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WIT Life #222: Japan's Global Leadership

WIT Life is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations. Earlier this week I went to a lunchtime 座談会 (zadankai, or round-table talk) at Columbia Business School's Center on Japanese Economy and Business (CJEB) entitled "Global Leadership Challenges for Japanese Companies."  The discussion was led by Sheena Iyengar, the S.T. Lee Professor of Business at the school and moderated by Hugh Patrick, the Center's Director.  Some of the themes explored during the course of the hour and a half session were how to stimulate entrepreneurship, the issue of global leadership being thought of as equivalent to English ability, and the cultural fear of making mistakes as hindering innovation.  There was an interesting characterization of America as being on the promotion side of the spectrum (risk-taking), and Japan falling on the prevention side (risk-averse).  Professor Patrick summed up the challenge of the current business climate nicely by saying, "Japanese companies talk globally but act locally."

During the Q&A there was a question regarding the recent financial scandal at Olympus, which Professor Iyengar said boiled down to the issue of corporate corruption.  I just started reading the book Exposure by Michael Woodford, former CEO and President of Olympus, which tells the story of how he brought the company's rotting core to light.  His transition from Olympus's worldwide leader to whistleblower was a rapid one, and it tainted his 30-year history with the company.  So far it is a fascinating read regarding the inside story, and it touches on an aspect of Japanese decision-making that Professor Iyengar highlighted.  The style employed is typically one of consensus building, and this is reflected in the book when Woodford initially confronts his colleagues, only to be stonewalled by their protection of the CEO. For those looking for more insights into Japanese business matters, check out the Articles of Interest section on the homepage of Japan Intercultural Consulting, run by U.S.-Japan cultural specialist Rochelle Kopp.

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