What It Takes to Work in a Japanese Company: Assimilation, not Adaptation

“Can you adapt to our way?”

I was having an interview with an overseas branch of a Japanese company. The interviewers were comprised of “multinational” workers (from Japan, China, and India) but when that question came out, I thought I just turned the clock ten years back in time. A warning sign started to flash in my head: Gosh, most of them might be non-Japanese but don’t get fooled—this company is still so Japanese.

If it were a company from any other country, the question should have been “Can you adapt to a new environment?” or simply “Can you adapt?” I would have happily replied “yes” and walked the talk. The ability to adapt to a new workplace is indeed an important skill that every professional, especially an expatriate, should possess.

Except that adaptation was not the real issue. Although they used the word adapt, the Japanese company was, in fact, asking me to assimilate.  By combining one word, our, with a standard interview question, Can you adapt?, the interviewer created a detoxed version of the original raw demand: Are you willing to become us?

To be fair, the Japanese company had no malicious intent. The interviewers were simply describing how they had been running the business for decades: use known methodologies with known people. They might have welcomed foreign market, capital, and presence, but they were not willing to accept foreign ideas. Their dualism, or contradiction, was crystallized in a single question, probably unwittingly.

The (traditional) Japanese way can be very flexible in terms of depth. Thanks to a tight-knit group of workers who know each other inside out (professionally and personally), dozens of product models can be churned out each year, minutely differentiated according to local needs and market demands. Go to any Toyota dealer in any place in the world and you’ll get the idea.

But that way can be very rigid in terms of width. Uncertainty is one thing that these companies avoid at all costs, therefore non-tangible “foreignness,” including philosophy, culture, communication, and ideas, need to be “Japanified.”

Which means that the above-described Japanese way works in the short run but ultimately kills both the employer and the employees by becoming too rigid. If a worker adapts too much to a particular way of conducting business, he can no longer move to a different company or change his career direction easily.

Optimization is the ally of perfection, but the enemy of change. As a result, many talents in Japan cling to their old employer even when they are treated in a less-than glamorous way. And slowly but steadily, companies start to operate in order to protect themselves, not to grow further— which would mean change.

I had already witnessed the massacre of talent when I was working for a Japanese manufacturer. The best circuit designer in the company was “promoted” to the Quality Assurance division because he was deemed unfit for managing positions and also his expertise, analog circuitry, was no longer in large demand. And, after a flagship product failed to penetrate the market as expected, the director of R&D division was relegated to a head position of a manufacturing facility in a place where 20% of the population shared the same surname. Neither of them quit. I, a non-performing employee, did, after observing their behaviors.

P.S. No, I did not join the aforementioned Japanese company but I appreciated the whole interview experience and the insight I gained. I wasn’t willing to switch to a new job to narrow my career options.