Sunday, April 20, 2008

More tips for a manager in Japan

Most forums and stories about Japan focus on the practicalities of getting a visa, and on areas accessible to foreigners, the most obvious being English conversation teacher. Expat Managers in Japan have a smoother way into the country. The paperwork is taken care of. A nice apartment is already booked for them in downtown Tokyo, and they have a position waiting in the Japanese subsidiary of their company. This does not mean they have it easy, and Japan can be a career graveyard, especially for very bright and successful people in the west. I published last month a few tips about working in Japan. This story gives more of them.
Lesson 6: Leverage on your expertise areas
Once in Japan, you will probably lose some of the strengths you leverage at home. You may be an eloquent and convincing speaker, but this will be lost through translations. Japanese people are also more likely to want to review the details than to buy a brilliant theory. Obviously, your carefully crafted network in the company will be of almost no use in Japan. You may be brilliant in motivating your team, but this will also not translate well in Japanese due to language and way of working. One of the only leverage you can still use in Japan is your expertise. A well-written computer program is well-written in all languages. A precise planning also stays a precise planning. Stress Calculation for Mechanical parts is the same in the west and Japan. A skilled chef remains a skilled chef whatever the country. My experience is that Japanese people respect expertise far more than they do of important, but harder to define, ‘managerial skills’. If your position in Japan is in line with your expertise and experience, it will be a powerful base you can build your position on.
Lesson 7: Forget about abstraction and concepts
The most brilliant, or supposedly brilliant, managers in the West love abstraction and concepts. Every year, business schools and consulting companies produce new concepts that are supposed to provide answers to company issues. Communication around those concepts is usually very sophisticated, as the organizations producing them have to justify their high fee. Hours of meetings can be wasted by rival managers fighting over their favourite ideas. Sceptics will say that most of those concepts are useless or even dangerous, and those that are not usually boil down to a two-line sentence when the hot air is removed. Whatever your opinion on this topic, you are likely to have a hard time using your favourite concepts in Japan, as they probably are not so popular here. Your Japanese employees, customers and suppliers are also likely to be very sceptical about abstract reasoning. My personal opinion is that there may be deep cultural reasons for that, but this is off-topic. You will have no choice but to elaborate your favourite idea down to concrete things like productivity improvement, better sales, reduced cost and better quality. For each of those topics, you will then be able to discuss productively with your Japanese counterparts about concrete improvements. This is actually a way of working that you may want to bring back home as most people find it more efficient.
Lesson 8: Do not play with the truth
Many managers, not to mention politicians, have the temptation to play with the truth. There may be good intentions behind. Making a good dossier even better can speed-up decisions. Hiding the pain in a change can help make it accept, sometimes for the own interest of the people “cheated”. However, the decision cycle is going to be very long in Japan, and your propositions will be explored in detail by all your Japanese colleagues and partners. You may find yourself in a very delicate situation explaining them the points where you “massaged” the truth. At worst, you will lose your credibility, and the goodwill you started to build with your counterparts. By being honest, you will build trust with your colleagues. You may also be better prepared to address the risks in the plan you present. As a common example, moving offshore or outsourcing looks nice to reduce cost, but how do you address quality issues and make sure the experience of the in-house employees is not lost? Did you account for the full cost of firing the people concerned, including loss of morale for the employees remaining? In the end, considering everything, is it really worth it? Would not you be better starting on a small scale and see how it goes? I believe you may also want to bring this habit back home.
Lesson 9: Negociate in the backroom
In theory, the most important meetings should be the ones where decisions are taken, as all the stakeholders in the company are present, and a lively debate can take place. In the end, one opinion, or a compromise, is agreed as the company decision. This decision may be in contradiction with the suggestion of one or several stake-holders. It means the company thinks those people were wrong, or their concern were not the most pressing ones for the company. This can be understood as the normal course of business in anglo-saxon culture. However, in many other cultures, this can be resented as a public humiliation for the people whose opinion was disregarded, and the different opinions expressed may just be seen as a “mess”. Of course, there are very different opinions in a company in Japan as everywhere else, but Japanese people think it is worth reaching a consensus before the “big meeting” by conducting bilateral discussions between all stake-holders to reach the best decision for the company. By doing this, everybody saves face, and the harmony inside the company is preserved. Of course, this has a drawback, as it is extremely time consuming. But it is probably better than the alternative. If you do not take time to build consensus, you will hold the big meeting and tell your opinion. Most likely, the Japanese guys will politely say “yes” to express the fact they have understood your opinion, not that they agree. They may not realize the decision has been taken. When they do, they will fight by all possible means to have the decision reversed, or to make it meaningless. One example is a company that set an amount (let’s say $1M) above which projects need to be approved centrally, in order to control spending. Most Japanese people just ended-up splitting their projects into $995K packages that they could continue as before.
To conclude this short series, I would like to point to a quite interesting book telling the story of the Nissan take-over by Renault, and how his president, Carlos Gohn, managed it. While the magic has worn off a little bit, he still managed to transform a struggling traditional Japanese company into a profitable one. I wished all my colleagues in Japan read the book.
Turnaround: How Carlos Gohn rescued Nissan, from David Magee. Edited by Collins, ISBN 978-0060514853
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.
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Saturday, April 5, 2008

On the tracks of the Izu Dancer

I may not be the only one to have been introduced to Japanese literature by the short “Izu Dancer” (伊豆の踊り子) novel. It tells the story of a young high-school student going on a vacation trip to the Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島) in the early 1900s. He starts the trip alone and sad. Later, he meets a group of entertainers and travels with them down to Shimoda(下田). His mood gets a lot better, thanks to his cheerful company and especially the attraction he feels for a young dancer. The young age of the girl and the gap in social status will not allow him to have an affair, but our hero leaves for Tokyo from Shimoda by boat with much lighter feelings. The story is gracefully told by Kawabata’s elegant prose.
During my first trip to Japan, I ran into Izu Peninsula again when I looked for a quick “onsen experience” outside Tokyo. This brought me to Atami (熱海), the gateway to the Peninsula, and a popular modern resort. Being on budget, I did not go there by the aptly name “Odoriko” (Dancer) Express, and restricted myself to a cheap but pleasant onsen afternoon in a modern hotel, before going back to Tokyo by the regular commuter train and eating cheap ramen noodles again for dinner.
A few years later, I could at least discover more of the Peninsula. The orange and green regular train brought me from Tokyo to Ito(伊東), a small fishing town and a Hot Spring (温泉) resort. I was quite disappointed by the outside aspect of the onsen ryokan (旅館) I booked, which looked more like a Tokyo suburb building than a holiday resort. However, the experience was unforgettable, as the staff was extremely helpful, and I could enjoy a relaxing tatami room. Food in ryokan is also great, with an elaborated dinner and breakfast served in the room. In Izu coast, it almost always includes raw fish, whereas boar (猪) is more common in the mountains. The best of an onsen trip is of course the long evening when there is plenty of time to enjoy the hot and sulphurous water, and to sleep with the whole body relaxed. Some ryokans are also set in old traditional house, with a great atmosphere. Old Japanese buildings however sometimes lack the sound isolation that would be suited in such a favourite date spot.
The coastal road south of Ito is interesting enough for an afternoon stroll, and offers beautiful views of Oshima(大島) islands. However, it is worth taking the train south to Jogasaki Kaigan (城ヶ埼海岸) Station. Nearby is the beautiful shoreline of Jogasaki (城ヶ埼), with its lava cliffs surrounded by pine trees and going straight into the see. The shoreline is beautifully preserved, and offers several kilometres of hikes. Nearby is also the surprising Mount Omura (大室山), a now sleepy small volcano that can be climbed by a chairlift. It offers nice views over the Izu Peninsula, nearby islands, and Mount Fuji. After climbing down the volcano, you could continue to Shimoda, at the southern end of the peninsula, by train. This historical port is where the famous American “black ships” landed in 1858, putting an end to two centuries of almost full isolation for Japan.On the way, you could stop on the famous “Shirahama” (白浜) beach, a popular swimming spot in summer, and a surf spot all year round.
It is however possible to reach Shimoda via the mountain road. This is the way taken by the party in the Izu dancer novel. Your trip will start in Mishima (三島), and should definitely include an Unagi (うなぎ) meal. The eel is grilled over a charcoal fire, with the sauce giving it a sweet flavour. You may also enjoy near Mishima the beautiful Kakitagawa (柿田川) springs. The very pure deep blue water is said to come from Mount Fuji, and the surrounding wetlands are very pleasant.
Back in Mishima, the train will bring you to Shuzenji (修善寺) town in central Izu peninsula. The nearby “Shuzenji onsen” (修善寺温泉) resort is home to some of the most renowned ryokan in Japan. There are also more affordable options, and It is a good place for staying overnight. From Shuzenji, you can travel by bus through the central road that goes down to Shimoda. The Joren waterfalls (浄連の
滝) are certainly impressive, but the best is probably a hike in the Amagi Toge (天城峠) road, now closed to cars. I was lucky enough to hike it during a misty afternoon, and the fog gave a touch of mystery to the forest. I would not have been surprised if the travelling party of the Izu dancer just came out of the fog in front of me. Also impressive was the completely dark tunnel one has to cross at the top of the road. Travelling further down to Shimoda, the road crosses twice a weird loop-shaped bridge, an original and supposedly earthquake-proof way of climbing the mountains.
Another way to travel to Izu from Nagoya or Osaka is the ferry connecting Shimizu (清水) to Toi (土肥). It crosses the Suruga-bay with beautiful views on mount fuji on clear time. A reasonably frequent bus links the small town of Ooi to Shuzenji. Of course, it is possible to board the ferry with a car, and you may avoid the frequent traffic jams around Numazu on week-ends
Practical information:

Access to Atami: Tokaido Shinkansen Kodama(Y4288 - 27 Euro, 46min from Tokyo), Special ‘Odoriko’ Service (Y3900 - 24 Euro, 80min from Tokyo) or Tokaido main line (111 min, Y1890 - 12 Euro from Tokyo). The Odoriko service continues to Ito (Y4420, 104min) and Shimoda (Y6290, 164min). There are also local train services between Atami and Ito (JR Ito line), and between Ito and Shimoda (Izu express line).

Access to Mishima: Tokaido Shinkansen Hikari (Y4600 - 28 Euro, 44min from Tokyo), or Tokaido main line (119 min, Y2210 from Tokyo, train change in Atami)

Access to Shuzenji: Izu Hakone line from Mishima to Shuzenji (33 minutes, 500 - 3 Euro) Frequent buses from Shuzenji station (every 15 minutes) to Shuzenji Onsen resort (Izu Hakone bus or Tokai bus). There are around 20 buses a day between Shuzenji and Toi. Buses bound for Matsuzaki (松崎) stop in Toi.

Access to Joren Fall and Amagi Toge: bus from Shuzenji bound to Kawazu. Approximately one bus every 30 minutes. 30 minutes, Y800 - 5 Euro to reach Joren Fall, Y1060 - 7 Euros, 45 minutes to reach Amani Toge

Access to Toi from Ferry. Dream Ferry from Shimizu. Around 65 minutes, between 4 and 7 return trips a day. The first ferry leaves Shimizu at 8am, and Toi at 9.20 am. The last ferry leaves Shimizu at 4pm and Toi at 5.20 pm. One way trip is Y2000 - 12 Euro per person, and Y4300 - 25 Euro per individual car (less than 3m long).

Izu Hakone bus: (In Japanese)
Tokai Bus: (In Japanese)
Toi bus schedule: (In Japanese)
Toi <-> Shimizu Ferry:

Unagi Restaurant in Mishima : sakuraya (桜家) 三島市広小路町13-2 hirokoji-cho Mishima. Tel 055-975-4520. Open from 11am to 8pm or when sold-out. Meals from Y2620 - 16 Euros. Closed on Wednesday and holidays.

Booking an onsen hotel or ryokan: Yahoo Japan ( offers comprehensive accommodation booking service under the category ‘travel’. The secret Japan ( site offers independent advice in English and in French on Onsen destination, and also includes a guide to west Izu coast.

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