Do you know your Team in Japan?


Japan's Young Generation – Photo by Sue Shinomiya

Japan’s Young Generation – Photo by Sue Shinomiya

Japan is on the rise again – or is it? Since the beginning of 2013, Japan has seen a nearly 50% gain in its stock market, the yen is down, and consumer spending is up.  In the world economy “gaiatsu”, or pressure from the outside, can be seen as both a threat and a motivation to inspire progress in Japan in great leaps forward.  As a non-Japanese working with Japanese team members, my strategy is to become less threat and more inspiration by establishing good human connections or “ningenkankei”. Here’s how “gaikokujin” or “gaijin” (for short) non-Japanese or “outside country’s person” can build that connection.

Find a mutual connection, no matter how distant, then work together patiently and socialize often to build a relationship of shared trust and respect. Think of it as peeling back the layers of an onion, moving from the outside to the inside over time, sharing common goals, processes, tasks and social interaction.

Here are 10 points for working effectively with your team in Japan, including the young generation.

  • Relationships are the driver – Ask yourself:  Who am I in relation to others, how will I be seen by others?  How can I ensure saving face? Show your genuine concern for the well-being of team members, give face instead of causing it to be lost, and you will gain the respect and trust of your team.
  • Japanese expect quality… – ‘Zero defects’ is a reasonable goal. Japanese consumers and companies want to have the latest and the greatest, and will pay the highest price for the best quality. They need to see that there is a willingness on your part to do what it takes to work towards that goal of perfection.
  • And work very hard to get it – If you need to leave the office or a meeting early, talk about work-life balance issues and give team members plenty of advance notice. For the demanding Japanese, this helps reframe their perspective to still see you as a team player.
  • Appreciate Japan’s sense of uniqueness – Learn as much as you can about the culture, history, geology, economy and language. Be willing to exchange ideas and perspectives on Japan and your own culture in mutual conversation. Build bridges and further the “ningenkankei” (human connections) between global partners.
  • Patience and persistence will lead to consensus. Take the time to build understanding and agreement. In fact, consensus isn’t a ‘nice to have’, but a necessary business and development strategy.

Working with the Younger Generation in Japan

  • The energy and vitality of Japan’s young people cannot be underestimated – they are the drivers of Japan’s “cool” fashions and next generation gadgets, and are savvy about technology, sustainability, social responsibility and social media. Think young, hip, green, high-tech and very connected!
  • Value their contributions – Like younger people everywhere, Japanese Millenials would like to feel that they are valued contributors, that their ideas count, and that you will listen to them. That said, it doesn’t mean they will automatically speak up, especially in front of the group. Young Japanese may be independent thinkers, may be better at English than the older generation and have really cool hair styles, but they are still fundamentally Japanese in their communication style and mindset.
  • In advance, give them time to prepare their answers and solutions. Better yet, ask if they’d prefer to work out their ideas in a group or with a colleague before speaking up. Instead of vocal brainstorming, try written brainstorming (ideas on cards).
  • Early career team members expect “Hands On” managers. Especially early in their careers, young Japanese might assume that the leader knows best, and should provide clear direction. It’s very important to let them know what your expectations are. If you expect them to take initiative and ownership, you’ll need to be very clear on what that means, what the process is, and why it is important.
  • Right place & time for feedback – Whatever you do, don’t embarrass them in front of their peers by catching them unprepared or uninformed. Avoid giving individual critical feedback – your reputation for causing loss of face will live much longer than you like!