A nation gathers its strength

Managing Across Borders - The Dark Side of Japanese Business
February 7, 1997

These two books about Japanese business could hardly be more different. Managing Across Borders is intended for business studies, but Ikko Shimizu's The Dark Side of Japanese Business looks at the underbelly of Japanese society itself through three novellas.

The longest, "Keiretsu", looks at complex motivations, values and Machiavellian activities in medium-size automotive subcontracting. Shimizu is a prolific Jeffrey Archer-type author with a distaste for business that plays to western readers' stereotypes. "Keiretsu" is engrossing as a novel, but hardly illustrative of Japanese business. The story is thick with plots and counterplots, and the author has added a glossary to help clarify the functioning of Japanese banks. The result reads like a Reader's Digest summary.

"Silver Sanctuary" shows a woman driven to distraction and disaster by misfortune, a male bank colleague, and the social and business norms to which they must subscribe. But "The Ibis Cage" is the most subtle of Shimizu's three stories. Starting with the formal sale of her virginity, a young Geisha girl faces the realities of her profession, and the tensions between its strict codes of intimacy and detached relationship with business. Her freedom is an illusion, she is used by all around her and expediency rules.

The writing style in all three stories is terse, like a reporter's notebook, though this seems in part due to the translator's style. Characterisation is thus more shallow than it might be, and the stories leave one feeling detached. Those with patience, however, will be able to filter out much about Japanese society's inner workings.

Managing Across Borders is a collection of reports on ten seminars arranged by the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Japan Society, and presented by reputable academic and business practitioners. They include a great deal of value to those interested in Anglo-Japanese business relationships or in learning from Japan, but the book suffers from inadequate editing and has too many textual errors.

Some of the reports are too brief for complex theoretical concepts, and some provide little that is new or in need of repetition. However, Oxford Instruments's perceptive account of its experience in Japan is informative and will be useful for companies approaching that most difficult but rewarding of markets.

Two reports related to financial issues are slightly disappointing, and more depth would have been helpful. Differences in financing business enable powerful and equitable growth in Japan and, since Japanese capitalism can be seen as a unique combination of capitalism and communism, these reports need better references to social values in order to understand Japan's dominance in finance.

Another report looks at the cultural implications of Japanese investment in Britain, but provides little more than a historical account of the Japanese presence in manufacturing, its superficial effects on Japanese expatriates, and the growth of British interest in things Japanese. It would have been valuable to see the potential influence on British business. For example, the strong renewal of Japanese influence in graphic design, advertising and film goes largely unnoticed in this country and is not mentioned in the report. Neither is Japanese business influence on our human resource management discussed.

A problem throughout these reports is the failure to recognise that Japan is not subject to the same strictures as Britain. For example, lifetime employment and all its ramifications are seen as disappearing because Japan will no longer be able to afford them. This western thinking ignores Japan's huge technological lead and investment in new business fields, which is only awaiting a global upturn to enrich the country yet further. Her deep pockets suggest that Japan's huge and rapidly developing overseas aid activity will also generate employment and income. Japan's handling of the long recession has not provided convincing evidence that she is changing significantly towards the weaker western models that some of the reports suggest. She is just catching her breath and adjusting.

These reports are a little disappointing. But they do include some good strong meat, and repeat much that seems to need endless repetition if Britain is to benefit from the Japanese business phenomenon.

Walter Dean is director of the Freedom to Care charity, which promotes ethical business.

Managing Across Borders

Editor - David Warwick
ISBN - 0 9528199 0 2
Publisher - Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation
Price - £7.50
Pages - 121

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