ICF-ACC Coach / Mentor / GCDF-Japan Facilitator / Trainer
Samurai vs Kurofune
Pharmaceutical companies make up one of the most globalized industries in the world, in which drugs are simultaneously developed worldwide. For me, who has been raised in multiple cultures, I always thought about how I could contribute within this industry.
The Japanese pharmaceutical company I first worked for had already been working on global drug development for many different countries, including the US and the EU. However, many of the members at our foreign branches apparently wanted to take the lead of an entire project, to use it to improve their achievements and progress in the industry. On the other hand, the staff at the Japanese head office considered them to be a threat like the “Kurofune“, and did not know how to refute the rationalizations made by these foreign employees. There was a lack of an entity that could truly act as a bridge between both sides.
At the US-based pharmaceutical company, the situation was reversed. There were situations where the voice from Japan was not easily heard by the US headquarters. It was not due to the size of the market—the Japanese market was indeed big in the industry. However, due to cultural differences, such as an emphasis on accuracy and a tendency to focus on details, Japan was often regarded, and treated as, a special country that had to have designated, Japan-only handlings.
For example, during drug development, the use of Japanese data in global drug development is often discussed. Of course, the Japan side claims validity in integrating Japanese data with the mostly Western database, but there still remains an indescribable “I don’t feel comfortable inputting the Japanese data with the Western data” type of feeling within the global team. In such situations, Japan was lacking in talent for intermediaries who could negotiate properly and solve these discrepancies while knowing what the real issue was. Therefore, I often became a negotiator because I understand both languages and cultures.
After all, the cause for the discrepancy was often a lack of understanding towards points of anxiety, leading to the points of discussion to be off, so that decisions could not be made on the spot and/or with respect to each party’s actual intentions, etc. A lot of time and energy was spent on filling the communication gaps that occurred, and not on actual work.
I have experienced many times that when the gaps were eventually filled and mutual understanding between the Japanese and foreign members deepened, the once vague feelings of anxiety disappeared and instead transformed into positive output that had a strong impact. People involved finally believe, “This diversified team can overcome various challenges together.”
With such experiences, I came to think that rather than trying to simply acquiesce to the views of either side, if we could understand each other faster and move towards the same goal (the third way), that would lead to the maximization of the business—which is the main focus.
Will foreign employees feel discouraged by working in Japanese companies?
After becoming independent as a coach, mentor and trainer, the opportunities for me to meet foreign employees who work for Japanese companies increased. It was then that I came to hear about the difficulties that they face from this “indescribable culture gap”.
In particular, foreign employees have told me the following:
When I first entered the company, this was what people told me—”I want you to make a lot of proposals”, “Please provide ideas and thoughts from a different perspective”, etc. I was really excited and thought that I could contribute, so I did. However, I realized that people looked at me differently once I started doing that. I felt as though people were expecting me to become “more Japanese”.
As a result, some people have said, “When I say something, I’m told or made to feel that I’m not reading the atmosphere correctly. So I’ve decided to not say anything until I’ve been asked to speak.”
If a company hires foreigners, in doing so it should also be promoting “intra-company diversity”. It might be a chance for new business opportunities. No one should be forced to “Japanetize”. Nevertheless, as a result of the implicit culture of “I want you to adapt to Japan,” I have found that there are many foreign employees who are unable to demonstrate their true strengths and abilities. This is such a Mottai-nai! (What a waste!)
There are two main factors that create such cases. One is a lack of understanding of Japanese people and culture by global headquarters. The other is a lack of a place or customs on the Japanese side to “properly verbalize the meaning of their thoughts and actions” in the form of holding debates and discussion.
I feel that it is a great waste or “mottai-nai” for Japanese companies to lose excellent human resources to these factors and to be unable to incorporate diverse perspectives. Moreover, cross-border mergers are not uncommon nowadays, and it is quite possible for a Japanese company to become a foreign-affiliated company overnight. With the coronavirus epidemic, online businesses are becoming ever more popular, and more and more companies are looking towards overseas companies and customers. In these cases, it will be necessary to create an environment in which foreign employees can play an active role, in order to understand the needs of the other party and continue to create new opportunities.
To have foreign employees with excellent talents play an active role in Japanese companies… to have foreign employees be excited about their career advancement in Japan… aren’t these topics important for the future of Japan? If these things are actualized, then it will mean that when foreign employees return to their respective countries, they will become great supporters and ambassadors of Japan with an excellent understanding of the strengths, the culture, and the people of Japan.
With this in mind, I began to think that I would like to support these foreign employees as an external coach/mentor, and bridge the gaps between cultures and ways of thinking.
Creating an inclusive atmosphere for new ideas/thoughts
I grew up in the United States, from my childhood until my high school years (kikoku-shijo). After returning to Japan, I somehow felt that I didn’t fit in with my surroundings. I don’t know if it was because I was clearly different from others, or if I was seen as separate from those around me because I grew up outside of Japan. However, I always had many questions and wonderings which foreign employees may experience as well, such as, “Why are you so sure that everyone reads between the lines with the same mindset?”, “Why are people so quick to say “it’s difficult” before taking even a single action in the face of a challenge?” Indeed, “WHY, JAPANESE PEOPLE?”
However, with my now long term experience with working in Japan, and experience of child-rearing in Japan, I have come to understand that these cultures each have their own rationales, background contexts, and strengths, and that they have good reasons to be the way that they are. From this overlap in experiences, I have been able to put myself into the shoes of foreign employees working in Japan. I’m sure that there are a lot of people who aren’t able to take advantage of their strengths because they are anxious or distressed, and thinking, “Why?”
My ideal is to facilitate a growing culture of inclusiveness in organizations that welcomes new perspectives and ideas. I hope that an atmosphere where people can explicitly state their perspectives or ideas will proliferate in Japanese companies. I believe that such a culture will help companies to overcome unmet issues that we may face, such as with COVID-19.
With all this being said, as an initial start, I think that support during the onboarding period is crucial for foreign employees. In Japan, on-the-job training (OJT) or the “learn gradually by looking over your senpai’s shoulder”-type of skill acquisition is the prevailing style. However, for new foreign employees, the kick-off stage is important. Allow them to verbalize numerous “why?”s, provide support for them to understand themselves and their surroundings, and create an inclusive environment in which the foreign employee can express his or her opinions freely. After making an environment of open communication known on the surface as the status-quo, then think about how to approach the gap from various perspectives. In particular, foreign managers within Japanese organizations often wonder about how to bring out the strengths of Japanese staff members who are not accustomed to verbalizing their ideas, and are seeking someone to consult or talk to about this issue. For this reason, I think it is essential to have a coach or mentor within their support system to help clarify ideas, offer advice and provide them with guidance.
It is not common within Japanese culture to discuss any kinds of issues with external professionals. However, there is a great sense of confidentiality in talking to external professionals who are not connected to the evaluation of internal members. In fact, clients in my practice have provided feedback such as, “I was able to talk about what I had been wanting to know from the bottom of my heart for the first time,” “I had always wanted someone to discuss Japanese organizational management with,” and “I was able to talk about my future career, and my path became much clearer to me.” It seems that they have definitely taken a step forward through our sessions.
Again, it is important to establish a support system so that foreign employees who are attracted to Japan and who want to work in Japan can demonstrate their strengths at work. As a result, enhancing the initial stage support system will lead to the introduction of new perspectives and the proposal of new ideas.
Creating an organization that is resilient to change and respects diversity—
Creating supporters of Japan and making Japan a place to advance one’s career—
I hope that I can somehow contribute to creating such an environment.
*Edited by Jennifer A. Hoff (My Eyes Tokyo)
Yuki has lived in the US for 8 years, beginning when she was in elementary school 4th grade. After graduating from Tokyo University of Science, she worked in global drug development for a Japanese pharmaceutical company. When she departed from the company, after looking into different industries, she then returned to work in the pharmaceutical industry (in a US-based company), re-inspired by an experience of tending to illness in her family. She went on to lead a 3-year HR development initiative within her company’s R&D department consisting of over 500 employees, whilst orchestrating Japan’s regulatory strategy in global drug development.
Upon becoming a manager, she decided to move on to the international department of the regulatory authority that deals with review/approval of drug development. Since departing from this authority in 2018, she has decided to operate independently.
Currently she is based in Japan where she works as an ICF-ACC coach and a mentor.
Additionally, she is the mother of a Japanese university student.