A guest blog post by Stephanie Oyama
The main topic in Japan at present is ‘3/11’ (with an obvious echo of the US 9/11). Japanese dates are year, month, day, so 3/11 is the 11th March. Unlike the focus outside Japan, this is not about the earthquake and tsunami which struck that day, but the accident at Fukushima Daiichi power plant , the second worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl, and Japan’s heavy reliance on nuclear power. Japan is used to the former and accepts the limits on fully preparing for them. The latter is a different matter, and is becoming a focus for the general distrust of the government, bureaucrats, and some companies. In a variety of forums, questions are being asked such as: How did we get here? Why are we here? What can we do differently in future? and even How did we live in the past?
Foreign business people need to remember the Oil Shokku in Japan in the mid-70s – when the problems in the Middle East caused the Japanese to ask: how could we lose focus, build whole businesses on the importation of vaste amounts of raw materials (in that case oil), and depend on a part of the world we do not understand?
That led to the enormous tanker that is the Japanese economy being shifted, driven from the centre by the bureaucrats who run the large ministries, from a reliance on heavy industry to a new course that relied on the one natural resource Japan has in abundance: a well-educated, disciplined work force. (Perfect for the mass production of consumer electronics).
So far, so understandable, but one surprising factor to foreign business people looking on may be that the old companies did not collapse, with new ones taking their place. Instead, they changed course with the employees retraining in-house and on the job: the Japanese way.
The Japanese also remember that the lessons of the Oil Shokku were not fully taken on board, as Japan seemed to recover well and preened itself in the ‘bubble economy’ of the 1980s. But that was then followed by ‘the lost decade’ of the 1990s (which proved to be optimistically named and, in fact, lasted into the new century). A senior Japanese businessman in his early to mid 60s now would have just been starting out with his company during the Oil Shokku.
So, how will the country and its businesses deal with the new reality? The important message for us from the past is that we need to keep our eyes, ears, and minds open for how they define the problems, and how they see the remedies. Only then can we hope to see our role in their story.
A final question: how many Japanese did you see on TV reports being interviewed in English? You may not have seen any. This is still not a country where English is common currency.
Stephanie works as a consultant advising on Western-Japanese business relations with insights from academia, business, and personal connections, and with experience in all three areas stretching over more than 30 years.
She currently works in two main areas:
1. Within EU-based Japanese-owned companies, advising and training:
2. Within companies supplying goods or services to Japanese companies
Conversis – The Professional Translation Service Agency
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