Business Success in Japan: A Plan for Western Women


DURING her first presentation to a group of Japanese men, a California businesswoman couldn't help noticing a senior Japanese executive in the audience making faces at her - squinting, frowning, wrinkling his nose.

Not knowing whether to be enraged or mortified, she asked a male colleague to intervene. An apology arrived immediately. The executive "had unconsciously been caught up in mimicking" her facial expressions, unaccustomed as many Japanese males are to seeing a woman so animated.

Being mimicked, ignored, asked impertinent questions, or ogled at are not uncommon for Western women working with Japanese males, according to a new book entitled "Doing Business with Japanese Men: A Woman's Handbook" (Stone Bridge Press, $9.95). But understanding the culture goes a long way to dispelling discomfort. Jointly authored by Christalyn Brannen and Tracey Wilen, both long experienced in dealing with Japanese executives, the book guides the uninitiated through the cultural quirks of Japanese bu siness etiquette.

Some pitfalls can be subtle. For instance, sitting at the wrong place around a conference table can designate a woman as the secretary even if she heads the team. Wearing bright colors, bold patterns, red lipstick, or large earrings may also get a woman labeled a secretary. Instead, women executives should dress conservatively in muted tones with minimal accessories.

The main challenge women executives face in Japan is establishing their authority and not being mistaken for an "office lady" or administrative assistant. In a society where few women reach the higher echelons of business or government, the female executive is an anomaly, the book says. Japanese men view a working woman as "temporarily misguided," and one who will soon pursue "the rightful path of wife, mother, and homebody."

One executive from Idaho had to deal with the "parrot" phenomenon, as she termed it. When a women on her team answered a question, no one on the Japanese side listened or even looked at her. "Then, when one of our male colleagues repeats exactly what we just said, the Japanese faces all light up in instant comprehension," she said.

Personal confidence and correct formal introductions from senior management are essential. Where men are generally assumed to hold positions of authority, women have to prove it. Young American men sent to negotiate multimillion-dollar deals will much older Japanese counterparts may meet similar prejudices. Tradition-bound Japan is gradually loosening up, however. Global trade has brought Japanese males into contact with foreign women at all levels of authority. And more and more college-educated Japanes e women are applying to work for foreign companies that offer more promise of promotion.

This handbook could easily have spun off into a Japan-bashing exercise. But Brannen, who grew up in Japan and speaks the language fluently, clearly respects the culture and is careful to explain the context behind discriminatory actions.

Much of the odd behavior she puts down to unfamiliarity and ignorance. "Many Japanese men are simply not aware of what is appropriate behavior toward women," she says. And some comments denote a "misunderstanding of what it means to be friendly," she says, referring to some of the more unwelcome questions, such as "Why aren't you married," or "How many children do you plan to have?"

The slim volume is useful for female executives and entertaining whether or not you plan to step foot in Japan.

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