In Japan's UK outposts, the natives are restless

British managers feel excluded. So who's to blame when cultures clash?
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The Independent Online
The backlash has begun. After a decade of outward sweetness between the British and the Japanese in Britain, the crockery is starting to fly. Last week Cliff Wakeman, formerly deputy general manager in the London office of Quick, a Japanese financial information provider, took the company to an industrial tribunal alleging that he had been underpaid, underpromoted and finally pushed out. Mr Wakeman told the tribunal that his former boss, a Japanese, had grabbed both his cheeks and said: "You have a strange skin colour ... Your face looks like a rock or a football."

There have been other cases, including one for sexual discrimination by a Japanese bank. And it does not take much digging to find former employees of Japanese companies in Britain who are glad to have escaped. The problem is always the same: culture clash. The Japanese and British ways of thinking are wildly different. When they meet, heat can be generated.

That is not to devalue the impact of Japanese investment in Britain. Had Nissan not set up a factory in Sunderland in 1986, the British motor industry would still be floundering. Nissan refused to accept the quality standards the industry was used to, and single-handedly forced them up - teaching its suppliers the famously disciplined and effective Japanese manufacturing techniques. As a result Rover and Ford started to insist on the same standards; and Toyota and Honda decided that they too should have factories in Britain. The UK's balance of trade is now billions of pounds healthier than it would have been had Nissan stayed away.

There would be almost no consumer electronics industry in Britain without Japanese investment. And a range of other sectors - including excavators, machine tools and microchips - have been revivified by arrivals from the East. In addition, of course, Japanese financial institutions have poured into London, bringing thousands of their nationals with them.

But wherever Westerners and Japanese gather together, misunderstandings are never far away. Stereotyping is a dangerous business - it is as unfair to paint all Japanese companies with the same brush as it is all British companies. Tony Mayo, who was a manager with the excavator manufacturer Komatsu in County Durham for eight years, says that after he left, "I found that many of the things I thought were Japanese were actually Komatsu". It would also be wrong to put Nissan and Toyota - the two biggest industrial imports - in the same bag. Nissan went out of its way to fuse cultures when it arrived; Toyota imported its Japanese ways unchanged, and is seen by British managers as the more frustrating to work for. Managers, note, not shop floor workers: the Japanese introduced systems that have been welcomed on the shop floor, and which are now being copied by the likes of Rover and Ford.

Be careful, too, not to assume that the Koreans, who are now moving into Britain in a big way, are clones of the Japanese. They are less inward- looking, rougher, more raucous - closer, that is, to the average Briton.

But there are certain themes that emerge again and again when talking to managers who have worked for the Japanese. For a start, they are not good at adjusting to other cultures. Where a Western firm abroad will try to adapt, the Japanese - with the odd exception such as Nissan - will rarely do so. "They are prepared to tweak around the edges to take on a local flavour, but essentially they want to run the company along Japanese lines," a former motor industry manager says.

"If a British company wanted to open a plant in Japan, there is no way the purchasing and marketing managers would be anything other than Japanese," Mr Mayo says. "The Japanese feel they can come to Europe and operate as they can at home - which they clearly can't."

While there are Japanese who have lived abroad and become Westernised (at which point they stop being "Japanese" in the cultural sense), most managers in the West are "salarymen", working abroad for a few years as part of their career plan. "They have spent most of their lives in a very isolated society and find it difficult to change their behaviour," says Richard Lewis, a multilingual consultant who has just written a book on managing across cultures (When Cultures Collide, Nicholas Brealey, London). Mr Mayo agrees: "They pay lip service to our way, but they have a basic difficulty reading Europeans, as we do them."

Language is the first barrier. A former stock analyst with a Japanese bank in the City says the British staff never knew what was going on. "We had a complete lack of understanding of management strategy. It was decided at meetings from which the language precluded us."

Mr Lewis says the problem does not just lie in the words, which are difficult enough, but in the way the Japanese communicate. Theirs is a vague impersonal language, where the words themselves are not as important as the way in which they are said and the (imperceptible to a foreigner) body language that accompanies them.

That is why Japanese meetings tend to baffle Westerners, even when they are held in English. "I went to many meetings where the Japanese knew what was going on but we didn't," Mr Mayo says. "It seemed they could almost read one another's minds."

"We tend to come to decisions based on verbal reasoning," the former motor manager says. "The Westerners in a meeting would think they had reasoned their way to a conclusion, but would then discover they didn't have their Japanese colleagues with them. It had all been decided before."

The language reflects a raft of values that set the Japanese apart. Words in themselves have little meaning to the Japanese: they are part of the more important process of building trust. A Western manager who believes in getting to the point quickly will find himself driven up the wall, and will survive only if he adjusts his behaviour. "Some of the Brits were not very perceptive - they would be rebuffed but would just say the same thing again," says a former banker with a Japanese firm.

The slow steady approach of the Japanese has many strengths. But it can make them frustratingly inflexible for the improvising British. "They would rather you stuck to the system and kept your nose clean than added value by bending the rules," one manager says.

That said, the Japanese feel closer to the British than to more demonstrative Westerners. They may be disappointed that we do not all dress in tweeds and bowler hats but, Mr Lewis says, "we are probably their favourite foreigners". They also tend to think of us as allies - as we were until the 1930s - while we tend to think of them as enemies. "They remember that the ships that sunk the Russian fleet in 1904 were built in Sunderland."

How is it that a presumably reserved Japanese manager from Quick could allegedly have grabbed Mr Wakeman's cheeks and insulted him so viciously? Mr Lewis suggests that either the manager was a rogue Japanese (and there are some), or he had been driven over the edge by frustration and finally snapped. It is difficult not to associate this

sort of behaviour with the "prison-camp guard" model of war films.

Is the model still there, occasionally bursting out of a buttoned-up culture? Mr Mayo says he "sometimes felt it was coming through". Mr Lewis says the buttons usually hold. "They do explode, but I saw it happen only three times in the five years I was in Japan."

Losing your temper means losing face - one thing you must not do, nor cause other people to, in Asian societies. "You must never say to a Japanese you've got this wrong," a former City executive says. "You should say I don't quite understand this." But the subtleties of Japanese society mean the rules can sometimes be turned on their head.

A British manager in a Japanese industrial giant says he was shocked to be severely dressed down in front of his subordinates at a meeting. His manager was surprised when he complained, because the Japanese regard internal meetings as free-fire zones.

Perhaps the most alien habit of the Japanese - again linked with face - is their obsession with apologising. "When I was in my office in Tokyo one of my staff came up and apologised," Mr Lewis says. "I asked what for, because he had given me a lift home the night before in his car. 'Very small car, very noisy car,' he said."

More confusion here. Do the Japanese have an inferiority or a superiority complex? Both, Mr Lewis says. At times they can be very humble, and mean it, at others they feel they earned the right to lord it over others. They are still, in general, racist towards blacks (it is significant that the two other plaintiffs in the Quick case were Asian).

"They are not used to being surrounded by people who look different - they'll have to learn the lesson," Mr Lewis says. But their attitude to Westerners swings. "On the one hand they think they're superior and are very proud of their success," the motor industry man says. "On the other they are incredibly sensitive to outward criticism."

Whether inferior or superior, there is little doubt that the Japanese regard themselves as different. "In many ways Komatsu operated as two companies - a British and a Japanese one," Mr Mayo says. The Japanese "salarymen" would be moving up a defined career ladder from which Western managers would be excluded - and each Briton would have a Japanese "adviser" to shadow him. "Even if he was technically your junior, other Japanese would talk to him first," he says. "I loved my time at Komatsu but at no time did I feel part of the company."

Not that a Westerner cannot be promoted, especially if he is a specialist. The former City analyst was given a better job, "even though I didn't know what it meant." Richard Lewis says the Westerners who achieve the greatest success are those who learn and play by the Japanese rules. Do not demand promotion until you have clearly established a trusting relationship with your Japanese bosses. "Then, when the right time comes, push for it."

Earlier this year Helen Bamber, a bond dealer, was awarded pounds 100,000 damages for sex discrimination by Fuji International in London. She claimed she had been denied pay rises similar to those received by her male colleagues.

Gender is the great minefield for the Japanese abroad. Mr Lewis says that Confucianism is quite clear that the husband is superior to the wife, just as the father is superior to the son. Unfortunately for the Japanese, Confucianism does not cut much ice with career-minded women in the West.

One woman high flyer in the City says she was forced out "because I didn't have the right number of chromosomes". Japanese "office ladies" are expected to be submissive, and are also expected to leave when they get married. But Western women are just plain baffling. "Japanese men have no idea how to talk to us," she says. "If you confront them they don't know how to cope."

She believes women have been targeted as Japanese banks have been forced to do the unthinkable - cut their staff. With few exceptions, they have not resorted to redundancies because, a former manager says, "this would suggest they had made a mistake hiring people in the first place, which would lead to loss of face". Instead, the banks have made life difficult for staff they want to get rid of - many of whom have been women. "I had a disciplinary meeting where they said my attitude was bad," the high flyer says. "When I came in at seven the next morning they had locked all my drawers and moved my desk. They effectively took my customers away." She left soon afterwards.

In the long run, most of these problems should fade. As more Japanese managers spend time abroad, their attitudes will inevitably change. Meanwhile, perhaps the best solution for frustrated British executives is to educate themselves about the subtlest society in the world - and to concentrate on its good points. "If a Japanese company's profits nose dive, directors take salary cuts first," the motor manager says. "That doesn't happen at British Gas."

Top 12 recent investments in Britain

Year Company Country Number of Region

jobs created

1986 Nissan Japan 4,200 North-east

1995 Chunghwa Taiwan 3,300 Scotland

1994 Samsung Korea 3,200 North-east

1994 Honda Japan 2,000 South-west

1994 NEC Japan 2,000 Scotland

1995 Siemens Germany 1,800 North-east

1989 Fujitsu Japan 1,600 North-east

1991 Sony Japan 1,400 Wales

1989 Honda Japan 1,300 South-west

1995 Jaguar USA 1,200 West Midlands

1995 Toyota Japan 1,000 East Midlands

1989 Toyota Japan 1,000 East Midlands

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