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A monthly column from the Asia Pacific Management Forum

Review focus: Japanese management, apprentice, journeyman, foreman, Shichihei Yamamoto, Japanese company, ranks, Shinto shrines, Inari shrine

Boye Lafayette de Mente's Asian Business Code WordsBoye Lafayette de Mente is one of our regular monthly columnists at the Asian Business Strategy & Street Intelligence Ezine. A noted author with over 30 years of experience in China, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries, Boye's tips on doing business in the region are both pragmatic and enlightening. Some material is taken from Boye's many books exploring Asian cultural and business Code Words, business etiquette, customs, and language.

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The Essence of Japanese ManagementAugust 1997

Shichihei Yamamoto says the essence of Japanese-style management today is based on the seniority system, which has always existed in Japan but was perfected in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) following precepts set down by the Ishida school of thought. During the Tokugawa era, the employees or larger retail stores and wholesalers were divided into carefully prescribed ranks. These ranks were detchi (general employees), tedai (supervisors), bantoh (section chiefs), and O-bantoh (department managers) - all whom lived on the premises. The next highest rank was the yado-iri (general manager), who did not live in, and the highest was norenwake, the head of a subsidiary shop or company.

There were three ranks in factories: kozoh (apprentice), shoku-non (journeyman), and shoku-cho (foreman). After many years of service, foremen were allowed to establish subsidiaries, acting as subcontractors to their parent companies.

Both norenwake and shoku-cho could become independent by repaying the parent company for stock and any investment, as long as they didn't compete directly with the parent firm.

Apprentice received no salary, but their needs were looked after. Eventually they would move up in the system and have the opportunity to go out on their own as independent workers or as bosses of subsidiaries. This provided them with the motivation to work hard, learn the trade, and be loyal to the company.

This system encouraged the proliferation of companies, all tied together in communal groups. The communal companies, as well as their employees, were bound by the principle of seniority.

Each shop or company was run as a communal unit in which the spirit of the community was the binding force. There were no need for company rules and regulations. Each unit functioned as a family, sharing responsibilities and rewards. Yamamoto notes that even today rules do not have a very important function in Japanese companies. They are designed and used to preserve the traditional consensus and seniority systems, somewhat like the Christian practice of invoking the name of God to guarantee the sincerity of parties to a contract.

Contracts serve only to support the system of consensus in Japan. If they go against the social norm, which is arrived at and protected by consensus, the contract is void. The Japanese are willing to and do compromise where non-Japanese are concerned, knowing that foreigners are not bound by the system of consensus. But among themselves, detailed contracts are still uncommon. Their word is enough.

The typical Japanese company today remains a communal group first and a functioning group second. Newcomers are not accepted into the community-company until they have been carefully screened, tested, and trained in its ethics and morality. Once employed they are usually not dismissed for any function failure, but they may be dismissed if they break the communal standards and tarnish the image of the company. Employees are primarily controlled by group honor and the shame that befalls them for going against expected behavior. Yamamoto says the company is the community, and home is just where they sleep.

Baigan Ishida's new ethics for the seventeenth-century Japan did not relate work or commercial activity with politics. He believed that it was the responsibility of the samurai, the hereditary warrior class, to maintain peace and political stability. Business people should, therefore, not get themselves involved in the political affairs of the nation.

Yamamoto says the reluctance of Japan's present-day business leaders to accept any responsibility for world order flows directly from the teachings of Ishida nearly 250 years ago. He concludes that the secret of Japan's success as an industrial nation is the communal nature of the functional groups within society and business and that the nature of this communal group is religious. When an individual performs a function, he serves the communal group and in the process is spiritually fulfilled.

"Thus," adds Yamamoto, "it is natural that an enduring organization will center upon an object of corporate worship, focus on a corporate objective, or be led by a charismatic personality that embodies certain objectives. And since this group is a communal one, employment is naturally for life and a system of seniority exists in one form or another."

As part of the religious orientation of Japanese management, many companies have their own Shinto shrines, and it is very common for leading executives to visit an Inari shrine (the god of business people) regularly. A top executive in the Japan National Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), which has branch offices and factories throughout the country, is a Shinto priest who travels around officiating at ceremonies held at the huge company's branch shrines.

Virtually all major Japanese organizations have slogans or mottoes, many of which emphasize harmony, sincerity, and effort and have religious overtones. The motto of one Kyushu firm is especially interesting because it is very un-Japanese instead of traditional: "Use your head and show some sense. If you can't come up with good sense, make up for it with sweat. If you can't produce intelligence or sweat, go home quietly."

The Suzuki/Ishida concept of service is still a major importance in the psychology of Japanese business people, and in general they believe that any company whose primary motivation is to maintain its own existence will eventually destroy itself. The attitude of American executives that their primary role is to see that stockholders make a profit goes against the grain of the Japanese.

The concept of the role of the company president in Japan today also goes back to the days of the Shogun and provincial feudal lords. At that time, the lords themselves did not stoop to engage in commercial activity but encouraged their capable retainers to do so. The lords lived frugally, encouraging the pursuit of martial arts and cultural activities, thereby serving as examples so the lower classes could achieve psychological satisfaction in their own efforts and life-styles. The lords left the administration of their fiefdoms to their subordinates, just as the ideal president today leaves the mundane affairs of running the company to trusted managers.

Ken Takaoka, director of Japan's prestigious Modern Human Science Institute, describes the Japanese approach to business as a matrix nature, culture, and modern technology. He is a systems and aeronautical engineer and the author of numerous books and papers on science, technology, and business. Takaoka says that a deeply spiritual orientation combines with a highly refined sense of form and sophistication has conditioned the Japanese to approach their work with care, precision, and excellence. They strive for perfection with religious fervor.

Kenji Ekuan, president of GK Industrial Design Research Institute, said in the Journal of Japanese Trade and Industry that centuries of practicing the arts of swordsmanship, calligraphy, judo, flower arranging, and the tea ceremony led the Japanese to develop a keen "sense of how things ought to be, of proper processes and conclusions ... to judge proportion with a trained intuition, to reach beyond the arrangement of the particulars to a holistic order."

This month's column is excerpted from Japanese Etiquette & Ethics in Business, by Boye Lafayette De Mente available from NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company

© Boye Lafayette De Mente, & Orient Pacific Century 1997

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