working for a Japanese company

What It’s Like Working for a Japanese Company

You tell someone that you work for a software company that provides technology to design high-tech products like rockets and race cars, then the typical image of a hip, cool, young, American company springs to mind, with images of beard-and t-shirt wearing hipster types sitting in a loft-type office, hacking code into their Macbooks while sipping a Doppio Espresso.

What will probably not come to mind is the image of a Japanese company, let alone a 40-year-old Japanese software company like Zuken.

Like many marketing professionals in my age, I spent most of my career working for US-based companies and got acquainted (and to an extend spoiled) by their informal and fast-paced style of working. After having joined Zuken a few years ago, I often get asked by fellow marketers how it feels to  work for a Japanese company. My typical answer is: “Good”, then I normally turn away to fetch myself another drink.

I do think there are a few particular things when it comes to working for a Japanese company, but none of them are an answer to the question above.

Trust, mutual respect and Giri

There is lots of material available on the cultural differences between Asia and Europe (or the US, for that matter), but to my experience, in professional life it boils down to three simple principles:  Trust, mutual respect and Giri.

Trust and mutual respect, I believe, are universal principles for human interactions. It should not deserve special mention that these concepts are also the main pillars for doing business together: Relying on a word given and ensuring that no one looks bad in front of others are basic for any interaction between humans (and business people still count as such) regardless of the respective cultural belonging. I hear some of you say: What? You cannot challenge your manager’s opinion? Of course, you can, but in Japan you do it over a beer in the evening, where it is accepted … and expected.

The concept of ‘Giri’ requires more explanation. The word roughly translates into duty or obligation. The increasingly unpopular German word of “Pflicht” comes close to it in meaning, as it carries the double meanings of both “duty” and “privilege.” Very simply put: Taking honor in your obligations shapes the attitude of how you accomplish your work. Sounds interesting? Watch Robert Mitchum in “The Yakuza” to get a grip of the concept (and its dark side).

Decisions and differences

Speaking about decisions, here is one of the best kept secrets of my job. What Japanese management truly embraces is respect for difference, including the need to do different marketing for “overseas business.” So, doing marketing in Europe in a way that resonates best with our local customers and prospects is easy. The degree of freedom (probably a function of trust, I tend to think) is significantly larger than in any other company I have ever worked for.

The idea to write this post came to me, when I saw an email from our CEO to all employees. He addressed us as “members of Zuken”. Not employees, not colleagues, not workforce, but part of what in lack of a better word could best be described as … community? Fellowship? Certainly not “team”, that would be too weak a term.

So, is this different from European or American companies? Absolutely. Is it better? It depends –  if the concepts above really, truly resonate with you, it is. If you are more a Ronin (a wandering Samurai) type of person, you are better off staying clear.

Reviewing my write-up before pressing the “post” button (as I increasingly do), I noticed that as usual I have forgotten the most important point.  Here it is: If you wish to work for a Japanese company, take singing lessons. I did not and my Karaoke version of “Ace of Spades” did not overly impress our senior management.

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