When I attend various shinnenkai (New Year’s parties) at the beginning of each year, I find it hard to snap back into remembering to bow properly, whilst negotiating my wine and canapés, and exchanging akemashite omedetou ("Happy New Year") with Japanese business acquaintances.
It feels awkward at first if I haven't been socialising with Japanese people for a while, but thanks to my time in a Japanese school, where we bowed every morning to the teacher, and had twice weekly outdoor assemblies where we rehearsed standing at ease, then standing to attention, then bowing – the proper way to bow is somewhat instinctive for me.
For most non-Japanese people, bowing correctly is a challenge, and in my opinion, we worry too much about it. Most Japanese people, when meeting with a foreign person, will expect to shake hands. I usually advise that a slight nod of the head or bend at the waist is a good cultural compromise when shaking hands with a Japanese person. If you have not been brought up to bow, and also had it drilled into you again at an induction course in a Japanese company, when you do try to do a full bow, you will almost certainly get it wrong. Bowing too deeply or for too long a time will result in your Japanese counterpart feeling obliged to dip down again for a further round of needless bowing.
You often see this happening in public in Japan, where neither party wants to stop bowing first, in order to show respect. In the mid-1990s, an English-language magazine targeting Tokyo’s expat community extrapolated on this phenomenon by publishing an April Fool’s article saying authorities were going to set up “no bowing” zones, near revolving doors and on station platforms as excessive bowing was causing a safety hazard. Plenty of people believed the article.
I do know of one case where bowing actually did lead to physical injury. A British employee of a Japanese company in Europe related the story to me: “Our new Japanese Managing Director for Europe was going round all the departments to introduce himself and as he turned to me I put out my hand to shake hands. He, however, had started to bow down low, and I caught him right in the eye. Fortunately it turned out he has a good sense of humour, and whenever I see him in the corridor now, he covers his eye with his hand!”
Bowing is deeply engrained in the Japanese psyche, it would seem. One Japanese friend of mine, who has been living in the UK for 30 years, still bows whenever he meets a Japanese person, even in the streets of London. I asked another Japanese friend of mine, who has also been living for many years in London, if she would ever consider hugging her mother when she came to meet her at Narita airport each time she returns to Japan. “Ewww no!” she said, and then laughed, realising how years of kissing, hugging and shaking hands in the UK had made no impact on her instincts at all.
British Customer Service Has Improved - or is it just the Technology?
I asked two Japanese expatriates who were both on their second stint in the UK what had changed since their last stay in the UK 10 or so years’ ago. To my surprise, both said that they thought customer service had improved.
My initial response was that this was probably due to the big increase in people from Eastern Europe who are working as waiters, shop assistants and so on, with far more enthusiasm and efficiency than had been normal in the UK in the past.
But on discussing this further, and thinking about my own recent experiences, I realise the improvement they were talking about has more to do with technology than the cultural mindset of service sector employees. One of the Japanese expatriates said “when you arrange for someone to come to your house to repair something, they arrive when they say they will”. This used not to be the case – you could take a whole day off work waiting for someone and not even get a phone call explaining the delay.
Japanese Investors in UK Considering Shifting Operations to Asia, the Americas Post Brexit
Although over half of the of the 10,508 Japanese companies surveyed by the Teikoku Databank thought Brexit would have a negative impact on the Japanese economy, it is a salutary reminder that not only the UK but also the EU are just a small corner of the Japanese corporate environment that only 9.2% had business in the UK or other EU countries. A tiny 1.9% had actually set up sales arms or local subsidiaries, with 7.5% having collaborative agreements or importing/exporting from the EU or some other indirect business. Unsurprisingly, the larger the company, the more likely they were to be active in Europe. Manufacturers and wholesalers were dominant, but financial services companies represented the top direct investors.
What Steps We Will Take Next - Japan's Insurance, Automotive, Aerospace Post Brexit
The Nikkei Business magazine has started a series called “Brexit shock”, where they ask various leading executives with business interests in Europe what they think the impact will be. This week they’ve interviewed Tsuyoshi Nagano, CEO ofTokio MarineHoldings (property and casualty insurance) and Yoshihisa Kainuma, President of Minebea (another one of those Japanese secret successes with dominant shares in vital but unglamorous sectors such as ball bearings and pivot assemblies).
Tokio Marine acquired Kiln, a Lloyds underwriter in 2007 and the US company HCC Insurance, which also has a presence in the UK. “The UK has developed as the centre of our European business” says Nagano.
70% of Best Paid Directors in Japan are not Japanese
Japanese Presidents of listed companies usually receive remuneration around 10-20 times the average salary of other employees of their company – in contrast to US or UK top listed companies, where the multiples are more like >300 in the case of the US and >180 in the case of the UK.
So it’s no surprise that in order to attract non-Japanese directors, Japanese companies are having to fork out above the average sums. According to Tokyo Shoko Research, 7 of the top 10 best paid directors are non-Japanese and around 20% of the top 100 best paid directors are non-Japanese.
Top 30 Japanese companies in the UK – Brexit impact
I’d been avoiding doing a Top 30 Japanese employers in the UK ranking to accompany our Top 30 Japanese employers in Europe, as officially disclosed data are much harder to get hold of. But with Brexit, more data has been disclosed about employee numbers and where there are still no data from the company itself, I took the top figure from publicly available sources.
Credit research agency Teikoku Databank, for whom I write a monthly column, estimate there are 1,380 Japanese companies with operations in the UK, with the manufacturing industry accounting for 40%. The estimate commonly used by the Japanese Embassy in the UK is that Japanese companies directly employ around 140,000 people. Our Top 30 represents over 90,000 of those employees, so they represent around 2/3 of the total number who are employed by Japanese companies in the UK.
On the way to the stunning Krka waterfalls in Croatia, from where we staying on the Adriatic coast for our holidays last summer, our tour guide suddenly said “we are now in the Balkan part of Croatia”. The term Balkan has many resonances for Europeans who know their history. Not only is it 20 years since the war in the Balkan peninsular, but it is 100 years since WWI, which was thought to partly have been the result of “Balkanization”, whereby the countries, formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire or the Austro-Hungarian empire, fragmented into warring states. Clearly our guide wanted us to appreciate that Croatia was not just Balkan, but also Mediterranean, and therefore part of modern Europe.
My fantasy local start-up idea is a tonkatsu (Japanese deep fried breaded pork) restaurant, using outdoor bred Norfolk pork and Colman’s mustard (manufactured in Norwich) with a side order of locally grown shredded cabbage. *
Although tonkatsu is now viewed as a typical Japanese dish, in Japan it was originally a yoshoku “Western Style” dish, introduced into Japan in the 19th century, when Japan began to open itself to foreign influence and trade again. Japan had cut itself off for the best part of three hundred years, with no foreigner able to enter or any Japanese leave the country under pain of death.
It’s generally perceived in Japan that the Mitsubishi keiretsu has been the most cohesive and robust of all the keiretsu (Mitsui, Sumitomo, Fuyo being the other main ones) but as you might imagine, the current Mitsubishi Motors fuel economy data manipulation scandal has put this to the test.
Working 24/7 was seen as the norm during the Japanese ‘economic bubble’ but after the bubble burst in 1990, Japanese employees’ productivity came under the spotlight. Some companies tried to introduce “waste free” working such as flex time, working from home, early starts and so on while other companies have tried a tougher approach by turning out the lights or fining people or insisting on being notified if overtime is to be done. Some companies play encouraging music like “There’s Always Tomorrow” (a hit pop song in the 1960s) at the end of the working day. No Overtime Days have become widespread.
East meets East : East Anglia to East Asia (Via Europe)
When I first moved to Norwich, just under two years’ ago, my new bookkeeper unnerved me by saying “we don’t do euros in Norfolk”. A third of my turnover is in euros, so I wondered whether I had chosen the best location for my business.
It’s true that there aren’t that many Japanese companies – my target customer group – locally in East Anglia either. However, those that are here reflect the regional strengths in food processing and energy. Mizkan owns Branston Pickle, which is made in a factory in Bury St Edmunds and Marubeni is the owner of Seajacks, a Great Yarmouth based offshore wind power engineering company. Although car companies such as Toyota and Nissan are probably the most famous Japanese investors in the UK, Norwich-based Lotus is owned by Proton, a Malaysian company.
Listening, or rather looking at the presentation of Kazumasa Yoshida, the CEO of Emergency Assistance Japan, I was yet again struck by the fact that there is no direct translation in Japanese for the English word “risk”. Yoshida even had a slide to define “risk”, with “risk” written as “リスク/risku” in katakana, which is the Japanese alphabet used for borrowed, foreign words. His definition of risk was the potential for a crisis to occur, which if then becomes reality, is a threat, and then when there is harm, is a crisis.
I was discussing with a client recently the way accepted terminology keeps changing in the UK business world. Apparently “flexible working” is now being renamed “agile working”. “Agile” working is meant to have a wider definition than flexible working – the idea being that the focus should be on performance and outcomes, allowing maximum flexibility on the who, what, when and where of executing the work. “Flexible” usually (as it does in Japan) means flexibility on the hours worked and tends to be used when workplaces are trying to be family friendly towards women. “Agile” working implies it is a way of working for every employee.
Are you ‘Regular’? Probably not, if you were hired outside Japan, or female
My first essay on Japan, a thesis for my Modern History & Economics degree, was on the day labourers in post-war Japan and the so-called dual labour market. It’s with a sinking heart, nearly 30 years’ on, that I have to acknowledge that the concerns I had then, about the harm done by erecting an impermeable wall in a labour force between ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’, continue to this day, when thinking about how to improve diversity and inclusion in Japanese companies.