An indian man working in Japan with his colleagues.

Using Japanese Values to Thrive in Global Business

Japanese companies have unique cultural, communication, and operational challenges. But they also have values that have led to remarkable longevity. Check out this seminar to hear how these values help earn trust from overseas head offices and develop employees.

In today’s globalized labor market, there’s one country that stands out for the mobility and international success of its workers: India. Indians have been appointed as presidents in many leading global companies like Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and CHANEL. However, Japan has yet to fully enjoy the benefits Indian workers bring.

In general, foreign nationals make up only a small part of the Japanese workforce. Less than 1% of highly skilled jobs—engineers, corporate executives, and the like—are held by non-Japanese workers (e-Stat 2019).

There’s already plenty of Japanese voices chiming in on how this happened and what might be done to improve diversity. On the other hand, many globally minded Indians working in Japan haven’t had the opportunity to express their cultural differences and working styles in comparison to the Japanese. This article addresses that perspective and is based on the voices of 113 Indians working for Japanese companies within Japan.

Using Japanese Values to Thrive in Global Business

Japanese companies have unique cultural, communication, and operational challenges. But they also have values that have led to remarkable longevity. Check out this seminar to hear how these values help earn trust from overseas head offices and develop employees.

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Diversity in the Japanese Workplace Then & Now

Diversity in the Japanese workplace has a long way to go, but it is making strides. Here’s a breakdown of the past and present, as well as some steps business leaders can take for the future of DEI strategy.
Young people hurry across a crosswalk on the way to their offices, showing growing diversity in the Japanese workplace

Jugaad vs. PDCA

In Hindi slang, jugaad refers to a hack or workaround. When you solve a problem or create something using limited resources and lots of ingenuity, that’s jugaad. The concept, which has attracted global attention thanks to Indian CEOs and business experts, is almost a national ethos in India.

The Japanese mindset couldn’t be more different.

At Japanese companies, process tends to be prioritized at work. The plan, do, check, act (PDCA) method is very prevalent. It’s an approach that helps Japanese companies make high-quality products, but it can also hamper innovation and creative thinking.

It doesn’t allow for much jugaad, either.

Several Indian interviewees expressed frustration with the Japanese approach. Some had proposals rejected because they were told things like, “That’s not in the manual.”

Others in the manufacturing industry said their companies prioritized quality and reliability above all else. That might sound like a good thing, but sometimes buyers care more about other factors, like price. A narrow focus on quality can interfere with customer needs.

In comparison, certain South Korean companies like LG and Samsung have had more success meeting varied customer needs in India. They started by thoroughly studying the behavior and preferences of Indian consumers, then took what they learned and incorporated that knowledge into the design phase.

Japanese companies don’t seem able to adjust for foreign markets, learn from their competitors, or even take the advice of their own foreign employees. They could benefit from a little more jugaad.

Clarity vs. Harmony

India is one of the most diverse countries in the world. The country recognizes twenty-two official languages and has a wide range of ethnic groups and religions, including Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. In India, it’s likely that your neighbor has a completely different background from you.

This diversity encourages explicit communication. Since Indians can’t assume that their neighbors or colleagues think exactly like they do, they need to ask lots of questions and express their own views clearly. Some interviewees suggested that these inherent interpersonal communication skills are a big reason for their global success.

For many Indians in Japan, the Japanese communication style can feel ambiguous. Japanese people tend to expect the other party to read between the lines.

One interviewee who works as a sales engineer for a major Japanese electronics manufacturer shared a hard lesson: “When I speak to a salesperson, he’ll say, ‘I’ll consider it.’ It took me a long time to realize that that means no.”

Some IT companies that do business in both Japan and India even employ “bridge engineers”: bilinguals whose job extends to decoding the meaning behind the words. As in, “He said X, but he really means Y.

On the positive side, Japanese workers are good listeners with a strong sense of cooperation and teamwork. The flip side of this harmony-first approach is a low tolerance for disagreement and rebuttal, which threatens psychological safety to share honest opinions. In a global market that increasingly sees diversity of thought as an asset, Japan could learn a thing or two from Indian communication style.

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How to Develop Cultural Empathy for Better Teamwork

Many people believe they are showing empathy when they are in fact expressing sympathy. Here’s the difference between sympathy and empathy, and why Japan in particular struggles with cultural empathy.
Three people communicate with different shapes in speech bubbles over their heads, attempting cultural empathy for understanding

Trial-and-Error vs. Perfection

Many Indians seem to believe that failure is necessary for success—in other words, they embrace a trial-and-error mindset. There’s an almost mathematical logic to it: shooting at many targets increases the chances that you’ll hit something.

“Failure is a logically correct path to success and the key to innovation in the future” one interviewee said.

But some Japanese people disagree.

To avoid feelings of uncertainty, unless you can prove from the start that you are likely to succeed—you probably won’t even be allowed to try. Instead, the pursuit of perfection is preferred. Both philosophies have their merits, but in the current VUCA era, a more flexible approach, (like a trial-and-error mindset) will open the doors to innovation.

The Benefits of Learning from Each Other

No one culture or mindset is better than any other. Our differences power our innovations. There are things Japan can learn from India, and there are things India can learn from Japan. If both Japanese and Indian workers respect and absorb each other’s culture, a new culture will emerge, combining the best aspects of each, and creating something wholly unique together.

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