Structure of Japanese companies – Part 2

I will now continue writing about the innards of traditional Japanese enterprises. If you want to properly understand this text, you should have read the previous post.

In Japanese culture there is a huge difference between people who is inside the group (those inside – 内), and people who is outside the group (those outside – 外). Japanese people behave very differently depending if the person they interact with is “one of them” or not.

In Japan, the social position of a person depends enormously on the group they belong to. For example, when you introduce yourself for the first time, you first say your name and then the name of the company you work for.

This concept may apply to many levels: in relationships among companies, in relationships among departments within the company, in relationships among groups within a certain department, etc.

The rule of thumb when interacting with people within the job environment is as follows: you may exchange opinions, information, etc. with people in your group, but in order to communicate with people from other groups, you need to follow protocol. The protocol consists of filling forms that you hand in to your boss and then your boss hands in to the other department/group’s boss to see if your request is appropriate. This process is slow, very slow, specially when the form has to go up several levels and then go back down. This may be one of the reasons why Japanese enterprises are slow but safe.

The philosophy dictates that in traditional Japanese enterprises there is always a right way to do things, to follow the method. The idea is to minimize friction between groups and to keep everybody posted about what is happening. Besides, if something goes wrong or right, there is always written evidence of everything that happened.

Let’s now move on to how a new graduate starts working in a company. As soon as a new worker (Kohai) arrives, a “Senpai” (mentor) is assigned to him. The Senpai is in charge of mentoring the Kohai during his first few months. That is the basic learning mechanism in all enterprises in Japan.

Another kind of relationship is the one between boss and subordinate (Joushi-Buka). After the training period, the subordinate knows his boss well enough and he should know what the boss wants without any explicit requests. This is a very common Japanese way of communication, which consists of “understanding 10 when you’re being told 1”. With that I mean that if the boss says “we could do A”, the subordinate does A, B and C. You need to know your boss really well in order to do that. Something that is also very typical in this kind of relationship is going for beers with the boss, which is the most appropriate time to openly complain about this or that. If everything goes well, after some time your boss will go up a level and you’ll go up with him. This system is usually very rigid and you go up levels only depending on seniority. There’s never the danger of someone “very smart” coming and stealing your job.

These two types of relationship are vertical, but there are also horizontal relationships, they are called “Doki” (from the same period). The term Doki is used to refer to all employees that arrive in the company the same year. All of them will go for drinks (Nomikai) together and will exchange opinions, will talk about other coworkers, will rant about the boss, etc. One’s true opinion (Honne – 本音) is what they’ll exchange during Nomikai (meeting at a bar to drink and chat). At work there’s usually no exchange of strong opinions to avoid ruining the harmony among groups. Those kind of meetings between Doki cause a huge flow of non-official communication among departments.

Let’s see an example of how Doki can help to speed up things. Let’s imagine you are a researcher in the R&D department in Toyota. Let’s say you’ve found a way to improve production time for the part X and you want to ask someone in the production plant whether it’d be possible to make changes Y and Z in the production chain. The right way would be to fill up a Rishingo (official form) which would go up to the upper levels of the department. Then that would be sent through the rest of departments to the production plant where the form would travel back down several levels until reaching the supervisor in the production chain. That form must be read and signed by every person in the process. It might take more than a month just to get to the hands of the supervisor in the production chain, and then one more month to travel back with the answer. If it’s negative, you’ll have wasted two months waiting. How can we get the information quickly and avoid waiting for two months for nothing? The most intelligent way is to talk to some Doki that works in the production plant during a Nomikai. “Your” Doki will comment about it with people in his department and will ask if changes Y and Z are possible. If the answer is yes, then you know you’re not going to waste your time sending the Rishingo (form). Yes!! You still need to fill out the freaking form. The unofficial technique is only used to check if you’ll be wasting your time filling out paperwork just to get a negative answer.

To sum up, in Japanese society everything must be done in writing; to evolve within the company you must go for drinks (Nomikai) with your coworkers and your boss; the way to proceed within the company is very, very strict.

There is a system in Japan, a way to proceed after finishing your degree. There are huge companies that hire hundreds of new employees every year and keep teaching them for years until they become essential elements for the company. In other societies there isn’t a defined system, everything is more chaotic; when you start working at the end of your college education, you don’t know where will you be in 20 years. Japanese people know.

But this system also has its flaws which are reflected, for example, in some bad results in traditional Japanese enterprises, such as Mitsubishi. Therefore, some enterprises are starting to look for a balance and they’re adopting certain models based on American (Toyota) or European (Nissan) philosophies.

3 Comments
  • Morten

    November 30, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Nice post:) A lot of useful stuff if you want to take the chance and get a job in Japan!

  • paul

    December 1, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    you can always sleep with your boss is you want to move up

    maybe you can do an article about pay rate next?

  • DonP

    February 14, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Both your articles about Big Japanese companies apply to Greek companies with not a single word changed (well, you would need to translate the Japanese words to their Greek equivalents). You describing it that way, showed me that there are probably other ways to organize a big company (what these are, I don’t know though…). There are very particular words describing the written requests between departments in Greek companies, and here too, the quickest way to do something is to know someone on your level on the other department (Just to be sure that you’re not wasting your time with the “Ypiresiako” as the form is known though). Sometimes you can even get your Doki (“Seira”) in the other department to start working on your request before even the Ypiresiako goes all the way up and down the chain.