Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Foreign manager in Japan

I had the opportunity to work on a large-scale project in the Japanese subsidiary of an Anglo-Saxon multinational. Things did not turn out according to plan, and the project soon became a huge power struggle between the western managers and the Japanese employees. Being a “latine” European, and almost the only foreigner speaking Japanese, I was somehow considered “neutral”, and alternatively the confident of westerners and Japanese alike. This was the ideal position to ”make sense of it all”. I have tried to boil-down my thoughts into a few key lessons that will help me next time and may be of interest to other western managers assigned to Japan.
Lesson 1: Have realistic expectations

You may be a very efficient manager in the west. However, the odds are you will spend much time here convincing Japanese people that your ideas are right, and then, things may work-out much slower than what you are used to, if they progress at all. Unless the situation is critical, Japanese people are very unlikely to accept radical change in their way of working. They may also consider that your assignment is only for a few years, and they will stay longer, so they would better please their Japanese colleagues and customers than yourself. Those are reasons why you should you take as a baseline for your assignment objectives what your predecessor in Japan has achieved, not what you have achieved in another country. In most situations, it is probably safer to promise that you will implement consensual and incremental change, correct obvious flows, and give visibility to your management.
Lesson 2: Only accept a position with power attached

Western and Japanese people seldom work together efficiently, as the way of thinking and background are quite different. Also, communication is usually poor due to translation. Quite rationally, most Japanese employees would rather leave you idle on the side, and continue managing the day to day business themselves. They believe they will lose more time engaging you than they will gain, and they sometimes fear you will break all the relationships and organization they put in place. You may enjoy a two years holiday in Japan with all the perks of an expat. However, if your idea is to get real work done, you should make sure your position is designed so that you stay in the loop of most decisions: a good idea would be to have control over the budget, or to have strategic technical knowledge that is positively necessary for your Japanese colleagues. By doing so, you will not have to convince your Japanese colleagues to keep you in the loop, as they anyways need you.
Lesson 3: Do not expect to be trusted just because you are a westerner

Anglo-saxon companies are amongst the most efficient and well-organized. As a result, western managers, especially American ones, often think their way of working is the best, and expect Japanese people just to admit it, listen and adopt their way. This feeling is especially true as most Japanese employees may not master well the English language, and will not be able to explain eloquently their ideas in English. If you hear about the other side, Japanese people are justly proud of their achievements: they have built the second world economy on a narrow piece of land (thirty times smaller than the USA), managed the most efficient and fastest transition from the feudal world to a modern country. Japanese people also often think that their society is more harmonious. We could spend hours comparing Japan and the West, but there are for sure areas where Japan is very competitive with the west, the most obvious example being the automobile industry. Your subordinates will not take your statement as face value and always challenge them. So, to succeed, you will have to listen to your employees, prove them that your ideas are right, and, especially, that they are suited to the Japanese environment.

Lesson 4: Adapt to the Japanese environment

While local people tend to exaggerate the specificities of Japan, there are some objective differences between the “West” and Japan that usually boil down to the following ones:
  • Houses are small and land is scarce, so the people have an adapted lifestyle. Obvious examples are that people buy food on a daily basis, as they do not have room to store a week’s worth of supply, and buy small cars to adapt to the narrow roads.
  • Japanese people are very sophisticated in their taste and lifestyle: Tokyo compares well with the most elegant cities in the west such as Milan, Paris, New-York or London, for fashion, food and nightlife. You may not find a market here for second-rate products.
  • Standards of service are also very high in Japan. While expats often take the example of the ATM closed on Sunday to show Japan has poor service, this is in my opinion more the rule than the exception. I had the chance to live in several countries in Europe, the USA, and Japan, and I found service consistently better in Japan. This is true as an individual customer to restaurants, hotels, travel agencies, moving companies, phone companies, real estate agents. But it also applies to internal services in most companies I worked with. I regret every single day the extremely efficient Japanese assistant that helped me sort small issues on the project. The dark side is of course that processes and products often have to be over-engineered to provide the required quality of service. This may not be always cost effective, but it may be the only way to do business in Japan.
Lesson 5: Work hard

There is a general feeling in the west, especially in Anglo-Saxon culture, that spending long nights in the office is a proof of poor personal productivity, as brilliant people will organize themselves better and finish their work early. This is certainly often true, but there is also a dark side. Dig a little bit, and behind a self-declared productive person leaving the office at 5pm, there is often a hard-working subordinate or subcontractor making long days to compensate, or a fine-tuned rhetoric to push difficult work to other people. Japanese people generally respect hard work and long hours. During my experience in Japan, I could observe the relative success of two dozen western executives, and the hardest working people were consistently and significantly the most successful, even if they were not always the most knowledgeable or experienced. By spending long hours at work, they gained respect from their colleagues, they had time to put attention to details, and they were in the office when decisions were taken late at night. The most effective meeting I experienced was an infamous 14 hours session that started at 4pm and finished at 6 am the following morning having worked through all the details of a complex contract. This is somehow extreme, but you should expect to finish work regularly between 9 and 11pm. To be successful, you would be wise to forget about evenings in the American club and regular dates with your wife on weekdays. A good compromise is probably to work intensely on weekdays, but keep your week-end to yourself and your family.
In a following story, I will share with you other lessons I got out of my experience in Japan.
Note: the buildings appearing on the pictures of this story have been chosen for esthetic reasons only. I did not conduct business with companies located in those buildings, and none of my stories is based on them.
Full Story

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Party under the cherry blossoms

The first sign of spring in Japan is the plum blossom, or« ume » (梅) in Japanese. However, cherry blossoms, « sakuras » (桜), are more spectacular, and are the favourite of Japanese people. During a week, the trees are entirely covered by elegant pale rose flowers. In Central Japan, the Sakura season is also the start of the fiscal year, and is associated with big changes: the start of a new school year, and new assignments in companies. Cherry blossoms are forecasted using the most modern weather forecast science. A dedicated computer analyses a sample of trees, winter temperatures and historical data to compute the date of blossom. A special story in the weather forecast shows the position of the “blossom front” (桜前線) on the country. It starts in the south, and from March to April, travels up north through the main Japanese islands. In the north and in the mountains, there can be sakuras up to May. At a given place, the flowers are usually visible for a week. But a heavy rain or wind can disturb well-worked schedules, by making all the flowers fall early. Most current trees are of the « Somei Yoshino » (染井吉野) type, created in Toshima(豊島), a district of Tokyo, in the 19th century. The trees are all identical and so usually blossom at exactly the same time.
The most ancient Japanese chronicles mention flower viewing, or « hanami » (お花見) as a hobby for the nobility. Sakuras are taken seriously in Japan, and every garden or public building should have its own tree. Dilettantes will be happy with a simple walk in the park near their home, or slightly better, in a famous « hanami » spot. Several thousand trees are planted in the most famous places, sometimes lit-up at night. There can be long queues in front of the best places. However, the true “hanami” amateur will book a few square meters in a park under the trees several days in advance. This is done by laying a big blue plastic sheet with the name and date of party on the floor. Friends, colleagues and family will meet there for a “hanami party”. Newcomers who want to show their dedication to the company often wake-up very early in the morning to book the best spot to have a party with their colleagues.
Every available corner under the trees ends up being covered by a not-so-charming- blue plastic sheet. The atmosphere of hanami party is not really contemplative, as guests enjoy the food and alcohol they brought. Food stalls also sell hot food and more alcohol. Sometimes, a portable karaoke engine adds to the noise. A few dozen beer cans later, the party will be drunk jokes and loud laughs. The Japanese proverb “cakes, more than flowers” (花より団子), seems perfectly suited to the situation.
In China, sakura flowers are a symbol of womanliness. However, Japanese people associate sakuras to the transient nature of life, and a gentle nostalgia of passing time “Mono no Aware” (物の哀れ). Yakuzas, the japanese mafia, use sakura as a symbol of their short and exciting life, and often have the flowers tattooed on their back. The pink flowers were sometimes painted on Second World War fighters. They are also a symbol of Japan, and are also drawn on the back of the 100 Yen coin. There is also a “sakura” diplomacy, such as the double gift of several thousand trees to the United States in 1912 and 1965 to celebrate friendships between the two countries. The trees are now planted in Washington DC, where an annual festival is organized to enjoy the blossoms.
Sakura trees are close relatives to classical cherry trees (さくらんぼ), but do not bear fruits. Flowers and leaves are preserved in salt to be used as a condiment. They appear in numerous pastries, both modern and traditional. Sakura-mochis, a rice cake wrapped in a sakura leaf, is eaten especially on the “Girl day” on the 3rd of march. As every traditional Japanese food, there are regional differences: in Kanto (関東), a rolled pancake is wrapped in the leaf, whereas in Kansai (関西), a rice ball is wrapped in the leaf. Sakura herb tea is served to the bride and groom on their wedding day, as the flower is of good omen. Their delicate pattern is also printed on china and kimonos to give them a fresh spring feeling.
It is very easy to find sakura trees in Japan, as there is at least one in every park. A hike in the mountains at the right season will allow you to enjoy cherry blossoms in a pristine environment. We could write pages comparing the best sakura spots. The following places are anyways worth a visit:
  • Ueno Park (上野公園) in Tokyo, close to Ueno station (上野駅) served by JR trains and subway Hibiya (日比谷線) and Ginza (銀座線). This vast park is host to the National Museum of Japan. During the sakura season, the park is full of walkers and sakura parties.
  • Inokashira Park (井の頭公園) near Kichijoji station (吉祥寺駅), served by JR Chuo line (中央線) and Keio Inokashira line (京王井の頭線). This charming park is in a posh Tokyo suburb. It is possible to rent a small swan-shaped boat to enjoy the cherry blossoms from the lake. Rumour is that the local goddest will bring bad omen to couples riding this boat, and the couple will soon separate. You may want to adapt your itinerary in the park to your personal situation.
  • Shinjuku Gyoen park (新宿御苑) near Shinjukugyoen-mae station (新宿御苑前), served by the subway Marunouchi line (丸ノ内線). There is an entrance fee.
  • Meguro River (目黒川) near Nakameguro station (中目黒駅), served by the Tokyu Toyoko line (東急東横線) and the subway Hibiya line (日比谷線). This narrow river is entirely covered by cherry blossoms. This is not the best place to party, as there is not much space under the trees, but it makes for a wonderful walk..Kyomizudera temple (清水寺) in Kyoto, 20 minutes walk uphill from Gojo station (五条) on Keihan Line (京阪線). From the old wooden terrace up the hill, you have a superb view on a sea of cherry blossoms and Kyoto city. The sakuras are wonderfully lit-up at night. There is an entrance fee (700 Yens, 4 Euros), and partying under the trees is not authorized.
Full Story

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Trains from a bygone age in Oigawa valley

Japanese people take their hobby seriously, especially when this hobby is train. One famous competition tests the knowledge of the official express train time-table for the whole country. Some extremists will camp for hours near a railroad with a tripod and a zoom lens to take a shot of an unusual formation. There is a great variety of train designs as the numerous companies in Japan usually order a specific model for each of their special service, such as the famous Narita express service between Tokyo and the airport. Railway modelers in Japan also have a great time there, as models are quite cheap, and built to high standards. Salesmen in specialized shops will very seriously advise the customers on their purchase to ensure the result is realistic.
We will go to a railway trip in Oigawa (大井川) valley in Shizuoka (静岡) prefecture, midway between Tokyo (東京) and Nagoya (名古屋). The Oigawa river flows from the Japanese Southern Alps in a narrow valley to the Pacific Ocean 168 km later. Its crossing was one of the back spots of the old Tokaido (東海道) road. The modern history of the valley is centered on hydro-electric power. The railroad we will travel on today was built during the 1920s to move construction material for the dams. The whole line was opened in 1954, just before the Ikawa dam entered into service.
In the sixties, the end of dam construction and the extension of the road network meant traffic declined on the line, and the company only survived thanks to public subsidies. In the seventies, the Japanese national railways retired steam locomotives. The Oigawa railway company (Dai-tetsu大鉄) bought two used steam locomotives (called SL in Japan). Since 1976, they have been powering tourist services on the line. The company was inspired by the « Brienz Rothorn Bahn », which maintained a full steam service on its line. In the 1980, thanks to the numerous tourists, the Oigawa railroad was back in the black. The economic crisis in the 90s meant hard times again for the company, which survived thanks to subsidies from the Central Japan Electricity Company.
Today, the Oigawa line is the only one to ensure an almost daily steam train service, with up to 3 services a day. The train travels on the 40 first kilometers between Kanaya (金谷) and Senzu(千頭). The formation is powered by one of the 5 steam locomotives in service. The coaches are also old, and give a good idea of the limited comfort of train transport decades ago. Before boarding, you may buy a “loco-bento”, an elegantly packed lunch with a steam locomotive decoration, to make sure not to get hungry during the travel. This is a pleasant trip, first traveling through the tea fields, then near the river in the narrow valley. The sound of steam, and the oil smell gives a special flavor to the trip.
Once arrived to destination, it is worth spending a few minutes looking at those beautiful machines now forgotten, but which were the true engine of the industrial revolution. Those locomotives burn wood or coal in the firebox, and the heat is transmitted to the boiler where it heats water and generates steam. Steam is then heated a second time “superheating” to reach more than 300 degrees and a higher pressure. Then, the steam goes to the piston, where the power is transmitted to the wheels through the rods, a superb mechanism that is entirely visible. Steam locomotives do not have a gear box, and so need large wheels in order to reach high speeds. Our train in the Oigawa valley is quite slow, but the superb “Mallard” British locomotive reached around 200km.h in the 30’s.
You will probably find the trip to Senzu is not enough. You can continue the journey on the second section of the line. A small electric train drives on the narrow and steep track up to the Ikawa (井川) terminal. This is an impressive journey through the mountains, with a beautiful scenic bridge crossing the Nagashima dam lake (長島ダム).
Oigawa valley does not have the tourist infrastructure of nearby Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島), but you may want to combine the pleasures of the steam locomotive with a hike to nearby mountains, and, to make it a full “steam-oriented” day, a visit to the Onsen in the valley. This is definitely worth a full week-end.
Accès to Kanaya from Tokyo : Board the Tokaido Shinkansen Hikari (東海道新幹線ひかり) service to Shizuoka. Be aware that only one Hikari per hour stops in Shizuoka. At Shizuoka, you should change to Tokaido line (東海道本線) bound for Hamamatsu (浜松) and stop at Kanaya (金谷). 6490 Yens, About 2 hours.

Oigawa Railway Company (大井川鉄道):http://www.oigawa-railway.co.jp/

Steam train service between Kanaya and Senzu: Y2370 (14.50 Euro) including Y560 of steam surcharge : the train leaves Kanaya between 10am and noon, all seats are reserved, reservation by phone, internet, or on the day of travel at the station. On weekdays, it should not be necessary to book. The schedule of steam services to Kanaya is not always convenient (departure from Senzu at 14:16 or 15:23 depending on days), but it is also possible to board a regular electric service on the way back. Last departure from Senzu at 19:56 on regular service
Ikawa line between Senzu and Ikawa: 5 trains a day, first departure from Senzu at 9:23, last departure at 13:45. Approximately 105 minutes. Last departure from Ikawa at 15:48. line site : http://www.ikawasen.jp/).

A bus service links Senzu station (千図) and Okuizumi station (奥泉) to the nearby SumataKyo onsens (寸又峡温泉). There are plans available combining a stay at the onsen, dinner, breakfast and steam train service for Y9980 to 11980 (60 to 72 Euros).

Model Train shop Tenshodo (天賞堂): 4-3-9 Ginza, Chuo Ku, Tokyo 〒104-0061 東京都中央区銀座4-3-9 TEL:03-3562-0025, open everyday except Thursday from 11:00 à 19:30. Access from JR Yurakucho station (有楽町) or subway Ginza station (銀座).

Full Story

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Tokyo Neighbourhoods: Akasaka

To sweeten violent noblemen, Louis the 14th created the Versailles Palace, and gathered there the greatest artists of his century. The lords of his kingdom went there to enjoy the latest fashion and art. Busy partying, they forgot to revolt. At the same time, Tokugawa shoguns chose a more radical way, by constraining Japanese noblemen to live every other year in the capital Edo, and leave their family as hostage when they were back home. Most of those provincial lords built their estate in the hills of southern Tokyo, called Yamanote (山の手).
We will take a walk today in one former noble neighbourhood, Akasaka (赤坂), or the “red slope”. We will start by late morning at the Yotsuya station (四谷駅) where The Chuo train line (中央線) and Marunouchi subway line (丸の内線) stop. In front of the station is rococo Akasaka Palace, built in the early 20th century, and surrounded by a great garden. It was the home of the crown prince, and is used since 1974 as a house for state guests. It is closed to the public most of the time. We will walk the street that goes to the left of the palace along the palace limit, and follow the elevated motorway and an old moat up to Akasaka Mitsuke (赤坂見付) crossroad.
North of Akasaka Mitsuke are two of the most famous Tokyo hotels, the “Akasaka Prince Hotel” and the “New Otani”. The famous triangle-shaped New Otani Hotel, one of the first modern Tokyo hotels was host to a famous “Blake et Mortimer” comic, and, more familiar to English speaking readers, a James Bond movie. The hotel garden, preserved from the time the land plot was an aristocratic estate, is worth a visit. If a suit is not compulsory, it is better to avoid too casual clothes in this quite “chic” hotel. The restaurant at the top of the new Tower, originally called “Top of the Tower” offers “all you can eat” meals, with a fantastic view on Tokyo and its gardens. Prices are very affordable, especially for lunch. Japanese people call “Viking” (バイキング) those “all you can eat”. The idea was introduced in the 50th in the Imperial Hotel, following a visit of the hotel manager to Denmark, where smoke fish “all you can eat” buffets were common. The Danish name, unpronounceable in Japanese, was quickly dropped, and replaced by “Viking”. An alternative to the buffet is the French “Brasserie” Aux Bacchanales, close to the new Otani entrance.
Akasaka lively streets are best visited after sunset, so I suggest a walk in nearby areas during the afternoon. Out of the New Otani, we will turn left at Akasaka Mitsuke, and walk along the elevated motorway. After a few minutes, we will be in Nagata-cho, the heart of Japan political life. It has few historical buildings, but the Japanese Supreme court, just in front of “Miyakezaka” (三宅坂) is certainly worth a look. This oppressive building was built in 1974 by architect Shinichi Okada. Then, we will turn the left, and walk along the palace moat to Hanzomon (半蔵門), one of the palace doors. The British Embassy, just facing the Imperial Palace is probably on the best location in town. Its address is No1, Ichiban Cho (Town No 1). The embassy was rebuilt after being destroyed by the Great 1923 Earthquake. Past the Embassy, it is possible to walk on the very pleasant road that crosses the Imperial Palace moat at Chidorigafuchi (千鳥ヶ淵). From there, it is a short walk to Kudanshita (九段下) station where the Hanzomon subway line (半蔵門線) will get you back to Akasaka Mitsuke in a few minutes (stop at Nagatacho (永田町) station).
Back in Akasaka Mitsuke, a large avenue called ‘Sotobori Dori’ (外堀通り) is leading to Toranomon. We will walk on the left side of the street, and after a few minutes, we will go past the ‘Prudential Tower’, built in 2001 on the site of the former « Hotel New Jaman », which diseappeared in the worst post-war fire in Japan, killing 32 people. The site was supposedly haunted, and so stayed as an empty ruin until 1995, although the land in the area was one of the most expensive in the world. A few minutes after the prudential towers, we reach the stairs leading to ‘Hie Jinja’, (日枝神社) which deserves a short visit.
Let’s now meet the true Akasaka. It was one of the liveliest areas of post-war Tokyo, the playground of the politicians. It was home to the greatest post war political scandal, where the American aircraft manufacturer Lockheed bribed major Japanese politicians to buy their planes, using a Japanese underworld ‘yakuza’ figure as a middleman. Copacabana, “New Latin Quarter” are now parts of Tokyo underworld legend. There are few direct reminders of the area, except maybe the “Chante” Love Hotel, a naïve copy of an European castle, where one of the most famous call girls of Tokyo was killed. The Hotel is closed from the Akasaka subway station (赤坂駅). From ‘Hie-jinja’, we will cross Sotobori Dori at Sanno Shita (山王下), and walk on Akasaka Dori (赤坂駅). The hotel is on the left after the second traffic light, close to the TBC tower, home to a major Japanese private television company.
Then, we will will go back to the brand new (Akasaka Biz tower), and go left through ‘Hitotugi Doori’ (一ツ木), that goes through Akasaka most lively area. The small sloppy streets on the left are surprisingly quiet for downtown Tokyo, and it is still possible to see a few traditional tea houses, where geishas enternatin their rich guests. Back to Hitotsugi doori, we will discover Akasaka by night. The liveliest place is between the ‘Sotobori Dori’ Street and ‘Hitotsugi dori’ avenue. There are many Korean Yakiniku, and Pachinkos. There are also many foreign food, cheap sushi, or Izakaya chain restaurants. We will certainly spend the night here in one of the many dining spots. After the meal, we may wish to drink a cocktail in the Akasaka Prince Hotel bar, with a wonderful view of Tokyo by night.

Hotel New Otani : 4-1 Kioi-Cho, Chiyoda-Ku, Tokyo T102-8578, 03-3265-1111, Buffet « Top of the Tower », Y5040 (30 Euros) per person for lunch, Y7875 (50 Euros) for dinner, reservations by phone: 03-3238-0023. http://www.newotani.co.jp/en/tokyo/

Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka : 1-2 Kioi-Cho, Chiyoda-Ku, Tokyo T102-8585 Tel: 03-3234-1111. Bar “Top of Akasaka”, open from 5pm to 1am. http://www.princejapan.com/GrandPrinceHotelAkasaka/

Tokyo Underworld: The Fast times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan, ISBN 978-0375724893: un a very entertaining story of Tokyo postwar underworld, based on the memories of an American gangster in Japan.

I suggest looking for a restaurant on Yahoo Gourmet http://gourmet.yahoo.co.jp/ or Gunavi http://www.gnavi.co.jp/ (Japanese language site). Restaurants go quickly out of fashion in Tokyo, so it is better to get updated regularly. Just in case, here are two easy to find stable addresses accessible to foreigners.

Umai Sushi-Kan (うまい鮨勘): close to Akasaka station on Akasakatodi. Akasaka 3-13-1, Minato Ku Tokyo T107-0052 東京都港区赤坂3丁目13-1: Tel 03-3560-6711. Sushi sets from Y1500 (9 Euros) to Y3000 (18 Euros) par person, open from 11am to 3am on week-days, from 11am to 11pm on week-end: http://www.sushikan.co.jp/

Kyushu Jangara (九州じゃんがら): between Prudential Tower and « Hié Jinja » sur la « sotobori dori ». NagataCho 2-12-8 Chiyoda-Ku Tokyo 〒100-0014 東京都千代田区永田町2-12-8. open from 10:45am. Closed at 1am on sunday, 3:30am on Friday and 2am on other days. Pork soup noodles « Ramen » from Y600 (3.5 Euros) to Y1000 (6 Euros) per person. http://www.kyusyujangara.co.jp/shops/akasaka.htm
Full Story