Culture Clash


Overseas assignments
can lead to little real work

Since his eventual goal was a career in international business, George Kagawa accepted a position in a large electronics company in Osaka, Japan, after graduating from college.

Originally from Honolulu, George was a third-generation Japanese American. At college, he took four years of Japanese language and enrolled for every elective course in Japanese Studies and International Business.

Upon arrival in Osaka, he met his immediate supervisor, Kazuo Nishimura. Soon, George began to have difficulties. It seemed Nishimura was not familiar with George's background. He was not given job assignments consistent with his extensive background in computer science. In fact, he found himself staring out the window with little to do.

George has encountered a set of problems that some Americans face when accepting jobs in Japan. These difficulties do not always occur, but they happen frequently enough so Americans should be prepared.

In some Japanese companies, it is seen as prestigious to have Americans as employees. It communicates to others, "See how international we are becoming." Given that English has become the language of international business, it is useful to have some native-English speakers on the payroll so they can act as informal translators when clients from other countries visit. George may be asked to do some translation at meetings, but he may be very uncomfortable given a lack of experience with this difficult task.

The danger is that Americans are treated as "window dressing," or accessories, and are not invited to important meetings, are not given responsible assignments, and are not integrated into workgroups. If they are prepared for these possibilities, Americans can take some steps. They can take the initiative and find meaningful tasks themselves. Some Americans start English language classes, and these often prove very popular since many Japanese want to improve their English and value opportunities to interact with native speakers. In return, Japanese coworkers will sometimes make attempts to integrate the Americans into workgroups within the company.

This incident and analysis was developed during conversations with Laurel King, University of Hawaii College of Business Administration. Her advice is to look at a job assignment in Japan as an important step in career development. However, she adds that if people wait for good things to happen the assignment may not be a good career investment. People should seek opportunities to improve their Japanese, identify and follow through with efforts to make contributions in the company, and join voluntary organizations outside the company that will lead to skill development. By taking these steps, people can sometimes build up enough good will that their proposals for responsible workplace projects will be taken seriously.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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