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When It Comes to Working for the Japanese, Old Stereotypes Are Neither Useful Nor Valid

July 17, 1988

Regarding The Times' July 10-13 series, "Working for the Japanese":

So what's the big mystery about working with the Japanese? Nearly every day, newspaper articles uncover the latest secrets about "dealing with the Japanese."

The Japanese are said to be more patient and long-term in their thinking; whereas Americans want quick answers and easy deals. According to some experts, the Japanese are consensus-minded, exclusive and sometimes patronizing; Americans are aggressive (I prefer "assertive"), mobile and openly competitive.

As an American working for a large Japanese organization, I have somehow become a type of translator--not of languages, but rather, of cultures. In only half a year of working with the Japanese, I have realized that Japanese and Americans have much more in common than a love of golf.

The greatest clash between the two cultures often arises when both "sides" struggle to adapt to the other's culture. Cultural sensitivity is important, but trying to "act American" or "act Japanese" just causes confusion.

The stories that don't make headlines are those that express how satisfying working for a Japanese company may be.

As a female who speaks almost no Japanese, I know I will never be promoted within my organization. All directors are male Japanese citizens. When my immediate boss leaves the organization, I would probably be expected to guide a newcomer from Japan.

OK, so maybe I won't stay here forever. I am a feminist, and I do have goals. Yet, at the present time, I wouldn't want to work for anyone else. Actually, I have some reservations about working for American companies.

First of all, decisions in Japanese firms, unlike American firms, are made from the bottom up. I do not have the final word on company policy decisions, but the directors enthusiastically welcome ideas.

Once an employee has shown consistency and good performance, the management will give as much responsibility as he or she can handle--sometimes even more. Contrary to popular belief, many Japanese executives do express appreciation for good performance.

I must admit, I have had to serve tea to a conference room full of Japanese businessmen, but the male assistants in the office are not exempt from these duties. I grit my teeth and try to imagine that the businessmen are dinner guests.

As I pay such dues--that lead to no upward mobility whatsoever--my low paycheck flashes before my eyes. But I always reach the same conclusion: The pros and cons definitely balance out in my favor. Months of independence, responsibility and trust in an uncompetitive, comfortable and multicultural environment outweigh the moments my work is interrupted by duties like serving tea.

Why concentrate my energy on back-stabbing my way to the top of the corporate ladder when the middle rung is so rewarding?


Los Angeles

The writer is assistant director of public relations for the Japan External Trade Organization.

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