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

Posted on 25 July 2014 in Cultural Awareness -

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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