Publicity October 2016

Benefits for Japanese of early-career posts abroad

Report on September Forum for Expat Management

Along with the rise in Japanese foreign direct investment, the past 10 years have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of Japanese expatriates.

Having experienced a number of challenges with their foreign subsidiaries, Japanese headquarters see the use of expatriates as a good way to ensure subsidiary–main office coordination and the transfer of knowledge, while investing in the expat’s self-development.

The fourth Tokyo Forum for Expatriate Management was convened on 15 September and led by Miléna Osika (UniGroup Worldwide/Sterling Japan). The event, sponsored by major moving and relocation firm Sterling Japan, gave 20 human resources (HR) professionals a chance to exchange information on, and learn about, HR strategies in the context of expat programmes for Japanese nationals.

Sharing his most recent research and vision for Japanese expats was Mitsuhide Shiraki, PhD, professor in the Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University, president of the Institute for Transnational Human Resource Management (HRM) in Japan, and president of the Japan Academy of International Business Studies.

He explained the results of a survey he had conducted of Japanese expats and local employees of Japanese subsidiaries in China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states, over the period 2008–2010. The 880 respondents indicated that the assigned Japanese nationals displayed five major characteristics.

  • After the 3rd year of assignment, their satisfaction, performance and skill adaptation were likely to develop more quickly.

Due to the period of adaptation in the new country, these attributes are, on average, considered to be less than what might have been expected during the first three years had the respondents still been working in Japan.

  • Those who can make decisions quickly, accomplish tasks effectively and deal with problems rapidly are most likely to succeed.

Positive actions by the expat (reaching outside their comfort zone, being curious and pro-active) are essential to improve existing skills.

  • Taking the opportunity to train at foreign subsidiaries is essential to demonstrating and maintaining leadership qualities.

Through such training, employees are reminded of the firm’s vision and their respective roles in achieving common targets.

  • Those who are flexible and display empathy are most likely to be accepted by local employees.

This recognises the importance of being able to admit one’s mistakes, take the opinions of others into consideration, and support other departments.

  • A willingness to adapt to another society by understanding local customs and culture, as well as studying the local language with enthusiasm, constitute a plus for the expat’s integration.

Nevertheless, cultural adaptation shouldn’t be considered the main factor in the success or failure of an international assignment.

When the respondents of the same study were asked to rate Japanese management skills and the same skills of local management, none of the marks given for Japanese managers on the measured items surpassed those for local middle / top management. The weaknesses ascribed to Japanese managers are:

  • Lack of understanding of local business practices, customs / culture
  • Inability to point out their superior’s mistakes
  • Little negotiating ability
  • Small personal networks

But the arrival of a new generation of expats is changing that. In August, the Waseda University Institute for Transnational Human Resources Management completed research on the career and development of young Japanese expats through a survey conducted of expats in their early thirties and their immediate bosses. There were 302 respondents.

Not only did 40% of the respondents strongly desire to accept their new assignment before leaving Japan, but the true difference in their approach and that of their older counterparts became clear in areas in which the latter were failing the most. Those in their thirties indicated that they are able to understand different cultures, enlarge their network among locals, and negotiate better.

Since the respondents are still on assignment, the study is ongoing and will take another few years to complete.

At a time when Japanese firms need more than ever to internationalise their workforce, such studies are most welcome. They show that Japanese firms and universities, as well as the government, are making increased efforts to raise Japan’s position on the international employment ladder.