Is Japanese HR Talent Becoming More Desirable for Regional HR Positions?

In previous articles we have discussed the changing nature of HR in Japan. Ten, or even five years ago, it was very common to see Japan HR Directors being given a great amount of autonomy to lead HR in Japan as its own ‘region’, and there was very little need for them to truly ‘manage up’ to international HR stakeholders or ‘manage across’ to their HR counterparts in Asia. With the growth of China and India in the region, Japan has recently been under pressure to lose its status as ‘the exception’ to HR in Asia, and is increasingly being pulled into the regional HR matrix.

Breaking the Silo… At Last!

While this has come as quite a shock to some of the traditionalists in the Japan HR market, others have used this growing regionalisation to their advantage. By becoming more receptive to external influence, Japanese HR Directors are beginning to portray themselves as true players in the region rather than in pure isolation. They are learning the ‘tricks’ in managing the complexity of keeping both the regional HR team and the domestic Business Leaders happy. They are realising that there’s great value in hearing from their HR counterparts in other parts of the world, and are becoming more open to global best practices. And, most important of all, they are learning that there is power inbeing well networked across international boundaries within their company, as the more ‘friends’ that you make at the regional and global level, the easier it becomes in winning credibility and earning a voice at regional decision-making forums.

The Early Effect on Japanese HR Leaders

In the last two months alone, I have personally known three Japanese HR practitioners who have accepted overseas HR placements, two in China and one in Singapore. In all three cases, the Japanese HR Leader was given full regional responsibilities. In that same two months, I have known a further two HR Directors who have become regional HR Directors based out of Tokyo. Having built their credibility within the regional and global HR team, they were both chosen as successors to the previous HR Directors and were not required to move overseas. And increasingly when I speak with my HR network in Tokyo and in other parts of Japan, the up-and-coming HR talent all cite the ability to do regional work as a future career goal.

Let’s not get carried away here, the stories of five HR practitioners do not yet represent a trend. The majority of HR Leaders in Japan are still struggling with the changing nature of their role. Some Japanese HR Leaders will always view external influence as ‘unnecessary interference’. Indeed it is true that many regional and global precepts about HR simply do not work in the Japan market, and it can be a source of great frustration when an HR Director in Japan is ignored, with catastrophic consequences for the company’s business and reputation in Japan. However at least more JapaneseHR Directors are beginning to be comfortable in thinking about what’s ‘right’ in HR in terms of ‘shades of grey’ rather than inflexible and kneejerk ‘black & white’ reactions to external influence.

The Role of Regional HR Directors

Some regional HR Leaders are beginning to challenge their Japan HR Leaders in ways that they previously wouldn’t have. The best regional HR Directors, however, are not bulldozers, and need to treat Japan with the respect that it deserves as one of the powerhouse economic markets of the region. So getting the most out of the Japan HR/Regional HR relationship is very much a two-way street. Once mutual respect has been built on both sides, I’ve seen many such relationships thrive.

The best thing that a regional HR Director can do is insist on having an HR Director in Japan who has ‘open ears’ to what the company is doing in other parts of the globe. Without this fundamental mindset, it will be very difficult to successfully achieve a true exchange of ideas between the two parties. And if this mindset is lacking, then the regional HR Director should do something about it! The ‘quick fix’ approach is to try to find another HR Director from within the organisation or from the external HR talent market. But on most occasions, this ‘fix’ isn’t so ‘quick’, as the HR Leaders in Japan who have achieved this mindset change are still relatively rare. And those that do really ‘get it’ arehighly cherished by their existing employers, so can be very difficult to attract.

So creative solutions should be tried first before opting to replace an existing HR Director in Japan. In one recent example that I heard about, a Japan HR practitioner was posted to another market for a 6-month ‘talent swap’ with the HR Director there. In this case, the company found a way to keep both HR employees on their home payrolls, to give both employees a developmental experience, and didn’t have to deal with the reluctance of Japanese employees in accepting a full-blown two-year expatriate assignment. The Japanese HR Manager came back to Japan with a new respect for the difference in HR, and became much more open to viewing HR issues from multiple different angles.

There’s Hope Yet for Japan

Just as many Japanese people fear that their country’s status being encroached upon by other growing giants in the region, there are those that do understand the attraction of being part of a ‘wider community’ rather than an economic behemoth in its own right. Looking at the examples of Singapore and Hong Kong, both small geographies that punch above their weight in regional economic clout, Japanese HR practitioners can understand that it’s not just about being the biggest voice in the crowd that counts. It’s about being the best listener.


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