TOKYO — A VETERAN Japanese sales manager for a transnational conglomerate instructed two associates in the United States to respond on Washington's birthday to his prototypes for an important promotional piece. When informed that the holiday precluded compliance, the 63-year-old executive was furious. He could not comprehend the manner by which subordinates avoided routine chores on any day. Obstacles faced by Westerners in Japan are legend. Less renowned is the fact that transplanted corporate executives from the world's No. 2 economic superpower face an equally formidable learning curve overseas.
Smooth transition to the gaijin, or foreign, business scene is impossible, in part because Japan is a nonverbal culture, and, in the opinion of many experts, because of near-xenophobic attitudes. It is difficult for its citizens posted outside its borders - even in East Asia - to communicate on a one-to-one basis.
``Japanese don't share a whole lot of information,'' says Jim Cramer, executive director of the International Business and Management Institute (IBMI). ``They often exclude foreigners from important meetings.''
Mr. Cramer's organization is the only United States campus in Tokyo conducting customized training for executives heading West. Several thousand managers from firms such as Fujitsu, Sony, Dentsu, Matsushita, and Cannon have gone through the IBMI program since 1984.
Communication barriers are linked to cultural norms. Many businessmen from the Northeast Asian nation will feel shame when they do not understand a foreigner - and are reluctant to concede a perceived shortcoming. ``Sometimes we are assured by a personnel director that the English level is `very good,' yet we stand in front of a group of managers whose English is one notch above functional illiteracy,'' Cramer says.
Elements of the non-Japanese business style are difficult for managers in Tokyo and Osaka to learn.
``Japan's executives need this type of training,'' insists A. E. Klauser, adviser to the president at Mitsui USA. ``Too few of them get it.'' They ``substitute'' for the experience by sending people to a small cadre of Ivy League institutions ``for contacts alone.''
A VARIETY of other problems have surfaced. When Sanyo attempted to convince US workers of the merits of uniforms, the effort backfired. Japanese business leaders are astonished that Americans and Canadians would balk at guaranteed ``lifetime employment,'' even when it means working seven-hour days.
In the US and in Canada, court cases have surfaced over discrimination against women in Asian-owned companies. Product liability cases have surfaced. Treatment of blacks and Hispanics has been challenged. Cases are not publicized, and Japanese will eagerly settle out of court for any alleged damages.
In other situations, Japanese multinationals' habit of copying native practices when offshore leads to inefficiency.
For example, a Nippon Electric Corporation (NEC) executive in Boston concedes that customer service lags. ``We are structured just like the parent company,'' which means that ``work roles'' are blurred. ``Everyone does several jobs,'' but since this is not true in the US - where job tasks and attendant titles are more structured - the result is that ``not everything [such as customer service] gets taken care of.''
The situation may improve with time. Mr. Cramer reflects that he was usually asked how to evade workplace-related regulations. Now, ``we are more likely to be asked, `what do the laws mean?' ''