Japan Industry Hears a Faint, Growing Call: The Yanks Are Coming

Times Staff Writer

John W. Mackin, 44, is that rarity--a foreigner who works as a manager in the headquarters of a major Japanese corporation in Tokyo.

The adjustment, he said, has not been painless. "Americans," he said, "are raised in a way that makes it difficult for them to survive in Japan." While Americans are brought up to act as individuals, Japanese employees act "not as individuals but as units of people working together."

Yet, heading a staff of 35 and controlling a budget he said runs into "the millions of dollars," Mackin definitely has survived.

Although Mackin's managerial position makes him unique--he is in charge of a technical documentation section at the giant computer firm, Fujitsu Ltd., where he has worked for 13 years--more foreigners are expected to win similar jobs in Japanese firms in the future.

No Longer Oddities

Internationalization in Japan's business world may not yet have blossomed, but its buds, at least, have swelled. Japanese firms that employ foreigners remain few, but they no longer are considered oddities. And a number of Japanese companies recently have announced plans to search for foreign employees.

Many Japanese executives now say they can no longer expect to expand business "with just Japanese ways of thinking."

The increase in the number of foreigners working for Japanese companies has occurred despite the rigid Justice Ministry policy of denying entry to any foreigner who would take a job that a Japanese could perform. In practice, however, the ministry recognizes that foreigners can bring technology, linguistic ability and the capability of handling transactions with foreign countries that Japanese cannot match.

"There have been no cases of rejecting foreigners for jobs that Japanese cannot perform," said Susumu Yamagami of the Justice Ministry's immigration bureau. "And Justice Ministry officials are willing to listen to an explanation of every application."

Will Compete With World

One request to allow the entry of foreigners who were expected to contribute what was described only as "sensitivity" did give the ministry some pause, he admitted. But that request--submitted by Seibu Department Stores--also was eventually approved, and Seibu now employs 28 foreigners in planning and purchasing jobs on equal terms with Japanese.

The Seibu breakthrough persuaded the Justice Ministry to "recognize the need for a heterogeneous presence in the midst of Japanese corporations to be able to compete with the world," Yamagami said.

"We wanted foreign customers to come into our stores," said Takeo Nanba, Seibu's personnel manager, explaining that the department store wanted to draw upon foreign employees' "sensitivity" toward products, ideas and emotions generated in merchandising campaigns. "We wanted to introduce foreign products into daily life in Japan. And, as a means of competing on price, we wanted to establish foreign manufacturing bases."

Mackin and other foreign employees of Japanese firms made it clear at a recent symposium on "the internationalization of Japanese business" held at the International House of Japan that it is the foreign employees, not the Japanese, who generally have adapted to new ways of thinking.

"First of all and most of all, patience--a lot of patience--is needed" to work at a Japanese company, Mackin said.

No employee, foreign or Japanese, will win an audience for any of his ideas until he has been at a Japanese firm for at least five years, Mackin said.

Then, too, Western logic must be put aside.

"When we enter a Japanese company, we expect logic to play the role it does in our society," Mackin said. "It doesn't. We use Aristotelian logic. They use situational logic. What does the situation call for? How can we adjust to reality to get it to go where we want it to go? These are the questions that count. They play reality games, not head games."

Americans also find it difficult to adjust to the importance that Japanese place on "corporation culture," including a "strong emphasis on external forms, such as polite language," Mackin said. Most Americans resist regimentation and rituals, but in a Japanese company, "that's all that seems to exist, at first," he said.

Developing "connections" and "special pipelines" within the company is another challenge. "Without corporate friendships, it's very difficult to get anything done. Japanese employees will spend weeks getting to know one another before getting down to work," Mackin said.

Patience, Flexibility

Linda J. Gale, 32, of Britain, became Isetan Department Store's first foreign employee in 1982. After she participated in a European Communities training program at Isetan, she asked for a permanent job and is now an Isetan "special adviser" on import promotion and merchandise planning.

Although she lives in a single room "too small to do any Western-style entertaining" (it measures six tatami mats, or 12 square yards) and gets only six days annual vacation, Gale declared that "Isetan has won my loyalty and respect." She, too, said that patience--and flexibility--are needed.

She said she has found that "the degree of internationalization varies from company to company, from department to department, and from individual to individual."

But again, it has been she, not her fellow employees, who have made the adjustments.

As a woman in Japan, she once had to serve tea to an important customer to create an opportunity for her employer to introduce her to the customer, she said. But change is occurring, she added.

Value Fresh Approach

"Until recently, foreigners were employed mainly as language specialists. Now, Japanese firms need foreigners' skills in terms of the fresh approach they bring to planning, marketing, new information networks tied to foreign businesses and to foreign government officials," she said.

Despite the initial breakthrough, corporate practices here have not changed in ways that would make employment more attractive and stimulating to foreigners.

Mackin, for example, said he had trouble adjusting to the fact that Japanese firms "treat employees as general purpose employees"--pegs that can be put in any hole--"whereas an American usually feels he has a special skill that should be used." Most foreigners also don't want to wait five years or longer "to start doing big things," he said.

S.J. Church, 39, of Britain, also said that Japanese companies are changing--with firms that provide financial services taking the lead. Yet, even at many financial firms, promotion is based strictly on seniority, instead of merit, he said.

Unlike Mackin and Gale, Church wasn't willing to adjust and quit a job with a Japanese firm to join Wood, MacKenzie & Co., a British stockbroker firm, as head of its research department.

"In London and New York, there are bond traders, research analysts and swap traders who are known by name. Their allegiance is to their professions, not to their company," Church said.

Loyalty to Firm

Here, loyalty to the firm is still expected--but is not as strong as in the past, he said. "There has been a rapid outflow of Japanese staff to foreign financial companies in recent years because the pay and the promotions are so attractive," he said.

Jeffrey Streubing, 32, an American, is another foreigner who tried working for a Japanese firm but soon tired of its daily 8:30 a.m. "morning salutations meeting"--despite the fact that the work day did not begin until 9 a.m.--and the continual evenings of "extensive drinking" and "karaoke"--singing to recorded music--expected of him.

He has now taken a job as senior sales representative for Wang Computer Ltd. here.

Streubing, however, gives Japanese companies credit "for at least being willing to try to open up opportunities for foreigners." Like the others, he said that learning Japanese is essential to succeeding in Japan.

"Many American businessmen insist you don't need to learn the language, but a person who is going to be here two or three years isn't going to have much influence on his business without it," he said.

"When emergencies occur," Mackin added, "Japanese don't want to talk to you in English."

Seibu Department Stores, which probably has gone further than any other Japanese firm in hiring foreigners on an equal basis with Japanese, started only four years ago.

Sony now employs 32 foreigners. All but three, who are long-term employees, are on one-year contracts, which can be extended, according to Masato Sato of Sony's personnel division.

To Gain Fresh Input

Nissho Iwai, Japan's sixth largest trading company, last month announced plans to hire at least 10 foreigners as full-time employees in the next year "to gain a fresh input of ideas and knowledge." These employees still will not be considered official, with guarantees of lifetime employment, because visa regulations forbid it.

Kunio Tsunashima, executive director of Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., a head-hunting firm, said most Japanese companies have been unhappy with the results to date of hiring foreigners. In part, he blamed top Japanese managers, who he said must realize that they "must make their company multicultural, or they won't be able to achieve results" by hiring foreigners.

Great changes in personnel policies, he said, are needed--especially in dismantling the traditional seniority system.

Glen S. Fukushima, head of the Japan desk of the U.S. Trade Representative's Office in Washington, said he felt that hiring foreigners might actually impede Japan's internationalization.

"It could be a way to alleviate Japanese of the need to learn English and become capable of interacting with foreigners," he said. Foreigners, he added, could become the "gaijin- handlers" (persons entrusted with the sole duty of dealing with foreigners) in Japanese companies.

A Distant Goal for Most

Significant internationalization remains a distant goal for most Japanese business firms.

Even in their subsidiaries in the United States, Japanese firms fill 51% of their top management positions with Japanese. In contrast, U.S. firms operating in Japan fill only 15% of the top management positions with Americans, according to Yohei Mimura, president of the Japan Trade Council and chairman of the giant Mitsubishi Corp., now Japan's fifth largest trading company.

Hideo Matsumura of C. Itoh & Co., Japan's No. 1 trading firm, said more than 100 years have passed since his company started trading with the United States. But even with $43.1 billion in sales, more than half of it in overseas transactions, the company still has not succeeded in internationalizing itself, although "we have tried many times in the past," he said.

He admitted, mournfully, that of 2,000 foreign nationals employed at 144 locations in 87 countries, only one division chief of C. Itoh is a foreigner.

Branches Urged to Act

The firm now has launched a new effort at internationalization, he said, by asking its foreign branches to "set themselves up on their own feet," without waiting for orders from Tokyo. This change, he said, should help the corporation to achieve a goal of promoting at least 100 foreigners to division chief posts in the next 10 years.

"A foreigner who enters Japan with the idea of being treated just like anyone else and staying on for life will have a hard time," said Prof. Mitsuyo Hanada of the Sanno Institute of Business Administration. "But one who ultimately wants to assume a high position with a Japanese firm in his home country will do well."

Jackson N. Huddleston Jr., a visiting professor at the University of Washington who has worked with American firms dealing with Japan for more than 20 years, said putting up with life in Japan is very difficult.

"If you don't have an intellectual interest (in Japan), you couldn't sustain it," he said. "We really are two different cultures."

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