Why Cross-Cultural Communication Matters to Japan’s Future
In Japan, there is a bizarre cultural dissonance with the foreign, or as they call it “gaikoku” (literally meaning “outside country”). But in a country where 99 out of every 100 people are Japanese, how could you blame them? (The population of non-Japanese living in Japan is less than 2% of the overall population.) I’ve lived in a very “foreigner dense” part of Tokyo for close to a decade now, so I often forget, but just a few steps outside of this 20-kilometer radius called Minato-ku, you can pretty much say goodbye to anything or anyone non-Japanese. With a strong cultural perception of tradition and homogeneity, there is almost no talk of diversity or immigration policies when it comes to the political or public realm. In fact, only in the last few decades has gender equality in the work place become a (highly controversial) topic fit for discussion.
As Japan continues to struggle with one of the worst aging population crises in the world, coupled with increased competition from China and other neighbors, growing its immigrant work force might be Japan’s only chance of survival in today’s globalized economy. As we gradually see improvements to the foreign policy and immigration laws in Japan, we will hopefully also start to see more foreign business, capital, and people begin to pour into the country. As this influence continues to increase in Japan, how the Japanese and corresponding foreign population react and adapt to this change will be critical to Japan’s future.
Which means HR leaders have their work cut out for them. Most large MNCs in Japan operate with a high degree of autonomy and have the reputation of being “domestic”, and in some cases, even more Japanese than some local Japanese companies in the way they are run and controlled. These MNCs have simply been reflecting the cultural demographic of a 99:1 ratio. However, in recent years, we have seen increased efforts from some MNCs to drastically increase their Japanese workforce’s exposure to foreigners via means of increased expats in specialist-level positions, and even local hires, but the requirement to be fully proficient in Japanese makes this challenging. The language and cultural barriers continue to be a large hurdle and integrating employees into a culture that is more country- than corporate-specific, has left local and regional HR leaders wondering if it’s worth the cost and effort. Certainly, technological advancements in translation tools can help alleviate certain hurdles, but then how do we translate culture?
In the coming years and decades, if Japan wishes to retain its position in the global marketplace, HR leaders will need to focus on how they can integrate their Japan office with its “larger” organization. Diversity has always been the springboard for innovation, and therefore, foreign workers—be they on assignment or locally hired—will play a pivotal role in Japan’s future as its working population continues to dwindle while its aging population grows (to over 38% by 2037). This type of cross-culture communication need goes beyond corporate training programs and into the heart of operating globally.