalisation: English was used a lot more than when I was last there (polite notices on the subway asking people to use their manners, people trying it out with me) although still lots of senseless English around advertising Japanese products that I think we have to accept is a feature of their relationship with the English language and doesn’t seem to bother the target audience. Think Pocari Sweat and Vanilla Air as big name brands and you will see where I am coming from.

Enjoy your life! Enjoy your inner style, your socks & your inner & your homewear style

Enjoy your life! Enjoy your inner style, your socks & your inner & your homewear style

There was a lot more katakanisation of words (foreign words adapted into the Japanese language) and also lots more foreign faces dotted around although I still caused a group of High School boys to giggle nervously and say “hello” to me in Yokohama-nice ego boost for me admittedly.

Next up: Womenomics and child care issues. I spoke to a few women in Tokyo still struggling with this and finding it almost impossible to get places at their local state funded centre-one who wants to go back to work as a nurse has since got a place although the only option is full time. I also spoke to women about the stringent work hours expected and lack of flexible working hours within Japanese companies even for women with children and the Chairwoman of a governmental organisation said she had often come across counterparts asking her when the Chair was about to arrive, mistaking her for someone of lesser status. Encouragingly though, Nomura Bank has just appointed its first female head.

Emerging markets: I visited a Smart Week Expo (I will be writing on this for Cambridge Clean Tech next month) and there was certainly a massive interest in this area from all parts of the globe-Caroline Kennedy opened the Expo! I have never seen so many booths and prototypes of wind turbines!

All in all it was a positive re-affirmation of my love for Japan and confirmation that there are still many cultural differences but Japan is still resilient. Please feel free to contact me about this blog or any other aspect of doing business in Japan.



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