Language, Culture and Effective Business Communication – the perspective of an Asia-based consultant

I am a native Californian who has been based in Tokyo, Japan for nearly three decades. My work, here, and across the region has encompassed specialist functions in Legal Services, and senior roles in HR and Management Consulting. I have consulted to over 60 western multinationals and to numerous Japanese firms that are internationalizing their operations.

 

While my professional activities are currently focused on what we refer to a global leadership development, linguistic and cultural challenges continue to be the elephant in just about every room.

 

My first encounter with Japanese culture occurred in the late 1970’s and via a year-abroad study program. At that time, many Japanese were enamored with the West and this meant a focus on developing English language proficiency. Multiple factors have contributed to a reversal of this trend and, currently, Laos is the only country in Asia ranked lower than Japan in English language capability.

 

The negative implications of this turnaround are subtle and not so subtle. Japan now relies on a small cadre of language and professional service brokers as its interface with the West and players in its own region. American and British international attorneys engineer global business deals. Japanese business consultancies rely on foreign partners as their international conduits. Fewer Japanese are participating in international education programs, and fewer still are happy to accept expatriate assignments.

 

One senses that the tech-loving Japanese are waiting for the perfection of SIRI in lieu of tackling languages that consume hours of study. Also, while many do Japanese possess significant passive knowledge of English and other languages, they are more reticent to speak than are their Asian counterparts. This consultant has ‘shadowed’ many international meetings and can report that while Chinese, Korean, Malaysian and other ESL populations boldly engage in business discussions, Japanese members are often silent.

 

This inability to engage international stakeholders has led to the ‘odd’ circumstance of the headquarters of many Japanese multinational firms functioning as disconnected ‘branch’ operations, unable to leverage global R&D.

 

What is the answer?

A 2011 report by McKinsey Japanidentified as ‘do or die’ imperatives for Japan :

  1. Designating English as the business language.
  2. Creating an aggressive talent management strategy, which would entail 1) diversity initiatives, 2) increased rotation of Japanese and international workers, and 3) holding HR departments accountable for implementation of these success factors.
  3. Building a global marketing function to increase brand equity.
  4. Getting more from strategic corporate development; M&A, joint-venture and strategic alliances.

 

While these recommendations are widely affirmed in the corporate community, progress has been slow. Japanese firms such as Shiseido, Fast Retailing and Rakuten are well on the way to the universal use of English in business communication, yet most firms pay only lip service to this mandate.

 

Many young Japanese who possess language skills and who would like to forge international careers receive little support from their organizations. Japanese expatriates who have accrued valuable international experience are often not welcomed back to the mother ship. International employees in Japan -- individuals who have acquired language skills and a knowledge of the culture – find it difficult to rise in corporate hierarchies.

 

With a few exceptions, Japanese multinationals fail to communicate the full value of their brands across geographies. Many do not (cannot) actively listen to their employees or customers in locations outside of Japan.

 

Strategic corporate capability is hampered by language and technical constraints and the delegation of these functions to experts who are not intimately involved in the daily functioning of the organization.

 

Really, it is ALL about language, comfort and confidence in working in foreign languages, or the avoidance thereof.

 

I ask you all to consider how Japan -- a nation that has perhaps been crippled by its own success -- can creatively transcend its current language and cultural constraints?

 

Leslie Taylor
The Human Element LLC
ザヒューマン エレメントゴウドウ