October 4, 2016 1:00 pm JST

Japanese corporate culture 101

YU NAKAMURA, Nikkei staff writer

Students learn appropriate makeup styles for a business environment during a lecture on Japanese corporate culture at Peking University.

GUANGZHOU -- The inner machinations of the Japanese business world are often a mystery to most people not reared in the system, and cross-cultural misunderstanding is a familiar experience for outsiders trying to climb the Japanese corporate ladder.

But a series of lectures at Peking University providing insight into Japan's distinctive corporate culture could go some way to easing some of the unnecessary friction.

Tadashi Ikarugi, a 65-year old former IBM Japan employee, hopes he can help Japanese and Chinese businesses avoid misunderstandings resulting from strained political and diplomatic relations between the two countries.

"Many companies in Japan have long histories. What do you think is the most important thing to do for a company to exist for 100 years?" Ikarugi asked the students at one recent lecture at Peking University attended by dozens of elite students from across China.

Many companies in China are state-owned and have long been kept under a tight rein by the government. This has led to a lack of distinct company culture and a strong sense of belonging among employees.

Traditions deeply rooted in Japan, including annual rounds of hiring new graduates, lifetime employment and seniority-based systems, are new concepts for many Chinese students.

"Honestly, there were lots of eye-opening facts for me," said Li Yang, a 27-year-old second-year student at Peking University's graduate school, after Ikarugi's talk.

The focus of his lectures is not simply to teach Japanese corporate culture, but also to prompt students to consider the logic behind the decisions Japanese companies make. Joined by guest speakers from Japanese manufacturers, banks and trading firms in China, the lectures take a question-and-answer form, where experiences of working in different cultures are shared.

During his 30 years with IBM, Ikarugi was frequently dispatched to China and has first-hand experience of the challenges arising from the different corporate cultures of the U.S., China and Japan.

Ikarugi began delivering the lectures after consulting Peking University professor Ma Xiaobin, saying that he wants to use his experiences for Japan-China relations.

After Ma gave the green light for the idea, his lecture became a formal part of the curriculum. They have now been running for three years.

The students' reaction has been encouraging, and feedback has included comments such as, "The lecture helped me clear up my misunderstandings about insurance companies which have a bad image in China," and "I learned that the stable employment system is the underlying reason why certain Japanese companies can exist for a long time."

As students deepen their understanding of Japanese corporate culture, the number of students hoping to work for Japanese companies has increased. This year, 16 students, or more than half those taking Ikarugi's lecture, have gone on to work for a Japanese company.

The success of the lectures has led to the program being expanded to Shanghai International Studies University this year.

"With cooperation from China-based Japanese company employees, I now want to develop the program even further," said Ikarugi.

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