Japanese working culture is notorious for rigidity, lack of transparency, and slow decision-making. This is partly a reflection of traditional Japanese culture and its many unspoken rules. But globalization makes thing even tougher. At a time when expectations for racial diversity and gender equality are rising just about everywhere, countries like Japan that have struggled to adapt can look even worse by comparison.
These aren’t just problems for outsiders. Japanese nationals seeking rewarding careers are feeling the frustration, too.
Eitaro Kono is one such individual. Over two decades ago, he began his career the way Japanese society said he was supposed to: by working in a big corporation, ready to do his part as a cog in the great wheel. But all too soon, his experience soured. The company that was meant to care for him in the decades ahead was instead making him miserable.
So he did something a lot of Japanese people still hesitate to do: he quit.
Then he dedicated his career as a human resources professional to influencing the Japanese labor market for the better.
Today, Kono is involved in three very different companies. He’s the chief operating officer of Aidemy Inc, an e-learning company involved in artificial intelligence and digital transformation; a cofounder of semiconductor designer Premo Inc; and the founder of consulting firm Eight Arrows Inc. He’s also a business school lecturer helping shape future leaders. With these eclectic responsibilities (and a GLOBIS MBA behind him), he’s turned his early career frustrations into a change-making mission.
Bucking the Broken “Company Man” System
Insights: Tell us about what happened in your early career. How did you become disillusioned with the typical Japanese career path?
Kono: Well, after graduating university, I fully expected to enter the Japanese workforce the usual way. I went to work for Dentsu, a Japanese giant in advertising and public relations. Lifetime employment with a single company is still common in Japan, especially with large corporations. I expected to stay there forever. But after three months, I had to leave.
Insights: What was so terrible that you only lasted three months?
Kono: When I first started, I was eager to do everything I could to get a job at a big company. I was excited to join Dentsu. But right away, the company started giving me assignments that I hated.
I wanted to work in Tokyo, where I’d gone to university as step for a global career. But I was assigned to Nagoya, which was close to my hometown in Gifu. It was as if they were saying to me, “Go home, you country bumpkin!” Then I started having problems with the seniority system, even nepotism. I’d joined the company based on merit. I’d earned my place. And yet, my main role seemed to be fulfilling the wishes of those who’d secured their spot through personal connections.
I was confused and angry, convinced I shouldn’t be treated this way. I was unhappy, so I left.
Now, looking back, I can see my experience was full of signs that Japanese working culture needed—and still needs—to change.
Insights: So the problem you had at Dentsu wasn’t unique to that company, but a reflection of something bigger?
Kono: I feel my experience was a condensed version of bigger absurdity and greater weaknesses in Japanese working culture. I’ve dedicated my career to rectifying this, and the challenge continues to this day.
Finding Direction after a Negative Working Experience
Insights: It sounds like your negative Dentsu experience really dealt a blow to your worldview. How did you recover?
Kono: It took me a long time. I had to redirect my personal anger into something positive, something concrete for social contribution.
I left Dentsu in 1997. It wasn’t until 2017 that I started my own business, so in the meantime, I worked at other big companies—Accenture, IBM, and Deloitte. They really helped give me some perspective. If Dentsu showed the extreme of the Japanese work environment, IBM was the cutting edge of the world. Experiencing the two extremes greatly broadened my horizons. That’s important—just one or the other is insufficient.
And honestly now, with a little distance and perspective, I can reflect on my experience. It highlighted some important things for my own career path.
Insights: Like your passion for HR?
Kono: Actually, I always expected to work in HR. The bigger surprise for me was getting involved with start-ups. Aidemy and Eight Arrows are HR businesses. Premo is a different industry, but I can apply my experience there pretty seamlessly, as well.
I’ve also published several books, which have sold 1.7 million copies. Some of them have been translated into other languages—Chinese, Taiwanese, Russian, Mongolian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean. I found that writing broadened my network and earned me a great deal of social trust. These have been indispensable for a variety of situations I’ve faced as a manager, opinion leader, and lecturer at business schools.
I think, for all of us, this is a world of connecting the dots.
Connecting the Dots for Professional Growth
Insights: What made you decide to get your MBA?
Kono: There’s a saying by Confucius: “At fifteen, I set my heart on learning. At thirty, I took my stand. At forty, I came to be free from doubts.” Well, as I turned 40, I still had plenty of doubts! I had had a good career at IBM and was on the so-called “elite course.” But I wasn’t feeling satisfied. I was one of 400,000 employees, and I knew that even the president of IBM Japan was just a general manager with little influence.
Then I heard a speech by Yoshito Hori, the founder and president of GLOBIS University. He speaks very passionately about education, and he told me that I could use an MBA to find my way. When he said that, it was as if my eyes were opened.
My GLOBIS MBA helped me gain more confidence in the path I wanted to take. Now I can organize and implement my ideas about leadership. It really enriched my career—more than that, it encouraged me to use my career to help change Japanese working culture.
Changing Japanese Working Culture
Insights: What must be done to push Japan’s working culture forward?
Kono: There are three things, and they must be combined.
First, promote career education. Japanese workers need to understand that a career is not something given to them by a company. It’s something that they are responsible for developing on their own.
Second, break down Japanese employment practices, such as lifetime employment and seniority systems. We’re making progress here, but we need to do more. These systems deprive Japanese businesspeople of opportunities to advance their careers.
Third, reexamine worker privilege systems. Japanese workers are so protected that employees can do literally nothing and get paid for it. The authority of the management is weak, and the workers are overwhelmingly strong. That means companies become a breeding ground for monster employees.
Any of these alone wouldn’t be enough. But together, they would create real change in Japanese working society.
Insights: Those sound like some massive changes. Is it really possible to change Japanese working culture that much?
Kono: Oh, yes. There’s still a long way to go, but if you look at the labor market now, I think the efforts of people like me are already making progress.
Insights: Can you give an example?
Kono: Not “an” example, but many examples!
For starters, the market for hiring interns and experienced workers has grown significantly over the past twenty-five years. Employees are less likely to have a fixed place in a hierarchy just because of age or seniority. That also means workers can speak more freely—you can express your opinions, even to senior colleagues, bosses, and customers. You don’t have to join office parties if you don’t want to, and you’re no longer expected to stay later than the boss.
The advancement of women in society has changed a lot, too—even for men. Male employees no longer face embarrassing hazing. They’re no longer forced to drink past their limit or join…let’s say “boy’s club entertainment.”
We’re not all the way there yet, but these are significant improvements. Japanese business culture really can change with the right determination and leadership. We’re already seeing it happen. Now we just need more people behind the movement to help it happen faster.