Should foreigners trust the Japanese to tell us about Japan?








“Just because a Japanese person tells you something about Japan does not necessarily make it true.”

That’s the advice of a business blogger I greatly admire, Steven Bleistein.

His blog is always insightful and often amusing. He recently warned about taking advice from self-appointed experts.

“Being Japanese does not make a person an expert on business in Japan. Take advice from such people with a massive grain of salt,” wrote Steve.

Understanding leadership

Steve Bleistein from Relensa has the inside track on how Japanese organisations work because he advises many of their leaders. I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet many Japanese CEOs, including the bosses of big companies like Toyota, Nissan and Sony. (These leaders speak to the foreign press directly. They especially like TV and my background is in broadcasting.)

The problem comes, I think, when Japanese people make statements about their culture which are presented as “facts” that are “universally true.”

Although it’s possible to make generalisations, there are often many exceptions. So although it might be said that in general, Japanese businesses are led by people who are averse to risk, Steve Bleistein makes the good point that many successful businesses in Japan buck the system.

He cites the examples of Fast Retailing, the Japanese owner of Uniqlo and my favourite company, Softbank which has made a series of daring business deals worldwide under its remarkable CEO, Masayoshi Son.

So what makes a good leader?

This is Steven’s guidance to international companies looking to establish a subsidiary in Japan: “A superlative leader for the business is crucial for success. A Japanese guy with industry contacts is not enough.

The conventional wisdom is often to hire an older Japanese man with industry experience and connections to lead your business. I have never seen a successful case using this approach. Industry experience does not necessarily translate into business acumen and leadership capability.”

That idea challenges the approach that some traditional Japanese companies take towards leadership. Senior people are often elevated to the board due to their age, experience and loyalty.

According to this way of thinking, Japanese managers deserve promotions because they have been diligently learning about the business from the inside for many years. The hope is that this provides them with a long-term vision and a deep insight into the organisation’s strategic objectives.

When it comes to money, though, key decisions about expenditure are rarely thrown open to group discussion. They are made at the top and cannot be challenged by those who sit further lower down the managerial ladder. It is assumed that those who set the budget will have insight into the company’s whole financial situation. Expenditure is regarded as investment, so the watchword is prudence. Money is rarely splurged. A good Chief Financial Officer sees himself as a steward of his team’s resources.

Hierarchy and Trust

In this hierarchical culture, successful business relationships depend on personal trust. Several managers have told me that although it takes time to build this trust, once it is achieved, decisions, even those with significant financial consequences, can be taken quickly, without having to go through a lot of time-consuming consultations.

Steve Bleistein has prioritised building trusting relationships with the Japanese. He also refreshingly open-minded about how the Japanese think and he often challenges the idea that there’s a universal Japanese mindset.

I look forward to sharing ideas with him in Tokyo (and of course through LinkedIn) and I’m grateful for the time and care he takes over his thoughtful and engaging blog.