Distinctively Unique, Yet Culturally Blended: From Japan to Singapore

December 13, 20169:32 am2817 views
Distinctively Unique, Yet Culturally Blended: From Japan to Singapore
image: hrmasia.com
As Japanese companies stream into Singapore, elements of their distinctive business culture and HR systems remain in one form or another, even in the Southeast Asian republic’s multicultural setting. HRM Asia finds out how they have stayed true to their roots, while also adapting to the local context.

After speaking with colleagues and clients, employees at recruitment firm RGF bow politely and thank them profusely.

Japanese honorifics, like -san and –chan, are used at the end of names, to express respect and affection, especially when addressing Japanese colleagues.

Courteous messages, such as a morning greeting or thanking colleagues for their good work, have also become second nature to all staff.

However, despite the elements of Japanese etiquette and culture, these employees are not based in the Land of the Rising Sun. They are in fact working in RGF’s Singapore office on Robinson Road in the Central Business District, and comprise a mix of more than 10 different nationalities.

Headquartered in Tokyo, RGF is one example of a large number of Japanese companies that have set up in Singapore, and adapted elements of their strong corporate culture to the local multicultural context.

In contrast to the overwhelming homogeneity in Japan, these overseas offshoot firms often boast an increasingly diverse workforce.

Guiding principles

Although Japanese nationals comprise just 17% of RGF Singapore’s staff, Japanese values like the corporate philosophy of kaizen still underpin the company culture in Southeast Asia.

Translating to “change for the better”, kaizen is a long-term strategy that calls for constant efforts from all employees to improve efficiency and quality through small, incremental changes in processes.

Kaizen is listed as one of RGF’s core values, and practised in the way the company “continuously looks at ways to improve systems, processes, internal training and development, and client service”, says Jonathan Guilfoile, Managing Director of RGF Singapore.

For example, employees may choose to attend weekly training on a variety of topics. RGF holds breakfast sessions on Fridays for its assistant directors and principal consultants to share their experiences, and any staff member can drop by. Each session sees an average of 30 attendees.

Another of RGF’s core values is respect, which Guilfoile says is vital in Japanese working culture. “We consistently preach the importance of respect, and we take it seriously enough that employees can be placed on probation if they don’t practice it,” he says.

Also characteristic of Japanese society is a strong environmental consciousness. Corporate Japan has been taking the lead in sustainable development for more than a decade, and even in Singapore, Japanese companies strive to be eco-friendly.

Electronics powerhouse Fujitsu, for one, supports green activities “fervently”, Rita Chan, Head of HR at Fujitsu Singapore, says. The company, where two-thirds of employees are Singaporean, participates in Earth Hour, Plant Appreciation Day, and Environment Day, among other environmental celebrations.

“Environmental protection is one of our top management priorities,” Chan says.

Common practices

Traditional Japanese HR systems pervade some of the Singapore offices as well.

Yamato Capital Partners (YCP) Holdings, which offers investment and management services, requires staff to submit daily reports detailing the tasks they have completed for the day, along with – more importantly – personal reflections on what they have learnt. Known as nippo, the daily report system is common among firms in Japan, says Shingo Kasumoto, YCP’s Southeast Asia Regional Manager.

The reports are shared with everyone and thus allow team leaders to easily understand their team members. They also force the employees to review key learning points, and help the organisation grow with continuous shared learning, Kasumoto says.

However, despite half of the staff at YCP Singapore being from Japan, the Japanese culture is not as pronounced in the Singapore office. This is because, Kasumoto says, most of the founding members previously worked in American firms.

That has made transparency highly-valued across the local organisation, even if that might be seen as a “non-Japanese” concept. Junior staff get to voice their thoughts, even in important conferences.

“Our internal systems carry many elements that are seen as ‘non-Japanese’, most of which centre around transparency,” Kasumoto says. For instance, performance reviews are done via 360-degree feedback, and evaluation results are revealed to all team members.

“However, when it comes to the external environment, we respect Japanese culture more, because YCP has many Japanese clients,” Kasumoto says.

For example, employees follow Japanese manners and practices when having business dinners with clients. Although the clients are not too particular about etiquette, such behaviour shows a deep understanding of Japanese culture even among local staff, and has always been appreciated, Kasumoto says.

Work hard, play hard

Typical of Japanese companies, it is also not unusual to put in long hours, work late, and go “above and beyond” job scopes at RGF, says James Miles, Senior Director of RGF Singapore.

At the same time, the company’s staff also let their hair down during activities and team outings, ranging from laser tag sessions to indoor golf.

In particular, the company holds “Beer Hour” every Friday, when computers are switched off at 5:00pm for an hour of drinks and mingling in the office.

This is an adaptation of the Japanese business tradition of nomikai, an after-work drinking party when co-workers socialise in a relaxed setting at pubs or restaurants.

“Regardless of how late employees finish work, having drinks after work hours is a common team cohesion activity in Japanese culture,” says Guilfoile.

In Singapore, Beer Hour takes place before the workday ends, so as to not take up the employees’ family and personal time.

This work-hard-play-hard Japanese ethos also manifests itself at the upper management level in RGF. “No matter how senior they are or how stiff they sometimes seem, once out of the office, they’re the first ones on the dancefloor,” Miles says. “Some are even in their 70s and 80s!”

Another Japanese work practice adopted by RGF Singapore is the open-concept office, where company leaders sit with rank-and-file employees, albeit in the corners or sides to still maintain a slight degree of hierarchy.

A slight variation, however, sees the RGF Singapore leaders sitting right among their teams, in the middle of the workplace. “This encourages transparency, communication and integration,” says Guilfoile.

Likewise, at Fujitsu’s Singapore office, senior executives are seated with the staff. Employees also practise hot-desking, creating an “agile” work environment where everyone is free to work from any desk, says Chan.

Native tongues

Japanese language proficiency usually gives local employees in Singapore a distinct advantage, allowing them to communicate effectively with the headquarters in Japan and with Japanese clients.

“But RGF is becoming a global business, and more Japanese businesses are also moving in that direction, to places like Singapore,” Miles says.

“So they are realising they have to hire people stronger in English and localise their offices more, instead of just sending expatriates from headquarters.”

Bilingual talents are increasingly in hot demand. At Mitsubishi, while some foreign employees pick up Japanese language skills of their own accord, the company also values Japanese workers who can learn the native tongues while working in overseas offices.

“Compared to our Tokyo headquarters, our overseas offices have a deeper knowledge of their geographies and business sectors,” says Toyohiro Matsuda, Global Training and Recruiting Officer at Mitsubishi Corporation. “Hence, Japanese management must listen to the global talents in these offices – in their local language.”

Understanding bilingualism will be critical to the globalisation of Mitsubishi, Matsuda also formed a bilingual team by recruiting a Singaporean, Canadian and American, who were all fluent in both English and Japanese.

“They translated every strategy paper in our department, and organised all our seminars in both English and Japanese,” Matsuda says.

Mitsubishi has also expanded and improved its provision of English-language information for its overseas offices, so that foreign employees are kept in the loop and feel a greater sense of belonging to the company. More company-wide strategic data, such as management plans, changes in the board of directors, and company financial results, are now available in English to all staff worldwide.

Appealing to locals

However, non-Japanese job applicants still tend to shun Japanese companies, deterred by the perceived undesirable characteristics common to many Japanese employers, says Matsuda.

These include seniority-based HR systems, poor communication due to language barriers, less-than-thorough performance management, unclear or insufficient career development, and the presence of glass ceilings, he says.

In some cases, Japanese expatriates assigned to overseas offices also underestimate the local staff’s capabilities and may be biased towards business originating from Japan, Matsuda says. High-calibre local professionals may not get to do meaningful work and end up playing only supporting roles, resigning after relatively short stints.

Matsuda terms the resulting aversion towards Japanese companies as “Japan-passing”.

Miles from RGF is familiar with the phenomenon.

RGF Singapore used to encounter difficulties when reaching out to candidates, as well as during first-round job interviews, he says. “Some candidates say they’re not interested in a Japanese company because of the perceived strong, traditional culture,” Miles says.

“Initially, it was tough, but over the years, RGF has been understood as more of a multinational corporation, so it has become easier to attract talent.”

To appeal to non-Japanese candidates and existing staff, Mitsubishi overhauled its HR practices in the early 2000s. A key change was the introduction of performance-based rewards and bonuses, to give more weight to meritocracy over seniority.

Individual career development paths and tailor-made performance management systems were also established. Promotions now come with increased duties, responsibilities, and authority.

Because high-potential non-Japanese professionals – especially those fluent in English – were likely to leave for global companies in Europe and the US, Mitsubishi also adjusted its salary bands to be competitive with the market rates in those countries.

The company’s HR globalisation and localisation efforts are paying off. Out of the 10,000 Mitsubishi Corporation employees in its Asia-Oceania region (excluding Japan), only about 500 today are Japanese expatriates.

This proportion is set to decrease further in the next five years as the company hires more local managers and “regional professionals”, says Matsuda.

Blended solutions

Moving forward, other Japanese businesses expanding to Singapore would do well to keep an open mind and be willing to learn, Guilfoile suggests.

“Our advice is to research the culture and work practices in advance, and respect the different nationalities, to help the company ease into the local culture,” he adds.

YCP’s Kasumoto believes it is important for all employees in overseas offices to fully understand how Japanese culture can be connected to business results and help with growth.

“Once you achieve the results, any Japanese practices will be accepted by your local employees,” Kasumoto says.

“In other words, it’s best not to bring any Japanese practices which you think will not lead to business or organisational growth.”

One life, one company

The storied concept of lifetime employment has been cemented in Japan’s work culture for decades, although companies have been chipping away at it in recent years. Under the fading principle, once hired, employees commit themselves to the company until retirement.

In Singapore, where job-hopping is becoming more common, employee loyalty can still be observed in many Japanese firms.

Consider Fujitsu, where the average length of service for Singapore staff is seven years. Some employees have even stayed with the electronics company for close to four decades, says Rita Chan, Head of HR at Fujitsu Singapore.

One of its managers, Matsumoto Nobuyuki, who has been with the company for 13 years, says, “Once employees enter Fujitsu, we seldom change companies and we want to develop our careers here until we retire.”

He says the company’s Japanese culture and HR practices, including its sundry professional development opportunities, are a key reason he is staying with the firm for the long run.

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