Of Mice and Japanese Men


Japan is still a “man’s world” in many ways. Japanese gender roles are so different from America’s that bridging the gap can be tricky, especially in the workplace. No doubt, Japan still has a long way to go in providing fair opportunities for females in the workplace, a topic beyond the scope of today’s post. Here’s the reality: when Japanese employees of “transplant” subsidiaries set foot on American turf, bridging the culture gap–particularly in relation to gender–is not only achievable, but failure to do so can lead to dire consequences.

Happy to say I’ve seen numerous American females earn the respect of Japanese male managers. Here’s a case in point.

It happened over twenty years ago in a factory in the Deep South, where a gritty Tennessee country girl won the grudging respect of an “old-school” Japanese engineer.

I was sitting at my desk working on the production schedule. Our Japanese Sales Manager, “Mr. Ito” (all names other than mine are aliases) tapped me on the shoulder:

“Tim-san,” he said whispering, “Could you do me a favor?”

I leaned in and whispered back, “Sure.”

“Could you get me a cup of green tea from kitchen?”

It was an odd request. Ito wasn’t one to go around asking coworkers to serve him green tea. I didn’t mind helping him score his fix, but I couldn’t contain my curiosity.

“Sure, Ito-san, I’ll get your tea. May I ask why?”

He blushed and stared at his shoes. “There’s a mouse in kitchen, and I’m afraid of the mouse.”

This was the last thing I expected to hear, but at least the whispering now made sense. Lost for words I could only think to say, “Well I’m not afraid of the mouse.” (I was a little afraid but didn’t want to admit it.)

So into the kitchen I went. My mission, to extract a cup of green tea from an area now controlled by the mouse.

I slipped in and out without incident. Ito-san now owed me big time.

But the fun was just beginning. Minutes later our Japanese manufacturing engineer, Ishiyama, called me to over to translate something. His desk was smack dab in front of the kitchen, which I was now facing; Ishiyama was facing me.

Enter Sheila, our production control shipping clerk, who decided to stop by the kitchen to refill her mug. As she was about to pour the coffee the mouse scampered across the floor. I watched in horror as Sheila raised her right leg and came down hard with the heel of her boot–thwack!

The mouse never knew what hit him.

Unaware of the carnage behind him, Ishiyama rambled on about hydraulic systems, or maybe it was limit switches, I wasn’t listening.

Sheila then bent over, picked up the dead mouse by the tail and nonchalantly walked through the office swinging it, much like you’d carry a fashionable handbag. She opened the front door and tossed the mangled mouse into the bushes. As she walked back to the kitchen she brushed her hands together several times with deliberate, light taps, as if she did this everyday. (She probably did.)

The only part of this extraordinary event Ishiyama saw was Sheila walking through the office swinging the dead mouse. But it was enough to change his perspective of women forever. Truth is, we were both in awe.

To appreciate the dramatic nature of Ishiyama’s epiphany it helps to understand that he was an old-school, factory section manager not easily impressed. He almost never smiled. But when Sheila walked by his desk swinging that dead mouse, Ishiyama’s eyes got as wide as saucers and a big grin spread across his face. He turned to me and said, “Tim, I’m an old fashioned Japanese man. I never liked the idea of women working in a factory. But any woman who can do that–can work in my factory!”

The Moral of the Story?

Competence trumps gender every time, even in the eyes of a grumpy old Japanese manufacturing engineer.

The good news is you don’t have to kill a mouse to earn the respect of Japanese coworkers. Here’s a less colorful example that’s more appropriate for the squeamish.

“Edith” was a key member of our improvement team. With her charming Southern drawl and nurturing nature, she always found creative ways to bond and communicate with Japanese coworkers.

As great a communicator as Edith was, she couldn’t speak a lick of Japanese. But she was smart, considerate, hardworking and had a great sense of humor.

She would do anything to avoid using interpreters, instead opting to get her point across directly in conversations with Japanese coworkers–by drawing pictures, looking up words in the dictionary, actions often accompanied by a delightful game of charades.

Edith was always respectful and willing to learn. Most important, she was observant, anticipated the needs of others, and fulfilled them proactively. Her actions transcended language and culture–they spoke louder than Japanese words ever could. Edith’s actions and demeanor earned respect of Japanese coworkers. She eventually became the “go-to guy” in the plant for the Japanese expatriates.

To this day Edith is the best improvement manager and performer that I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Once the Japanese staff saw Edith demonstrate competence in her job, they forgot about her gender.

While Edith had a strong tomboy quality about her (similar to my wife), she also used to her advantage tendencies that some might consider “feminine”–for example: love of harmony and beauty, importance of developing relationships, taking people’s “feelings” into consideration, etc.

Edith was able to leverage these values because they also happen to be core values of the Japanese. The irony is that when it comes to dealing with Japan, female culture makes available some powerful connecting points that are beyond the reach of many American men.

Indeed Japanese managers often change their view of women after they see how organized, communicative, cooperative and professional American female managers are in the workplace. A Japanese friend who lived in the U.S. for many years once confided to me that he actually preferred American females in the workplace to men because (in his words) “they are superior multi-taskers and try harder.”

And yes, I’ve also seen some Japanese men who struggled to take women seriously in the workplace. But this is not one of those cross-cultural situations where you meet halfway and compromise. Japanese businessmen have no choice but to adhere to U.S. laws and respect American culture. As Americans we must insist they do. The professional American manager should also be willing to facilitate the process.

In my experience most Japanese expatriates are happy to comply with U.S. laws and customs, so long as they know what they are and the consequences of violating them.

It’s the job of American HR professionals–and all American senior managers who interface with Japanese colleagues on a regular basis–to ensure their Japanese teammates are aware of the rules and follow them to the letter.

But don’t buy into the myth that Western women can’t work with Japanese men. Sheila and Edith are just two of many females who have earned the respect of Japanese coworkers, proof that it can be done.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009


7 responses to “Of Mice and Japanese Men

  1. I enjoyed this. May I send my college comp. students here for an example of a good narrative essay?

    Rick Stansberger
    Western New Mexico University

  2. Rick, I’m flattered you checked in and would be even more flattered if you showed your comp. students.



  3. It ain’t a “Man’s World” in my house!

    My Quarter Japanese Wife is definitely the Bread Winner, the Mechanic, the Disciplinarian, and the one that likes to yell!

    I’m only good for a sense of humor… and I can’t even make her laugh at times!

  4. No doubt, Damon, Japanese women rule the roost in most homes.

    My wife is an equal partner in taking home the bread, but controls all the finances. She can be the sweetest lady in the world and the scariest. That’s the scary part.

    A sense of humor is indispensable because you certainly can’t win taking them head on.

  5. Hi Tim,

    Edith could very well be my sister, who works for a major Japanese company. She is the go-to-gal for the entire Japanese staff, from the President on down.

    Keep up the good work.


  6. Thanks for checking in, Dave-san! Hope life is good in Ayase, Japan.

    For those who read my post, “Lessons in Humility from a Japanese Blues Guitarist“, you might be interested to know that Dave is the “talented harmonica-tooting friend” who made it a very memorable jam session what…almost 30 years ago? (Wow!) Dave will back me up when I say that the blues guitarist cited in my post (Keni) is a great guitarist. However, Dave is too humble to tell you that he is right up there with Keni–an awesome jazz/blues harmonica player. He plays a mean guitar too…

    Hope you check in again soon, my friend. Hey, when you comin’ to Hawaii for a visit? 🙂


  7. Greetings Tim and everyone! For some reason, I stopped getting all RSS notices from you, and figured you were just stuck in a tonnage of work. Glad to see you’re still here and blogging. Looks like some outstanding pieces I’ve missed lately. As for the above, you and I have already agreed on some of the benefits of being a woman in Japan (along with the good and bad of not holding your own on the drinking end, hehe). That said, doing business in Japan as a woman is still really exasperating much of the time, though I’m sure you guys would feel the same, depending on the day! Mata ne…..!

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