The sun fails to rise on Japanese work revolution

lncreasing number of discrimination claims as western workers fall foul of employers
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The Independent Online
The case of the man accused by his Japanese manager of having a face "like a rock or a football" is the latest in a series of unhappy episodes in Anglo-Japanese working relations.

Clifford Wakeman, with two of his former colleagues, is now awaiting financial compensation for racial discrimination from the London office of Quick Corporation, a financial information firm.

The case is unlikely to be the last in what appears to be a growing trend of discrimination claims against Japanese companies, the question arises whether the problem is simple cultural misunderstanding. Or, more disturbingly, might Japanese business culture be racist?

When Nissan began the Japanese move into Britain in the 1980s, everyone noted the equality - how managers and workers shared the same canteen, even wore the same uniform.

Although there have been criticisms, unions have frequently praised their new employers for good working conditions. The success in manufacturing was further confirmed yesterday when Toyota announced it expected production to increase significantly. Yet the City, by contrast, has seemed plagued by wrangles.

The first notable case was Helen Bamber who won pounds 100,000 damages last year for sex discrimination by Fuji International, one of the world's biggest banks. Its deputy managing director, the tribunal noted, seemed to expect women to stand aside to let him pass.

So with the Commission of Racial Equality now taking on further cases and a spate of disputes in America, the way Japanese business works has taken on some urgency.

Setsuo Kato, a Japanese journalist who has lived in Britain for 20 years, believes misunderstanding is at the root of the problem, with language principally to blame. When Japanese people encounter workplace difficulties, often their English is not sophisticated enough to tackle them. "Japanese people should learn the language better, but British people working for Japanese have to sympathise because these are people working abroad," he said.

But there were cultural differences too. The Japanese regard the British as lacking the corporate loyalty they prize. The British suspect they are not employed by the Japanese on equal terms. Japan is a society based on hierarchy and formality and western traditions of debate are alien to it.

Many in business believe there is more to it than that. Stephanie Oyama, who runs the Japan Centre at Birmingham University and her own business consultancy, thinks Japanese firms must try harder. "You can't assume that you can come to another culture and that people are going to be working in the same way. We don't," she said.

"Many of them are here because they want a place in the European market. The best way to learn is through the British workforce and I don't think they are doing that."

Bonnie Williams, who runs Waterbridge International, a management consultancy, said many Japanese firms had refused to accept they might need help, but the case of Ms Bamber changed their minds.

"Our work has jumped dramatically over the last eight to 10 months because of the issue," she said. "There's a growing awareness that they do need active management training." But she added: "On the whole, Japanese companies have done this country a world of good.

A Department of Trade and Industry spokesman agreed. An estimated $34bn has come into Britain in the last 40 years from 1,000 Japanese companies employing 60,000 people.

Quick Corporation is considering its position. From the beginning, it accepted the dismissals of Mr Wakeman, Ashok Solanki and Stuart Mitchell were statutorily unfair. It was racial discrimination it denied. A spokesman said yesterday: "Quick has examined all its employment policies and procedures and continues to look at its responsibilities and obligations towards all its employees, whatever their nationality."