In the 50s and 60s, it was primarily American managers who travelled across the Pacific as expatriates. Lately, the current has reversed. More Japanese and other Asian managers are coming to the United States – an indication of reversing roles and perhaps reversing economic status.
However, unlike the Americans who had a history as liberators during World War II, the Japanese are coming to the United States arousing America’s lingering fears of expansionism. This view of the Japanese coupled with a culture more diametric to the Americans or the Europeans – major foreign investors as well in the U.S. – has contributed to the image problem of the largely successful Japanese companies.
Where Silence Is …
“In Asia, eloquence is silver and silence is gold,” according to Ben Okamoto, New York bureau editor for The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s leading newspaper. “However in America, silence gets you nowhere and eloquence will get things done.”
Kunio Ito, Public Affairs Director of the Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO) calls it modesty. In practice, modesty is letting one’s actions speak for themselves. In Japan, one assumes that those who are involved in and those who are observing company activities will understand their purpose. There is no need to announce much less advertise the events with press releases and other media presentations. In the United States where “silence is to be filled.” the company must make more pronounced and repeated efforts to inform the public and other interest groups what they are doing. In spreading the word, there is nothing as “one too many.”
There are two messages a number of Japanese companies want more Americans to know about: the establishment of local manufacturing operations and Japanese participation in local communities.
Made in the U.S.A.
When Toyota established a new factory in Kentucky, the primary concern of the company, according to Akikazu Kida, Toyota’s Public Relations Manager, was that some might think of it as another economic invasion from Japan. To allay this apprehension, Toyota decided to take a more proactive step by initiating a media campaign to inform the public that a good number of Toyota’s vehicles would be made by Americans for Americans.
With consumer goods, there seems to be a need to stamp “Made in the USA” on an essentially Japanese product to assuage nationalistic fervor. However, in higher levels of business where there is no need to directly interface with the American public, Japanese companies are expected to be totally Japanese in their dealings with American businessmen, according to Mike Masayuma, Deputy General Manager of the trading firm, Mitsubishi International Corporation. Outside investors are not only looking for seed money but the Japanese style of management. For example, Masuyama believes the Japanese have a more caring and attentive approach in terms of customer service.
According to Ito, the “Made In the USA” drive is part manufacturing strategy to locate production near the customers and part an effort to please American consumers and politicians. One concern, even after moving production to the United States, is the way the American people perceive Japanese companies. They don’t think of Honda as just a motor company but as a Japanese company. He comments, “always Japan”. The label Japan is on Honda and other Japanese companies. If Sony buys Columbia Pictures, it’s Japan invading Hollywood. If an Australian company buys a film company, it’s just company A buying company B.”
Mr. Satoru Maruyama, Chief Representative of OKI-America, a telecommunications firm, said there are two sides to Japan-bashing, the emotional side as espoused by the politicians, and the business side seeking to protect their own interests. Another high-ranking Japanese manager thinks that Japan-bashing is an expression of frustration and jealousy in the face of America’s diminishing economic power. When asked about allegations of unfair trade practices, he commented that the Japanese government has been removing trade restrictions for the past five years. Even before that, trade barriers were not so much a matter of policies and regulations, but more of cultural preferences. It takes longer to change Japanese consumer attitudes toward foreign products. As to assertions of Japanese companies dumping products in the United States (i.e. the selling of goods below production and marketing costs) he stated that this would lead one to think Japanese companies are willing to sell at a loss which is the wrong way to run a business.
To counter Japan-bashing, aside from shifting production to the United States, an increasing number of Japanese companies in the U.S. are working to be better corporate citizens in the American perspective, either through charitable donations, local community involvement, or both. Fujitsu, a computer and communications firm, sponsors a college basketball tournament and has established a scholarship fund for minority scientists. Toyota has a series of national ads portraying its community involvement with the theme “Investing in the Individual.” One ad depicts an employee who volunteers her time to the Special Olympics for disabled athletes. Another features a child with a computer in a local daycare/community centre supported by Toyota.
Is the Strategy Working?
Most Japanese companies are finding out that solely donating money can lead to suspicions of self-serving interests. This is precisely the reaction met by one corporation when it gave a significant donation to the research department of a leading university. Financial contributions used for the local community, where there are no clear-cut returns, accompanied by genuine participation, are received with more bonhomie.
The efforts in active community involvement seem to be working in reducing anti-Japanese sentiment. This was confirmed by a JETRO survey of a number of American officials and local community representatives. The reason for such anti-Japanese sentiment, Ito explains, is partly due to the fact that there is still something unknown about the Japanese by the Americans. Unlike European countries where the people and culture came first, in the case of Japan it’s the products which preceded the people and their culture. Americans know about the products but they don’t know the people. This unknown quantity is something they fear.
This “faceless” Japan, according to Hironobu Shibuya, president of the public relations firm Dentsu Burston-Marsteller – NY, is compounded by Japanese reticence and failure to mingle with the local community. “Though, the same can be said for Americans living in Japan who usually stick to their own clubs.” One Japanese manager said that they prefer living in the same neighborhood because their wives and children speak little English. And knowing that they will be reassigned in three or four years, there is really no point in making serious efforts to acculturate to American society.
Within The Company
Though studies have shown that the language difference is one major problem in a Japanese company in the United States, the situation is not easily solved with translation when connotations are different. Ito cites the word “parallel.” In English, it could mean you’re heading in the same direction. In Japanese, parallel implies you will never meet. The Japanese might think he is communicating with his American colleagues but they are arriving at different conclusions. Even the question “why?” can upset some Japanese because when it is raised in response to an instruction, it would imply hesitancy to follow procedures. When raised in response to an explanation, it would be an impolite implication that the explainer was not clear.
One problem language differences has affected is the question of career development. According to Jil Galloway, Personnel Manager at Mitsubishi International, “working for a Japanese firm is in a sense different from an American firm because there are always two levels of personnel, the Japanese manager and the American staff. At some level above you, there’s always a Japanese staff.” Would fluency in Japanese be advantageous? Masuyama said that in trading or banking firms where the mandate comes from Tokyo, it would help to be bilingual. However, one need not necessarily know Japanese to be promoted in manufacturing firms where day-to-day decision making is mostly done locally.
Another issue Japanese managers must address is the assumption that every employee knows his duties and responsibilities. This assumption succeeds in Japan but it fails in the United States because of the differences in hiring systems. According to Ito, Japanese companies hire college recruits en masse every year for lifetime employment whether business is up or down. They undergo a rigorous training program for several months. Because these recruits work in groups, one can assume each member has the same level of knowledge. This team work is one explanation why there are no individual job descriptions in Japanese companies; and since the group’s objectives are paramount rather than individual success, the individual appraisals are relegated to an informal basis. Performance appraisals of the question and answer form common in the United States are unfamiliar to the Japanese manager, according to Galloway. In the United States employment is on as needed basis and turnover is higher. As a result, such extensive group training is neither possible nor worthwhile.
It would seem the American employee faces more obstacles working for a Japanese company. However, in a recent study, the major concerns expressed by American employees working for a Japanese company, other than language problems, are the same as those working for America’s Fortune 500. The employees want to be more of a team, to be respected for what they do; they want to be heard and be given a chance to contribute.
Japanese companies are instituting more measures within the company to promote greater communication feedback and to overcome language and cultural barriers. For one, cultural orientation programs are being held for both Japanese and American employees. Improved employee and community relations could answer some of the unknowns and mollify the fears and mistrust. Most importantly, they could confirm common human dimensions bestowing upon the Japanese managers, and ultimately the companies, a less apprehensive image.