Summary by Kent Jones
Master of Accountancy Program
University of South Florida, Summer 2002
The purpose of this article is to review the various aspects of Japanese culture, as they relate to business practices, to Western culture and business practices. By doing so, the author intends to evaluate whether Japanese methods can be applied in the West.
A basic difference between Western and Japanese cultures is the feeling of guilt and shame, respectively. Stemming from the West’s dominant Christian heritage, Westerner’s (Americans) are typically motivated by a fear of being found guilty, while the Japanese are focused more on avoiding shame in the eyes of their peers. Peer monitoring, because it relates the individual to the group, has been a very effective motivational tool used in Japan.
Giri is another concept that underlies the Japanese culture. Giri describes a duty (obligation) of an individual to others originating out of gratitude, custom or even revenge. It often is viewed as a higher priority than satisfying the needs or desires of the individual. For example, a Japanese worker who sacrifices his personal desires by agreeing to an overseas assignment (and being away from his family) is viewed as having giri. Violating giri is equivalent to being outcast, while maintaining giri (girigata) is highly praised.
Gaman suru means to persevere, be patient and take the good with the bad. Ganbare means to hold out and continue to try without giving in to tiredness or despair. Together these concepts describe a Japanese worker’s ability to strive endlessly through hardship towards a specific goal. Japanese workers are described as being very disciplined and methodical in their work. They follow policy and procedures precisely, they don’t make mistakes and they don’t hurry to get the work done and they don’t have accidents. They do what they are told and are very loyal to their company. A cross-cultural study by the Aspen Institute found that 93% of Japanese workers said they would be the primary beneficiaries of their own productivity improvements in contrast to only 9% of American workers.
The Japanese are perfectionists and strive to continually improve product quality. They are extremely focused and dedicated to the project and company goals. They strive to achieve satori, which is an enlightenment that is the reward for intense concentration on the task at hand to the exclusion of other things.
Michi means the way, and implies the way an individual approaches work or any worthy activity that comes with achieving perfection. To have michi, several characteristics must exist. First, there is specialization in a craft that leads to a mastery of the skills necessary for the craft. Next is continuity, described as the handing down of tradition from generation to generation. Universality is another characteristic and infers that even mastery of a component of the craft can provide inspiration. Lastly, there is authority meaning that it is worth devoting the time and commitment to mastering.
O-keikogoto and jikokeihatus are similar concepts that imply the studying of a hobby for the purpose of personal improvement. The average person is expected to have a few accomplishments and continually develop his/her interests. It implies that personal development is useful in the long run because it will make the individual a better person.
Kaizen is a process-oriented way of thinking about continuous improvement. Customer satisfaction demands continuous improvement for the company to remain competitive and profitable. Masaaki Imai, in his book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success1, tells the story of a Japanese scholar who visited an American auto factory that he had visited 25 years earlier and to his amazement found the factory virtually unchanged.
Japanese standards are extremely high. They have determined the best way to do things even if it takes longer. As discussed earlier the Japanese are perfectionists with the goal of achieving perfection not for profitability, but because it is the right thing to do. They use quality as a marketing strategy and realize that good quality is a function of good design. They are unwilling to trade quality for short-term savings or convenience. An American company will penalize a worker more severely for failing to meet quotas while a Japanese company would penalize a worker more severely for poor workmanship. Because quality is so important to the Japanese, even perceptions of quality can impact the sales of a product. This has led to over-packaging of goods. Finally, the Japanese consumer would rather pay higher prices for better quality even when discounted versions of the same product (of equal quality) are available.
In conclusion, the author states that Japan’s work ethic is superior to Westerner’s, the Japanese find satisfaction with perseverance, mastery of even simple tasks and from work, and finally their sense of worth comes from their peers and their place within the work group. Three additional factors also affect the Japanese work ethic:
Most Japanese do not have a strong religious faith and, therefore, find meaning in life in their work.
Japanese homes are small, which leads them to seek relaxation at other places outside the home (e.g. on the train while commuting to/from work, work itself, teashops etc.).
The relationship between men and women is such that the man’s presence is out of the home "working."
Based on the author’s observations of Japanese culture and its differences to Western culture, many of Japan’s approaches to business would find resistance in the American workplace. The author states that "it is doubtful that any Western company will come close to approximating the Japanese business environment."
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