Becoming “Americanized”

How The Internet Is Changing America

When I began visiting Japan in the late 1970’s, I was somewhat taken aback by some of the business customs of the day which I considered rather unusual.  Unlike American businesses, protocol and honor were of paramount importance.  Everyone knew their place in the pecking order of business, and never did anything to violate the integrity of the family and company (aka, “Saving Face”).  This was never quite as apparent as when making introductions in business, a very formal affair as opposed to Americans who tend to treat it more frivolously.  Japanese culture emphasizes each employee should lead an honorable and respectable life.  Both the manager and employee were cognizant of this and act accordingly.

A couple of other incidents caught my attention:

In most offices, desks were organized in a symmetrical classroom format, with the manager’s desk typically in the middle of the room, along with a small meeting area usually consisting of either two sofas or a table and chairs for meetings.  There was no partitioning of desks or cubicles for privacy.  Everyone could see and hear everyone else in the office.  Remarkably, the office was generally quiet and quite productive as a result of this format.  I visited one such office with our Japanese representative where we met with the manager to discuss our product.

While my rep was talking in his native tongue I would occasionally look around to study the layout of the office.  Suddenly, I was taken by surprise when a young man a few rows away from me, jumped up on his desk and read something aloud to his fellow employees.  Everyone dutifully stopped, listened, and applauded when he finished.  Afterwards I asked my rep what all the hubbub was about.  He explained to me it was nothing special, the employee just read a small speech to his fellow employees on how proud and pleased he was to work for this company and the people in his department.  “It happens all the time,” my rep said.

I replied, “Not where I come from.”

I also learned it was a taboo to openly criticize your manager and talk back.  Knowing this might cause frustration, companies provided a small room adjoining the office where an employee could go in and, using a bamboo cane, beat an effigy of the boss, thereby relieving the worker’s passions.  As strange as this custom sounded, it worked.

Unlike most American companies, where the individual is encouraged to kick, scratch and claw their way to the top, in Japan I learned it was typical for a class of workers to enter a company at the same time and work in different capacities, yet all are on a predefined ten year career path.  During this time they are carefully scrutinized in terms of their performance and attitudes towards work.  At the end of the ten years, the class is evaluated and individuals are either promoted or demoted based on their service with the company.  Again, this was atypical from American custom.

All of this has changed a lot over the last fifteen years with the propagation of the Internet whereby young Japanese workers took note of the laid back attitudes of their American counterparts.  Protocol and honor are still important to the Japanese, but not to the degree they once were.  They have also become less industrious preferring to have more free time.  Their emphasis on teamwork is slowly deteriorating and becoming more individualistic in attitude.  For example, office partitioning is now found in Japanese offices, as is gossip and politics.

This is an interesting phenomenon and demonstrates the power of the Internet and how our attitudes towards work affects others.  Who knows?  If the Japanese had invented the Internet first, maybe we would all be using bamboo canes today.

Keep the Faith!