Foreign coworker a plus?


Early July Roger Pulvers from Japan Times was analyzing the results from a previous survey that ran in June in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. The topic was Japanese people’s attitudes to non-Japanese colleagues at their places of work. The article written by Roger Pulvers included the results of a survey that explored those attitudes.
Personally I was surprised to read that nearly 90 percent of the Japanese consider the presence of non-Japanese coworkers to be somewhat a plus for them in their own work. Those positive elements cited:

– increased energy level in the company
– openness to change
– clarification of professional matters that Japanese workers didn’t understand
– increase of foreign-language skills
– facilitation of dealings with companies overseas.

While the reason mentioned seem logical and understandable to me, I am impressed about the high positive impression of having a more multinational working environment.
On the other hand, I do not agree with the comments then with Roger Pulver related to the reasons given by those Japanese, who viewed the presence of non-Japanese coworkers as a liability. According to the survey fifty percent of the surveyed saw their reason in the inability to have Japanese style ishindenshin communication (以心伝心). “Ishindenshin” is described by Wikipedia as a term for the nonverbal, mutual understanding that takes place between two people and is supposedly unique to the Japanese. Further then nearly 40 percent cited an unsatisfactory level of Japanese language skills as their reason for having negative feelings. Twenty percent found non-Japanese people too self-assertive, while others mentioned that they seem to resist learning about Japanese customs. Some Japanese just felt uncomfortable and nervous in their presence.
Personally I do understand all the reasons above, but I am positively surprised how few employees expressed their concerns. Could it be simply based on the shyness or kindness of the Japanese people responding to the survey? Further for me a given are the language skills: “When in Rome do as the Romans”. I don’t know a good reason for not trying to learn Japanese, as soon as someone is considering Japan as their place of work. Not only in business, but as well in daily life, coming from a different cultural background taking time to learn to listen to the unexpressed or the solely non-verbally expressed communication is a must. For me it comes all down to one point: respect. Respect for another culture or working environment or simply respect for people.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤)

2 thoughts on “Foreign coworker a plus?

  1. While generally Japanese people are positive towards working with foreigners, these attitudes would depend upon the age and background of the respondent, and could also change depending upon the ethnicity and background of the foreigner in question. With all of the emphasis on internationalization that has been given in Japan over the last forty years, ninety percent positive feelings is the expected result of such a survey–I would be surprised if the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported otherwise. However, based upon my years of experience working and living in Japan, I doubt that only ten percent harbor negative feelings towards foreigner co-workers. Were the positive responses their real feelings, or were these the responses they felt obligated to give?
    Perhaps the real truth is that the complexity of Japanese emotions about themselves and the outside world cannot be so easily summed up by such a survey.

    • Dear Patrick,

      thank you very much for your comments.
      I agree with you that there is always the potential that the answer to the survey does not reflect their actual opinion, but just “tatemae”.
      Thanks for taking time to respond to my blog.

      All the best,

      Sibylle Ito

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