Leadership in the contemporary society has become vital in all sectors. However, as a concept, leadership has continued to bewilder many people as it appears to be confusing, complex or just captivating (Northouse and Northouse, 2009, p.3). Many people are convinced that leadership is a process that is intended to improve personal, social or professional lives. In addition, complexity about leadership has made many corporations to engage in activities of seeking individuals with leadership abilities where they rate such individuals to be endowed with adequate abilities to transform their organizations (Northouse and Northouse, 2009, p.3).
Backed by globalization, the 21st century is presenting corporations with opportunities to ‘import’ leaders with exceptional leadership characteristics from other societies different from theirs and the issue of leadership has been intertwined with various aspects such as culture, political, economics, values and even religions that have come to dominate the modern corporate world. Therefore, this paper will concentrate on discussing corporate leadership in Japan.
Leading in Japan
As a corporate manager in Japan for relatively long time, I have come to understand that to successfully lead in this society, basic knowledge about the country’s culture, values, ethics, political system, economic systems and business practices are necessary for any aspiring manager in that society. Japan’s modern transformation in its key institutions can be traced to the beginning of the Meiji restoration which to great extent opened the society to the outside world.
Japan’s traditions, culture and values
Japan is a society that is saturated with customs, values and social relationships that have tightly connected Japan’s modern generations to the past generations. From the year 1945, Japan has seen the fall of the emperor-centered family-state and today, many Japanese have come to be known by others through their cultural traditions. Such traditional characteristics of Japanese people include: group harmony, aversion to litigation, the martial arts and industrial paternalism together with other traditional values and practices, all of which have come to influence the modern world of most Japanese.
Characteristics of culture
For many years, the Japan’s culture has remained homogenous, centered on a few core values, personality traits and moral virtues. Before the Meiji restoration took place, the Japanese society was totally insulated from the rest of the world by the earlier government of Tokugawa. Hearn, in his book ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894)’ describes Japanese as people who are humble and persevering; while in circumstances of danger, threat, grief or any other threatening situations, they continue to have a sense of dignity and afford to put on a smile (Matsumoto, 2002, p.4). Inazo Nitobe, writing in 1969 noted core values that characterized Japanese: justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, veracity, sincerity, honor, loyalty and self-control (Matsumoto, 2002, p.5).
After the Second World War, aspects of Japanese culture were noted to have undergone change but the basics were still intact. For instance, the Japanese were found to be more group-oriented and to be too much conscious of ‘shame culture’. At the same time, the traits of ‘willpower’ still dominate the culture of Japanese which is manifested in personality traits such as; self-discipline, loyalty, strength, fortitude, perseverance, single-mindedness, group spirit, self-discipline and devotion (Matsumoto, 2002, p.8).
The Japan success in economy has been attributed to various factors that range from national character to restrictive international trade practices. But much of the economic success has been realized due to an effective and highly skilled labor force that is generally committed to hard work and producing quality output. In addition, the postwar Japan has embraced capitalism though different from that of USA. It is important to note that the current economic system of Japan especially in terms of rules, regulations, basic corporate governance, corporate behavior patterns and the role of government greatly differ from those of other western industrialists specifically USA (Lincoln, 2001, p.16). Today, Japan economic system is characterized by:
- bank-centered financial system which allows a longer-term corporate planning horizon;
- corporate governance with weak shareholders and board members but strong managerial control and bank oversight;
- reduced price competition which in turn reduces corporate failure and the attendant waste of investment resources;
- internal labor markets and ‘lifetime employments’ which has contributed to enhancing productivity through employee loyalty;
- industrial policy that produces greater efficiency and higher economic growth where government oversee the allocation of resources to the best use (Lincoln, 2001, p.17).
Japan’s political system is largely a reflection of the creation of the postwar USA occupation. Occupation reforms are found in the constitution of the nation and, to great extent, was written by the USA advisors of the government. At the same time, other influencers of the political system in the nation are remnants of British parliamentary system and the Meiji era traditions. From the Meiji government, specific political heritage of the government can be observed which includes; little experience with the concepts and practices of democracy, a strong sense of unity and which in turn translates into a strong sense of nationalism, willingness to learn from west and lastly group leadership (Karan, 2005).
Environment for Japanese business is viewed both in the perspectives of religion and social terms. Religion influences appear in forms of Confucianism, Buddhism and the Japanese traditional religions. Basically, work is regarded as a means by which individuals use to connect to the final reality and hence has value in and of itself. In addition, management in most companies is hierarchical and the work ethic is very strict, with overtime in most cases ignored. In fact, when an individual leaves work in time, it suggests lack of commitment or loyalty by the individual.
Many companies in Japan are viewed as large families or clans where members share a common identity. Indeed, successful companies in Japan generally treat their employees as valued members of a community. In addition, many of the companies ignore shareholders and their needs but instead concentrate in developing and maintaining the loyalty of employees at levels. The managers get convinced that loyal workers feel they are part of the company and in return will double their efforts of work in the company (Alston and Takei, 2005, p.2). This sense of loyalty is much stronger in Japan than United Stares of America.
Leading in Japan: essential tips
It has become necessary for managers to lead in Japan, it is vital for them to understand the sensitivity of the Japan’s business and social practices. This understanding becomes the determining factor as to whether you are going to succeed or fail as a manager. For any corporate leader aspiring to enter the Japan society he or she needs to know that Japanese society is intricate and structured, while at the same time, the Japanese like working as a family though in a hierarchical manner with little or no room for argument. Japanese have a strong desire for relationships and it plays a basic role in the society as well as in business and establishing a meaningful relationship becomes the foundation to succeed in Japan’s corporate world.
Japanese are much more group-oriented in nature and this orientation takes many forms at the social, scholastic or business groups. These group orientations extend to companies, schools and even government agencies and it is this group orientation which influences how business will be done. The thoughts and feelings of the group are considered before a member does anything or makes a commitment of any kind that may affect or involve the group and therefore decisions are made by consensus. Many Japanese will avoid anything that reflects badly on the group or causes embarrassment or loss of face. Further, decision-making process in Japan differs from that of most western countries. The process is generally bottom up and not top down and company employees generally have a sense of participation in decision making.
Gift giving is also popular in Japan. Gifts representing your company are common and quality of the gift is important but this does not mean the gift has to be expensive. More so the packaging of the gift is regarded to be important as the gift itself. At the same time it becomes important for the manager in Japan to be sensitivity to cultural differences especially in business environment where although it is important to import the western social and business norms the manager need not to forget the Japanese norms as well.
Japan is well known for its paternalistic approach to leadership and the Japanese culture promotes a high safety or security need. Moreover, most managers in Japan have a greater belief in the capacity of the subordinates for leadership roles and other important initiatives concerning the company or the business. From the recent findings, it has become evident that to be a successful global leader, one of the key understanding and ability is knowing what style and behavior works best in a given culture and adapting to it appropriately and hence in neutral cultures like of Japan leaders need not to show their emotions in most pressing circumstances.
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Karan, P. P. (2005). Japan in the 21st century: environment, economy and society. KY, University Press of Kentucky. Web.
Lincoln, E. J. (2001). Arthritic Japan: the slow pace of economic reform. NW, Brookings Institution Press. Web.
Matsumoto, D. R. (2002). The new Japan: debunking seven cultural stereotypes. MA, Intercultural Press. Web.
Northouse, P. G. and Northouse, P.G. (2009). Leadership: Theory and Practice. CA, SAGE. Web.