Why Japanese Professionals Don't Network: Lifetime Employment

"Why can't we get more Japanese professionals to join our group on LinkedIn?"
"Why don't I meet more Japanese people like you at networking events?"
"Why don't Japanese people network more professionally? I mean, where can I meet them? Do you know any good networking events?"

These are some of the questions I have been asked again and again and again in the last month or so since I started being more active on professional networking sites like LinkedIn and Plaxo.
Fair enough, the few Japanese professionals I am connected to on these sites seldom have more than 20 or 30 connections if that. I have at least 10 Japanese connections who are connected to less than 10 people. With such few connections, you wonder why they bother to spend time on these sites in the first place.

I actually asked one such person, a MD of his brand's Oceania operations, currently residing in Sydney and he said,
"I joined based on a recommendation from a colleague in Europe. But I don't really understand how this works or why I should be here."

There are more than 17 million members of Mixi, Japan's equivalent to MySpace and FaceBook, who are predominantly Japanese, so they _do_ network socially, but professionally, they don't seem to get the concept. My personal view, therefore, on why Japanese don't network professionally is because of lifetime employment.

"Networking" in the world of lifetime employment meant that instead of going out for the after hours beer with the colleagues in your group or section tonight, you invited someone from finance or another group. Because you were transferred every 3 years or so, you never knew who could be your next boss or colleague, and it is always good to have good relations with other sections anyway, so you "networked" with other departments and sections. I personally remember whilst at Olympus (I worked there for 6+ years in domestic sales), the group leader of Tokyo Camera Sales Group 3 joined us from Tokyo Camera Sales Group 1 for drinks quite often. And over sake and beer one evening, he said,
"Do you want to come join my group next half?"
And I said,
"Oh, yes! Why not?"
because it is the right thing to say over sake. We say "out of line behavior over sake is forgiven" but it is always nice to keep the guy who is footing the bill happy when you are drinking.
But a couple of months later, I was actually transferred to Tokyo Camera Sales Group 3!
The day I moved my desk 10 m to my new post, the boss hosted a welcoming party for me and said,
"See, I promised you I would take you!"
So it seems he was actually sober and serious when we made that "agreement."

Sometimes, when people actually _want_ such transfers, they actively seek out their "sponsors"and go out with them for drinks. That is the extent of popular "networking" in a lifetime employment environment.

Plus, one must remember that mingling with competitors at conventions and exhibitions is seen as an act of treachery. Actually going out to a networking function to actively seek opportunities to meet competitors and people outside of your company is generally frowned upon.

I remember once working on SONY's 30th anniversary corporate history book translation (about 10 or 15 years ago) where an episode was introduced about the different cultural perceptions within the business as SONY is an international company. One was about the US and how a senior manager in the US operation had jumped ship to competition, then "had the audacity" to come over to the SONY booth at a tradeshow, all smiles. The Japanese were shocked that this "traitor" could come smiling over to them and expected to be on friendly terms.

The clan mentality runs deep in Japanese. Either you are on the inside of their circle of trust or you are on the outside. We talk differently about people on the inside from those on the outside and it is only proper to make clear distinctions in the language used. That is how our language is structured.

Once initiated into a clan - be it family, school, company, or interest group - you identify with the group and are a part of the group all the time. And all the networking happens within. You do not go outside of your group to network.

But of course, the economic climate has changed and lifetime employment is fast becoming an unattainable and unsustainable institution. But professionals in their 40s and up are still jealously guarding their rights to lifetime employment, which is creating a huge gap between those in their 30s and younger who have missed this boat.

So, in Japan, you will find that the higher ranking professionals are not really networking in the circles that their western counterparts go to. The most senior ones go to Keidanren and other such organizations. But outside of cliquey tight circles, you will not find many Japanese middle and senior managers at networking functions or worse yet, a networking group for them. Those who attend - like me - are usually associated with foreign companies or are labelled mavericks in their companies.

This will probably have to change a bit, but it will take time.


  1. As always Jules, fantastic article and great insight! Loved it! And I totally agree, we might see a change in this with the current economy and Japan no longer having that constant 1-2% ecnomic growth, which has been backed by the US and others. I remember at the end of last year when major Japanese companies retracted their offers to the newly grad students. Toyota, Fujitsu, and others were among these companies.

    The poor kids were told to go back to school for another year and wait it out so they would still be new grads next year for the hiring season. Perhaps they will turn to networking to get their future jobs. Probably not, as they are too young and it's too new of a concept, but maybe soon...



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