Very particular cultural blunders lie in wait for Western visitors in the Land of the Rising Sun, blunders that can affect their professional collaborations. German managers notice these very often in Japan. That’s why we want to give you some important background information on the topics of hierarchy and seniority, as well as some valuable tips on your particular leadership position.
First off, there are social distinctions in nearly all spheres of society in Japan – and the business world is no exception. Company hierarchies in the archipelago aren’t as flat as in countries like Germany, as every employee is assigned a fixed position. Age also plays a crucial role in social classification. There are even distinctions between “senpai” [those with more seniority] and “kohai” [those with less seniority] on individual levels.
Despite some countermovements over the last few years, the seniority principle is still an important foundation for professional advancement in Japan. This includes employees’ duration of company affiliation, level of seniority, age, status, salary and tasks. Special qualifications and outstanding performance play a more subordinate role. To preserve harmony in everyday work lives, the hierarchy must always be observed. This means that Japanese employees should always adapt their words and actions in accordance with their personal status – for instance, in how low they bow and in how polite their speech is.
The Japanese management system traditionally consists of a blend of authoritarian and humanitarian models. In Confucian ethics, faithfulness, obedience, friendliness and, above all, loyalty to superiors represent axiomatic core values. This is where the authoritarian aspects come from. The roots of the humanitarian principles can be found in Shintoism. Rice cultivation, for instance, could only be successful in villages in the past if the entire village cooperated – mutual assistance was indispensable.
Paternal affection and unconditional loyalty
The concept of paternalism is also crucial. Superiors show their employees “paternal” affection and champion them with dedication and selflessness. In turn, the employees show their superiors nearly unconditional loyalty and support them to the best of their ability. This mutual commitment provides a good foundation of trust and close cohesion; the company becomes a kind of family. Even in 21st-century Japan, most employees still prefer paternalistic superiors. Relationships like this meet a desired need for support and assistance; people can thus find any help they need within the group.
If you’re a German manager who has leadership responsibility in Japan, we recommend a shrewd combination of Japanese and Western management methods. To pull this off, extreme discretion is required. While your employees are certainly interested in improvements, existing social concepts cannot be entirely and abruptly dismissed. Take the time to get to know the existing structures and employees, to build trusting relationships and to speak occasionally about private topics. Moreover, explain your decisions and proceed with caution. And always observe the predominant hierarchies.
One more tip in conclusion: You’d do best to orient your behavior in accordance with the Japanese people in your vicinity. In general, the East Asian tradition of restraining oneself and elevating one’s counterpart ensures harmonic relationships. By contrast, loud, bossy, boastful and over-credulous behavior – which is often associated with Westerners – is met with disapproval.
Please keep in mind that there’s no such thing as “the” Japanese, as not all people act in identical ways. However, the information we’ve provided here could prove to be a useful aid in helping you to better assess new situations. If you need more detailed information on contact with Japanese business partners, colleagues and fellow human beings, we’d recommend taking our cross-cultural training on Japan, which you can find more information about here.