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Japanese Work Ethics Vs American Work Ethics

“For an American to consider the Japanese from any viewpoint for any reason, it is important for us to remember that they are products of a unique civilization, that their standards and values are the results of several thousand years of powerful religious and metaphysical conditioning that were entirely different from those that moulded the character, personality and habits of Westerners” ( De Mente, p.19). To understand the Japanese, it is necessary to have an understanding of their religious and philosophical backgrounds. My research suggests that basic ethical values in Japanese business systems are influenced by three philosophical and religious traditions: the Shinto Ethic, The Confucian Ethic, and the Buddhist Ethic. Boye De Mente adds a fourth which he labels the Parent-Child Ethic.

Shinto was the primitive religion of Japan before Confucius and Buddha . The chief deity of Shinto is Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess from whom the Imperial Family of Japan traces its origin. Lesser clans, in turn, claim descent from the lesser Shinto deities. Shinto has only one command, the necessity of being loyal to one’s ancestors. This precept binds all Japanese in a bond of unity to a degree unknown in rest of the world. Shintoism stresses that harmony is necessary to keep man and things right with the cosmos. Each individual is obligated to do whatever is expected of him whatever the cost so as to bring honor to his family. Those in superior positions are obligated to take care of those who serve. Selflessness, kindness, helpfulness, loyalty, will bring trust, honor, confidence, and respect from others.(Cowles, p. 623)


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Confucius insisted on respect for superior persons and things. The five basic relationships are between ruler and subordinate, father and son, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, and friend and friend. The younger or inferior was to obey to the older or superior but at the same time the superior has obligations to the inferior. (Cowles, p.1507). The parent-child relationship rises to be an outcome of this teaching. Confucian principles stress piety, fidelity, obedience, kindness, loyalty to one’s superior, self-control, discipline (strong work ethic), and superior/subordinate vertical structures of society.

Most Japanese are Buddhists. The Fourfold Noble Truths of Buddhism assert that all is sorrow, that sorrow springs from desire or craving, that desire may be eliminated, and that sorrow can be overcome by following the middle path. This Eightfold noble path is marked by right belief, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, the right frame of mind, and right rapture. Its goal is the attainment of self-knowledge which allows man to live a contented life (Cowles, p. 1507). Western culture is based on Christian philosophy which preaches the equality of men and emphasizes man’s freedom as a rational being. Man has free will and can choose to act in accordance with this principle. Consciousness, choice, and freedom are the key principles.

The fundamental work philosophy in the US is capitalism. Webster’s dictionary defines capitalism as “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision rather than by state control, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.” Shaw suggests that capitalism is based on the premise that “people are basically acquisitive, individualistic and materialistic in practice and capitalism strongly reinforces those human tendencies” (Shaw, p. 32).

These basic philosophical differences have resulted in very different corporate ethics for western and Japanese cultures. Because of their ties to their past, the Japanese place more emphasis on the long term success of their country and the long term growth of their company and connected partners who are seen as family. Akio Morita, Chairman of Sony has commented that western society looks ten minutes ahead while the Japanese look ten years ahead (Morita, p.84).

The Japanese employee is regarded as a representative of the company and he/she is expected to bring honor to the company. The company needs come before personal needs. As a result the individual must operate within the confines and social circles of the organization and its goals and values. Japanese companies operate by common agreement rather than individual opinion. To ensure loyalty and proper instruction, employees are hired right out of school and trained in the company way before they can be spoiled by outside influences. Management style is based upon personal loyalties and seniority within a group. This makes it difficult for managers to shift from one job to another within a company and even more difficult to move to another company.

In Western society the company is only a means to an end, namely the way to support one’s individual or family lifestyle. In the U.S. an individual is not bound to the company and has the flexibility to move in order to further one’s personal goals. Movement is often looked upon as an asset to the individual’s resume and not as disloyalty to the firm. This emphasis on individuality is seen in the fullness of head hunters who raid companies for key personnel, individual retirement funds which help the worker achieve independence from the company, and references to employees as individual contributors. It is to be noted that John Sculley, the President of Apple Computer, has suggested that a 5 year work term is sufficient to spend in any one company (Dillon, p.28).

Japanese society tends to be vertically structured. Historically the vertical rank scale began with the lowest labourer and moved upwards to the emperor, with rank is frequently a birthright. Today this ranking is visible in education and corporate life. The university one attends, as well as the level of education achieved is very important and can influence one’s status and subsequently later career success. Companies are ranked and one’s status in society is related to one’s employer. The Japanese would rank a worker at IBM as having higher status over a worker at a smaller company even though the worker at the smaller company might have more responsibilities. In the same way, an Ivy League school would rank higher than a State University.

The number one school in Japan in terms of rank is Todai (Dillon, p.28). The student starts at a very early age to work for admittance into the University and it is said that incredible stress frequently leading to suicide is the result. Prestigious companies pick their employees based on the rank order of the universities from which the students have graduated. Once hired by a company, it is expected that the individual will continue to maintain a relationship with their alma mater and their sporting groups and will ease the way for other students to join the company.

Success is measured on getting into the right group as opposed to the right job and discrimination does arise. Because the business circle is so important in the Japanese business world, leaving a company to join another, as we do in the U.S. is rare. If an individual leaves a company they will find it difficult to re-establish a new circle and thus will have difficulty advancing as they have violated the principle of loyalty.

The organization and even the office structure of a Japanese company reveals a Confucian influence. It tends to be rigid and does not encourage individual specialization as do American companies. The basic operating unit is a section having a chief, some supervisors, and general staff. Several sections make up a department headed by a department chief. The desks are configured facing each other in rectangular symmetry with the manager’s desk looking down the middle. The department head sits farthest from the door and usually has a good view of the department. A task is assigned to the team and members are expected to work on the task as a team. Since the workers face each other they usually are aware of everything that occurs. Sections and departments are ranked.

The section tables are aligned in rank order. The more sections to a department, the more important the department. This is significantly different from U.S. practice where individual space is highlighted by blocked–off cubicles or offices. In the U.S. as an individual progresses in rank, his/her office usually becomes larger, more barricaded, and more isolated from general staff, frequently to the point of being located on an entirely different floor. Dress codes differ as well. In Japan, all levels wear a uniform for consistency and equality. In the U.S. it is typical that the higher the individual the more expensive the dress becomes, ie: white-collar vs. blue-collar.

The repression of one’s feelings, automatic submission to superior authority, and punishment for resistance are quite visible in the corporate structure and system of business practice. For example, the Japanese tend to answer a question in terms of what they think will please the inquirer rather than to answer with a disagreeable truth. He/she values the serenity of the relationship and will not jeopardize it. Akio Morita (Chairman of the Sony Corporation) notes that Japan’s Confucian background makes it very difficult for its people to say no within the context of normal human relationships.

In a traditional hierarchy, subordinates dare not say no to higher-ups without violating normal courtesy. The higher-up takes a no from a subordinate as insubordination. In a staff relationship, no is something to be avoided in order to maintain smooth human relationships ( Morita, p.121). Taken into the business setting this policy limits what the individual can say or how he/she can act without breaking the peace. Confrontation rarely occurs.

Instead, workers and superiors hope for a sort of telepathic understanding. ” Japanese people are not prone to considering complex moral questions as being matters of right and wrong; they are more concerned with knowing what is acceptable and unacceptable to a group.” (Dillon, p.27-30). The corporate culture is a place where the worker represses his/her individual style in the interest of the group harmony. As a result, friction and stress build up in the individual.

To relieve this pressure there are company-sponsored year–end parties and considerable after-hours drinking and socializing. While intoxicated, the individual feels free to speak openly to his co-workers and superiors without fear of recourse. As a result, alcoholism is a serious problem in Japan.

Boye De Mente sees a parent-child relationship as a distinctive ethic in the Japanese business system where the employer is looked upon as a parent and the employees as the children. Since feudal times the Japanese were raised to work cooperatively and respect authority in return for their livelihood and protection. There was a penalty for not agreeing. The word “Amae” is translated into “indulgent love” or love by an indulgent mother (De Mente, p. 98). The style of management and the company as a whole is as a mother to a child. Company benefits include housing or the subsidizing of housing, transportation allowances, family allowances, child allowances, health services, free recreational facilities, educational opportunities, retirement funds, and bonuses.

The pay scale in the workforce is patterned after the lifestyle of the individual. For example, men who have a family will have a higher salary than men who is retiring. The pay is scaled low to high and back to low again. The retired executive is cared for through transfers to another less visible division so that the work status is maintained and the employee is kept active.

This family’s patterned system of life employment, while it applies to a minority of workers is still an active system in Japan. Under this system all permanent employees of larger companies and government bureaus are generally hired for life. These organizations generally hire once each year directly from the schools. Candidates are invited to take a comprehensive exam and after a careful analysis is made, are then employed for life. Once employees are selected they are expected to commit themselves totally to the company. The company in turn promises to care for their employees to their death. Managers cannot hire, fire, or hold back promotions.

The company does the hiring and the managers and supervisors motivate via style, trust, goodwill, and cooperation. Promotions are dependent on longevity first, ability and accomplishment second. Employees are placed according to their abilities with the brighter picking up the heavier load and the less able a lighter load. There are no stars. Everyone is part of the team.

Management trainees are switched every two to three years in a circulating effect or rotation. Instead of promotion and pay raise incentives, the most capable and productive gain status and will eventually be singled out for higher spots. Promotion is based on ability to get along with the team and to promote harmony within the group. Groups work on direction and goals and are not as task-oriented as in the U.S. Human relations take precedence. The role of the manager is to create harmony rather than to direct. A good manager, for example, will accept blame for employee mistakes hoping to create a more harmonious group by protecting his subordinates from “loss of face”. This technique binds subordinates to cover for and support their manager should he have a weak area. American corporations focus on the “bottom line” rather than on corporate longevity or harmony among fellow workers.

While life time employment creates a secure working environment and a dependent employee, creativity tends to be suppressed in the Japanese culture. Some researchers indicate that as a result of this parent-child relationship, innovative and creative leaders are lost to the Japanese corporate world. In recent years, researchers have begun to explore the level of satisfaction of the average Japanese worker. There is a condition called “ki ga susumanai,” which means: “my spirit is not satisfied” ( De Mente, p.125). It is used to describe a general feeling of dissatisfaction that the Japanese feel towards their work. The long hours and work weeks that have been a part of the Japanese work ethic are beginning to be questioned in the press. Some liberal groups in Japan have started a media campaign questioning the work ethic. Posters have been hung in the Tokyo subway depicting children crying and a comment that these children have lost their fathers to work. Most workers use the subway to get to their place of work. The group feels these are indications that the Japan work ethic is not as successful and fulfilling as once thought and that the Japanese are seeking more than the company reward of security and identity.

Akio Morita describes the American work ethic as a corporate right to pursue maximum profits with the worker seen as a tool or resource without rights. He contrasts this view with the Japanese view where the worker is seen as a human being with inalienable rights that include more than wages. It is the role of the Japanese company to provide meaning to the worker’s life, to care for him to death. In Japan, Morita says that top executives work to improve the position of their company with the bulk of their salaries paid into taxes for national goals. American executives, in contrast, hop from company to company, grabbing as much money as they can, often well beyond their ability to spend it. Furthermore, American accountants are paid to find ways to help the executive avoid paying taxes. As a result, unions have developed in the U.S. to assist the worker to confront management in order to get what they see as their fair hare (Morita, p.188).

The difference between Japanese and American ethical concerns is particularly apparent during economic downturns. If an industry collapses in Japan, the company does everything within its means to secure employment elsewhere for its laid-off employees. In the U.S. when the market shifts, employees are laid off generally with little notice and with little regard for their ability to secure new employment.

Morita notes that Japanese and American corporate philosophies differ as well. In Japan, a corporation is a success if the company accrues profit free from debt. In the U.S., leverage and short-term gains have termed a success. In Japan, no one is fired. If the company decides that they have made a poor selection, they will retrain a deficient worker and place him in a situation where he will receive support and assistance. In the U.S. the deficient worker is fired. Rarely is any thought given to retraining the individual or placing him/her in a more supportive setting.

When Sony was hit with a downfall from the oil recession, the CEO was advised to have a layoff. The chairman refused to lay off his workers even at the expense of a loss to the company. To keep people on the job, he installed educational programs and busywork to keep up morale and improve the labour skills.

Morita notes that this was an American branch of the Sony Corporation and he was not sure what the reaction would be. He was happy to note that even in America the workers’ loyalties to the company were strengthened and a strong sense of company appreciation and camaraderie was developed. Morita notes that employees bought tee shirts that had inscriptions on them against labour unions. Akio’s point is that no matter where in the world you live or are employed basic Japanese (Shinto, Confucian, Buddhist, Parent/Child) work ethics are valued.

It should be noted that Japan does have unions within its companies. Younger employees are quite active in these unions. For the most part the unions and the management have been on compatible terms. In recent times this attitude appears to be changing towards the adversarial role of US unions. Employees’ organizations want legislation and are calling for shorter working hours, overtime ceilings, an increase in the overtime wage rate, and increased vacation entitlement. (Yamada, p. 699-718)

In an effort to retain the free enterprise aspect of capitalism, there have been many movements in the US towards antitrust actions to break up monopolies such as Standard Oil and AT&T. In an effort to retain the freedom of free enterprise numerous laws have been passed and government involvement has been fostered in the US to protect these rights. The Japanese approach towards company development and protection is quite different as evidenced in Keiretsu(). As large parent companies grow they form connections with lower and second-tier smaller companies through cross-ownership, financial ties, long-term business relationships and social and historical links. Each company entwines its business with one of the Japanese business partners.

In this way, the sources and uses of funds are dispersed and kept within Japan. As a company expands it will borrow funds or be funded by a series of Japanese connected banks or large firms. They in turn will secure a percentage of the sales profits as the firm grows. If a firm has a downturn connected firms will help out or help absorb some of the pain and personnel associated with the loss. This connected network has been quite successful and profitable for Japan as evident in large companies such as Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Toyota and Hitachi. Working in association with one of the large firms has a certain aspect of security associated with it. When companies like Apple work with these large firms, the business practice and ethics become quite evident in the manufacturing of their products. For example, when Apple contracts out a job to a firm for a completed product or finished well.

The Japanese firm who wins the bid in turn contracts out the component parts of the product and it’s assembly to smaller connected firms who each taking a percentage margin. The work performed to manufacture this product is conducted by firms that are connected to the primary company that won the bid. If production increases these smaller firms benefit from the gains and increased production. If the volume decreases the mother firm does pull back but usually assumes the obligation to provide for alternative sources of production work for their second-tier subcontractors or cottage partners. We have found that the relationships are extremely tight to the point of blocking alternative sources for component parts.

We have had a recent example of this with one of the major Keiretsu firms. Apple dictated a specification for a component part to be used in the manufacturing of a new product. The component part was not manufactured by one of the second-tier suppliers or family members of the supplier but by competitor firms in Europe. As a result, they commissioned one of their subcontractors to copy the part and refused to purchase the component from a firm outside of Japan.

We have found that Japanese manufacturers will source only from connected Japanese firms and will resist European or American supply sources unless it is a last resort or under pressure from Apple. It is noted that Japanese shops will manufacture needed parts for the benefit of the Keiretsu firm and Japan, and if needed and they will be funded by the Keiretsu to do so.

This sort of business practice has been termed as antitrust in the US. This is considered pure and fair in the Japanese culture and the Japanese government system fosters this type of business practice. The Confucian ethics of loyalty and fidelity are so strong that companies often will not do business with other companies unless they have personal ties within that company. This has made it difficult for Western companies to break into the marketplace as these ties, for the most part, have never been established. Since the Japanese focus on the good of the nation as a whole and not on individual capitalism, it is easy to see why this behaviour would be appropriate in their terms.

It is necessary to keep in mind that the basic ethics which the Japanese practice, it would be quite appropriate that the company would network in this way. What poses a difficult challenge is when the two different philosophies are entwined within the same region where the basic ethics differ so much. In the States, capitalism demands the use of the lowest cost manufacturer or the bank with the best interest rate no matter who they are or where they are located. There is more incentive in a capitalistic society to save on costs than to network with US firms. In Japan, it is a breach of ethics for a Japanese firm to conduct business outside the boundaries of the Keiretsu or where funds are not funnelled back into Japan.

Is it right for a country like Japan to practice its work ethic in a country like the U.S. whose basic values and moral systems are quite different? It appears that compromises must be made. Recent news articles indicate that the Keiretsu walls are starting to crack and U.S. capitalistic values are beginning to creep into the Japanese workplace. These changes appear to have started in the late eighties when the yen lost value (Kuniyasu, p.22).

As a result, large Keiretsu’s had to lay off or force out of business their second-tier suppliers or lose the mother company. This change in change company behaviour led to a change in worker’s sentiments. The basic values once cherished appear to be visibly deteriorating. As a result students’ attitudes are changing and the corporate culture is becoming more and more competitive, seeking talented managers from Western companies. Even Japanese workers are beginning to seek the “better job across the street” (Kuniyasu, p.45). Companies such as Matsu*censored*a have taken aggressive capitalistic competitive actions within Japan to get ahead. These two cultures often find it difficult to understand and accept each others differing corporate goals and management styles and misunderstandings are frequent.

Sources Cited

1. Shaw, William H. Business Ethics. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1988.

2. Dillon, Linda. “Can Japanese Methods Be Applied in the Western Workplace?”

Quality Progress October 1990: pp 27-30.

3. ?Religion.? Cowles Comprehensive Encyclopedia. 1980 ed.

4. Kuniyasu, Saki. “The Feudal World of Japanese Manufacturing.” Harvard Business Review

Nov-Dec 1990: pp. 38-49.

5. De Mente, Boye. Japanese Manners & Ethics in Business. Phoenix: Phoenix Books/Publishers, 1981.

6. Morita, Akio. The Japan that Can Say No –The New U.S.- Japan Relations Card. Osaka: Kobunsha Publishing, 1990.

7. Yamada, Narumi. “Working Time in Japan: Recent Trends and Issues.” International Labour Review Nov./Dec. 1985: pp. 699-718.

8. ?Capitalism.? Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: 1977.


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