itabasami stress for Japanese expatriate managers

Consider this case study.  A decision is made by the Japanese company’s parent company in Japan, and given to the Japanese president of the U.S. subsidiary as a unilateral directive.  The reason for the decision is not explained well, and actually the president realizes that it is likely to be unpopular with his American managers.  Indeed, when the Japanese president announces the decision to the American managers, they disagree with it strongly.  They ask the Japanese president to try to persuade the parent company to change the decision.  The Japanese president knows that since the decision has been finalized, no matter how hard he tries, he will not be likely to persuade the parent company to change it.  The Japanese president feels caught in the middle.

The Japanese term for this situation is itabasami, literally “a fish caught between two boards” – a nasty sandwiching effect which precedes the fish being flattened.  This is how many Japanese who head up their companies’ overseas operations feel about their situation.  Torn between the demands of the parent company and the perfectly reasonable concerns of his locally-hired staff, the executive is often in a no-win situation.

Role of different corporate cultures

There are several differences in corporate culture which are behind this situation.

Lack of international experience at the top.  The first and foremost reason is, due to getting a later start in global operations than most major western multinationals, the top management in Japan at many Japanese companies tends to be ill-informed about international markets.  Although companies such as Honda, Sony, and Toyota routinely put executives who have significant overseas experience in top posts at the parent company, at other Japanese firms, particularly smaller ones, perhaps none of the directors have overseas working experience.  This lack of exposure means that decisions get made from a purely Japanese perspective, based on what would be “normal” or “typical” in Japan even though that might differ greatly from  global norms.

Reasons often not given in detail for decisions.  The second factor creating difficulties for the Japanese executives posted overseas is that in Japanese culture, it is not unusual for the reasons behind decisions to be left unexplained.   It is assumed that people lower in the hierarchy will believe that the higher levels made the best decision, and not ask for details.  This is quite a contrast from many western cultures, in which explanations are considered extremely important.  One can often see the phrase “Question Authority” on bumper stickers and t-shirts in the U.S., and question authority is just what Americans will tend to do.  This puts the overseas Japanese executive who has not received adequate explanations in a difficult position.  If he presses the head office for questions, he risks being perceived as annoying and impudent, which surely are not helpful.

Common features of mutinational organizations.  In a multinational organization, it’s not unusual for a parent company to make decisions that seem to be not in the best interest of one of the overseas operations.  This is because the decisions are being made on a global basis, in the interest of global efficiency, standardization, or some other corporate-wide goal.  (At the same time, sometimes parent companies make decisions that are not in the best interest of the U.S. operation because they do not have sufficient information.  In some cases, the people at the U.S. operation who have the relevant information are not known to the people at the head office.  Increasing awareness among staff at the parent company about who the key staff at the U.S. operation are and what information they can provide can be helpful.)

Special features of Japanese multinationals.  In comparison to western multinationals, Japanese multinationals tend to have more centralized decision-making systems, and to grant less autonomy to overseas operations.  Thus, the president of a Japanese company’s overseas subsidiary may not be able to make decisions independently, he is required to check with the head office in Japan.

Suggested Strategies for locally-hired employees:

Here are some things that locally-hired employees can do in this kind of situation.

  • Realize that Japanese organizations tend to have centralized decision-making systems, so some decisions concerning the overseas operation may be made in Japan, and the Japanese who are based in your country (even the President or other top executives) may not be able to change those decisions.
    Try to get to know relevant people at the head office, and keep in contact with them.  This will make them more likely to be aware of your potential contributions to ongoing discussions.
  • Respond to any information requests from the parent company cheerfully and swiftly.  If you do not, then you may not be asked in the future.
  • Before you are asked, proactively give people at the parent company information you think they should know.  You may want to consider preparing a regular “briefing document” or set of news clippings to help keep them up to date on key issues that might affect decision making.  Since Japanese value information-gathering, this will be appreciated.

Suggested Strategies for Japanese

Here are some things that Japanese can do to address this kind of situation and avoid the dreaded itabasami effect.

  • Ask the parent company for clear explanations of its decisions.  Do not accept unclear or nonexistent explanations.  It’s OK to say “I need more information about why this decision was made so that I can explain it to my American staff.”
  • If a decision has been made by the parent company and there is no way it can be changed, explain the situation honestly to the American staff.
  • Do your best to find out about decisions that are being considered at the parent company before they are finalized, and offer information about how it will impact the U.S. operation and what would be in the best interest of the U.S. operation.  Give your American colleagues the opportunity to help prepare this information.

Encourage people at the head office to get to know American staff, so that they realize their expertise and potential contributions.  Encourage direct contact between parent company staff and American staff, so that they can develop good working relationships.


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