IFSR Newsletter 1991 No. 1 (27)
by Magoroh Maruyama
Professor of international business,
Aoyama Gakuin University,
Tokyo 150, Japan
Since the time of Plato, Europeans have been writing books on social organization, planning and management. The Japanese have preferred to elaborate and transmit their organizational and managerial concepts nonverbally; by means of rock garden design, ikebana flower design, architecture, etc. Even today, when Japanese think about how to organize and run things, they do so mainly in images, and they have difficulty expressing their ideas in words. Therefore foreigners have the false impression that they are unwilling to communicate. Foreign businesspersons are frustrated in trying to pin down the decision structure in Japanese firms. An analogy can be made to Japanese gardens. They are organized quite differently from the gardens of Versailles in France or those in Union Square, San Francisco. In fact, many Americans think that they are unstructured. Quite to the contrary, they are very carefully designed, according to complex rules.
In order to comprehend Japanese business behavior, you have to understand the nonverbal management principles upon which it is based. Once you do, you begin to see a new logic where none had been apparent before. Here are some “open sesame” keys.
Concept of Space
If you have visited a Japanese firm or a Japanese government office and gone beyond the formal meeting rooms, you have probably been struck by the fact that many office workers, and even high-level managers, work together in huge rooms. Quite often there is no spatial separation between different departments.
In the traditional Japanese house, the paper door partitions between rooms can be completely removed, so that the space becomes continuous. Often the outer shell, the wooden sliding doors, can also be taken off , so that there is no separation between outdoors and indoors. Furthermore, the garden may run on into the house, and the floor may extend outside beyond the eaves. Space is continuous; this is the first principle to remember. Similarly, responsibility is not divided between persons, but is continuous. If there are five workers, each one takes 100% responsibility (all in all: 500%)!
The second is the concept of convertibility. Each room in a house can become a living room, a dining room or a bedroom, because the furniture is removed after each use. Likewise in a Japanese firm, each employee can be used for many different functions. Job rotation is practiced interdepartmentally. Workers can be borrowed back and forth between departments depending on work-load fluctuations. Specialists can change their fields. For example when shipbuilding activities slowed down in Japan due to Korean competition, many shipbuilders diversified into new fields such as polymers or biotechnology. They converted their shipbuilding engineers into chemists or biologists.
Job rotation is also practiced in many other countries. For example in Sweden, factory workers are rotated systematically for three reasons: (1) to reduce fatigue of specific muscles or of the eyes; (2)to enable workers to replace one another in case of illness; (3) to counteract boredom. In contrast, the main benefit from job rotation in Japan is that workers empathize with one another because they have experienced each other’s jobs. This feeling also contributes to the sense of continuous responsibility. A byproduct, which is more easily understandable for foreigners and is therefore more often expressed, is that each worker develops a contextual grasp of his/her specific job.
The concept of space is closely related to the concept of the individual. In Japan, the individual feels continuous to others and is convertible in his/her own function. In Europe,
where each room in a house has a boundary, an identity, a specialized function and is permanently occupied by specialized furniture, the individual also has his/her territory, identity and permanent specialization, and is not convertible.
Harmony of Diversity
What is very basic to a culture is implicit rather than explicit. Nobody talks about it. Nobody explains it. In fact, people are unaware of it.
In the design of rock gardens, the Japanese avoid repetition of the same form: each rock must be different in shape, and different shapes must be combined into a harmony in such a way that the individuality of each element is maximally used and enhanced. This rule is so basic that it is not explicitly written, but it is obvious when you look at the rock gardens. The same can be said for the composition of different materials, shapes and colors in Japanese floral art. In Dutch tulip gardens flowers are, in contrast, used as a color-mass: the individuality of each one disappears.
The Japanese prefer to work in groups. In each one, the individuals combine themselves like the previously described garden rocks. They know one another’s idiosyncrasies and make maximal use of them. It is like a good sports team in any country, in which members know one another’s habits and talents, and combine them in mutually enhancing ways. Many foreign managers make the mistake of giving an assignment to each Japanese employee. Better results can be attained by giving the whole task to the group and letting it figure out how to divide it up.
It may seem strange to describe Japanese workers as heterogeneous, since the Japanese people have a reputation for being homogeneous. To understand what is meant, it is best to take a historical view. In the USA, racial origins and religions are heteregeneous. Therefore, explicit rules of equality were necessary. It is considered to be morally right, democratic, fair and economically efficient to treat all workers of the same category as equals. The heterogeneity necessitated homogenistic rules. You have to be blind to racial and religious differences. In Japan, in contrast, where race, religion and language are fairly similar throughout the country, explicitly homogenizing rules were not necessary, and the Japanese could afford to recognize individual differences. A heterogeneous society needs homogenistic rules, whereas a homogeneous society can afford to be heterogenistic. Such countertendencies are found in many countries. French managers need to be authoritarian because French workers are individualistic. Regulations proliferate in Argentina because rules are often violated.
One more consideration is that in the USA heterogeneity is often thought of in an individualistic or independent way. But in Japan, heterogeneity is used in an interpersonal, interactive manner. For example in a group of young people, each person becomes a specialist in order to be useful to the group and in order to be recognized for his/her contribution: one person becomes a hi-fi specialist; another a travel information specialist, etc. However, this specialization is not necessarily permanent. It can be altered as the needs of the group change.
Contextual Learning and Teaching
In Japan, learning and teaching are accomplished by experiencing, doing and showing. For example, an engineer fresh from college is made to spend one or two years working as an assembly line worker, a retail shop salesperson, a repairman for the products sold, etc., in order to experience and learn about all aspects of the company products he will design. He absorbs everything around him simultaneously and contextually. This is called “learning through the skin”.
For Americans, on the other hand, learning and teaching are accomplished by verbal explanation which is categorized and sequenced. This cultural difference creates perennial problems in multicultural management. In the American branches of Japanese firms, the American employees complain that the Japanese do not explain or teach anything, and the Japanese managers complain that the Americans do not learn anything.
Now that you have some open sesame keys, you can begin to see a new logic where none was apparent before. Actually there are many logical types in the world. They are called “mindscape types”. You can see the Japanese as logical if you understand their mindscapes.
There are many different ones and mixtures between them. Nobody is of a single, pure kind. In each society, all of the various forms are present. They are to some extent innate and to some extent learned. Various cultures exercise different pressures for or against certain types; the processes whereby they do so are called “acculturation”, “socialization”, “marginalization”, ostracism, etc. Individuals also influence their mindscape types by exercising self-selection, internalization, sublimation, attrition, alienation, repression, identification, etc.
Some selected characteristics of the four most frequent mindscapes are:
Japan had three main cultural roots: Jomon culture which began 11,000 years ago, Yayoi culture which began 2,300 years ago, and Yamato culture which came via Korea 1,500 years ago. Judging from archaeological studies, the Jomon culture was mainly of the G-type. The Yayoi culture mainly of the S-type, and the Yamato culture mainly of the H-type. The principle of avoiding repetition in design can be traced back 5.000 years, to the Middle Jomon period.
Today each Japanese is a mixture of the three different types, with individually varying proportions of the three disparate tendencies. This is why the Japanese are sometimes hierarchical and exclusive, while they are interactive and receptive on other occasions.
The next time you are in a traditional Japanese house or in a Japanese rock garden, or in front of an ikebana flower design, you can see the implicit logic behind the Japanese style of business management.