A Japanese firm tries non-Japanese in some key jobs

''Vive la difference!m'' In Japan, where harmony, consensus, and homogeneity are qualities prized above all others, a fast-growing department and retail store group has begun a bold experiment in heterogeneity.

''When choosing managerial personnel, we used to look for well-rounded individuals who could draw the best out of subordinates,'' said Kazuo Edo, personnel and audit director of the Seibu group.

''Those are still important qualities. But more and more we are finding that the most important quality of all is expert professional knowledge. A manager who does not have this professional expertise cannot draw the best out of his subordinates.

''Experts often have quirks of character. They are not always conformists. But whereas we used to think that the art of personnel management was to homogenize, to make people feel they were one, in today's tough competitive world we are having to learn to live with differences, to see how heterogeneity can be made to contribute to the success of our enterprise as a whole.''

A tangible manifestation of Seibu's search for diversity is its recruitment of non-Japanese for long-term career jobs. Until now, most Japanese enterprises hired Americans and other foreigners only in special contract positions as language teachers or writers of English-language catalogs or manuals, and the like.

But last September, on the initiative of Seibu's president, Seiji Tsutsumi, the group hired six non-Japanese as regular employees, entitled to all the welfare and other benefits open to Japanese employees.

Four of the six are Americans, one is Bangladeshi, and one is from Hong Kong. Subsequently, an Australian and a Chinese have been hired, and the hiring of three more non-Japanese is being processed.

The news that Seibu was looking for foreign employees generated a great deal of news media publicity and 151 applications from all over the world, Mr. Edo said. The personnel director went personally to New York, London, Paris, and Sydney to conduct final interviews.

''We had three conditions,'' Mr. Edo said: ''that the candidate have a good speaking knowledge of Japanese, that he have expertise in some area useful to us , and that he intend to make a long-term commitment to a job with us.''

Mr. Edo said he found a surprising number of qualified candidates who spoke Japanese. About half were already living in Japan. The other applicants had studied Japanese in their local universities. Many of them said their aim was not just to work in Japan but to serve in some way as a channel of communication between their own countries and Japan.

One of the successful applicants is Ronald J. Hill, a bearded young Harvard graduate in fine arts who has also studied at Princeton and at Kyoto City College of Fine Arts. He is married to a Japanese and speaks French and German as well as Japanese and English.

''I was working for a small gallery in the United States when I was hired by Seibu,' said Mr. Hill in fluent Japanese. ''I was used to making all the decisions myself - what to buy, how much to spend, and so forth. Here, of course , things do not go the same way. I have to circulate proposals and get approval. It's a time-consuming process, but I think I would have had the same problem if I had gone to work for, say, IBM.

''Now I know who has to stamp what documents. I know I have to go through the section chief to get through to the department chief. I am enjoying my work and hope I'm being useful to the company.''

Mr. Hill is Seibu's chief buyer in modern art and photography and has already mounted a very successful exhibition and sales of 19th- and 20th-century photographers, featuring 217 original photographs by such artists as Ansel Adams and Man Ray.

The sale of original photographs as works of art is still a new field in Japan and only about 10 years old in the United States, Mr. Hill says. Seibu executives say that without Hill they would have not known where to get started with such an idea.

Heterogeneity in Japan is still accepted only grudgingly and slowly. So far, however, Seibu's pioneering idea seems to have proved itself a winner.

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