Japanese Firms : Americans as ‘Watched’ Executives

Times Staff Writer

American executives who work at Japanese companies in the United States sometimes have special names for the Japanese citizens who toil alongside them. They call them shadows, spies and watchdogs.

“If you were the manager of a department, you would have a shadow,” said Robert J. Wilkinson, who until last year served as U.S. corporate controller for Kubota Tractor Corp. in Compton. ‘You would have a man who was assigned to learn what you were doing--and assigned to ‘help’ what you were doing.”

He added: “They were actually grading you--whether you realized it or not.”


The nagging anxiety that he was being left out of decisions, that he did not know what the “shadows” were saying to each other--or, worse yet, to their colleagues in Japan--ultimately became a heavy burden for the American who once had aspired to a top U.S. post with the Osaka-based manufacturer.

‘Could See No Future’

So he quit. “I just left because I got tired of working for them,” he said. “I could see no future.”

As Wilkinson’s unhappy experience points out, trust can be elusive when American executives join forces with the Japanese. The Japanese come to this country with questions about the dedication, loyalty and competence of U.S. managers. And they are puzzled by the Americans’ emphasis on salary and benefits, a glaring contrast with the Japanese tradition of putting the company first.

For their own part, American managers do not always fit gracefully into the subordinate role that awaits them at many Japanese companies. Cultural differences can be confusing. Upward mobility is usually limited, with Americans rarely getting the top U.S. jobs. In some cases they may endure snubs, such as not being consulted on important decisions, or being left out of the after-hours drinking sessions at which Japanese employees build rapport and trade company gossip.

Even successful Americans must come to terms with the fact that their employer’s heart and soul are located 5,400 miles away in Tokyo; that no matter how sleek and Western the U.S. office may appear, it is a distant outpost. “An important thing to remember is that when you come to work in the morning, you work for the Japanese,” said Doug Mazza, a vice president and the highest-ranking American at Suzuki’s U.S. automotive division. “It’s their company. They’re the boss.”

That means many things to the growing number of American managers who work for the Japanese.

To prosper here, the Japanese need insights that only Americans can provide into U.S. society and such aspects of business as sales, personnel, advertising and public relations. Japanese companies routinely depend on Americans for help with government and legal issues. As a result, many Americans who offer that sort of guidance say they are treated very well.

“I like to belong--and I’ve never felt more belonging than I have with the Japanese,” said Bernardo E. Correa-Henschke, 28, an assistant vice president with Nippon Credit Bank Ltd. in Los Angeles. “I really would like to stay with this bank for as long as possible.”

But a sense of insecurity and second-rate status is not uncommon among Americans, especially managers who work alongside Tokyo’s hand-picked representatives--the ones sometimes called “shadows.” While there is nothing remarkable about a nation relying on its own people to run its business overseas--Americans have done it for years--some experts maintain that the Japanese view of U.S. executives is especially tainted by America’s recent track record.

“They (the Japanese) think, ‘I don’t want my company to look like General Motors or Chrysler,’ and they tend to put the blame on the U.S. managers,” said Edward E. Lawler, a USC professor of research in management and organization. As a result, he continued, “They often put the Americans out front--and behind the scenes the Japanese are the ones who are making the decisions and really running the organization.”

‘Bilingual Spies’

An American manager at Nissan’s U.S. sales and distribution center in Carson offered this view of how the Japanese operate behind the scenes: “Each important American is shadowed by a Japanese. On the organization chart, there is a dotted line from each American executive to a bilingual Japanese. The Japanese are assistant vice presidents. But they are not really assistants. They are bilingual spies.”

The manager, who spoke anonymously for fear of offending Nissan executives, continued: “After 5 p.m. each day, we see these bilingual spies running through the halls back and forth between the facsimile machines. It’s the start of the business day over in Japan, and they are sending messages back and forth.”

If such scampering about sounds secretive, some maintain that the talk is merely of routine business affairs that the Tokyo office demands to be kept up with. “I told my people that our responsibility is to give them (the Japanese) the best information we can, but the ultimate decision is theirs,” recalled Chuck King, 58, a former Nissan senior vice president who was the auto maker’s highest-ranking American when he retired last year.

But at Nissan and other Tokyo-based firms, Japanese on both sides of the Pacific are linked by more than day-to-day housekeeping. Unlike the American employees, the Japanese here are slowly climbing a career ladder within the larger, parent company, and establishing work relationships with their peers back home that may last a lifetime.

Opportunities Limited

Their U.S. assignments are only temporary. And though the Americans may have lofty titles and--because of U.S. pay scales--higher salaries than the Japanese, the Americans have virtually no chance of joining the parent company’s hierarchy.

In this sense at least, the Americans are outsiders, a status that manifests itself in various ways. James A. Ristow, a sales executive for Toshiba America’s calculator division until 1984, recalled that his Japanese assistant would sometimes order shipments from Japan as a favor to his Japanese associates--over Ristow’s objections. Ristow said he would learn he had been ignored only when the goods showed up on the loading dock.

“Since this young man was going to spend the rest of his career in Japan, he had a vested interest in helping out the boys in the home office, because that’s where the promotions are made. What do you do in a situation like that? Do you go to the president? If you do, nine times out of 10 times he probably is aware of it.”

Ristow, who recently lost a lawsuit in which he claimed that Toshiba broke its promise to him of lifetime employment, declared in an interview: “There was a subtle understanding (among Americans) that if the order came from a Japanese--no matter what his title was--you had your work cut out for you.”

‘Feeling of Doubt’

Wilkinson, who stayed at Kubota Tractor Corp. for almost four years, would agree that Americans’ standing at such firms is precarious. “We all had the same feeling of doubt, of misunderstanding,” said the manager, 51, who previously was an international controller with McGraw-Hill.

In fact, not all Americans at Kubota said they share Wilkinson’s opinion--which underscores the reality that shadows are in the eye of the beholder. For example, Dennis E. Miller, the controller who replaced Wilkinson, spoke highly of his own Japanese coordinator, describing him as “very, very well-versed in how a company must operate to be successful--and in how to deal with people.”

To high-level executives, the notion of shadows may even be a laughing matter, as an incident at Toyota’s U.S. headquarters shows. “Yes, I am a spy,” joked Yoshi Ishizaka, a senior executive who works with Bob McCurry, the auto maker’s highest ranking American and the only American on the company’s U.S. board.

The slender Ishizaka added of McCurry, a former all-American football player at Michigan State: “If anything happens between Bob and myself, he might punch me.”

McCurry, who worked at Chrysler for 28 years, contended that “the reason Toyota is so strong is we’re really a team. I can’t say to you that in the world of our company we don’t have somebody that doesn’t feel that way. But I do. And the top management people do.”

Fierce Determination

Yet if one manager’s shadow is another’s helper, cultural differences continue to cause confusion in many Japanese-owned companies. American executives must come to terms with an environment that prizes gradual decision-making, communication that may be less than frank and--above all--a fierce, if quiet, determination to meet goals.

By some descriptions, the Japanese business style can be startlingly unyielding. Ray B. Lippincott, an assistant general manager in the Atlanta office of Mitsubishi International, a big sales company, described the Japanese business personality as “silent but deadly. They have a stone face, but they’re tough. You’d better be prepared to deal with that--and deal with it on a daily basis.”

Some Americans have chosen to resist the will of their Japanese colleagues, and learned firsthand how steely that will can be. Just ask William H. Swegles.

When Fujitsu and TRW joined forces in the early 1980s to sell computers, the industry watched the new team with fascination: The Japanese would use their expertise to build small computers, and the Americans would use their knowledge of the United States to market them in this country.

But there was a hitch. The Japanese systems proved ill-suited to American businesses, recalled Swegles, a Los Angeles management consultant and attorney who was chief planning officer for the joint venture. “Not only were they (customers) complaining, but there were threats of lawsuits.”

Suggested Withdrawal

As Swegles, 39, tells the story, he began pushing for the unthinkable--to withdraw the computers from the market. To the Japanese, who typically bring a product to market only after exhaustive, in-house planning, the proposal represented a humiliating admission of failure. Moreover, Fujitsu controlled the venture--and Fujitsu had designed the computers.

“I would go out and eat sushi with these guys and we’d drink Kirin beer together,” Swegles recalled. “But the moment I pushed for a showdown, they disappeared. I felt like I had the plague.”

Swegles vividly remembers the showdown. With the help of an interpreter, he said he tried for five hours to persuade high-level Fujitsu executives to yank the product off the market: “At the end of the presentation, almost two minutes of silence went by. Do you know how long 120 seconds can take? We waited, and there was a murmur among the four (Japanese) managers. Then all of a sudden they all stood up and one of them said, ‘Thank you very much.’ The American president said, ‘What do you think?’ And they said, ‘We’ll study it.’ ”

Six months later, Swegles recalled, a terse note from Tokyo came over the facsimile machine: “It is apparent that you do not know how to market the Panafacon (computer system) in America. Please withdraw the product.”

Shortly afterwards, Swegles left the company. But despite the stormy experience, he paid his respects to the Japanese: “Japanese companies are very slow to move because of all these cultural protocols, this incredibly exhaustive consensus,” he said. “But when they start moving, they can be invincible.”

Stretch Business Day

The Japanese management style differs from the American in other ways. For example, the Japanese like to stretch their business day late into the evening with after-hours fraternizing, a dimension of the culture that is unveiled to few Americans.

Thomas G. Burger, formerly a manager at Mitsubishi International in Los Angeles, recalled proudly that once he gained the trust of his supervisors, they asked him to entertain visiting Japanese after work. “Entertainment is very, very important,” said Burger, 30, now a graduate student at USC. “It is at the center of developing personal relationships.”

Burger had the advantage of knowing Japan and its language, having served in the U.S. military there and also having studied in the country. As a result, he was able to charm Japanese visitors at piano bars in downtown Los Angeles with his own vocal renditions of such Tokyo piano-bar classics as “Mizuwari” (“Whiskey and Water”) and “Akai-Me” (“Red Eye,” about a woman spurned by her lover). “I got to know the clients,” he recalled with a laugh. “I got to know other people within Mitsubishi.”

But just how far he would ever be able to rise in the company was not clear: “I’m not trying to say that the next president of the company will be American, but they are integrating the middle management with Americans.”

Waiting to Be Included

Burger is the exception. David P. Hutchens, a currency trader who joined Sanwa Bank of California several months ago, is more typical when he said he still is waiting to be included in the Japanese get-togethers after work. “All the connections and all the power plays and how you rise is in the drinking parties,” said the Riverside County native, 25, who went to college in Japan. He added: “It would help my career if I could get to know them more.”

Other issues go to the core of fair treatment in the workplace. An American former employee of Mitsui & Co., a vendor of various Japanese products, said executives at the U.S. headquarters in New York blocked his promotion to a more senior job, even though the move had been recommended by his immediate superiors--who also were Japanese.

“Eventually, New York said no, but they would not give a reason,” he said, explaining that the decision prompted him to quit after more than 15 years of rising through the company’s middle ranks. “It had become such an issue that I really felt my superiors were putting themselves in a dangerous position. It was at that point that I decided to leave the company. . . .

Within weeks, the job he had sought was awarded to a Japanese citizen. The former manager, who asked not to be named for fear of harming current business relationships with the Japanese, continued: “When I told them I was resigning, the question they asked over and over and over was, ‘Are you unhappy with Mitsui?’ Code: ‘Are you going to sue?’ I said no, I’m not unhappy with Mitsui--and they immediately paid me a bonus.”

Such reluctance to promote Americans may arise from an ingrained cultural view of the world, he argued. “It’s bias against non-Japanese, bias against foreigners. The Americans with talent eventually leave.”

Japanese Response

When told of the story, Toshiyuki Oda, Mitsui’s senior vice president for human resources, said there were about nine Americans among the company’s top 50 U.S. executives, but acknowledged that “a well-balanced mixture” would require many more Americans at that level.

Oda said the company’s traditional emphasis on Japan-U.S. trade had led to a reliance on Japanese citizens for management jobs here. But as Mitsui’s activities become more global, and as its U.S. investments increase, more Americans will be needed in responsible jobs, he said. “We at Mitsui see Americans as good workers if they are well managed, if his supervisor could give him proper targets, proper guidance into doing his business,” Oda said.

Clearly, some cultural differences are not likely to vanish overnight--notably the Japanese workers’ tendency to hold the good of the company as sacred, whatever the personal inconvenience that may entail. “It’s almost like the way the ants and the bees operate,” Wilkinson said. “They have this attitude about working toward the common good.”

With that in mind, Ron H. Lytle, Kubota’s highest-ranking American, cautioned that Americans should not become defensive if Japanese assistants have a lot of questions about their work. The goal of such questioning, he said, is simply to make sure that any actions taken are in the employer’s best interest. “They’re not trying to second-guess you,” Lytle said.

And while Americans should never expect to take control of Tokyo-based companies, their responsibilities may grow somewhat as the two cultures learn to trust each other in the workplace.

Just last week, for example, Bridgestone U.S.A., a Japanese-owned tire maker, named an American as president. Norihiro Takeuchi, a company executive, said that James P. McCann, got the job “not because of his nationality,” but because of his qualifications and experience.

Distrust Can Be Mutual

“Trust is a two-way street,” said Richard D. Recchia, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America Inc. “A lot of times you’ll hear Americans say, ‘The Japanese don’t really trust us.’ Usually when you hear somebody say that it’s the other way around too. They don’t really trust the Japanese because they think the Japanese are there as watchdogs.”

Recchia said that when Mitsubishi established its U.S. headquarters in Orange County in the early 1980s, some Americans doubted the good will of their Japanese employers or the wisdom of the Japanese style. But gradually, he said, suspicions faded. “And instead of anybody working against each other, or suspiciously, they began to be working together as kind of a team,” he said. “This sounds like I’m writing a book for Japanese management relations. But it really did happen.”

Staff writer Douglas Frantz contributed to this story.