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Made in Japan, sold on Britain: The Japanese now own more than 100 factories in the UK, but how do they find the life? David Bowen steps across a yawning culture gap

David Bowen
Saturday 14 August 1993 23:02 BST

A FEW years ago, an Englishman was offered a job as personnel man ager for a new Japanese factory in the North-east. He presented himself on his first day and was met with hostility by two Japanese men, each of whom said he was the personnel manager. For the next few months, he watched helplessly as the two battled it out in Japanese, each claiming the support of a senior manager in Tokyo. Finally, the managing director suggested he might like to sweep out the back yard. He did, but also took the hint and resigned.

According to their embassy, 54,400 Japanese live in Britain: 12,000 are businessmen, 5,800 are students, most of the rest are their families. Their numbers have been growing rapidly - 20 years ago, there were hardly any - and they have been hailed as saviours of the British economy, bringing desperately needed life to the industrial heartlands. They have also invested heavily in property and companies: County Hall, the old Financial Times building, Aquascutum and Daks-Simpson all now belong to the Japanese.

But as the personnel manager's unhappy story shows, a yawning cultural gap sets the Japanese apart from other expatriates. Hisao Yamaguchi, co-managing director of the London office of the stockbrokers Kankaku, believes he can explain this particular problem. 'In the Japanese system, who is responsible and why is very vague,' he says. 'Nobody is sure which job should be covered by whom.'

For this and other reasons, the place where the British and the Japanese meet is fertile ground for bafflement and confusion. Yet stories of friction are remarkably few and far between: misunderstandings arise, certainly, but for the most part British and Japanese managers get along well. Most Japanese like Britain. They find it odd, but they like it. More than 100 Japanese-owned factories now operate in Britain, the majority built in the last 10 years. But relatively few Japanese work in them. At Hitachi's plant at Aberdare, in the Welsh valleys, there are 10 out of a staff of 600. Fewer than 1,300 Japanese live in Wales, including families, even though the principality has more than 20 Japanese-owned factories. In London, by contrast, there are 26,000 Japanese. This is where the real numbers are - working for banks, stockbrokers and trading houses in the capital.

It is now possible for Japanese in London to live a wholly familiar life, thanks to the 700 companies that have sprung up to serve them. They must live in one of three areas: south-west around Wimbledon, west around Ealing, or in the north-west, where 45 per cent of all the capital's Japanese live. Between them, these areas have seven Japanese food shops, to be joined next month by a giant complex, the Yaohan Plaza at Colindale, north London.

Eating out in the Japanese style in the capital is easy, if expensive. Of the 70 Japanese restaurants in Britain, only four are outside London: in Gateshead, Bristol, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The three Japanese nightclubs are all in the capital, as are the five hairdressers. The Japanese have their own garden in Holland Park and can sit there reading the three Japanese newspapers that are transmitted by satellite and printed in London, or one of a number of free sheets. When they get home, they can tune into the Japanese satellite television channel that broadcasts soaps and news.

At weekends they can pop out to one of the home county golf courses: for Tokyo residents used to pounds 300 course fees, these are miraculously cheap. Next month, the London Golf Club near Wrotham in Kent opens; it costs pounds 30m and is owned by Masao Nagahara, who made his money from property around Tokyo. It will join Old Thorns in Hampshire, the Buckinghamshire near Denham, and the Oxfordshire, a new club near Thame, all of which are Japanese-owned and have Japanese restaurants and other facilities. Away from London, the Japanese have one course: Turnberry in Ayrshire.

For more cerebral relaxation they can find a game of Go, the fiendishly subtle board game. The Nippon Club's 150 Go members meet regularly in the Kiku restaurant in Mayfair. 'They tend to be older people, but every corporation has a Go club,' says Shozo Egashira, the club's administrator.

And if they get ill, the Japanese have a choice of four clinics. Two, in Sutton and St John's Wood, are run by the Nippon Club; the Green Medical Clinic in the City belongs to a private Japanese hospital, while the London Medical Clinic in Hendon is owned by Tokyo Marine, the insurance company.

Despite all these facilities, only a minority of Japanese choose to live such a life. Kaoru Itoh is senior manager at the Industrial Bank of Japan in the City. 'Perhaps a third of the Japanese in my company have a completely Japanese lifestyle - playing golf with colleagues, working every day until midnight,' he says. Another third are completely western, with the rest (including himself) half-way between the two.

Two years ago, Mr Itoh found himself in London at short notice. His predecessor had died of a heart attack, so he missed the six months' language and cultural course the future expatriate normally attends. His first impression was not favourable. He lived in a hotel for three months where, he says, the quality of service was 'not good'.

Gradually, though, he started appreciating London's advantages. He, his wife and two- year-old daughter moved into a house in Wimbledon, popular among the Japanese for its tennis associations. They were amazed by the space and relaxed atmosphere. He plays tennis two or three times a month, and in the summer plays golf and takes a foreign holiday. 'Taking a two-week summer holiday would seem incredible in Japan,' he says. 'There we would take one week and always go to a crowded resort.' Mr Yamaguchi also arrived in London two years ago, settling in Surbiton, not far from Wimbledon. He says he most appreciates simple pleasures denied in Japan through lack of space. 'I enjoy reading books and eating with my family in the garden. My garden in Japan is very, very tiny.' Back home he was a boy scout leader, and would lead boys on long hikes. It was difficult to find routes that avoided traffic; now he can get out into the countryside whenever he wants. He likes it.

Masami Sato, one of only 70 'office ladies' - junior women managers - working in Britain, is also happy. She is the only woman among 60 Japanese who work for one of the trading giants in London and, she says, 'most things are better here than in Tokyo - there are so many parks and green fields'.

She enjoys the freedom from Japan's male- dominated society even though, as an office lady, she cannot be promoted beyond her present junior managerial position. She is in London as part of a scheme to give office ladies overseas experience (they are allowed to go to 10 cities deemed safe - none are in the United States), and does not want to go back when the time comes next year.

'Once I go back to Japan, I have to live with my family,' she says. 'There are few amusements and we can't be relaxed because all Japanese are very busy.'

Mr Egashira, who talks to many of the Nippon Club's 5,000 members, believes most Japanese enjoy themselves in London. 'Especially the families,' he says. 'They can go golfing. In Japan, they couldn't imagine doing that.' Mr Itoh's wife is studying south-east Asian history at London University. 'She very much enjoys that,' he says. 'It wouldn't be possible in Japan because there is no baby-sitter system.'

Outside London, the Japanese have no infrastructure of their own. Tomoo ('Call me Tom') Mitani is human resources officer at Sony's new technology centre near Bridgend, in Glamorgan. He has been there for six months, and is delighted with his reception. 'The people are very warm to me, not only colleagues but also town people,' he says. Before he found a house, he lived in a bed-and- breakfast in Porthcawl, and was taken under the landlady's wing. As a result, he already has a number of local friends.

'It's impossible to live a Japanese life here,' he says. This does not bother him. He loves the countryside, and he loves history. Wales has both. 'I walk around here trying to imagine how it was - the legends, the old stories.'

Mr Mitani was unusual in Japan: he played rugby. But now he admits to having lost his nerve. 'I imagine I'll get hurt, because the Welsh are bigger than me.'

When the Japanese community in South Wales does come together, it is usually to play golf. Yoshio Kojima, senior personnel adviser at Hitachi Consumer Products in Aberdare, says that eight of the 10 Japanese there play (the other two hate it). Hitachi, with 20 subsidiaries in Britain, has its own tournament.

But wherever they are, most Japanese face a series of snags that make life that little bit more difficult than it is for other expatriates.

The most obvious is language. Mr Kojima has lived in Wales for two years, but still has problems. 'Language is very difficult, but the staff are very experienced at explaining to the Japanese,' he says. 'I can understand the explanations, but I can't understand when they talk to each other.'

When Mr Itoh arrived in London, he read newspapers and watched television news to improve his English, but for the first six months had to ask his staff to write everything down.

Takashi Hisatomi, managing director of Nissan's European Technology Centre in Bedfordshire, believes that apparent cultural barriers are in reality often language barriers. The Japanese are taught languages in the same way as the British used to be - plenty of grammar, plenty of writing, precious little speaking.

For Mr Hisatomi, the biggest headache comes with the children. Every Saturday morning his 13-year-old and 16-year-old board a bus in Milton Keynes with 50 other Japanese children, and head for Ealing. There, in the only dedicated Japanese school in Britain, they are taught intensively for three hours: much of the time is spent learning kanji characters, the complex alphabet the Japanese have to learn until they are 18.

'They don't like it because they have to do a lot of homework,' he says. But he feels he must send them, even though they spend the week at a private local school. 'When they are here it is not so hard, but the difficulties come when they go back to Japan.' In Wales, the Japanese community takes this problem so seriously that it has hired a school, Whitchurch High in Cardiff, which gives 100 children supplementary Saturday lessons.

Many London-dwellers send their children to the school in Ealing full time. There is a tendency to send sons there, and daughters to a local school. The man's career prospects are still much more important.

There is, Mr Hisatomi says, a slow change in attitudes back home. 'The Japanese recognise there is a problem,' he says. 'Recently Japanese high schools have started a different exam for people from abroad.' He is glad his children have not gone to Ealing. 'We think even if they miss out now, in the future their experience will be more helpful when they graduate.'

British schools throw up their own problems. Mr Yamaguchi's daughter was put into a small private school at the age of 11, with no English to speak of. 'It was hard work for her and for me,' Mr Yamaguchi says. 'I asked her teacher to tell me what pages to look at in her textbooks, and we spent from seven to 12 every evening going through her homework.' After two or three months she suddenly started to understand, and after a year won a prize as best in her class.

Behind the other problems lies the cultural gap. Mr Hisatomi must be right to say that many misunderstandings arise simply from language, but there are differences in attitude which, as the British personnel manager found, can make life awkward.

This comes as a shock to Japanese arriving in Britain for the first time: they tend to believe there is an affinity between Japan and the UK. They are both offshore islands, they both have royal families and, most important, they both have long histories. 'The Japanese have sympathy and respect for the UK,' Mr Itoh says. 'Our understanding is that this is the original Anglo-Saxon culture.' He adds that if a Japanese author wants to sell his book on Britain, he should try to get Oxford or Cambridge in the title: the cities symbolise the tradition of which the Japanese are so fond.

Where the British think of the Anglo-Japanese historical relationship as one of hostility and war, the Japanese mind settles on the 50 years after 1868, when their economic transformation from feudalism to a high level of industrialism was helped along by the then-mighty British. 'We still think the original teacher is Britain,' Mr Hisatomi says. The first head of Japan's Imperial College of Engineering was a Scot; Britain built the navy that sank the Russian fleet in 1905; Japanese engineers came to Britain to learn the skills.

But few Japanese have much idea of what to expect when they arrive in Britain. 'Many people think all British people are gentlemen, living elegantly and always wearing smart clothes.' Mr Itoh says. He was shocked by the scruffiness - 'Everybody wears old rags: there is no elegance' - and by the class system which, he believes, 'is probably the main reason Britain has been losing power.'

In one respect, the British and the Japanese may be too similar. Both tend to be shy, which means they can also appear unwelcoming. Unless they are lucky, like Mr Mitani in Bridgend, arriving Japanese can find it impossible to penetrate British private life. Mr Egashira, who previously lived in Chicago and Dublin, has found life in London more difficult. 'Here I am not so comfortable,' he says. 'The British are less friendly.' There is, he says, 'just a feeling' of racism. Other Japanese say the British sometimes makes indirect references to the War - which never happens in the US.

Mr Hisatomi at Nissan prefers the more restrained British approach. 'Some British people said it's quite ridiculous for Americans to become friends in three minutes,' he says. 'I agree: it's ridiculous.'

In one respect, though, the British clearly line up with the Americans against the Japanese: individualism versus the group mentality. Mr Yamaguchi says that some Japanese find Britain's lack of community hard to deal with. 'Japan is a comfortable society. The pressure is high, it's true, but generally Japanese people are not so independent, so they rely on each other. I have some friends here who feel unhappy because they prefer Japanese-style human relations.'

Closely related to this, and also to the vagueness that scuppered the personnel manager, is the Japanese need for consensus. 'The British like arguments, while the Japanese don't,' Mr Itoh says. 'They dislike raising the opposite opinion.'

'In Japan, everyone looks at the majority opinion,' he explains. In a Japanese meeting, each member will disguise his opinion, giving an 'on the one hand, on the other hand' view that is subtly tilted one way. The result is that at the end of the discussion, though no view has been openly expressed, everyone knows the majority opinion, and it is this that will be adopted.

Mr Itoh, who is rather taken with the belligerent antagonism of the House of Commons, tries to be more direct himself, at least in Britain. 'If I tried to do that in Japan, I would be told I was being very aggressive,' he says.

Even though he is half-way round the world, he still gets into trouble with his bosses in Tokyo. 'Headquarters has a traditional way of doing things, while the London branch is based on the British style,' he says. 'There is a frequently a mismatch between the two.'

If British banks can be accused of sheep-like tendencies, they are paragons of individualism compared with the Japanese. 'If a leading bank goes one way, the others will go the same way,' he explains. 'But our British staff say we should go the other way, because it is unique and it puts us one step ahead of the others. If we propose an aggressive policy, headquarters wants to know the other banks' policies, and I have much difficulty in pushing it through.'

His natural instinct is to side with his British staff, who he says 'are very mature people. They are very balanced and have sound common sense.' But he has to hold the ring between them and Tokyo. 'I can understand why headquarters is saying this, which the British cannot. I have to explain the background.'

What the British lack, Mr Itoh says, is aggression in business. 'Even young businessmen have a lot of other activities. No one thinks business is the most important thing in their lives.' That is fine, he says, but it means they lack the focus necessary to 'achieve great things'. When he was in his late twenties, he worked 350 days a year - staying in the office or entertaining until midnight every evening.

Mr Kojima in Wales is more brutal. 'My impression is that British managers have a very traditional style. They work very slowly. The tempo is slow.' Because of this, he says, half the 10 Japanese at Hitachi are not happy. 'They find it difficult working with people who don't work as hard,' he says.

Mr Yamaguchi does not believe, however, that the Japanese are fundamentally more hard-working than Westerners. 'They stay longer in their offices because internal competition is very strong. Most people start their careers from the same start line, and believe they can reach a higher level if they are seen to be working harder.' In offices where there is no such competition, such as the civil service, 'most people come in one minute before nine and leave one minute after five'. He also points out that in London offices where there is also a strong competitive culture, notably in the City, local staff are usually in the office before the Japanese.

There is no doubt that Japanese industrial companies have brought invaluable skills to Britain: they are the best manufacturers in the world. But, Mr Yamaguchi says, both Britons and Japanese tend to assume that this dominance extends to the financial sector, which is a much bigger investor. This is false, he says: the Japanese system of consensus and blurred responsibilities is inappropriate in banks where 'the most important thing is to make quick and clear decisions. My personal view is that we should change to the Anglo-Saxon system.'

Like Mr Yamaguchi, most of the Japanese in Britain are to a greater or lesser extent seduced by the lifestyle. Mr Egashira has reservations about the British, but he still resigned from his Japanese company to stay in London. His reason is straightforward, and suggests that the Japanese are perhaps not so different at root. 'Japan is too busy,' he says. 'You have to work until eight or later every day. The Japanese think this is ordinary life, but if you have experienced something different, why go back?'

(Photographs omitted)

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