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The proponent of the study decided to interview one of the senior leaders of the US. based company Nippon Yusen Kaisha, Mr. Tadako Kawamura. He migrated to the United States in the year 1998, when the Japanese firm expected to expand its operations in US soil. He started working as one of the clerks of the company, and then, after more than 15 years under the employment of NYK, Mr. Kawamura steadily rose through the ranks, and he was promoted many times over. As a result, he saw the evolution of the NYK, as a Japanese firm that was attempting to create a foothold in the US market. During the course of the interview, Mr. Kawamura recounted his personal background, where he came from, and the type of society where he grew up in. Mr. Kawamura was under the employ of NYK, a firm that is acknowledged as one of the largest and most influential shipping companies in the planet. He said that NYK was under the umbrella of the larger Mitsubishi Financial Group. He pointed out that the headquarters of the NYK can be found in Tokyo, Japan. NYK is also known as a significant logistics company. Its main business operation is characterized by the elements found in international marine transportation business.
He said that there was a significant difference in the way the Americans and the Japanese people understand the relationship between employers and employees, as well as the way both cultures view the importance of providing high quality services, while at the same time creating profit for the business organization. Although there were significant cultural differences, Mr. Kawamura also underscored the way he had to change his perspective regarding American stereotypes as he also credited some of the insights that he learned while working in mainland USA.
Mr. Kawamura hailed from the Tokaido East Coast region of Japan. He grew up surrounded by fishermen. He was soaked into a conservative Japanese culture. He fondly remembered the way demure Japanese girls practiced the art of serving tea. He also remembered with great delight the traditional dishes that he enjoyed. Mr. Kawamura also recounted how traditional Japanese society adhered to a strict social code, and at the heart of the said social structure is the people's deep respect for their elders.
When he was a still a teenager, Mr. Kawamura daydreamed of the time when he would be able to immerse in the social web of a different people group's culture. He wanted to have a direct experience with the challenges and exhilaration that one is expected to experience as he is compelled to deal with differences and similarities in two contrasting cultures. He also realzied that he needed to come to terms with the need to treasure people's unique cultural identity while at the same time having an open mind, because of the realization that ethnocentrism is a divisive attitude and it prevents people from acquiring the treasure trove of knowledge that they could have gained if they were patient and humble enough to uncover the beauty of other people's cultural norms and social values.
Mr. Kawamura and Culture Shock
Mr. Kawamura acknowledged that the different nuances of the Japanese culture was invisible to the naked eye, and he said that he was immersed into this particular culture since the time that he was a baby, because he did not have a chance to travel outside his hometown, until he was already an adult. As a consequence, he could attest to the assertion that certain aspects of a country's culture is something that tourists and even social scientists are unable to capture with a photograph or a painting. This invisible aspect of the Japanese culture was manifested to Mr. Kawamura when he was thrust into a foreign culture, and the American way of life that he was immersed into acted as a contrasting agent that enabled him to see the beauty of both cultures. He also came to realize why there was a potential for conflict, if the change agent or the business leader is not aware of the cultural differences between two people groups.
NYK's Experience in America
In his attempt to sort out his feelings and the negative impact of the culture shock he experience in the first few years as Japanese worker in a Japanese expansion firm that is located in the United States, he came across literature that dealt with the cultural differences in the context of business management. Mr. Kawamura said that there was a major difference when it comes to the way Americans and Japanese cultures perceive and appreciate cultural concepts called power and distance. In other words, Japanese workers and Japanese employers have a different understanding when it comes to the power-play that exists within a corporate environment.
Mr. Kawamura pointed out that in America, it is not a big deal if a rank-and-file employee approaches the company's chairman or Chief Executive Officer and discuss with him business matters. Thus, Americans have no qualms with regards to the social status of the CEO and the lowly regarded employee. There is also no issue when it comes to an American employee talking directly to a senior manager, even if the age difference between the two is very much evident.
The first time Mr. Kawamura witnessed the American way of interaction between two different people separated by socio-economic barriers, he was beyond himself trying to figure out how a society like America can function without strict rules on how the younger generation of workers and subordinates must communicate with those who are their elders and enjoy senior status in the company. In Japan, the CEO or the Chairman of the company that was approached by the subordinate without fanfare and with total disregard of social protocol will feel insulted, the senior leader would have been offended.
Mr. Kawamura was also flabbergasted when he observed firsthand what he perceived as a crass display of individualism. At first he did not know how to deal with an American employee that was willing to create disharmony within the group for the sake of expressing his individual talent and perspective. Thus, the Japanese were forced to develop a stereotype of American workers as boisterous and arrogant, because they seemed oblivious to the fact that they are talking to an elder statesman of the company or the fact that they seemed insensitive to the feelings of the group. In his early assessment of American workers, they thought that they were selfish as they were willing to do everything to demonstrate that the company or a group of workers and managers must also consider his or her point of view. Mr. Kawamura explained the reason for the Japanese people's seemingly subdued attitude towards their superiors and the work output that are expected of them. He said that the Japanese workers do not lack the moral fortitude to go against their superiors, however he said that the Japanese worker values harmony over confrontation, because the Japanese worker realizes the importance of team work. In other words, the Japanese worker is willing to sacrifice personal gain and to endure a greater burden if the actions committed could potentially benefit the whole group.
Mr. Kawamura also pointed out another element of cultural differences between American and Japanese societies. He said the Japanese people had a different view when it comes to long-term orientation. He said that the Japanese people are willing to forego short-term gains in anticipation of a more substantial return of their investments. He said that there was a marked difference in the belief system of American and Japanese workers in terms of having a long-term orientation with regards to a particular goal or objective.
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After more than a decade of working in the US, Mr. Kawamura began to change his worldview when it comes to his American counterparts. He began to soften his stance on certain issues. Nevertheless, he maintained that for the most part, his previous pronouncements hold true for most of the American population. However, he also realized that it is not prudent to pigeonhole every American worker into a set of cultural stereotypes. He recounted the time when NYK had to merge with another US-based company in order to survive in the competitive world of logistics service providers. In the said merger he was forced to change his attitude regarding American workers and business leaders, because to his surprise they also had the capability to engage in a long-term orientation or a long-term view of the business strategy. However, he also recalled the difference in worldview when it comes to perfecting the product before it was released to the market. He said that the success of NYK and the reason for its ability to gain a major foothold in the US economy is due to the fact that the products and services that emanated from the company are known all over the world as non-compromising and created on the basis of exacting standards.
Mr. Kawamura also described another interesting aspect of Japanese and American culture differences, especially when it comes to the imposition of control mechanisms. He said that a business enterprise must adhere to specific protocols with regards to maintaining control. He said that American businessmen and workers are prone to use legal contracts, equity ownership, and representation as part of the strategy to maintain control of the product process. He said that the Japanese way of dong business also acknowledges the importance of the aforementioned factors or components. He said that without a doubt it is important to have control through legal contracts. However, he also pointed out that American business leaders are hesitant to manipulate certain aspects of the company's manpower to control the quality of the output. Mr. Kawamura was discussing a concept or technique that is now catching on in the American scene, but it seems that this practice was already commonplace in Japan for many decades. He was talking about the value of personnel management in terms of engaging them to share their insights about the business process or business model. He said that every worker are considered an asset because they have knowledge or information that is vital to the company. Without the creation of mechanism to record or filter this body of knowledge, then, the company will never be able to sustain the creation of innovative products and innovative solutions to difficult problems.
Mr. Kawamura highlighted the fact that due to the insistence of collecting information from the workers and filtering out the insights through an effective recording scheme, the joint-venture between NYK and other American companies usually produced an outcome that is highly favorable to NYK. He cited examples wherein NYK was able to master American technology. He also added that NYK was not only able to master the said technology, they were also able to reverse engineer some of the products and they were able to introduce innovations that the American market embraced with heartfelt gratitude. Mr. Kawamura lamented the fact that American businessmen did not see the long-term value of human strategy. He said that in order to harness the power of knowledge management, American firms must learn the value of cultivating human relationships. Mr. Kawamura pointed out that the high degree of individualism in America may have contributed to the failure of American firms to empower workers so that they would be able to contribute in improving the business model of their respective companies.
Mr. Kawamura also described the strategies implemented by NYK to make the necessary adjustments that allowed the company to survive and thrive in the US market. He said that in order make the adjustments, NYK had to identify the common ground shared between two cultures. He noted the fact that American workers and American business leaders share common ground when it comes to work ethic. He said that certain workers and business leaders with European heritage that are already American citizen had exhibited the same mindset as Japanese workers and leaders when it comes to working long hours. He said that he witnessed American workers, managers, and business leaders willing to work past midnight if they need to finish a project or if they need to deal with a certain deadline.
He also noted that American and Japanese culture share common ground when it comes to the creation of products and services that will serve a particular need. The only difference is that Americans seem willing to take shortcuts in order to shorten the time required for the pre-production or planning stage and the time needed to test the products before the same are released to the marketplace. He said that Japanese culture does not care if they need to sacrifice short term gains if the product is not yet deemed perfect and ready for the showrooms. It seems that Japanese business leaders and workers are more adept when it comes to the need to exhibit patience in looking after the minute details of the project.
Mr. Kawamura made further commentaries regarding the need for adjustments, and he said that although there are differences between the two cultural groups, he said that it is also prudent to acknowledge the value of the American way of looking at a quick turnaround. He said that the value of the quick turnaround strategy is to be able to receive immediate feedback from the customers. He said that although the Japanese businessmen prided themselves in the slow and deliberate process of developing high quality products, he also lamented the fact that the process is time consuming and costly. He said that the Americans were correct when they said that the company cannot afford to spend a great deal of money in research and development and to spend some more when it comes to adding modifications. He said that it is important to appreciate the value of developing strategies that will enable the quick release of products into the market, because one thing that business leaders must be mindful of is the impact of obsolescence.
When it comes to obsolescence, Mr. Kawamura had to look for other Japanese products that are more familiar to the American audience. He said that Japanese companies must consider the lessons that they could learn when it comes to the failure of Sony Corporation with regards to obsolescence. He said that the said Japanese firm was obsessed with perfecting the miniaturization of the products, that it did not have time to look into the horizon and anticipate the arrival of new technologies and upstart companies that was ready to dethrone Sony Corporation. Before the emergence of Apple Computers in the field of electronics, it was Sony that was lording over other companies when it comes to consumer electronic products. However, Sony was not willing to stop perfecting on their gadgets and as a result, the perfection that they longed for was replaced by distress when they realize that they are so far behind what the market needed.
When it comes to the strength and beauty of the Japanese culture, Mr. Kawamura said that the NYK decided to make no compromises. When it comes to human strategy and the need to provide high quality products, NYK decided that American partners and American workers must learn to imbibe in the same culture. As a result, the company decided to transform the culture within the company. There was a series of steps that were implemented so that all the workers within NYK were in the same page when it comes to expectation and other concerns. There were company activities as well as continuous training so that the workers and the managers fully understood what was required of them.
Mr. Kawamura exemplified the experience of a migrant worker transplanted into foreign soil. He grew up in a culture that was very much different to the work environment that he had to contend with during his adult years. He grew up in a conservative society in Japan. He spent most of his early life in the said culture, thus, he needed to travel and work abroad in order to perceive and appreciate the different nuances of the said culture. When he came to the United States as part of NYK's bid to expand its business operations, he experienced a great deal of culture shock as he struggled to understand how Americans are able to live while they do things that at first glance seems a clear violation of Japanese cultural norms and values. His spirit and mind protested to the flagrant demonstration of alien culture because he could not wrap around his mind around the perceived consequences of such behavior. Mr. Kawamura recoiled in shock because he thought that the business model would fail if American workers and American managers are allowed to behave in their own way. After more than fifteen years of working in the US, Mr. Kawamura realized that he needed to change the way he perceived American workers and business leaders. He said that he needed to let go of certain stereotypes. He said that there are certain commonalities between these two different cultures. Focusing on shared common ground enabled NYK to develop a corporate culture that demonstrated its commitment to never compromise the beauty and power of Japanese culture, while at the same time acknowledging the benefits of adopting certain features of the American culture. He said that the company learned a great deal about the American business leaders insistence for a quick turnaround strategy, because they needed to release the product in order to acquire immediate customer feedback. He said that NYK had to make the necessary adjustments, such as, the need to make changes on the Japanese worldview that oftentimes lead to the failure to release products as soon as possible for fear that it is not yet ready for the American market. He said that although it is important to appreciate the value of a faster rate of completion and release of products, it is also imperative to integrate the Japanese way of doing business to ensure the creation of high quality products. Mr. Nakamura realized that both cultures can learn from one another. In the case of the US business leaders, they can learn a thing or two regarding the