Monday, July 2, 2007

Japanese model of employment and corporation structure viewed through the stereotype of a collectivist culture

After a World War II, the world stereotyped both Japan and the U.S. Japan was labeled as a collectivist culture, and on the opposite U.S. obtained a mark of an individualistic culture. From these two stereotypes it may seem that these two countries are exactly the opposite of each other. We will examine Japanese employment system to see if the stereotype of a collectivist culture is accurate for Japan.

When we look on the basic model of Japanese corporation we can observe five main characteristics bottom – up decision – making, less specialization, job security, group oriented production and merging work and private lives.
At first, there’s no hierarchy in the job positions in big corporations. The opinion of those who are performing the most elementary tasks (labourers) is considered important for successful decision - making. Thus the meaning of bottom – up is that management, and even the top executives have to conduct a brainstorming session with representatives of labourers before making the actual decision.

Second, in contrast to typical American corporations the employees specialize less than their western counterparts. Training is on the first place, then experience, then professional growth, then possible upward movement in the rank (job position), and finally after not less than thirty years the trainee is considered a master in his rank. In other words, Japanese corporations don’t wish to hire elite professionals, but rather freshmen that are able to adapt and conform to the corporation’s standards and rules.

Third, on the contrary to the U.S. market economy, where an employee is viewed as a material or “commodity”, Japanese corporations focus on how many years a worker has been with the firm and so they can ensure lifetime employment to “hard workers”. Seniors are valuated the most, because they have the necessary experience and they are usually more loyal to the corporation than most of the young employees. (Giddens; p. 294)
Next, Japanese corporations don’t appreciate individual, but group achievement. Although employees are separated into the teams, they are expected to work as one individual in cooperation with each other. This requires large interpersonal skills. Basically we cab say that Japanese are naturally more opened to discussion and sharing of ideas than for example Americans.

Finally, Japanese employees are expected to show high degree of loyalty to the corporation after several years of practice. In reward for that they’re given benefits and more options than employees in the market economy. Here the relationship between employee and corporation is not an economic one. This is manifested by wearing of company uniforms, company song and common leisure activities for employees during weekends. Among some of the material advantages the Japanese employees may receive are for instance housing from company, loans for children on education, and salary increasing with number of years spend working for the company. (Giddens; p. 295)

Japanese system of employment is very elaborated, but also very complicated and somewhat chaotic. “Many nations see Japan as the master of some secret and probably unfair business practices that should be changed to permit others to meet Japanese business on a level economic playing field.” (Reischauer & Jansen; p. 320)
It seems to me that western cultures are afraid of the success of the whole eastern economy. Japan and also China are the two strongest economical powers in the east. Japan is stereotyped mainly because the west can’t understand its economical practices, not because they’re using mysterious or secret strategies. I’m also a little bit prejudiced when using such words as complicated and chaotic as descriptions of Japanese economy. I’ve never been to Japan so I have no idea about how the economical system is working in practice. Therefore I would falsely agree with the stereotyped view of the western nations toward Japan. I feel kind of fear and perhaps even something like hostility against the unknown. Therefore I look on Japan through the “stereotype glasses” like many others. How can I be so prejudiced?
Let’s look at the real reasons for Japanese economical success. The strongest contributing factor is a “lifetime employment”. University graduates are selected immediately after graduation through a test developed by executives of a particular organization. Prestigious companies tend to select prestigious students and to persuade them to make a job contract for a lifetime. (Reischauer & Jansen; p. 320 – 321)
Other interesting fact is that there’s “no strive for competition” and individual success. People in a company cooperate well, because the superior employee has nothing to fear from ambitious subordinate. There’s no aggressiveness because the employees support each other. (Reischauer & Jansen; p. 321)

“Decision – making” is another important area. Bottom – up decision making system stands on what is called “ringsei”. All documents are sent from the lower to higher executives, which must sign them to indicate that they agree with the content, and that they’re not against the decision of lower executives. Moreover there’s a system of consultations called “nemawashi”. This means conducting consultations between lower – level executives. If a lower – level executives come to a common agreement they may issue a statement (“ringsei”) and send it to higher executives. The goal of this procedure is to inform all the employees in the company about a new decision before it’s approved. (Reischauer & Jansen; p. 322)

“Loyalty“ to a particular company is manifested through a card with company logo (“meishi”). When a person from one company is doing business with a person from another company he presents himself proudly with a company logo. This secures extreme loyalty and prevents “internal frictions”. (Reischauer & Jansen; p. 323)

There’s “no difference between top executives and workers”. They wear the same clothes in work, they eat in the same restaurant, they sing the same company song together, and they engage in the same sport and leisure activities. All of the above strengthen the in – group solidarity. Young workers are trained to personally identify with their company’s interests to the point when they give up a portion of their vacation and return to work just for the sake of impressing others with their loyalty. By this means they serve as a model for other workers, who in turn are becoming more and more loyal. The outcome of this process is that employees are so loyal to the company that there’s no necessity to employ people for controlling the quality of work. In addition, all employees are strongly motivated to work hard and subsequently become more loyal to their company by the company’s promise of steady rise in wages as a person reaches senility. (Reischauer & Jansen; p. 324)

The issue of unemployment is resolved through a job retraining. When a company no longer needs certain group of employees, it will offer them a retraining program to become competent for other job position. The surplus of labor is regulated by “natural attrition”. The basic motto is: “The costs of unemployment must be paid”. In contrast to, majority of the western industrialized countries the rate of unemployment is much lower in Japan. (Reischauer & Jansen; p. 325)

After reading several passages from the book - The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity – I have understand what is the stereotype of collectivist culture. I sort of believe in that Japanese culture with its focus on team cooperation, common values and interests, and lack of individual competition between employees is highly typical of a collectivist stereotype. On the other hand, I see that recently Japan is operating mainly through global market. In the conditions of global market, assimilating its techniques and principles, Japanese economy is moving slightly to the western type of economy. All things considered, I think that putting Japan under a stereotype of collectivist culture is somewhat inaccurate nowadays and it leads to reductionism.


Giddens, A. (1997). Sociology. 3rd Ed., Polity Press & Blackwell Publishers Ltd., p. 293 – 295.

Reischauer E.,O. & Jansen M.,B. (1999). The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity. 3rd Ed., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 320 – 330.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Basically, the main difference is in type of social control (Guilt vs Shame -