What western business executives can learn from Japanese business culture
“How should a person respond when he is asked, ‘As a human being, what is essential in terms of purpose and discipline?’ First let us say, ‘it is to become of the mind that is right now pure and lacking complications.’ People in general all seem to be dejected. When one has a pure and uncomplicated mind, his expression will be lively. When one is attending to matters, there is one thing that comes forth from his heart. That is, in terms of one’s lord, loyalty; in terms of one’s parents, filial piety; in martial affairs, bravery; and apart from that, something that can be used by all the world.”-Selection from Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, 1716.
The Hagakure is composed of a collection of aphorisms and short stories that are said to compose the code of ethics which defined the samurai of legend. The text, while certainly serious in tone and rather intimidating, was compiled in the early 18th century. The virtues of loyalty and honor, in this period, characterized by widespread peace and political unity throughout Japan, played a propagandist role. The mission of this propaganda was, necessarily, the long term maintenance of the strict social and economic hierarchy implemented during Japanese unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868).
Today the lineage of Japanese culture can be seen clearly in the composition of its economy and society. Corporations and government share highly integrated roles. Most major corporations also own portions of one another, exposing entire economic sectors to risk as unified, prepared entities. Japanese business culture in the 21st century may, indeed, serve as an example of what ethical business practices will look like in the near future.
“Service Culture” and the Social Ethics of Loyalty
The legend of the samurai (“those who serve”) class largely stems from the historical Warring States (Sengoku) Period (1467-1573). During this time samurai were generally nothing more than hired spears and bows (though swords were present in most periods their use increases with time). Through the process of political and military attrition, some samurai were able to gain great wealth and status (which were generally measured in either rice or land).
Much like in feudal Europe, a power balance formed and with it came a social hierarchy. Those who had obtained status in times of relative chaos were able to consolidate their power. This consolidation also, necessarily, meant the strict enforcement of social codes (which governed everything from one’s color of clothing to what food one could consume on a particular day according to legal class rank).
As power set itself firmly, peace came to Japan. The old morality of the Sengoku period was then eulogized by generations of samurai who would never once fight in a battle. The members of the samurai class eventually amounted to state bureaucrats with consistent stipends paid to them by the state. Likewise, one can easily see that this fictionalized social imprint has not yet left the Japanese economy.
The average Japanese “salaryman” exists in a symbiotic relationship with his or her employer. Likewise, the corporation which employs him or her shares an equal part in the relationship. Each exists to “serve” the other. Employment is almost always seen as something which is for the long term. An employee will customarily dedicate a large portion of his or her life to a company and, in return, that company is expected to take care of them (and in some cases their families).
The relationship is one that lasts for most of a lifetime. In this same vein it is clear that if employees feel like their needs will be sufficiently met in the long term by their employer, they will be motivated to “serve” said corporation, and, by extension, the consumer at a high level of quality.
It is also clear that the gap in salary between Japanese CEOs and their “subordinates” is much narrower than in other countries in the industrialized world. Egalitarian business practices can be shown as motivators for more efficient employee performance in the workplace.
Another facet to this equation is national pride. As has been made clear, Japanese society places great importance on the value of “collective” action. As a group, then, the Japanese citizenry have had a longstanding cultural obligation of loyalty to the system within which they exist.
This system includes, at all levels, the framework of the Japanese nation. The Japanese government is highly integrated into its corporate structure. This, in a way, makes it fundamentally easier for corporate entities to provide essential services to their employees. In addition to this, the extended horizontal and vertical integration of Japanese corporations makes the implementation of system-wide changes in policy much faster and more efficient.
Western capitalism has encountered many challenges in the last few decades. What is obvious in an analysis of Japanese business culture is that a more integrated economic system holds within itself many benefits. In a world which is changing quickly progressives may, indeed, wish to look to Japan for examples of ethical business practice.