This article reflects an interview I had with Ash, a creative strategist and marketing consultant born in California and has been residing in Japan for eleven years. I asked him what are the distinctions in work culture between the US and Japan.

Brief Profile:
Ash Geary
Ash is a creative strategist and marketing consultant, with 25 years of experience creating, designing and producing in digital markets and visual arts. He provides creative strategies for both direct-to-consumer and business-to-business domains. Through Smart Marketing, he helps companies understand their audience and develop engagement strategies for Japanese and American companies.

Alright, let’s get to the point, what do you think of the differences based on your eleven years of experience in Japan?

Absolutely, the major differences I found interesting are the following three points:

Dedication to Work: Your Company vs. Your Job

Let’s start off with #1: dedication to work.

When I first moved to Japan, I was shocked at the level of dedication to the company the Japanese have.

Let’s take a job hunting for example. I found people in Japan don’t feel comfortable looking for another job while they’re at work. People in America, on the other hand, don’t really care about quitting their jobs for better opportunities.

The motivation for finding a new job in America is usually quite different than Japan. In Japan, a reason for leaving a job could be stress or being overworked. It’s not like job stress never happens in America, but you don’t have rampant cases of people working themselves to death.

So the motivation for an American may be as simple as shortening their commute, making more money or working for a prestigious company.

I read a book, Made In Japan, by Akio Morita, the founder of Sony. In the book, he talked about how a foreigner that worked for him was doing well. However, one day he walked into Morita’s office and said, I found another job. Thank you for the opportunity. You were great to work with. Morita was thinking the whole time how he felt betrayed by this man. It wasn’t until later that he understood the cultural difference between what a job means to people in the West and in the East.

Overall, there is no such thing as loyalty in employment in America, broadly speaking.

Frankly, I’m only now starting to understand Japanese loyalty as I start to work with an investor in Japan. I’ve never felt more of a sense of family working with any other Japanese company. I know the CEO believes in me and I see clearly how much I can learn from him.

So in a way, I know this is a typical gaijin (foreigner in Japanese) kind of thing to say, but in a way I have been like Ronin. All of these years I’ve been wandering through Tokyo, doing my own thing. Then I ran into a master who wants to use my sword and for some reason, I trust him. So maybe I have a new master to serve but I don’t feel uncomfortable about it.

Haha, I see your point. Which way do you prefer and why?

When I was younger, I would have prefered a more Western style of company because I would have probably never found an opportunity in the West like the one I have found here. In the West we practice what I call “dry” business. Everything you do is based on paperwork and systems. It’s not that Western business is never emotional, but we tend to try to keep emotions out of business decisions.

The Japanese mostly practice, “wet” business. It’s wet, sticky and emotional. Relationships go beyond the office and are quite personal. I used to hate that kind of thing. But as I got older, I find that appreciate someone being personally interested in my well being. I used to think I had all the answers. Now, I enjoy discovering new truths.

It also helps that this investor and I have a similar hope and vision for the future of Japan. For years, I’ve talked about all of the wonderful things I’ve found about Japan. I’ve explained my vision of the future, but they were just words. Now, I have an investor who shares that vision with me and has the capital to take bigger actions.

Process Quality vs. Product Quality

Let’s move onto next point: quality of work.

Japanese excel at quality. Pretty much everyone knows that. There are a couple of interesting points here that most people don’t usually consider.

The Japanese don’t just look at product quality. They also focus on process quality. I didn’t even know what process quality was until I was visiting a Japanese company. In the US it’s common enough to think about the quality of the product, but I don’t know of any companies that go that extra step and ensure process quality.

That’s fascinating. I’ve heard a story related to your point where the Japanese focus more on process itself that anyone else: when customers ask you to do something you’re not taught to do, people in the USA would do it if they think it’s doable. Japanese, on the other hand, would go ask their managers for the permission first to do so even if they think it’s doable because that is part of the proper process. If you didn’t ask for the permission first, your manager would blame you for not following the right process regardless of its outcome.

It might be an extreme example, but manager intends to have a full control of what their staffs are doing. I think the Japanese way works well back in the manufacture age where making no mistake was the most important thing to care, but not in every industry in today’s day.

We’re entering an age where we have to innovate and streamline the processes we use to manage and manufacture. And we must get better about how we communicate to the world.

Having said that, I would argue that we’re far from an era where manufacturers are no longer important. We still rely on stuff everyday. I’m typing on a keyboard, while wearing headphones, connected with cords, to a computer which sits on a shelf and rests on a desk. We’re not going to stop making stuff any time soon.

My suggestion for Japan would be to find a way to adjust the modern needs keeping the strength of the quality work.

Being Reactive vs. Proactive

Lastly, Approach to Issues: being reactive vs. being proactive. Japanese are good reactive thinkers but suffer when it comes to being proactive.

Absolutely. From my perspective, being reactive may be strongly tied with Japanese (or even Asian) education systems. We’ve focused on marking high score for a lot of exams we’ve been through In our education system. Having had the experience, we’ve honed ability to solve issues in a reactive manner. As a result, we are good at dealing with the exam, but it doesn’t mean that they absorb the knowledge.

We’re not good at finding the fundamental problems, whereas we are good at dealing with the problems coming to light. This is how I became reactive I suppose.

In fact, I have similar experience regarding this point. I firmly believe that there are certain amounts of SEO agencies in Japan who (still) try to manipulate Google rankings by grey hat tactics regardless of this climate. Through research that I conducted for one of my clients in North America, I’ve run into many Japanese micro sites they created only for a backlinking purpose (I can tell at a glance, I’ve done that a lot before).

I understand why they still do that. It’s because it shortens the timeline to get their client’s website on the first page of Google. But it’s not obviously sustainable solution and I wouldn’t take that direction.

My gut tells me that this is a complex macroeconomics issue. Countries like America have plentiful resources and have had to focus less on conservation and could experiment with exploitation.

Alternatively, in a country like Japan where even trees are a limited resource, the focus must be placed on conservation and management. This would almost assuredly lead to a risk averse mentality. Because of that, I think the West has a lot to learn from Japan about maximizing the returns on minimal resources.

But also, as the world becomes more flat, Japan must learn to acquire and take risks. A whole new universe of property has opened up on the internet and Japan has been slow to expand and gain territory there.

A Japanese investor I work with often refers to the “time travel” phenomenon that happens in Japan. You can reliably look to the West and copy an idea they had 3 years ago and it will be seen as innovative here.

In the West, companies actively pursue the latest, most cutting-edge data to help them reach its goals faster or with lower cost. I don’t see the same reports being produced by Asian companies.

Recently though, I meet more and more CEOs with a thinking about the vision, future and strategies to improve, grow, or innovate. I hope more people think that way.

Bottom Line

It was absolutely fascinating to hear things about Japan that I take for granted.
One of my bosses told me that I’m a tactical genius, but at the same time I’m not proactive about the issues that might occur in the near future, which I absolutely agreed on. Of course, as always, there are pros and cons in everything. But I’ve learned a lot about myself through this interview. Thanks Ash!