Diversity and the future of the Japanese workplace

thejapantimes kintopia cybozu

Jan. 27, 2021

Japanese organizations can better utilize the skills and diversity international workers have to offer


Rochelle Kopp (left), a consultant and educator specializing in cross-cultural communication, and Alex Steullet, the editor in chief of Kintopia, talk about how Japanese companies can embrace diversity at their workplaces and be competitive during a recent online discussion. | MASAMI ATAKA, TSUKASA OGI

Sayuri Daimon
Contributing writer

Rochelle Kopp, founder and managing principal of Japan Intercultural Consulting, is a management consultant specializing in cross-cultural communication, human resources, leadership and organization development. She works with Japanese companies doing business globally and global companies doing business in Japan. A veteran facilitator experienced in delivering training and consulting to participants from around the world, Rochelle frequently leads cross-cultural team buildings and other programs for executives. Rochelle is the author of "The Rice-Paper Ceiling: Breaking Through Japanese Corporate Culture" and over 30 books in Japanese. | MASAMI ATAKA

Many Japanese companies have become more active globally, but are they really embracing diversity in their workplaces? Alex Steullet, the editor in chief of Kintopia, and Rochelle Kopp, a consultant and educator specializing in cross-cultural communication, recently sat down to discuss non-Japanese people working in Japan and explore how Japanese companies can better utilize their international human resources to be more innovative and competitive in the global market.

Alex: Since you started working as a consultant 26 years ago, what are the big issues you've noticed Japanese companies have been systematically bad at dealing with?

Alex Steullet joined the corporate branding department at Cybozu Inc. in 2018. The following year he became the editor in chief of Cybozu's owned media platform, Kintopia. He is originally from Switzerland and has been living in Japan since 2016. Prior to moving to Japan, Alex worked as a program officer for Switzerland's Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. He holds an LLM in Human Rights Law from the University of Nottingham. Alex is fluent in English and French, and proficient in Japanese. | DAN TAKAHASHI

Rochelle: There are a lot of issues around communication. The first part of what I like to call the triple whammy of communication is that the Japanese communication style tends to be fairly indirect. If you look at the scales commonly used in intercultural studies, such as the ones developed by culture expert and INSEAD researcher Erin Meyer, Japan is pretty indirect and non-confrontational.

Second, Japan is a very high-context culture. It’s very dependent on shared information, visual information and nonverbal behavior, rather than words. For people from most places in the world, the Japanese seem to be vague, which can lead to a lot of challenges in work situations. What are my expected job duties? What is it that I need to be accomplishing on this project? When things are not clear, it can be challenging because many other cultures tend to have a lot of specificity around work assignments, including very clear definitions of job duties.

The third part of the triple whammy is the language barrier.

Alex: That’s an interesting segue to one of my other questions. Is the onus on Japanese companies to adapt their way of functioning to better suit international workers, or is it on international workers to adapt to the Japanese way?

Rochelle: The short answer is that everyone has to make some effort. Everyone has to either be making concessions, compromising, adjusting or revising their expectations.

As for the long answer, let me give you two examples of what doesn't work. A U.S. firm that was entering the Japanese market wanted me to do a seminar for them about how to be successful. They said it's really important for them to preserve their corporate culture of constructive controversy, confrontation to the point that discussions in their meetings sound like arguments, but without anyone taking it personally. “When we go into Japan, we only want to hire Japanese people who are comfortable doing things our way,” they said. That way of thinking isn’t a recipe for success when doing business in another culture.

I’ve also seen the same phenomenon happen from the opposite direction. A couple of years ago, a woman in her 20s who worked for a large well-known Japanese firm attended my seminar in Tokyo. She was originally from Korea but spoke fluent Japanese. She recounted that when she was looking for a job, she had heard a speech by the president of her company who said: “By hiring non-Japanese employees, we are getting a breath of fresh air in our firm. We want them to revitalize how we do things.” She joined the company, but every time she did something differently than a Japanese person might, she got slapped down. She voiced her frustration during my seminar, saying “If they wanted someone who acts just like a Japanese person, why did they go to the trouble of hiring me?”

As you can see in both examples, just expecting the other group to change and be exactly like you is not really fair or realistic. It's also losing out on the positive things that you can gain from people being themselves and all the diversity you have in your company.

Vicious cycle

Alex: Why are Japanese companies still so reluctant to hire non-Japanese workers?

Rochelle: Basically what happens is a vicious cycle. Japanese firms tend to say, “Since non-Japanese are just going to leave soon anyway, we'll only give them specialized or peripheral jobs.” Then the non-Japanese workers see that they're not really involved in the core activities of the company, feel under-valued, and perceive a lack of advancement opportunities. They eventually leave, perpetuating the high turnover rate and confirming the stereotype.

Rochelle Kopp speaks during a seminar at Vital Japan in 2018. | TATSUYA KOBAYASHI

Alex: What's the solution then to break the cycle and create an environment in which international workers won't want to quit?

Rochelle: The root cause of the problem isn't issues that only international employees face, but that all employees face. Recently, when I held an open seminar for non-Japanese working in Japan, I had them make lists of what they like about working in a Japanese company and what they find challenging. They mentioned things like company cultures being slow to change, the difficulty for individuals to make an impact, and lack of productivity.

These things also frustrate younger Japanese. And indeed when I posted the list on Twitter, many people replied, “I’m Japanese, and I feel exactly the same way.”

If Japanese companies made more of an effort to address these recurring issues rather than thinking of them as just being the concerns of non-Japanese workers, they could create a better environment for everyone.

Alex: I remember once including in an article I wrote that having more diversity in higher positions could help with innovation. One of the responses I got was that companies like Toyota and Nintendo were really successful globally, despite having pretty homogenous workforces.

Rochelle: That's actually not true with Toyota. Sometime between 15 and 20 years ago, Toyota, which is one of my clients, told me that they realized there was no way they could staff their global operations relying solely on Japanese expatriates. So, they created detailed internal plans for how they were going to train their non-Japanese employees around the world to understand the Toyota Production System and the Toyota culture, and give them the necessary work experiences, so that they could give key posts to non-Japanese. Now they have overseas factories that for years have had non-Japanese managers running them. They've even brought a lot of non-Japanese employees from their foreign operations to occupy high-level posts in Japan.

Alex: I see, so their global success actually came from strategically placing non-Japanese workers in key posts. For many Japanese companies, the highest post available to non-Japanese workers is head of all non-Japanese workers, so moving forward I hope more companies will follow Toyota's thinking.

Sayuri Daimon is a journalist, former executive operating officer and managing editor of The Japan Times. This series is jointly edited by Kintopia.