Gaijin Salaryman

A gaijin living and working in corporate Japan

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

gaijin at a japanese company: winter bonus

Friday is already one of the best days, but this week it became even better. The reason? The 2005 Winter Bonus has arrived (just like Beaujolais Nouveau)!

In Japan, it is customary for companies to pay substantial bonuses to their employees twice a year, one in June and the other one in December. According to an interim report released on October 26 by the "Nippon Keidanren" (the Japan Business Federation), based on a survey of 288 large enterprises, the 2005 winter bonus average will be 863,577 yen or a 5.08% increase compared to last year.

Now don't think that your bonus simply shows up in your bank account; there is a whole ceremony for this: on Friday morning, together with my colleagues, we line up in one of the larger meeting rooms and listen to a speech given by the Group Manager, who thanks us for our hard work in the past half-year. After that we are called - one by one - to the front of the meeting room, the GM hands us a bonus payment slip, bows - slightly, we bow - deeper.

Once everybody has been called, I assume the meeting to be finished soon; however, suddenly there is one small reminder announced: all employees of manager level or higher are required to spend at least 200,000 yen of our winter bonus on the purchase of our company's product during this Christmas shopping season.
And because commands need to controlled, we are instructed to hand-over receipts confirming our purchase to HR before the end of January. Can't imagine this happening in the States....

But then again, I shouldn't really complain; on October 31, the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute,Inc. released its estimates of the average 2005 winter bonus payment by private firms with five or more employees - 437,291 yen - an increase of 1.6 percent from the previous year, but still substantially lower than bonuses at large corporations. It is also estimated that payments to civil servants would average 654,716 yen, an increase of 0.5 percent over the same period.

So all in all, we are still doing better...and we'll have a lot of new stuff around the house comes January!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

gaijin at a japanese company: office space

What the office actually looks like?

The "company" I work for, is split up at the highest level into "Centers", with each Center being made up of a number of "Groups", and it turn each Group made up of a number of "Teams".

All people in my office belong to the same "Center", but various Groups and Teams. The person in charge of the Center has his office in a different location, so the highest level people in my office are the two Group Managers (called GM's), who are sitting vertically aligned against the left hand wall. The GM's are facing the backs of the "Team Leaders" (TL's), who in turn head up their teams' desk row.

You can imagine the desk row like a "T", with the Team Leader at the head, 10 desk units lined up in front of him, and seating space for 2 people facing each other on each unit. There are no dividers in between, let alone cubicles; this is the country of the open floor plan, remember...
The desks are relatively small, with a locked cabinet underneath, where you can store some person stuff. Everybody uses a laptop and an IP mobile phone, so the desks are relatively empty (you are not allowed to leave any papers stacked on your desk when you leave from the office at night).

Were I to stretch out my arms horizontally, and turn 360 degrees, I would hit 3 people straight in the face - admittedly, I am not that tall - and if I wouldn't have a corner seat, it would probably be more.

The way the seats are lined up, is according to rank. The higher your rank, the
closer you get to sit to the Team Leader. And if you reach "manager" class level, you get arm-rests on your chair! Talking about getting a promotion!

In the case of my office, there are 9 different Teams, combined into two different Groups, all part of the same Center. All in all, this means that there are about 180 people sitting within the same open office space.

Besides desk space, there are a number of meeting rooms, all of them equipped with LCD projectors, white boards, and incredibly old furniture. With meetings a popular pass time, it's difficult to get room availability there, so reservations are necessary.

Therefore, a number of so-called "uchiawase" corners have been created, where people can have quick and informal pre-meetings. The best way to describe these corners would be like cubicles with a large desk in the middle of them, and seating space for 8.

To top it all off, you have a smoking room outside the main office building, neatly closed off, with a coffee and soft-drink vending machine in front of it (so you can buy incredibly foul tasting coffee for only JP 100 /cup).

The latest addition to our office is a swipe card system. Whenever you want to enter the office, you have to swipe your batch to unlock the door. This is the logical part; however, you also need to swipe to exit the office.
If you forget to do so (for instance, you exit at the same time with another person who has unlocked the door by using his swipe card), your card will be blocked and you are not able to re-enter the building. To unblock your card however, you need to enter the office, and request the HR representative to unlock it. Catch 22. I am very sure that there is a good reason for all this, but I fail to see it (work time reporting is not being done through this system, and in my case I don't get overtime
pay anyway, so it makes no difference).

Finally, another popular sport seems to be moving your office. In the last 3 years, without ever changing teams, I have moved my office/desk a total of 5 times (and every time you think your office environment can't get any worse, it does. It never ceases to amaze.

My first office space was in a relatively new high rise building, centrally located in Osaka. My current office is a converted factory space, in the middle of nowhere (you need to take a local - not express - train to get there. go figure...; and this is not a small complex; together with me, there are a few thousand people in the exact same condition...). I wonder what will be next. Maybe one of those blue tents around Osaka Castle?

gaijin at a japanese company: otsukaresama desu

17h30 - All rise.

In good tradition, and judging from the tune of the music being played through the company speaker system it must be a tradition dating back the better part of 70 years or so, we are "invited" to sing the "otsukaresama desu" song.

This is one of those difficult to translate Japanese expressions; the closest English translation would probably be "thank you for your hard work."

It's a phrase used to express one's care for other people after work. "Tsukareru" means to tire oneself out, so by saying "Otsukaresama desu" to a co-worker, you are thanking them for working hard for the whole day.

Music finished. The Team Leaders, who's desks are located at the head of each Teams desk line, turn to the group (in spite of the name, it is a group, and not a team), bow ever so slightly, and shout out "otsukaresama desu". The employees mumble something similar back, sit down, and continue their work.

Never did I actually see anybody get up, pack their stuff, and leave after the "thank you for your hard work" ceremony....; 18h00 seems to be the earliest people can start to sneak out of the office.

From 19h00 onwards, one by one, people start to leave the office; by 21h00 it's practically empty, the last people will leave around 22h00 or so, turning of the lights and locking the door behind them...

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Largest Re-engineering Project in History

As reported by Francis McInerney, Managing Director at North River Ventures. I wonder which company he is talking about.....?

"I've just returned from two weeks in Japan observing the Soccer Ball Management-based re-engineering of a $75 billion multi-market, global empire. This is the largest corporate makeover in history -- the company involved was larger than Nissan or IBM were when they tried the same thing -- and it is also the most complex, with drastic revisions down to its cost accounting, capital allocation, and personnel policies.

That this re-engineering effort is based on my system and recommendations, that it is being done in Japan, and that it has been put in place over the last five years without any help from large consulting houses like McKinsey, is, to me, simply amazing. And I live with this type of thing every day.

Of course, I am extremely proud to be able to attach my Soccer Ball Management System to any improvement in corporate operations. But the world's largest ever? That is breathtaking.

It is combined with the fact that the leading reformer in the Koizumi cabinet, Heizo Takenaka, translated my last book, FutureWealth, right before he entered the cabinet. Mr. Takenaka may even become the next Prime Minister of Japan and the most recent election, which his party won in a landslide, was fought in no small part over the principles in FutureWealth.

Quite unexpectedly, therefore, I find that my system is being adopted with the most vigor on the other side of the Pacific and with incredible gusto. Moreover, the restructuring of Japan gives that nation a shot at growth and prosperity after 16 long years of economic decline -- the Nikkei is still 62% below its 1989 peak, which is as if the Dow was at about 680 here instead of 10,000+ -- and brings desperately needed stability to the Pacific Rim where the futures of China and North Korea are uncertain to say the least.

The geo-political implications of the Soccer Ball Theory of Management, therefore, are enormous.

Over the next few months I will be telling you more about the operation under way in Japan. The CEO has asked me to write a book about our joint experience and this project is well under way."

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

book of the week: wages of guilt

In "Wages of Guilt" Ian Buruma, by visiting Buchenwald, Hiroshima, a former kamikaze base and many other significant historical sites as well as talking to Japanese veterans, German and Japanese students, artists, thinkers and political figures tries to answer the question as to why Germans are so well informed on World War II, while most Japanese know almost nothing about it. Why do so many West Germans feel guilty, whereas the Japanese feel victimised?

The result is a fascinating study of politics and collective memory, with some clear cut statements, and a must read for anybody trying to gather a better understanding about Japans current political stance against article 9.

"There are many people who believe that the Japanese are incorrigible, that they are doomed to be dangerous, inscrutable, and isolated people forever. There are Japanese who believe this too. Sakaguchi Ango wrote just after the war that the Japanese, "faced with their history,had been like children following their fate". They would develop as human beings only if they would degenerate to a level of basic human desires, stripped of false modesty, customs, traditions and ideals. They did indeed degenerate for a while, he said, but human beings are not strong enough to stand this kind of freedom for long. They soon build up a new system, a new set of customs, traditions, and ideals to fence them in. This new system will inevitably be build on the ruins of the old one: "Man cannot live without...inventing a samurai code or worshipping an emperor."

If Ango is right, if the Japanese are indeed incorrigible, it is desirable that Japan's capacity to use militairy power should be controlled by a pacifistic constitution and an outside force forever. Or, if they are incorrigible, then the status quo should persist until the Japanese show a change of attitude, face their past more honestly, apologize to their former adversaries more profusely, and so on. But perhaps we got the Japanese problem backward. Without political responsibility - precisely over matters of war and peace - Japan cannot develop a grown-up attitude towards the past. Political change must come first; the mentality will follow.

A constitutional change is only part of this; a change of government is at least as important. For only a new government can break with the postwar order, whose roots are still tainted by the wartime regime.

Written in 1994, Buruma had all reason to be so optimistic. In the summer of 1993, four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the monopoly of the LDP ("whose roots are still tainted by the wartime regime") was broken by a coalition of young conservatives who had left the LDP, the socialist party and Komeito.

With 10 years and the 2005 landslide LDP election victory behind us, I wonder if Buruma is still as optimistic today, especially with people like Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso being hinted at as Japan's next prime minister.

Japanese electronics firms shake-out started?

Pioneer President and Chairman ousted, Sanyo suffers huge loss and long-term credit downgraded to 'junk' status, Sony BMG sued on copyright protection: with profits from digital products drying up fast, and no new hit products behind the corner, it might just be a matter of time before the current battle for survival in the consumer electronics market claims its first victims in Japan.

Does anybody still remember now
defunct audio makers such as Sankyo, Fidelity Research, Nikko Audio,... Or how about the once great Sansui Electric Company?

Sanyo become the first major Japanese electronics manufacturer to be purchased by a mainland China based company? And will Howard Stringer prove that not every foreigner at the helm of a Japanese company can pull off a "Ghosn"?

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Chinese eat snake, and drive like idiots?

What? Chinese really eat snake?!?! Absolutely! What else do you think is inside that bag....on the last night of our visit to Shanghai (see post below), we were taken to a nice seafood restaurant in the center of the city.

Rather than a menu, there was a huge "food" display - more like an aquarium - with live fish, frogs, turtles, snakes.... to choose from.

I played safe and choose Shanghai crab (sad to see how small these little buggers are; also, you only eat the inside, not the crab flesh). At 88 RMB a piece (multiply by 16 to JPY), not cheap either!

Taking a cab - the so-called safest transport to make it through Shanghai - we made it to about half-way, before being rear-ended at full speed (which luckily is like less than 80 km/h) by another taxi-driver on a suicide mission. Going out with a bang, an appropriate ending to an exciting trip....

Gaijin Salaryman in Shanghai

Finally, after living in Japan for over four years, I went to China on a business trip to some of my company's Shanghai-based sales and production facilities.

Kenichi Ohmae, one of the world's leading business and corporate strategists, who is intimately familiar with China describes it as follows in his book "The next global stage": "China today contains the most brutal, inhumane, and unsentimental capitalism imaginable. Its own people are exploited..... Health and safety issues are generally ignored, and there is hardly any welfare safety net....."

So was I curious, and more than a bit excited to go? You bet!

After arriving at Shanghai Pudong International airport, it took us approximately one hour by taxi to get to our hotel in the city center of Shanghai. Right down to the Buick mini-van taxi's, we noticed the striking resemblance with New Jersey in the US; indeed, as beautiful as....

The hotel is a former JAL-operated hotel, now under Chinese ownership. And even though it is certainly not an upscale hotel by western standards, I was pleasantly surprised by the accommodation quality. I have stayed in far worse hotels in Germany, not to mention France.

Trying to get a better understanding of the market, we wondered around the city visiting various shopping areas. Although I was expecting it, I was still surprised by the number of luxury car dealerships, flat panel TV displays and branded goods shops. And if you think Japan is going through a "mansion-boom", then visit to Shanghai... and it's not like any of these products are fundamentally cheaper than in Japan or the rest of the world!

But who is buying all these Audi's, Sony flat panel TV's, and luxury housing complexes?

I spoke to some of my colleagues, and was told that an average Chinese office worker at a foreign company in Shanghai makes about 50,ooo Japanese Yen per month. A manager can make up to 150,ooo JPY. So purely based on their monthly salary income, it is impossible to afford 350,ooo JPY plasma TV's.

It appears that over the past years, many of these new middle-class workers have been leveraging investments in stock and especially the above-mentioned apartments. To "own" several of them for investment purposes is not uncommon. This asset-inflation, not unlike the bubble in Japan at the end of the 80's, is giving people a false sense of richness. In addition to that, people strongly believe that the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Expo will be additional growth engines for the future. But what after that? Everybody knows that what goes up, must come down, and in case of Shanghai it might be brutal once the air comes out of the balloon.

To say it with the words of Kenichi Ohmae: "[China] is the purest, most unadulterated form of capitalism in the world today. It is a world taken from the pages of Charles Dickens or Theodore Dreiser."

Friday, November 11, 2005

book of the week: notes from Toyota-land

"Notes from Toyota-land" is based on the diary Darius Mehri kept for the three years ('96-'99) he was working at a Toyota group company (called "Nizumi" in the book, assumed to be "Hino") in Japan.

It starts out as a "day-in-the-life" of a rather naive - and terribly proud - American computer simulation engineer, and ends as a bitter statement against Toyota, and all that it stands for (the book cover calls it "social critic").

Mehri is shocked at the "culture of rules" and organizational structure that combine to create a profound control over the workers, aka group work, as compared to team work. Welcome to Japan, I'd say...

For all his personal excellence (and if the reader doesn't notice the many implicit references, then Mehri isn't too shy to give some explicit references as well) and supposedly excellent language ability, Mehri hasn't really been able to jump out of his home-sweet-home boots. So his perspective remains firmly rooted in his native American soil.
This takes away from many of the valid points he makes, such as the unhealthy work environment at Japanese companies and Japan's immature and rigged political system.

If you think this is enough of a reason for not reading this book, there is one more; Mehri sets out on a personal crusade against one of the most popular Japan related business book, "The machine that changed the world" (Womack, Roos and Jones). He makes the first reference to it on page 5, and continously attacks it throughout the remainder of his book. Sure, TMTCTW isn't perfect, and there might be more than a few factual inaccuracies in it; but there is still a huge quality difference between that reference book, and the work Mehri delivers here. It's all a bit petty, and sounds like sour grapes.

Nevertheless, it's worth reading for anybody who is working in Japan for a traditional Japanese manufacturer. If anything, it will make you feel better about your own situation

gaijin at a japanese company: gashuku

So it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.

Not that I was looking very much forward to having a business meeting in a hot tub, but still I expected this "gashuku" to be something of a unique event. Well, it wasn't.

It was a simple two day meeting, with an overnight stay, and like most other meetings, it started late, and resulted in little.

The facility was a large hotel, owned by the company I work for, and obviously build during the bubble years. As a result, it is way oversized, with a faint wiff of '80's kitsch, and now operating under strict cost, yes, no heating...

The first day's meeting ended reasonably early, by Japanese standards that is, at 19h30. This was followed by a joint dinner, and after this the group broke up. Most of them went downstairs and ended up playing Mah Jong till late in the night.

Not knowing how to play that game, I went to take a steaming hot bad, all by myself. It was wonderfull!

So the gashoku turned out to be a perfect example of Japanese "group", rather then "team" building...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

how much is your blog worth?

My blog is worth $2,822.70.
How much is your blog worth?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

google failure

1- Go to
2- Type in "failure", without the quotes.
3- Instead of hitting "Search" hit "I'm feeling Lucky".
4- Look at it and laugh at what comes up.
5- Tell your friends before the people at Google Fix it.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

"Womenomics" good for Japan

In Japan, as of 2004, the ratio of women in the labor force at 55 percent was still low by developing-nation standards. Especially compared to 62 percent in the U.S. and 61 percent in the U.K.

To add insult to injury, this low ratio masks the fact that the majority of working women in Japan, even though highly skilled and in most cases equally or better suitable for the work place, have little or no positive outlook for advancement in Japans's corporate world.

In my opinion, there are three main factors behind this. First of all, even though many companies are undertaking efforts to level the playing field for men and women, the reality is that few positions in middle and higher management of Japanese corporations are occupied by women. Besides a few exceptions, one would almost believe that these efforts are only words, rather than action.

Second, the fact of the matter is that quite a large number of male corporate samurai have a conservative perception of what a workplace should look like, and this does not necessarily include women. This is further compounded on by their equally conservative views on family and home life; just like their mothers waited in the kitchen for them to come home, they expect their wives to do the same for their children.

Finally, there is little support infrastructure (such as nursing, day- or childcare facilities) for working women, who want to combine a career with kids. So all but a few Japanese women exit the work pool by the time they have children; a vast majority even does so prior to getting maried.
Many Japanese large corporations even have special contract types for the young women who join their ranks fresh out of high school or college, with the clear expectation that these women provide "marriage material" for the company's male employees, and will quit the company after engaging to one of them, in order to take good care of the company's employee at home.

The declining birth rate in Japan has been the strongest signal so far that many young women are not willing to fit into this classical pattern anymore. Furthermore, politicians are starting to wake up to the fact that Japan's rising debt balloon can no longer be shouldered by an ageing and decling - nearly all male - work force. Ignoring nearly half of Japan's potential labour force is simply no longer an option. But this type of change is slow to come, especially in Japan...

Hedge Funds booming in Japan

As reported by the Yomiuri Shimbun, "in a recent study by Greenwich Associates, it was revealed that 55 percent of Japanese institutional investors had invested in hedge funds, which compares with 28 percent for U.S. institutions and 10 percent in Britain. Thus it is obvious to me that the Japanese hedge funds industry is here to stay and that it will continue to grow," he said.

Greenwich Associates is a global financial service consulting firm for institutional investors.

Matsushita profits up 33%, Toshiba net profit up 46%

Friday after the market close, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., the Japanese maker of Panasonic electronics, and Toshiba Corp. announced strong results for the July-September quarter.

Panasonic 2nd quarter results were lifted by strong sales of flat-panel plasma TV's, Digital Still Camera's and personal computers. Toshiba profited from strong demand for flash memory chips and improved profitability in personal computers.

Matsushita share price on Fridaye was up 2 percent at 1,940 yen; a gain of about a fifth of their value as compard to a year ago.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

gaijin at a japanese company: business plan

As far as I know, all Japanese companies have a fiscal year that runs from April to March; and they wouldn't be Japanese, if they didn't love making plans (which seems to leave precious little time for executing them...): 10-year plan, 3-year mid-term plans, yearly business plans (and all of them with a catchy - at least to Japanese ears - slogan attached to it, like "T60"...), half-yearly plans, monthly & weekly plans (I am waiting for the breakdown to daily level).

Anyway; this year my company is in the middle of our current mid-term plan, so we only have to work on the yearly business plan this time. Business plan fever starts around the end of October, with a target completion around December (and numerous revisions after that); the section I work for has been undergoing quite a lot of organizational change this year, so the key question everybody is wondering about is "who will do what" (not a bad question to start with).

To kick-start the process, we will have a "gashoku" next week; it's my first time to attend one of those.
Translated it means something like "to go camping". It's where a group of people go off to a remote location - in our case, a company hotel - and spend 2 days or so working together; and there is no way to escape. All people stay overnight, sharing a hot bad ("onsen") together at night (personally I love "onsen", but somehow I am not looking forward seeing my boss, and his boss, and the bosses' boss naked in a hot steaming bad...).

So I'll have more to report on this next week; not quite sure what to expect as an outcome (quite frankly, not much), but it seems a very "Japanese-macho-thing-to-do"; simply mentioning casually that you are going to "do a gashoku" seems to make an overwhelming impression of one's efforts towards making lasting contributions....

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Osaka's Sharp half-year profit fall 7.2 percent

Via Mainichi Daily News:

"Sharp Corp., the Japanese electronics maker best-known for its liquid crystal displays, reported a 7.2 percent drop in fiscal half-year profits, as its business was hurt by a slump in its computer chip and small-sized panel operations.

Despite the weak start, the Osaka-based manufacturer still projects a record profit for the fiscal year through March 2006 of 87 billion yen (US$756 million) profit, up 13 percent from 76.8 billion yen the previous year.

Fiscal 2005 sales were projected to grow 8 percent to 2.75 trillion yen (US$23.9 billion), also a record high for Sharp, from 2.5 trillion yen for fiscal 2004.
For the six months ending Sept. 30, Sharp's group net profit fell to 36.49 billion yen (US$317 million) from 39.32 billion yen for the same period a year earlier. Fiscal half sales rose 6.2 percent to 1.34 trillion yen (US$11.6 billion) from 1.26 trillion yen. Sharp did not break down quarterly numbers.

Sharp's performance still stands out among its Japanese rivals, many of which are struggling to post profits amid falling prices of consumer electronics products. Sharp's focus on LCD panels and LCD TVs has helped to cut costs and boost competitiveness.

Other major Japanese electronics makers, including Sony Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., which makes Panasonic brand products, report earnings later this week.
Sharp has also focused on high-end large-screen LCD TVs, where damage from the plunge in LCD TV prices tends to be smaller as price competition is more intense for small and midsize models.

Sharp said sales in LCD color TVs, mainly large-size models, and mobile phones were up during the first six months of the fiscal year, while home appliance sales were also up. In components, sales of flash memory chips were hurt by a drop in prices, but that was offset by strong LCD sales, the company said.

Sharp said the key to its continued growth for the rest of the year was expanding its LCD business, such as panels for mobile terminals and large-size TVs.
Shares of Sharp, which temporarily rose to 1,700 yen (US$15) levels over the summer but has since fallen, closed at 1,592 yen (US$14), down 0.8 percent from the previous day on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Earnings were announced after the market closed. (AP)

Hanshin Tigers lose Japan Series

It's quiet in Osaka tonight. The Hanshin Tigers, Osaka's pride and joy baseball team, lost 3-2 against Chiba Lotte Marines...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

gaijin at a japanese company: exercise time

Guess I am lucky. Daily excercises at my department are not mandatory, and they only happen in the afternoon.

This is how it works: shortly after 13h00, when everybody has returned from their lunch break, there is a sudden burst of music from the loudspeakers above our heads. The music itself is a mix of weird seventies soft-porn instrumental music, combined with a young lady's voice urging you to start excercising.

You don't have to get up, you can simply continue to sit at your desk; and off you go: "stretch your left arm, stretch your right arm, up and down, now swing them around in the air", and so on and so on....

To be honest, not many of my colleagues are following the just seems to be one of those old habits which nobody particularly likes, however nobody knows - or has the guts - to stop it...

On my way in to work in the morning, I do pass several companies, especially construction companies or car dealerships, were all employees are ligned up outside following mandatory excercises (while making a public fool out of themselves....something the Japanese don't seem to be particular aware off?!?!). In that sense, I guess I am working for a modern style company.

Jeez, I didn't quite realize until now...

book of the week: barbarians at the gate

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco

I know; this is really an old book. Actually, it was published back in 1991, and it covers the true story of the leveraged buy out of RJR Nabisco by KKR at the end of the '80s.

(Un)fortunately I was more interested in girls then in business in those days, so I somehow totally missed it (the book, as well as the LBO).

It's a tale of greed, power and petty; about men behaving like boys and about forgetting that employees are the most important shareholder for any company (they carry the biggest risk of all!).

You have to read it, to believe it. And if you wouldn't know that this really happened, then even after you read it, you wouldn't believe it. It simply is such an unbelievable story.
People decide on billions of dollars, like you and I (assuming you are a regular meat and potatoes type of guy/girl, just like me) decide on which colour of socks to wear in the morning.

Interesting coincidence; the same day that I finished reading the book, I noticed an article in the Financial Times.

KKR (Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts) , the private equity group that ended up taking RJR Nabisco, announced the appointment of Sir Deryck Maughan as their regional chairman (KKR opened their first Asian offices (Hong Kong/Tokyo) one month earlier).

Sir Deryck was previously head of Citigroup's international operations, but he resigned last year after a scandal related to regulatory problems in Japan....

I wonder how much has really changed in the financial world in the 15 years since the events narrated in this book happened...; could this really be a good time to invest in funds?

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco

intermezzo: rossini

Went down to Matsuda in the province Shimane for the weekend. As part of the opening ceremonies for a new art museum (, I attended an opera performance of Rossini's "Il barbieri di Sevilla" conducted by Ozawa Seiji.

The location - even though quite remote - was great, and they build a fantastic facility (not sure what the expense to the taxpayer's of Shimane is however...) there. This was the last performance by the Ozawa Seiji Ongaku Juku Orchestra in a series of 5 in Japan, and they delivered a splendid performance.

Another intersting fact which I didn't know before is that Ozwa Seiji was born, as a child of Japanese parents, in China. He seems to have kept a very close relationship with China, and actually many of the performing members of his orchestra are Chinese. In that sense, Ozawa Seiji truly is a great ambassador for his country, or humanity in general. What a difference as compared to Prime Minister Koizumi who, in the very same week, continues to walk in mysterious ways...

Friday, October 21, 2005

gaijin at a japanese company: lunch time!

12h15 - time to be fed. And how would we know? Simply, "they" turn of the lights.

Which leaves you with one of three choices: go out to get your lunch, lay your head on your desk and take a nap, or continue your work in absolute darkness.

Darkness, you say; why? Are there no windows in your office?

Of course there are, what kind of place do you think this is? Some sweatshop in south-east asia? Unfortunately, the building next to ours is so closeby that it hardly allows any sunshine in our office or for that matter our lives.....

So off we go; standing in line to get out of the building, into the cafetaria, getting your food, paying while exiting and entering our building. To physically move as a group is very crucial indeed.

All in all, a tiring exercise. Luckily we have the daily stretch and excercise time coming up....just wait for the music the tell you!

gaijin at a japanese company: please repeat after me...

...the seven principles of this company:

contribution to society
fairness and honesty
cooperation and team spirit
untiring effort for improvement
courtesy and humility

This is how every day starts here. At exactly 9h00 AM, loudspeakers come to life while everybody stands up besides their desks; the music being played is the 70 or so years old company song (best to be compared with a German "hoompapa" marching band melody) - and of course we all get to sing along....

After that, an appointed "volunteer" moves up to the front of the lines, and starts reading the company's seven principles. These are being read from a scroll which is treated with more respected than those from the Red (or was is Death?) Sea..... The Japanese wording used is as old as the song, which means that hardly any of my colleagues really understand the meaning of it.

The guy at the front screams out each principle, which is then repeated by the whole group. Brainwashing? No......, good old group values!

It's now 5 minutes past 9; and of course, the cermony is not quite over yet. The lucky volunteer now gets to make a speech, about everything or anything on his mind. So people talk about what they ate the night before, or saw on TV, what their kids or dogs are up to these days....all to in the end conclude how this (and they) will somehow contribute to the success of this company.

At first, I thought this is a unique forum where people can speak their mind. But with a captive audience, none but the most self-centered person will dare to keep everybody standing at attendion for more than 5 minutes. While trying not to offend anybody in the process. So before too long, I realized it's nothing more but one more "thing to do"....3 years later, I know consider it to be an absolute waste of time. But then again, few people here consider time to be a constrained resource.

9h10 - ceremony is finished. all sit. and start's a long day to go!

Oh, and BTW, does anybody believe - let alone practice - these principles.....??? Many of my colleagues believe it is one of the unique success factors behind this company, but tend to practice them more in word, than in spirit...

Thursday, October 20, 2005

osaka by night...

book of the week: the blue-eyed salaryman (or how it begins)

From my early youth, it has always been one of my dreams to become a writer; so after I moved to Japan, I kind of decided to, one day when I’m old and retired, write a book about my experience of working as a foreigner in Japan for one of the world's largest - and most conservative - consumer electronics manufacturers.

Then some time ago I went to Kinokunya (a large bookstore chain in Japan) in Umeda station (Osaka's biggest train station), because it has the best selection of foreign language books, and what do I see there? A book, newly released, titled “The Blue-eyed Salaryman”. It’s a book written by Niall Murtagh, an Irishman, and is based on his real life experience as a salaryman at Mitsubishi Corporation in Japan.

The story starts when he joins the R&D department at Mitsubishi in the early 1990. At the beginning he was a contract worker, but eventually he became a normal lifetime salaryman. He was also the first foreigner to be promoted to management level in Mitsubishi in Japan.

His book is very interesting, because it is based on his experience over a period of more than 10 years. So he really got to understand deeply about Mitsubishi’s culture and way of working. He also experienced the end of the bubble area, and the following crisis years.

Later on, Murtagh-san was transferred to Osaka, which allowed him to compare between Osaka and Tokyo working culture. His finding was that people in Tokyo cared about big visionary research projects, whereas in Osaka all research needs to have a practical application to get accepted. He did enjoy living in the Osaka area, and eventually enjoyed working here.

The final conclusion of his book is that for foreigners, as change agents, it is not meaningful to join traditional Japanese companies from the bottom; because the only way to drive fundamental change in large Japanese traditional corporations is top down. According to Murtagh-san, Carlos Ghosn would never have been able to impact to Nissan if he had joined them from the bottom...

So, even though it's not an original idea anymore, I decided to start writing a blog about my life as a salaryman in Japan (admittedly, nearly fours late...). I will have to be carefull not to disclose any confidential or damaging information about my company, but I am sure some of you will get a kick out the anecdotes in the daily life of a pencilpusher in the East.

introduction: who am i (not)

A Greek father, a Belgian mother (which in itself is a mixture of Flemish and French), a semi-Spanish sister, a Dutch/US education & a Japanese residency are the basic ingredients. The jury is still out as to the end result of such variety, but one would expect it to be a guarantee for awkwardness at the very least, or total alienation at best...

The positive side of all this, is that I don't feel at home anywhere in particular, so have no problem in going wherever the wind blows; as a kid I hated having to deal with a family as diverse as the United Nations, but somehow I must be grateful now as it has given me the chance to become fluent in a number of different languages such as Flemish (strange kind of Dutch), French, German, English, Spanish and too little Japanese.

Over the past 10 years I have lived and worked in the US (Oregon! a dream...), Europe (except Liechtenstein) and Asia (briefly in Korea, mainly in Japan).

I started off working for a Dutch company in the US, selling steel products in metric standards to the automotive and aviation industry. I thought I was doing well, up until the day that I met this Dutch guy in a bar ("Jimmy's" for all of you familiar with Grand Rapids, Michigan...) who told me he was working for this contrary Dutch software company "Baan" and that his salary was twice as much as mine.

Not limited by any form of knowledge, I applied for a job with "Baan", and before too long I was back in Europe working for them as a consultant implementing the Baan ERP package to medium and large size accounts. That Dutch guy didn't lie: the salary truly was twice as high, but so were the European taxes....
To keep a long story short, I loved work for Baan, enjoyed every day of it, and would still be there if they hadn't gone bust (OK, still on life support...)....

Riding the bubble I ended up at an American/Indian supply chain software company, doing pretty much the same thing I had been doing before, but in a totally different environment. Up until today, I am still trying to figure out if I enjoyed it or not, but I definitely missed a social conscious in the leadership style of that company's top management. The one good thing it did for me (and hopefully I contributed the same to them...) was that they send me to the implementation project of a new SCM system/process at a major Japanese consumer electronics company.

As such, I came into contact with a lot of Japanese, and we hit it off well, straight from the beginning. Before too long I became one of the 50 or so non-Japanese working as regular employees in Japan. The team I belong to is an internal consulting group, and my responsibility is business process innovation in the area of supply chain management.

What do I do when I am not working or in an airplane? I enjoy spending time with my lovely wife, reading fiction novels drifting away into deep contemplation, trying to stay afloat in a 4m open sail boat, or driving around the Japanese country-side in what can only be described as an impulse purchase...

What do I want to be when I grow up? That's the million dollar question....I am sincerely enjoying my life the way it is today, but there will come a day that I need to move beyond the life of a mercenary, and become a stable responsible adult (taking care of house, kitchen, garden, kids and dog!)...Any recommendation or real-life experiences are of course welcome and appreciated!