Home | Sitemap
About Japan
Traveling Tips
Japanese Culture

Japanese national culture as a basis for understanding Japanese business practices

There is no shortage of articles that attempt to present keys to understanding the actions of Japanese businesses and their executives. Clearly missing from this wealth of "expert" treatises is the influence of Japanese national culture on business practices and strategic decision making. Strategists must possess a knowledge of Japanese cultural heritage to understand Japanese competitors. Culture is an important variable for comprehending the actions of any population, and this is particularly true when analyzing the Japanese, with their fierce pride of customs and heritage.

With a proper knowledge of Japanese national culture and its many facets--language, education, social organization, religion, law, politics, values and attitudes, aesthetics, technology, and material culture--one can gain greater insight into the business decisions of the Japanese as well as a better understanding of the basic differences between American business people and their Japanese counterparts.

Business practices are an offshoot of national culture. To understand Japanese business, it is necessary to understand the culture. There is an important difference between localized corporate culture and the broader and more informative national culture that affects business decision making. One must be careful not to theorize from corporate cultural examples to the more generalized Japanese business practices and procedures.

In this article we will (1) examine the literature dealing with Japanese business practices; (2) discuss the relationship between national culture and business practices; (3) posit several basic national cultural differences between the United States and Japan; (4) examine Japanese business practices in light of these basic national cultural differences; and (5) provide prescriptive implications for American managers seeking to better understand the actions of their Japanese counterparts. The process involved here should produce greater insight into very complex issues.


Many articles attempting to provide answers to the enigma of Japanese business practices have appeared in business literature during the 1980s. These will almost certainly continue into the 1990s as Japan expands its global economic power base. Most of the articles have attempted to examine Japanese corporate policies and procedures to determine which ones lead to success. These articles then advocate the use of these successful practices by American firms. In the hopes of providing a "quick fix" for declining American businesses, these prescriptions have avoided the underlying massive national cultural differences.

Culture is given only cursory treatment in the majority of comparative academic articles that have appeared. Even when culture is used to explain differences, it is not examined in its basic national elements. Discussions of the impact of basic cultural elements (such as language and social structure) on business practices are often ignored in favor of very specific generalizations that provide little, if any, insight for the strategic analyst.

By investigating corporate culture, many authors have attempted to explain the basic differences between Japanese and American business practices. It is important to state that corporate culture is, by nature, very company-specific, and any attempt at generalization from company-specific observations could be misleading. Heiko (1989) examines Japanese culture to explain the success of just-in-time production, but the major focus of the article is on corporate culture. This design was also used by Burton (1989) in a comparison of corporate characteristics; by Ebrahimpour (1985) in an examination of the possibilities of adoption of Total Quality Control (TQC) by American firms; and by Tokuyama (1987) in a comparative analysis of management techniques. The approach is also apparent in the works of Kolchin (1987), who advocates the adoption of Japanese participative management techniques by U.S. firms without a thorough understanding of basic national cultural differences, and Park (1982), who provides prescriptions for American management based almost completely on Japanese corporate culture.

A few perceptive articles have stressed the need for a deeper understanding of Japanese culture. Lazer et al. (1985), for instance, advocated a need for cultural understanding when analyzing Japanese marketing practices:

It is exceptionally difficult for a gaijin, a

foreigner or outsider, to understand what

is really going on in Japanese marketing

because of a lack of understanding of the

culture, language, and historical perspective

of Japanese business developments.

Without it, it is impossible to dig beneath

the surface and penetrate the veneer.

One can argue that this statement applies equally to all areas of business, not just to marketing. However, only a handful of articles have taken such a broad view of Japanese national culture. Lecht (1987) proposed that, by examining the Japanese language, one gains a better understanding of their management styles. This proposal is a step in the right direction, but language is only one of the basic building blocks of culture. Bolwijn and Brinkman (1987), Alston (1983), and McAbee (1983) all warned against blanket adoption of Japanese business practices by Western companies because of fundamental cultural differences. Pierce (1986) also urged a deeper understanding of cultural variables to understand the Japanese approach to direct-mail advertising. But this study was limited to culture as it applies to consumer response to direct mail promotions. In an earlier study, Pascale (1978) stated that understanding Zen would enhance comprehension of Japanese management practices. Again, this was a good beginning that focused on an important underlying element of Japanese national culture, but a broader cultural approach would seem to have increased merit.


If one goes back to the work of Hoebel (1960), one finds culture defined as "the integrated sum total of learned behavioral traits that are manifest and shared by members of a society." An investigation conducted by Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963) examined more than 160 different definitions of culture, concluding that culture can be defined as (1) communicable knowledge, (2) all that separates humans from non-humans, or (3) all of the historical accomplishments produced by human social life.

One area of intellectual dispute involves whether culture is inherited or earned. The majority view is summed up by Terpstra (1983): "Any given culture or way of life is learned behavior which depends upon the environment and not on heredity." The connection to business practices is that culture includes everything that is thought, said, done, or made by a group. Cundiff and Hilger (1988) state the following:

Cultural influence also directly affects the

climate for business in general and international

business in particular. National

ideology determines how members of a

culture view the role of business and

how strong the culture's identity is.

These factors in turn determine attitudes

toward foreigners, foreign products and

foreign ideas. They also set the stage for

nationalism, a collection of attitudes or

policies designed to protect the group's

cultural identity and independence.

National differences can have the single greatest impact upon cultural orientation and represent the highest level of cultural aggregation. As Czinkota and Ronkainen (1988) explain, "Every person is encultured into a particular culture, learning the 'right way' of doing things." Japan, as a nation, is proud of and strives to protect its cultural heritage. This resistance to cultural change can be seen, for example, in the reluctance of the Japanese to accept women in the business world. As a Japanese friend, Muneo Yoshikawa (a professor of Japanese culture and language at the University of Hawaii), expalins, "In Japan, the woman is air; she is an absolute necessity of life, but the Japanese man hardly knows she exists."

This cultural view of women permeates all levels of Japanese society, and although some improvement in advancement possibilities for women has been noted recently, the process of change appears to be very slow. Japanese women are routinely hired by manufacturing firms for low-level manual labor positions. Advancement into management is not considered appropriate for women. After all, as one Japanese corporate leader explained, who would possibly give a woman manager any credibility? This observation is supported by a study (Jacofsky, Slocum, and McQuaid 1988) that found Japan to be "the most masculine country of those surveyed."

© Copyright Handa-links.com All rights reserved.
Unauthorized duplication in part or whole strictly prohibited by international copyright law.