Saturday, December 15, 2007


One of my students works for a major computer company and discussed a bidding war for a contract with a chain of convenience stores (no, it's not the one you're thinking of). During our talk about her situation at work, we talked about the differences between the way Japanese business deals with and regards contracts and American business.

On a layman's level, I've been aware of these differences for quite some time. In general, it has been my understanding that the Japanese do not view contracts as absolutes, but rather as a starting point for business. Customers may ask for services outside of what is stipulated in a contract, for instance, and the company providing the service will comply without feeling put upon in many cases. In the U.S., companies use contracts as a way of limiting demands outside of what is stipulated in writing.

This differing view of contracts and how closely one can be expected to adhere to the terms of one can cause a lot of problems in international business deals, joint ventures, and the Japanese offices of western-based businesses. In the case of the latter, the expectations of the home office abroad can be very different than those of the branch office in Japan. The home office in a western country may have very rigid notions of how a deal should be carried out in terms of goods, services, and payment while the Japanese take a more flexible approach in accord with the expectations of Japanese customers.

For those who come over from western countries and work in Japan under contract, this flexibility can be a big headache because we expect only to do as we are asked under the terms of our contracts. The Japanese will often freely ask all employees (not only the foreign ones) to do tasks which are far outside of any reasonable description of the job you are coming over to do. Helen has mentioned in comments that she was asked to answer the phone like a receptionist while she was a teacher. Turner said he was asked to clean white boards at the end of the day (more in line with a janitor's tasks) when he was a teacher. At my old workplace, office girls had to vacuum the floors and clean the kitchen once a week. Most of the time employees are asked to regularly do things which are outside their job description as a way of saving the cost of hiring someone with the proper job title to do it. Though foreigners often feel they are being asked to work outside their stipulated contractual duties because they're foreigners, the truth is that it's because they are employees and contracts are not seen as iron-clad or limiting in the same way they are in the U.S.

That being said, my discussion with my student this morning showed that the times are changing. More and more businesses are getting serious about following U.S. business practices and laws like SOX. Part of the reason for this is that following these practices clarifies expectations and simplifies transactions, but another reason is that companies can be removed from the stock exchange in the U.S. if they don't follow these guidelines and regulations. Of course, this sort of thing only affects the really big guns. The little guys can still be as wishy-washy as they want.


Anyone who is interested in learning more about the business practices of various countries can check out Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. It provides a good overview of the thought process and general ways of doing business in a good many countries.


mjgolli said...

This is a great story, and can be the case for Japanese businesses here in the states.

I worked for a company where I was a traveling network engineer. I would setup and maintain networks and servers for a variety of customers. One of our customers was a Japanese company that made automotive adhesives. I remember one day I was in just to make sure their servers were running properly, which I did once a week on a schedule. The office manager asked, in more of a demanding tone, that I assist them in moving cubicle material and desks around. I did help a little bit, since that was my only appointment of the day. When my boss found out, however, he had a cow and had a very heated discussion with the office manager. The VP and some of the managers and engineers are Japanese, but the office manager was American. The Japanese method of running a company had rubbed off on most of the Americans that worked there, especially the office manager. The next time I came to them, she was not very happy with me for telling my boss that I was moving furniture around, considering the amount they were paying for my services. If I remember correctly, I was billed to them at $175/hour. (Of which I saw very little, of course...)

Even with the problems above, I found it very enjoyable to work with the Japanese personnel. They were very kind to me, very respectful and made few demands. The finance manager, Koji-san would always call me Mike-san...and taught me a few choice, naughty words in Japanese! :) It only reinforced my desire to travel to Japan and learn the Japanese language.

Shari said...

I think that, when you're asked to help out once in awhile with something outside your job description, it's no problem. In fact, I was always happy to help with the once a year New Year's cleaning in our office (though they frequently scheduled the teachers to work on that day in such a way that they couldn't help).

The main problem is that, unlike your position as a consultant who popped in once a week, regular workers at the same office get stuck doing the same extra stuff on a regular basis. What's more, they are often asked to do extra work on their own time and not paid for it on a regular basis. The demands have a way of escalating when they have you at their beck and call.

While they are usually very friendly, there are serious consequences to not complying with requests above and beyond the call of duty. The person who smiles to your face and says he appreciates all you do will be plotting to cancel your contract at the first sign of spine. Also, the politeness you experience as an outsider isn't always extended to insiders. I've seen some (Japanese) employees get treated pretty crappily by their bosses including being ignored, shouted at, belittled and angrily spoken to in front of others. It's pretty complicated, but, trust me, there's an extremely slippery slope (with a rapid descent) from agreeing to help out and being expected to do something all the time.

Emsk said...

As you may remember, when I left Kansai to work in Kyushu a few weeks ago, I left as rather ucomfortable working situation. I'm still working for the same company and I've been trying to bite my tongue as much as possible given that I'm only planning to stay here a few months. Plus I also have a three year working visa which I wouldn't have gotten if I hadn't agreed to emregency work at The Company.

So far it's not been so bad, but this past week I've seen that this siuation is as unpleasant as the one I left. I saw one of the assistant managers - we have two, and one is senior to the other, a guy. He was shouted down in front of me, in Japanese, but I still picked up enough to work out he was being reprimanded. His crime? Nothing. We were putting on a kids' party and I took the executive decision to pop out and buy some wrapping paper for a game of pass the parcel. Seeing as we had none and debating whether we did or not would have taken forty minutes, I decided to act independently. I came back to a row - why hadn't I checked with the amanger over spending the money on wrapping paper? All this time I was maintaining that it was no problem - I hadn't checked with her, but I as happy to have footed the bill myself (a measly 200 yen!). Not satisfied with this, I was told that I should check because the truth was that they worried abut me spending my own money.

Fast forwarding a few hours, I found out that the teachers were expected to pay to attend a teachers-students party, far more than a measly 200 yen. In Kansai we were expected to give up the odd Saturday night going to one, but we weren't expected to pay for own meals. This gave us the message that yes, we do expect you to work the odd Saturday night, but we acknolwedge your hard work and unpaid overtime amd we're going to treat you to the odd meal. Not so. I've now caused "bad feeling" for standing up for all the teaching staff. Even the other foreign teacher us asking me to contribute something. This is despite the fact at I as a vegetarian and he as an observant Jew can eat practically nothing. The poor man even had to pay to attend his own welcome party!

In case this sounds petty, I guess you could look at it this way. once worked for a company in London where e were occasionally asked to take students out for the evening. The company not only paid for our meal whilst entertaining the students, but paid us for our time as well.

Sorry, moaning again...

Shari said...

Hi, Emsk, it's really good hearing from you again.

The story you relate is not surprising at all on many levels. First of all, there is the extremely fake excuse that they didn't want you to spend 200 yen on wrapping because of the money. What they really had a problem with is you taking initiative and making a decision on your own.

While I can't recall any specific incidents like this from my former office, I know they happened more than once. The overlord of the office was the king of wadding up his undies over tiny, stupid things which people did that he didn't approve of. Personally, I recall he used to be full of directives about inconsequential crap the teachers did like where they hung their jackets, how they sat at their desk, and what pictures could put in cubicles. We also had to do any paperwork sitting in front of the Japanese staff at all times. We couldn't sit in our cubicles and mark homework because he didn't trust us to do our jobs.

Regarding the party, I'm completely with you on this front. I hate the forced social part of teaching at schools in Japan. The socializing is almost always precisely the same as teaching so it's like you're working for free, or, worse, paying to work if you have to fork over the money for the food yourself. I don't think your objections or problems with these situations are petty at all! I think that the people who are asking these things of you are the petty ones.

What one learns though is that the Japanese employees of various companies are often in the same boat. They are also forced to attend obligatory parties and such which they hate and have to fork over lots of dough for. One of my students recently told me she had to spend 2 days (all day Friday and Saturday) working and "partying". At the party, they just continued the meeting and she had to pay for her own food.

Many thanks for commenting! I know it's not easy for you in your current situation!

gaijinalways said...


If you read your link more closely, I beleive you'll find that Sox is actually more directed at the financial doings of a company, not employee classifications for work. FLSA seems to come the closest to what you're attempting to describe.

It is true that the classifications/descriptions for work in the US are stifiling at times, but certainly it can help employees of certain classifications avoid doing certain types of jobs. Now whether they should be avoiding these tasks or not would depend on the skills of the person and what else is available for them to do.