In my recent work in Tokyo, I’ve noticed a fundamental shift in the relationship between Japan-based HR Leaders and the outside world. Even as recently as three or four years ago, it was easy to find many HR Director in Tokyo working at multinational firms who were operating with very little interference or supervision from HR counterparts in regional or global headquarters. Nowadays, it is very rare to find HR Directors in this position.

The Recent Past

In the recent past, most North American and European multinationals treated the Japan HR market in the same way. If we could read the minds of their global HR Leaders, we would hear the following : “We don’t quite understand how HR works there, but Japan keeps making us a lot of money, so let’s just leave it as it is”.

In the future, life will not be so simple. Japan’s economic machine is still powering forward, so it will always count for a large percentage of global revenues in many companies. But the growth in Japan is much slower than in other countries in this region, in particular China and India. The HR Directors of those two markets are beginning to gain confidence, and can now start to dominate the attention of regional and global HR Leaders.

Managing Perceptions

Japan HR Directors nowadays must start to put more focus on managing up to their international HR Leaders than they have in the past. They remain in a tough situation, because they often still need to be seen to ‘put Japan first’ by their local Japan management team in order to truly gain their trust and credibility. But the best HR Leaders in Japan are nowadays starting to influence those management teams to start accepting Japan’s place in a new globalised world.

Being the true bridge between working practices in Japan and the outside world, Japan HR Directors now find themselves in the perfect position to ‘step up’ and take their place at the management table. They need to consistently educate their Japanese counterparts that they it may no longer be a successful strategy to simply ‘expect’ special treatment from their regional bosses. This may not be accepted very easily, and many HR Directors may be tempted to give up and join the majority of the voices around the table who may bemoan the relative lack of autonomy that they now have. But the quicker that Japan realises that the true competition now lies not among your competitors in Japan but in competitors in new and unexpected corners of the globe, the better chance that Japanbusiness and Japan HR can make sure it keeps its place at the forefront of innovation and expertise.