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Cultural savvy for Japan.

TOKYO -- The language at the office of some multinational companies in Tokyo may be English, but Japanese customs rule. The midday meal is eaten with chopsticks at the office. Business is conducted around low coffee tables. On one side is a sofa; on the other side are two seats. It's a major faux pas to pick the wrong seat. It could get the meeting off on the wrong foot. Arriving late is another blunder in Tokyo, even though taxi drivers often don't know where they are going, traffic is inevitably congested and the city's layout was designed to confuse the enemy. Regardless of the gender, 'gai-lin' or foreigners all have to adapt. They comprise less than 10 per cent of the workforce, even at multi-national corporations.

Hard work and long hours are keys to success in Japan, says Janet Lewis, manager of equity research at S.G. Warburg Securities Ltd., in Tokyo. She works five days a week, from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., reserving weekends to spend with her Japanese husband and twin two-year-old boys.

Lewis came to Japan ten years ago as a graduate student, completing her Masters of Commerce at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Since then, she has learned, "Things work for and against you. I don't feel it's important to 'uchiasawa' -- go drinking with the boys at night. But when I go to Japanese companies, they find it impressive that you speak Japanese. And with asking questions, I have learned the key is a gentle probing."

Cultivating long-term business relationships is so important in Japan, Lewis emphasizes. "It takes time to get to know people you're dealing with. It's consistency more than anything else. The biggest thing Japanese companies have against foreigners is they're here today and gone tomorrow."

She recommends companies to follow up, even in the case of rejection letters. "Foreigners can offer something different...especially, if you're offering a service that's unique. You don't want to be too Japanese. The Japanese come to a foreign company for something that's different. There's a fine line to balance," she says.

Ilan Ivory, a marketing representative for Oracle Corporation Japan, agrees with Lewis. New technology offered by Oracle has been warmly received. Between 1991 to 1993, Oracle Japan's staff has grown from 14 to 300 people.

Fluent in four languages, including Japanese, Ivory stresses the need to learn Japanese when working in Japan. "That you're trying to learn their customs and business practices not only helps to express your personal attitude but emphasizes your own cultural sensitivity. Canadians should realize that learning English in Japan is not a pleasant experience. Imagine people in Canada being forced to learn Japanese."

One of the four foreigners who work at Oracle, Ivory says individuals must make a decision as to what degree they would be willing to conform. Business entertainment is part of Ivory's job. She doesn't mind pouring drinks for her clients because it's just being courteous.

"There's initial discomfort when doing business here," admits Ivory. "It's important to focus on barriers through humor, sensitivity and emphasis on professional aspects of business. When I listen to my customers, I focus on the business aspects and how I can provide assistance."

Though Ivory's Asiatic ancestry enables her to pass physically as a Japanese person, she knows she will never be totally accepted in Japan. "It doesn't matter if it's with other Japanese men and women, foreign women or professional groups sharing similar interests."

Heather Mackay is a Tokyo-based Canadian lawyer who has finished her third year working in corporate planning at Seiyu Ltd., a prominent Japanese retailer.

"Being a foreign working woman in Japan can be advantageous," says Mackay. "Japanese women trying to do business here are stuck to stereotypes. Some of the foreign behavior is familiar to the Japanese from movies. They know that westerners are different and dwell on that."

Job descriptions at Seiyu are non-existent, she adds. Row upon row of grey steel desks are the office norm and everyone is expected to answer their own phone.

And..."You never get credit or the pat on the back. It's more psychological than that. In the course of work in Japan, the glory is shared and so is the defeat."

Nattalia Lea is a freelance writer based in Calgary.
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Title Annotation:Summing Up
Author:Lea, Nattalia
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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