This book is avowedly “student-centered”, created by students of Parissa Haghirian at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, without much noticeable intervention from her (although I am sure the ‘behind the scenes’ support she gave was immense).  Each chapter is written jointly by several students, mostly non-native speakers of English, which leads to some rather clunky, repetitious prose and occasional lack of clarity.

Nonetheless, as I wondered who this book was actually aimed at, I realized it was student centered in another sense, in that it would be an ideal book for an undergraduate student of modern Japanese studies.  It is packed full of research (in the sense of plenty of facts backed up by references, rather than any original quantitative research), clearly themed and accessible.  In fact I would almost be reluctant to add this book to a reading list if I were a professor, as it is so comprehensive, the lazier student might not see the need to do any investigation of their own.  It will, however, date quite quickly.

It will also be a useful addition to my bookshelf, providing a ready answer to questions I have frequently wondered about, such as how many NEETs  there are in Japan, what exactly was the impact and when of the Equal Opportunities law and what are the trends in Japanese fertility rates.  It will also provide a quick fact checker for anyone wanting to know more about the economic history of Japan and human resource management, production management, knowledge management, distribution and entrepreneurship in Japan, as there are chapters on each of these themes.  The chapter on marketing was particularly timely for me.  I was in the middle of a debate with various Japanese company clients about whether there really was such a discipline as marketing in Japan, as would commonly be understood in the West.  The chapter inadvertently provided the answer, which is that marketing as taught in an American marketing 101 course is not widely practiced, but marketing does exist in Japan, if you don’t mind it being defined as building long term, intimate customer relationships.

Intercultural specialists or those doing business with Japanese companies may be wondering whether there is anything in the book for them.  Clearly it is not another Japanese business communication and etiquette guide. Nor is it written at quite the academically rigorous and culturally analytical level of Keith Jackson and Miyuki Tomioka’s The Changing Face of Japanese Management.  There are tantalizing glimpses of some potential new insights in the final chapter The Japanese Firm as an Intercultural Workplace, such as mentions of the frustrations felt by locally hired foreigners in senior management positions in Japan, who are “not perceived of as the heroes they were expected to be” or Western managers “reacting sceptically” to “bright ideas from knowledgeable subordinates”, as they “represent a threat to their own position or authority” in contrast to Japanese managers who encourage subordinates to make suggestions, or “it is well known that the Japanese, among themselves, can create and implement empowerment very successfully” but these asides are not expanded upon.  The fact that the authors are graduate or undergraduate students with, as far as one can tell from their biographies, very little workplace experience, probably explains this reluctance to delve further.

Overall then, it is indeed, as described on the cover, “a comprehensive review” of the changes in the Japanese economy and business since the Japanese bubble burst in 1990. Unsurprisingly,  given the background of the authors, there is rather less analysis or fresh intercultural insight.   I suspect admiration is due to Dr Haghirian for having managed to pull all the material together from her students and assemble it into a book as coherent as this turned out to be.

This review originally appeared in the Dialogin website – “A knowledge community on culture and communication in international business”

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