“Our foreigners are more Japanese than the Japanese” is, as this article in Diamond says, not a new observation. It provokes a wry smile in me too, because I may have been one of those “our foreigners” when I was living in Japan for the third time, working for a Japanese company.

In Japanese “our foreigners” is expressed as “uchi no gaikokujin” where “uchi” literally means “inside” and is used to describe someone “inside” the family or company. Women who don’t want to use the rather more sexist words for their husband like “shujin” – “the master” – use “uchi no hito” – “our person”.

Gaikokujin is the more polite version of gaijin, where the former means “outside country person” and latter just “outside person”. The book that Japan Intercultural Consulting’s founder Rochelle Kopp and I wrote as a guide for Japanese managers on how to manage non-Japanese people on their team played on this use of inside vs outside in the Japanese title “Kaisha no naka no gaikokujin” – “the outsider inside the Japanese company.”

The article goes on to quote a Japanese manager at a globalizing manufacturer who says “we hired foreigners in order to make our company more diverse, but nothing seems to have changed. There don’t seem to be any new ideas being put forward.” As the author of the article, Sakata Koki, CEO of IGPI Singapore puts it, the first question that should be asked is whether your business actually needs a diverse workforce in the first place. You need to start with what problems you are actually trying to solve before applying a generalized solution like “increased diversity.”

And then, as the opening statement illustrates, just hiring people of different nationalities may not actually increase diversity of thinking. If they have been educated or brought up in Japan – you may find more diversity of thinking in hiring a Japanese person who was brought up on a remote island of Japan. The same may apply to hiring people of different genders or ages – these do not guarantee a different point of view, if all other influences on them are similar to existing employees. Or they may be trying very hard to fit in – as a young non-Japanese woman, for example – with an environment where the majority are middle aged Japanese men. They may prefer to adapt than speak out.

Sakata’s view is that a bi-polar confrontational structure is needed, where a minority can survive and assert themselves against a dominant majority. A lack of challenge from young people is something that Western managers working in Japanese companies have often mentioned to me in my seminars they worry is missing in their Japanese workplace. They have learnt, and have the bruises to show for it, that being challenged in your opinions and assumptions can actually be of huge benefit if it forces everyone to address issues that have traditionally been ignored.

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