We’re all familiar with the cliche — Japan is a futuristic, high-tech country; Japanese employees work harder than the rest of the world; the trains are efficient — so that MUST mean the whole country is highly efficient — right?
Having lived in and worked in Osaka for a few years, I can say with certainty that Japanese companies are NOT particularly efficient, even though people who work at them are VERY hard working.
If you’re in Japan for the first time, you’ll notice the trains run on schedule down to the second. So, many first-time visitors derive their belief that Japan is efficient based on their train experiences, plus other limited experiences.
Here are several reasons why Japanese companies are not as efficient as you might think:
First and foremost, Japanese tend to me more concerned with doing a THOROUGH job than getting it done fast. To their credit, they take great pride in their work. They want to make sure every “I” is dotted and every “T” is crossed. Sometimes that leads to micromanaging (for example, who the hell cares if there’s ONE misspelled word in a 1,000 page report? For Japanese, such a mistake would be a huge deal. For Americans, we might let it slide, since we’d recognize there are more important things to deal with).
Japanese are also VERY RELUCTANT to change ways of doing things. If a company has been doing something one way for many years, they tend to stick with that way, even if there are now more efficient ways to do it, such as through technology.
Moreover, efficiency often takes a back seat to good relationships. Much of the emphasis in the workplace is on everyone getting along well and working well together. At times that takes precedence over efficiency. Of course, if you don’t fit in at your company, life is a living hell. And, true story, my Japanese teacher committed suicide a few years back because she didn’t fit in well at her company, which led to her getting fired, which led to depression and suicide. True story, but we won’t get into that. I will add, though, that this is not the norm.
Another reason Japanese companies are not as efficient as in many other countries: THE BOSS IS KING. So if a junior employee has an idea to be more efficient, he’s unlikely to share it with his boss, because that would be like saying “hey boss, you don’t know what you’re doing, but I have a better way.” Wanting to save face at all times dictates many of the decisions that Japanese make, which sometimes leads to less-than-optimal decisions. Thus, initiative is not rewarded, so many people, especially junior level people, keep their head down.
And on that subject, it’s true that many Japanese (and Korean and Chinese for that matter) get promoted NOT on their competence, but rather on their ability to form a close relationship with their boss.
Work hours also place a role in efficiency. You’re not supposed to leave work in Japan at 5pm, You’re supposed to sort of feel out the atmosphere and if it kind of looks like everyone is finishing up — which is often late at night — then you’ll slowly start to get your coat, as will everyone else, and more or less leave around the same time. If you leave work before everyone else, you’re seen as someone who is not a team player and lazy, and people in Japan very much care about their image. So, if you know you’re going to be at work until 10pm, why would you rush to finish a task before lunch? Better to space out the work throughout the entire day.
Now, what I am about to tell you, I’m reluctant to say, because I genuinely LIKE Japanese people very much, and I don’t want to paint a negative picture of the place. But here goes: Prostitution is a mainstream activity in Japan and most of Asia. Sex workers tend NOT to be dirty so-called “crack-hoes” that we see in Hollywood films, and many higher-paid Japanese sex workers are university graduates.
So, much corporate male bonding happens in special men’s clubs (hostess clubs, etc) where beautiful, elegant and fashionable young ladies pour drinks and make polite and flirtatious conversation with older male business clientele. Often, groups of male coworkers go to these places together.
For a decent tip, they can all take the hostess of their choice to bed. This is quite common in Asia and it’s how male bonding at companies happens, and it’s how promotions happen (disclaimer: Borderless does not condemn sex-for-cash transactions between CONSENTING ADULTS).
As a journalist, I’ve done on-camera interviews, not in Japan but in Korea, with sex workers — right on the beds where they work. Here’s a link:
So, you can see that guys are at times not getting promoted based on competence, but rather on all of the above. All of that combined — plus probably many other things I didn’t mention — contribute to Japanese companies being less efficient than you’d think.
Lastly, I just want to emphasize, that Japan is a WONDERFUL PLACE, at least in my experience. Efficiency isn’t all that matters in life.
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