A brief self-introduction; why this blog exists

Hi. I’m an early-40s salariman at a mid-sized company away from the major metropolises. I’ve been here for more than a decade—jogging on the teacher treadmill, running a business, doing independent translation work, etc. I have a family and a house.

As Japan’s economy continues to stagnate, factors surrounding growth economies (climate change, air quality, cultural unpleasantness) as well as the continued growth of ‘cool’ from Japan have continued to prop up Japan’s image among young people worldwide. I see old friends on facebook talking about their kids studying the language in junior high school, hoping to become manga artists in Tokyo.

Spoiler: for me, Japan is interesting sometimes, beautiful sometimes, deep and rich, but on a daily basis, fairly uninspiring and unstimulating. I think it is the same for most Japanese people around me, and I am adapting to the average. I worry about my long-term prospects here, especially the idea of growing old in this community.

The purpose of this blog is to explore work culture and daily life in a smaller city. The work-related posts each focus on a particular cultural point. I hope it’s enlightening and helpful for people already working here, and educational for people considering coming to Japan as more than a tourist.

頑張ろう!

Top down

In a previous post I mentioned that the purpose of the chorei, or morning meeting, is to get all the workers at the company aligned in thought for the day’s work.

It’s been said that the shacho (社長、しゃちょう), or president, of a Japanese company, leaves business decisions to the division chiefs below him, and mostly exists to provide top-level direction for the company. Although each company will have its own way of doing things, I’m finding this to be true here.

When new products are planned or major label revisions done, shacho will give feedback and approval. Mostly he has his head above all this, though. His direction is passed down through the division chief, to the section chief, and on down to us. We are empty vessels…

No, we’re not empty vessels, but when instruction comes down from above, we are expected to be. And sometimes, depending on group dynamics, people involved in a project will suddenly act … empty.

We had an awkward meeting today. Some members of one of the production lines are expected to go to a store to hand out samples over the coming Golden Week vacation. This activity is managed by the business department, so we went over with the in-charge to give them a run-down of what we’re focusing on this year.

At least that’s what ended up happening. It turns out that the in-charge’s goal was to increase feelings of cooperation and motivation, but after going over sales figures from past years he tried to see if any of the workers had relevant experiences from past years to share. No one said anything.

“It’s better to not ask permission and be told to stop, than to ask permission and be denied.”I  don’t know if this truism has its its roots in an actual Japanese saying, but people here certainly say 「聞かない方がいい」, it’s better not to ask.

The in-charge was hoping to set a group direction and get people on the same page, but instead he put people in the position of choosing between risking being told to stop something, and saying nothing at all. Of course they said nothing. For a trivial thing like handing out samples, I don’t blame them for not risking their freedom. Excessive instructions from aboive can easily ruin an already tiring day.

There have been some compliaints from this venue about the attitude or actions of people handing out samples in the past that I suspect he was trying to suss out. I don’t know why he didn’t either share that information with the workers, or give them specific instructions on certain actions to be taken to avoid these complaints in the future.

Back in the office, the in-charge confided that he was hoping to raise group morale, but that the silence around the table is ‘what always happens.’

Indeed.

Realistic advice

We will, we will break you (break you)
There’s an older guy working here who keeps giving me the same pep talk and advice. It goes a bit like this:
“It’s so great that you’re here! You’ll help us get to foreign markets. I’m sure you have lots of new ideas, so please send those to your division chief one after another. You’ll help this company progress.
“This company is big and traditional, and doesn’t like to change course at all. Lots of people, especially people who have worked elsewhere, come here with ideas and drive, and end up losing their energy and just doing their job with their head down. That’s just the way this place is, you’ll see.
“I know that you want to interact with foreign customers, but that’s a waste of time because they don’t spend money here. You should spend your time making an English website and sending our goods to foreign countries for sale. Don’t waste your time with individual customers.”
His lecture perfectly encapsulates what seems to be my company’s attitude. They have high hopes and expectations, but no specific idea of how we will arrive at whatever image they have for my contribution. Their reaction to proposals is generally negative, with no feedback on how they could be restructured to be useful. And there is very little reaction when I tell them that I need to start market research with individual customers as a foundation for any marketing, including a simple English website.
Worker beware!

Kangeikai (かんげいかい、歓迎会), the welcome party

The school year and business year begin in April. Every year on the first business day of the month, the new hires are given a speech by the president and then shown around the offices and factories, where they very nervously introduce themselves.

This year one girl forgot which department she was assigned to, and instead of improvising, just clammed up and stood there for a very long while. It reminded me of teaching in a junior high school! I was dismayed to see that the habit carries on after graduation…

The importance of belonging to your group is paramount in Japan, and so during April they are always welcomed with a kangeikai, or welcome party. Again, they get to stand in front of the group and introduce themselves, then start their dinner at a table with the president and senior managers. Soon enough, younger staff members take them around table to table to pour drinks for everyone, reminding us of their names, and say よろしくお願いします, yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

If they’re lucky, they can drink too, though many are hired straight out of high school and are still under 20. This year two had gone to 2-year college and drank a little, while one was still 18 and didn’t. 4-year college is quite rare out here…

If you are on the receiving end of a kangeikai, my advice is to make a great impression right at the beginning, before everyone gets drunk. You should have a senpai (先輩、せんぱい), or senior, who takes care of you; if no one seems to be stepping up, you can ask someone whose desk is near yours and who is fairly low on the totem pole to show you what to do. Many people don’t know quite what to make of a foreigner in their midst, so it might be up to you to take this step.

And then on the morning of the next day in the office, be sure to thank everyone! For desks that are not in your immediate vicinity, you can wait a few minutes until everyone is there and then get them all at once. That should cement your good impression and make a smooth start for the year.

Chorei (朝礼, ちょうれい), the morning meeting

Each day in the office begins with the chorei, or morning greeting. The purpose of this greeting is generally twofold–to communicate necessary short-term information, and to focus everyone on the company itself in preparation for the day’s work.

One of the most confusing things you may notice about business in Japan is that when higher-level decisions are in play–things without specific deadlines, especially–it is common for expectations to be fuzzy, for people not to have specific goals to achieve, and for little explicit conversation about the topic to occur. Suggestions will be made but not discussed, and future steps or processes left undecided. To me it often feels like we’re sitting around a ouija board, waiting for some kind of group inspiration to lead us to an answer.

That inspiration, the heart of what should guide a good worker in Japan, is the essential image of the company itself. The image as a guiding principle is a topic that encompasses the role of the president and upper management, and explains how they are so different from companies in the west. But that’s a later post.

This is where the chorei comes in. Some companies will sing the company song or do exercises together, though this is becoming rarer. In our office we take turns reading through the company philosophy, the manual for client relationship management, and the manual for sales management. By reminding each other of these points to focus on, company workers help each other (supposedly) stay on track without too much supervision.

Also in the chorei, the presenter confirms any larger appointments happening during the day, and reads off which workers are out of office. Then they give a personal presentation that can be 30 seconds to a few minutes long, on any relevant topic they choose. Recent presentations here have included a quick wrapup of an industry show, a report by one of the sales staff of personal yearly earnings with an outlook for this next year, and a short opinion from a customer call.

Today was my first time in the hot seat. For the reading I got the shortest part of the company philosophy; I expect that someone waited for that one to come up before assigning me. Then I spoke for a bit about what I noticed during my kenshu training period (研修、けんしゅう) and also about the importance of collecting data from foreigners in Japan and abroad as the foundation of any sales efforts. I hope I’m not belaboring the point (see previous blog post), but I didn’t want to let the chance to speak to everyone in the office pass by without making something of it.

I really don’t mind speaking in front of people when it’s casual, but having to stick to the format of the presentation and then read the company philosophy was difficult, and made the whole thing rather harrowing! I’m glad it’s over, at least until the next cycle.

Nemawashi fail

Nemawashi (根回し) is the standard process of bringing people slowly around to your way of thinking before attempting to make a proposal.

In a western country, a proposal is generally considered logically, by judging its merits, drawbacks, costs, etc. In Japan, that is reserved for final stage of negotiations, if it even happens then. More important are the feelings of the people involved. Fire off some information with no context and you’ll surprise your colleague (or spouse, or buyer, or anyone else); request a quick response to that information, and you’ll probably offend them.

Even proposals that align with common sense and company policy require nemawashi. In short, you need to build momentum by getting anyone you can on board with your idea, especially the people closest to you, both horizontally and vertically. At the same time, you could ask questions of key people further away to plant the context in their mind, even if they don’t know that a proposal is coming or what your position might be.

The hard part is knowing the relevant information that’s behind the scenes. For example, the relationships of the people you are talking to—whether they have similar or different ideas about the sort of thing you’re proposing or about the overall direction of the company, and whether they have conflicted in the past. Also, knowing how people came into their current positions will help you discover past power structures, i.e., who will not want to feel like they are taking direction from whom. Finally, a general knowledge of how information will flow depending on who you give it to, including who is a listener, who is a talker, and who just wants to give directions.

Here’s a painful example that’s happening right now:

My initial rough job description, compiled by the president, includes cross-division responsibilities. This weekend there is an event that should trigger one of those responsibilities—not just one that I should perform, but one that will give me critical information that will help me do my job better. Unfortunately it’s in a different division than I am in.

I mentioned the event to a mid-rank person in that division casually, thinking that I’d be included in it, but he told me that because of the timing they would maybe call me next time.

I was surprised and went to my supervisor next. Unfortunately he’s not a great listener. I finally got my point across, but when he next approached my division chief he didn’t really pass along my core message.

At this point, the only person who could help me was the division chief of the other division, but my division chief then went to talk to the #2 over there—the guy who seemed to be opposed to my being involved, which none of us knew at the time. By going to him, my division chief cut off the ability of that division chief to override his decision.

My division chief came back and instructed my supervisor to sit down with me, then have a meeting with the other division chief and the #2. The next day I approached my supervisor and asked, “So what is the next step on this issue?”

He replied, “Now we wait until they call us to talk to us.”

In short, a fustercluck. And I’m not going to be able to be present at this event, which will just hurt the company. Oh well.

In the future, here’s what I’m going to do differently:

I’m going to mention these opportunities with my immediate coworkers, to see how they would approach the situation.

I’ll use my section chief, who is not relevant to these activities but who is a better listener.

I’ll gently remind my division chief at the right timing of what can be gained by having me fulfill these responsibilities, so that he gets the idea and so my supervisor won’t have the power to block communication so much.

At some point I’ll have to suss out the president regarding these responsibilities, which could be hard to do without raising an alarm in the other division.

Finally, I’ll have to somehow find out what the other division chief sees as my contributions to her group. That one will be the hardest. If she’s not on board with what the president outlined for me, then my overall contribution to this company could be very limited.