JAPAN IS ONE of the most lucrative consumer and industrial markets in the world. It is also one of the world’s most challenging markets, requiring special knowledge and special talents as well as extraordinary commitment, patience, and persistence. Japan’s leading author, consultant, and critic Mr. Michihiro Matsumoto says that the best way to understand how Japans business world works, and to succeed in it, is to look at each company as a glob of “natto”. Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybean paste, which looks and smells very different (like sticky glue mixed with soya beans), from an unconditioned foreigner. Until recent times, one of the ways the Japanese used to measure the commitment of foreigners to Japan was by whether or not they could eat “natto”. The question was not if they liked it, but whether they were able to eat it despite its taste and smell.
Based on the “natto” concept, few of the analogies put forth by the consultants and critics in general has been as follows:
- Japanese companies are quite essentially very much “Japanized” and are therefore, unlike companies in any other country.
- Japanese companies have a distinctive character and flavor that only the Japanese can fully understand and accept.
- For foreigners who have not acquired a “taste” and appreciation for Japanese companies, over a long period of time will inevitably find them very difficult to deal with.
Until the 1990’s, one of the unique characteristics of these Japanese companies was that few of them had been permanently established, had well-defined “doors” for letting in outsiders, whether business people or the public at large. Each organization was more or less a monolith that was difficult or impossible to penetrate using the typical straight forward Western approach. A great many of these monolithic characteristics, are still very much visible in the traditional Japanese companies, even to this day and there has been very little visible changes. In fact in many large older companies such adjustments are neither visible nor measurable in practical terms.
The examples of such high-profile companies as Nissan and Sony appointing foreign executives as CEOs and Chairmen are very rare exceptions that shake the still deeply embedded cultural roots of Japan’s business community and government.
As partial exceptions to these monolithic characteristics, are new enterprises — usually small- to medium-size, that were founded by young entrepreneurial mavericks, who broke all of the traditional rules. But the larger these entrepreneurial companies have grown the more “typically Japanese” they have become.
As per the analogists when an outsider who has no inside Japanese connections tries to establish a relationship with a company, in the hope of doing business he almost never penetrates the outer wall of the corporate castle. Even if an outsider does manage to get inside the walls of a company with a project proposal, via an acceptable introduction with the help from someone, who is an insider, and the company is in fact interested in the project, it proceeds to digest or “Japanize” the project to make it compatible with the whole corporate organization. This homogenizing process is not something that can be done quickly, in fact, it tests the patience of the foreign suitor and does involve quite a lot investment in the form of time and money.
Regardless of how far along these Japanese companies might be in dispensing with their traditional characteristics, there are specific culturally sanctioned business protocols for approaching them and dealing with them. Generally one cannot successfully establish contact and develop a business relationship with a Japanese company without following these cultural and business protocols in the right order and in the right way.
On an individual, and personal basis, though the traditional attitudes and behavior of the Japanese have changed dramatically from the hidebound cultural patterns of the past to a mind-set that is as open and as pragmatic as that of typical Westerners, which is visible particularly among the younger generation. But in the adult business and professional world when these people interact with other fellow Japanese as members of a group or team, they must strictly conform to the existing culture of whatever organization they belong to, and that culture remains very much “Traditional Japanese” in its true sense.