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How to manage in Japan

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How to manage in Japan

Being a non-Japanese leader in a Japanese world.

Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Published on 26 Jul, 12:00

As the saying goes, you can't choose family. Well, it turns out you can't choose your coworkers either. If you luck out, you might get to work with someone who cares about who you are and is a pleasure to work with, but if not, well, it can make it really tough to find the motivation to get up and go to work in the morning.

Now imagine finding yourself in a management position, and having to navigate both being a non-Japanese and a leader at the same time. What is one to do?

You can do it!
You can do it!

Stay calm and carry on

At the end of the day, leadership is leadership. You are managing because you have leadership qualities, something that someone saw in you or that you've demonstrated by meeting company goals and targets. Trust in your abilities and your experience when you step into the position.

You may feel that there a lot of differences between yourself and other members of leadership, but guess what: in any other country, this is the same situation you'd be looking at!

As a leader, you're expected to bring order and direction to the group, lead the charge, be ambitious and respectful of others. None of those qualities or job descriptions come with a condition that it depends on what country you're working in.

Research well, learn communication skills, and lead on!

To get better at anything, you need to first know the rules!
To get better at anything, you need to first know the rules!

Knowledge is power

Being a natural fit for a management position doesn't mean that there aren't things you can learn about managing in Japan. In fact, a lot of the world's top management concepts came out of Japan, including:

  • Kaizen - the idea of changing something for the better
  • Shuhari - being patient (In English, would probably be closest to "Slow and steady wins the race")
  • Ikigai - the purpose for your life (or work)

These are concepts that are so interesting and quintessentially Japanese that they're hard to translate into English and even harder to put into practice, but I found that it became much easier to understand the reasons for my Japanese coworker's actions once I started to learn more and embrace some of these Japanese philosophies.

For instance, one aspect of Japanese business life that I'm often asked about is attention to detail. As a new manager, I also was confused, albeit impressed, with the level of attention to detail that went into everything.

I distinctly recall even using the office's bathroom before and after lunch one day, and in the time of an hour, the supplies of the bathroom had been completely replaced for new ones, and it looked completely clean.

How to manage in Japan

The concept of ikigai really helped me understand this focus on detail, however, as well as an inspiring talk that I had with one of the chefs in the company cafeteria. After exchanging pleasantries and complimenting her on the food, she thanked me and said, "I love doing this because I know you're doing your best out there with our customers, and that encourages me to do my best in here, feeding all of you!".

I will never forget her sense of passion, even if her work would only be witnessed by a handful of people in the company.

Just like living in Canada would not be complete without understanding why multiculturalism and diversity are so important, I think it's invaluable for any businessperson in Japan, including managers, to understand the values of Japanese business people, including the few I've mentioned above.

Know where you're from, know where you're going

How to manage in Japan

History can be a boring subject, but I think it's an incredibly valuable tool, particularly when you're jumping into a new society. Japan has had a long and colorful history, and that is definitely shaped the way it approaches business. Here are a few examples:

  • Japan's not a huge country and has always had issues with supplies of raw materials. This is one of the reasons why there is such a focus on maximizing usage and minimizing waste. The phrase mottainai that is so often used comes from the basis that things that can be used should not be wasted; while this was likely used to say that you should eat everything you can and not leave any behind, this has extended to the business world and is now used in cases of lost business deals and other similar lost opportunities.
  • Understanding a bit about Japanese traditional practices will help you understand how practices today actually represent respect for the country's past. Bowing may be a foreign custom for you personally, but it's how Japanese people outwardly express their respect for each other, and tracks back to ancient times. Even the concept of "allowing someone to resign" from the company can be arguably tied back to the idea of allowing a samurai to keep his honor by deciding his own fate, to save face.

As with any unknown culture, more understanding and knowledge will help you build an appreciation for Japanese business life. Take the plunge with an open mind and, with time, you too will learn how to be a manager in Japan.

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Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Kevin is a professional writer with experience in music, education, news media and entertainment. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in English before moving to Japan for work. He's lived all over Japan, spending time in Kanto, Chubu, Kinki and Okinawa.

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