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Japanese Work Ethics Vs American Work Ethics

“It is critical for us to remember that the Japanese are products of a distinct culture, that their standards and values are the outcomes of several thousand years of strong religious and metaphysical conditioning that were entirely different from those that formed the character, personality, and habits of Westerners. For an American to look at the Japanese from any perspective for any reason, it is vital for us to recall they are part of a unique civilization with its own customs and traditions.” (De Mente, p.19).

To comprehend the Japanese, it is important to have a basic grasp of their religious and philosophical foundations. My study shows that three philosophic and religious traditions have an impact on fundamental ethical standards in Japanese business systems: The Shinto Ethic, The Confucian Ethic, and the Buddhist Ethic. A fourth ethic, dubbed the Parent-Child Ethic by Boye De Mente, is added by him.

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Shinto was Japan’s original religion, prior to Confucius and Buddha. The main deity of Shinto is Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess from whom the Japanese Imperial Family claims its origins. Smaller clans claim descent from lesser Shinto gods. Shinto has only one commandment: to be loyal to one’s ancestors. This doctrine binds all Japanese together in a unique sense of belonging that is absent elsewhere in the world.

Shintoism emphasizes the importance of harmony in order to maintain man and objects in perfect relationships with the cosmos. Every person is required to follow whatever duties are assigned to him, regardless of the cost, in order to bring glory to his family. Those who have more authority are obligated to look after those who serve them. Selflessness, compassion, helpfulness, loyalty, and goodwill gain people’s trust and confidence.

Confucius emphasized respect for superior people and things. The five primary relationships are between ruler and subject, father and son, elder and younger brother, husband, and wife, and friend and friend. The younger or inferior was to obey the older or superior, but the higher had duties to the less developed. (Cowles, p.1507). As a result of this teaching, the parent-child relationship emerged.

The Confucian teachings emphasize piety, loyalty, obedience, compassion, self-discipline, diligence (a strong work ethic), and hierarchical structures of society at the top. The Buddhist religion is popular in Japan. According to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, everything is suffering, that suffering comes from desire or craving, that desire may be destroyed, and that sorrow can be relieved by following the middle path.

Right thought, desire, speech, action, livelihood, effort, the attitude of calmness and concentration. Its objective is human knowledge (self-knowledge) that allows people to live a happy life (Cowles, p. 1507). Western culture is based on Christian doctrine which states that men are equal and extols man’s rationality. Man has free will and may choose to act in accordance with this truth. The principles of consciousness, choice, and freedom are crucial.

In the United States, capitalism is regarded as the basic work philosophy. Webster’s dictionary defines capitalism as “an economic system in which businesses are privately or corporately owned and controlled capital goods, decisions are made by private choice rather than state control, and prices, production, and distribution of products are determined mainly by competition in a free market.”

According to Shaw, capitalism is founded on the idea that “people are essentially acquisitive, individualistic, and materialistic in practice,” and it strongly encourages those human characteristics (Shaw, p. 32). These fundamental philosophical disagreements have given rise to radically different corporate ethics between western and Japanese cultures. The Japanese place a higher value on their country’s long-term prosperity and company growth linked partners who are seen as family owing to their attachment to their history.

The Japanese tend to look ten years ahead according to Chairman of Sony Akio Morita, while Western society looks ten minutes into the future (Morita, p.84). The employee is seen as a representative of the firm and is expected to bring glory to it. Personal needs must come before corporate goals and values. As a result, the individual must operate within the confines and social circles of his or her employer’s objectives and values.

Japanese businesses are run on a group basis, not by individual judgment. Employees are hired straight out of school and educated in the company’s method before being tainted by outside influences. Within a group, management is based on personal loyalties and seniority. This makes it tough for managers to change tasks within a firm as well as transition to another firm.

In modern Western culture, a company is simply a means to an end: providing for one’s individual or family lifestyle. In the United States, an individual is not restricted to a corporation and has the freedom to relocate in order to achieve personal objectives. Movement is frequently considered as a positive aspect of someone’s resume rather than as disloyalty to the firm.

Individualism is also apparent in the breadth of head hunters that raid organizations for key employees, individual retirement funds that assist workers in achieving financial independence from their employer, and references to people as “individual contributors.” It’s worth noting that Apple Computer’s John Sculley believes a 5-year work contract is enough time to get invested in any one firm (Dillon, pg. 28).

Japanese society is generally vertically organized. The vertical rank scale began with the lowest laborer and ascended to the emperor, with rank being inherited frequently. This ranking can be seen in education and business life today. Companies are rated, and one’s social status is linked to one’s job. Even though a worker at a smaller firm has more responsibilities, the Japanese would perceive him or her to have higher status than one at IBM. An Ivy League institution would rank above a State University in the same way.

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The most prestigious institution in Japan is Todai (Dillon, p.28). The student begins working toward the entrance to the University at a very early age and is said to be under tremendous pressure, which has led to suicide in some cases. Companies choose their recruits based on the order of graduate universities from which they received their degrees. It is expected that the individual will maintain ties with their alma mater and sports teams while assisting other students in joining the company.

Discrimination will happen, and the goal isn’t to get into the correct group; rather, it’s about getting into the right job. Because Japan’s business world is so focused on the company circle, transferring between firms is uncommon there. If someone leaves a firm, they will have a hard time forming a new network and advancing as a result of their disloyalty violation.

The Confucian influence is evident in both the organization and office structure of a Japanese firm. It’s more disciplined than American companies, and it doesn’t encourage individual specialization. A section having a chief, supervisors, and basic staff is the basic operational unit. A department led by a department chief has several sections. Managers sit facing each other in rectangular symmetry with their desktops sitting behind them.

The department head is often in a prime position to see what’s going on throughout the department. Because employees are face-to-face, they’re generally aware of everything that happens. Sections and departments are compared and ranked.

The section tables are arranged in ascending order of rank. The more sections a department has, the more important it is. This is quite distinct from American practice, where individual workstations are highlighted by blocked–off cubicles or offices as one rise in rank. As an employee advances up the ranks in America, his/her office generally grows larger, more barricaded, and increasingly removed from the rest of the staff, frequently to the point of being on a different floor altogether.

Dress codes, on the other hand, vary. In Japan, all employees wear a uniform to promote consistency and equality. It is common in the United States for high-level employees to be more costly than low-level workers, such as white-collar vs. blue-collar. The corporate structure and business practice’s emphasis on suppressing one’s emotions, submitting to higher authority without thinking, and punishing resistance are all obvious.

The Japanese, for example, are inclined to respond to a question with what they believe will satisfy the inquirer rather than with an unpleasant truth. In order not to jeopardize the tranquility of their relationship, he or she holds importance. Akio Morita (Chairman of the Sony Corporation) points out that Japan’s Confucian heritage makes it difficult for its people to say no in normal human interactions.

Subordinates are afraid to decline their superiors without seeming impolite in a regular hierarchy. The higher-up interprets a no from a subordinate as insubordination. In order to maintain good human interactions, no is something that should be avoided in the workplace (Morita, p.121). When conflicts arise, they are rarely confronted.

Instead, workers and bosses look for a sort of telepathic communication. “Japanese people are not prone to weighing difficult ethical issues in terms of right and wrong; rather, they are more interested in determining what is acceptable and unacceptable among a group.” (Dillon, p.27-30). A corporate culture is a place where the employee sacrifices his/her unique style for the sake of group cohesiveness. As a result, irritation and tension accumulate within the worker.

To alleviate this stress, organizations hold year-end parties and large after-hours drinking and socializing. The individual feels liberated to speak freely with his coworkers and bosses without fear of being judged while intoxicated. Alcoholism is a serious issue in Japan as a result of this situation.

Boye De Mente sees a parent-child relationship as a distinct ethic in Japanese business culture, in which the employer is regarded as a mother and her workers are seen as children. Since ancient times, the Japanese have been taught to work collaboratively and obey authority in order for them to survive and be protected. There was a price to not agree. Indulgent love (Amae) is translated into “indulgent mother’s love” or “love by an indulgent mother’ (De Mente, p. 98).

The organization as a whole is like a mother to her child, and the style of management is similar to that of a parent. Housing or subsidies for housing, transportation payments, family allowances, child benefits, health services, free recreational amenities, educational opportunities, retirement funds, and incentives are all provided by the firm.

The lifestyle of the employee is used to determine his or her pay. Men with families, for example, will make more money than men who are retiring. The pay is gradually scaled up and down before returning to its original position. Work status is maintained by transferring the retired executive to a different less visible department so that he or she may continue working while being cared for in retirement.

Under this patterned way of life labor, while it only applies to a small number of people, it is still an active system in Japan. Under this arrangement, all large business and government bureau employees are usually hired for life. These businesses generally hire directly from the schools once a year.

Candidates are encouraged to complete a comprehensive examination and, after thorough evaluation, are then hired for life. Employees who are chosen are expected to give their wholehearted commitment to the firm. The business pledges to look after its employees until they die. Managers are not allowed to hire, fire, or limit salaries.

The firm employs and supervisors motivate through style, trust, goodwill, and cooperation. Promotions are first based on longevity and second on talent and success. Employees are assigned according to their capabilities; the brighter picking up the heavier responsibilities, while the less able a lighter task. There are no rankings. Everyone is part of the team.

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Trainees are rotated every two to three years in a circulating effect or rotation. Instead of monetary incentives, the most competent and productive obtain status and will eventually be chosen for better assignments. Promotion is based on an individual’s capacity to get along with others and foster team harmony. Groups focus on strategy and objectives rather than task accomplishment like they do in the United States. Human interactions take precedence over technical competence.

Rather than direct, the manager’s job is to foster harmony. A great manager, for example, would take responsibility for errors in order to create a more harmonious team by shielding his employees from “loss of face.” This method ties workers’ interests together by requiring them to defend and support their employer if he has a weak area. American businesses place a higher value on short-term earnings over long-term viability or cooperation among coworkers.

In Japanese culture, creativity is stifled. According to certain researchers, innovative and creative leaders are lost in the Japanese business world as a result of this parent-child relationship. Researchers have started to examine the level of satisfaction among the average Japanese employee in recent years.

There is a term in Japanese that means, “My spirit is not sated.” This implies that you are dissatisfied with your job or workplace (De Mente, p.125). It’s used to express a general sense of dissatisfaction among the Japanese toward their occupation. The long hours and working weeks have been an accepted part of the Japanese work ethic for many years, but they are now being questioned in the news. A media campaign organized by some liberal organizations in Japan has started to question Japan’s work ethic.

Posters have been put up in the Tokyo subway depicting youngsters crying and a statement that these children have lost their fathers to employment, suggesting that they are unhappy. Most employees use public transit to get to work. The group feels that these images show that the Japanese work ethic is no longer as effective and meaningful as once believed and that people want more than just financial compensation for security and self-definition.

The Japanese regard the American work ethic as a business right to maximize profits at the expense of employees being regarded as tools or resources without rights. He contrasts this perception with that of the Japanese, in which the worker is considered a human being with inalienable rights that include more than just pay. nIt is up to the Japanese firm to give meaning to its workers’ lives by providing purpose and caring for them until they die. Morita claims that top executives at Japanese firms strive to enhance their company’s position by paying taxes into national initiatives.

In contrast to Japanese executives, American executives hop from business to company, acquisitively snatching as much money as possible, frequently far beyond their means. Furthermore, accountants in the United States are compensated for finding methods to assist the executive to avoid paying taxes. As a result, labor unions have emerged in the United States to aid employees in asserting their rights against management (Morita, p.188).

During recessions, the differences between Japanese and American ethical issues become increasingly apparent. When an industry in Japan collapses, the firm uses every resource at its disposal to ensure that its laid-off workers are able to find new employment. Employees are generally laid off in the United States when the market shifts, with minimal warning and little respect for their prospects of getting other work.

According to Morita, Japanese and American business concepts differ as well. In Japan, a corporation is considered successful if it has eliminated its debt without the need for financial product sales. In the US, leverage and short-term gains have been used to assess success. Employees are rarely retrained or placed in a more encouraging environment in the United States.

The CEO was advised to implement a layoff when Sony was hit by the oil recession. Even though it meant losing money for the firm, the chairman refused to fire his employees. To prevent staff from leaving, he established educational programs and busy work to keep morale high and improve job abilities.

This was an American branch of the Sony Corporation, and Morita had no idea what the reaction would be. He was grateful to see that employee loyalty to the firm was strengthened in America and a strong sense of corporate camaraderie and appreciation was fostered. Employees bought tees with inscriptions on them denouncing labor unions, according to Akio’s account. The assertion is that regardless of where you reside or work, Japanese (Shinto, Confucianism, Buddhism, Parent/Child) moral values are appreciated.

In Japan, unions do exist in businesses. Employees under the age of 30 are very active in these groups. Throughout history, the unions and management have maintained a positive relationship. This viewpoint appears to be changing towards that of US labor organizations, which demand legislation and want shorter work hours, overtime ceilings, an increase in the overtime wage rate, and more vacation pay in recent years. (Yamada p. 699-718)

In the United States, there have been several movements to take down monopolies like Standard Oil and AT&T in order to preserve the free market aspect of capitalism. In order to protect these rights, various laws have been passed and government involvement has been encouraged in the United States.

The Japanese approach to business development and protection is demonstrated by Keiretsu. As the biggest parent firms expand, they form ties with smaller and second-tier companies via cross-ownership, financial linkages, long-term commercial relationships, and social and historical links. Each firm is linked to one of Japan’s business partners through its own company.

In this manner, the cash origins and uses are dispersed throughout Japan. When a firm grows, it will take on debt or get capital from a number of Japanese-linked banks or big businesses. They will secure a portion of the sales proceeds as the business expands. If a company experiences difficulties, connected firms may assist out or absorb some of the pain and staff reductions.

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Japan has built a successful and lucrative connected network, as seen in the large firms Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Toyota, and Hitachi. Working with one of the big businesses comes with some degree of protection. When organizations like Apple collaborate with these massive enterprises, business practices and values become more apparent in their product production. For example, when Apple outsources a task to a company for a finished good or completed well.

The product’s component parts and assembly are outsourced to other firms, with each party taking a profit margin. The production of these goods is managed by businesses that are connected to the original winner of the bid. These small businesses will benefit from any extra production if it occurs, as well as any earnings or development that may result from it.

If a firm’s output decreases, it will generally assume responsibility for other sources of productive labor for its secondary subcontractors or cottage partners. We’ve found that the connections between employers and their suppliers are quite intimate to the point that they might prevent alternative sources of component parts.

This is another situation that demonstrates our point. A prominent Keiretsu organization recently provided us with an illustration of this. Apple established a requirement for a specific component part to be used in the production of a new product. The component part was created by one of the second-tier suppliers or family members of the supplier, not by one of the supplier’s rivals in Europe. As a result, they hired one of their subcontractors to duplicate the item and refused to deal with a firm outside Japan.

When we looked at the companies in our analysis, we found that Japanese businesses will only source from connected Japanese companies and will resist European or American supply sources unless it is a last resort or under pressure from Apple. It is stated that Japanese shops will make necessary components for the Keiretsu’s benefit and Japan if required, and that they would be paid for by the Keiretsu to do so.

The situation with this sort of company policy is referred to as anti-competitive in the United States. In Japanese society, this sort of business practice is considered pure and equitable. The Confucian principles of loyalty and faith are so strong that businesses will not do business with other organizations unless they have personal connections within them.

Many Japanese connections have never been formed, leaving it difficult for Western firms to break into the market. Because the Japanese place a higher value on the public good of their country than individual gain, this conduct makes sense in their eyes.

It’s important to remember that the Japanese ethical standards would be more than suitable for a company to network in this manner. The difficulty comes about when the two different viewpoints are entangled within the same geographic region, with significantly varied basic ethics. In the United States, capitalism requires using the cheapest cost manufacturer or a bank with the best interest rate regardless of who they are or where they’re from.

In a money-oriented culture like ours, saving money is more appealing than connecting with American companies. It’s wrong for a Japanese company to operate outside of the Keiretsu and send money back home.

Is it fair for Japan, which prizes hard work, to claim the United States as its own and then demand that Americans practice their ethics? It appears that concessions will be required. Recent news reports indicate that Keiretsu walls are crumbling and American capitalist ideals are seeping into Japanese workplaces. These changes seem to have begun in the late 1980s when the yen crashed (Kuniyasu, p.22).

As a result, larger Keiretsus were forced to lay off or fire their second-tier suppliers, losing the mother company in the process. This shift in employee attitude was caused by a change in organizational behavior. The fundamental principles that once inspired pride now appear to be eroding. As a consequence, students’ attitudes are changing and the corporate culture is becoming increasingly competitive, seeking capable executives from overseas corporations.

Japanese workers are demanding a “better job across the street,” as is evident by a recent poll. Japanese businesses have taken aggressive capitalist competitive measures in order to stay competitive. These two cultures frequently have difficulty comprehending and accepting each other’s different corporate objectives 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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