Japanese global globetrotting businessman

I gave a talk to a group of Japanese MBA students this past week on what it was like to work for a Japanese company outside Japan.  I explained about the communication issues, not just the language barrier but how Japanese implicit communication style, where so much is left unsaid, did not transmit well overseas.  I emphasised how valuable people like Japanese MBAs with overseas experience were as brokers for the different communication styles of the Japan headquarters and overseas operations.

The inevitable discussion then ensued about why young Japanese were not going overseas to study or work.  One student commented that despite or maybe because of the fact that she had experience living overseas, and also working in a non-Japanese company, she had found it impossible to get a job in a Japanese company.  “They just don’t see how the way I am would fit in with them”.

Afterwards, when we all exchanged business cards, the student told me I could find her on Facebook.  This jogged my memory of an article I had just read about how a large proportion of Japanese Facebook users have lived outside of Japan.  I sense this is not just because they would have been exposed to Facebook in the West as a commonly accepted way of keeping in touch with friends, but also because the kind of people who have lived for prolonged periods outside their home country tend to be natural networkers, and therefore enthusiastic adopters of social media.

When you have lived outside of your home country, it becomes important to you to keep in touch, not only with your home country friends and relatives, but the ones you make in your new country, and then you try to keep in touch with them as you move around further.  I also believe that people who have lived abroad for a long time are more comfortable than most with forming what are known in sociology as “weak ties” – connections to people who are not close friends or relatives, but are acquaintances.  Gree and Mixi are popular social networks in Japan, but according to a recent survey,  Japanese have 29 friends on average on such sites, compared to a 130 average for all Facebook users.

Global spanners with many weak ties can become bridges between the more close knit groups to which they also belong.  In other words, in a Japanese company, a global spanner could have strong ties with either their Japan headquarters colleagues or their colleagues in the overseas team where they are working.  Their weak ties, preferably to another global spanner, mean that a pipeline of communication between two inward-looking groups is opened up.

But as I mentioned in a previous article in this series, the problem in Japanese companies is that often the global spanner type is seen as an outsider, and is viewed with suspicion and not allowed to connect into any close knit group.  It’s not a problem confined to Japan – ask President Obama – but it does seem to be particularly acute in Japan.

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