What Japanese Business Can Learn From Star Wars
'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' opens in cinemas across Japan this weekend - and millions are eager to see how Disney and top SF remake director JJ Abrams have re-imagined and modernized the series. Since its first hit movie over thirty seven years ago, Star Wars has become a much loved institution for three generations of fans across the world and has some interesting lessons for corporate Japan - both as a story and as a well-marketed business. It has also influenced my life.
How Star Wars brought me to Japan
When my mother took me to see the first Star Wars movie in 1977 I was completely captivated by an exiting and strange world that also seemed as real as ours. One of the first movies with realistic looking computer graphics, and packed with intriguing personality clashes and rusty futurist technologies, it was also one of my first cinema visits. I can still remember the giant red flip-up seats, the popcorn and the thrill of being able to see what all my school friends had been talking about for months.
This also started in me a love of sci-fi that has changed my life. I started paid work at age eight - cleaning toilets and other chores at home so I could buy bagfuls of cheap spaceship-emblazoned paperbacks (many with their corners cut off) at the market on weekends. I still read almost one science fiction book per day - these days a two or three dollar-priced semi-pro writer's novel on iPhone kindle - on trains and in the bath. My dream is to complete a novel about an intercultural trainer who guides alien business visitors about Earth customs - then becomes a peace- brokering hero in an intergalactic war. I spent an enjoyable few months telling people I was a novelist when I first started this book - then enjoyed watching their faces drop as I told them I’d already written ten pages.
And Star Wars indirectly caused me to spend half my life in Japan.
I ended up wanting to come to Japan after college in the UK because I had an image that it was a science fiction country - where people spoke in incomprehensible strange sounding words, crammed into high tech trains that looked like rockets, stayed in capsule hotels which looked like spaceship hibernation pods, and were surrounded by robotic appliances while at home and outside. People wore uniforms at work, hung out in noisy smoky Izakaya (tapas style) bars with exotic food and drink just like the saloon bar on the moon of Tatooine. Japanese people then were producing incredible miniaturized products like my Sony Walkman, Sharp VCR and Pioneer hundred-CD player hi-fi, but still keeping their old traditions like martial arts, crowded downtown markets like Ueno's Ameyoko, and vibrant festivals. Japan represented a strange alien, futuristic society I wanted to be part of - and Star Wars was what got me interested in exotic, alien culture.
These days I teach cultural business differences, and I believe that in almost every way - except their shared economic success - Japan and America are culturally opposite. For example, Americans are great at talking, marketing and strategic risk taking. Japanese are great at listening, production and incremental improvements. So how much of Star Wars culture is like Japan and how much is like America - another strange, futuristic society which I visited open mouthed as a student? As representing opposite ways of living, I thought it would be interesting to compare the business cultures of both countries with those of the opposing forces in Star Wars.
Is Japan the Galactic Empire or the Rebels?
If we compare the culture of the Galactic Empire and the Rebels in the Star Wars saga with the modern Earth, we can see some similarities and differences with Japanese business, and some with their cultural opposites: Americans. Japan itself being an empire unifying the “1000 small countries” of its warring provinces, and including a seemingly top down rigid hierarchy in its companies, including wearing uniforms to work and bowing to superiors, and excellence at large scale engineering projects such as conceivably building ‘death stars’, it might seem that Japanese companies are culturally close to the Empire, but this would be a superficial mistake. Actually American companies are far closer in one way - by having corporate structures that are more militaristically top down. To decide which is the best match for each, I allocated points for similarities in each of 7 business culture aspects - and totaled them up to find the respective “winners” below.
1. Communication Style
Communication is well explained by Edward T Hall’s “context” idea: referring to the amount that can be understood outside of the words used. Like America, the Empire seems rather “low context” in its communication style (information is shared clearly in words and numbers: such as when clearly defined missions to destroy rebel bases are assigned to their leaders) whereas the rebels seem more “high context” like the world’s most high context country: Japan. The rebels’ Jedi leaders have a lot of silence in meetings, and ideas are expressed in short phrases that are rich in interpretation: such as Yoda’s famous “do or not do, there is no ‘try’” in his training programs. Also there are lots of conversations between aliens and robots (such as R2D2’s beeping language, or Wookie roaring,) which the participants can clearly understand, but third parties, such as we the audience, can only guess at.
On the other hand, the forces of both sides would need to become lower context to understand each other. Storm troopers were apparently originally clones (with, presumably, good shared understanding and similar education system - as in Japan) but due to galactic war - conscription and perhaps voluntary recruitment from many planets - they would now have a more diverse culture, and need to communicate more clearly to accomplish their missions. The rebel forces seem to work and fight in groups of different aliens from each home planet, and may have more unspoken understanding with their close colleagues.
VERDICT: Empire similar to: Japan, Rebels similar to: US
2. Organizational Structure
The Empire seems rather like a command and control structure, divided into regions and management functions, such as communications or manufacturing, and could be characterized by having individual job descriptions and fixed roles, which is more similar to American management. The Rebels seem more like what Kyosera’s founder Kazuo Inamori called “ameba” structure: based on flexible teamwork and everyone’s priority being to help each other and their customers: protecting the free citizens of the rebellion. As a new organization, the rebels are more like a start-up in this respect, such as Google or Recruit, where people have multiple roles; whereas the Empire is more like an established company with fixed systems such as General Electric. For example, every rebel fighter craft has a droid which can do many jobs, such as intelligently handle communications and repair battle damage flexibly. This flexibility is similar to Japanese working style.
I am on the board of an organization called J-SCORE which helps Japanese senior retired staff retrain and go back to work. The first Jedi leader we meet in Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi is like an OB (old boy) returning to his old workplace after many years retired due to the organization’s urgent need of his skills. In America with its fixed work roles and growing population this would rarely happen, but it may become common in Japan thanks to its shrinking workforce and urgent need to grow its overseas business. Japanese teamwork is the best in the world
VERDICT: Empire similar to: US, Rebels similar to: Japan
Differences between real and apparent hierarchy make up one of several elements of mystery in answering the question of which one of the Empire or Rebellion in Star Wars, Japan and America are most similar to. As interculturalist Robert Hilke has pointed out, although under the surface Japanese management is relatively flat, whilst American managers are top down, their outward communication styles each seem the opposite. Japanese show a range of behaviours depending on the situation, from top down and hierarchical with an appearance of inequality in the workplace, to super relaxed during drinking or excitable during karaoke sessions. In contrast, Americans seem friendly, joking, relaxed and give an appearance of equality. In some ways this is an illusion - as we have seen above. In other ways, due to their Socratic style of challenging each other and making decisions in meetings, both the rebels and Americans seem similar.
Like the Empire in Star Wars its workers wear uniforms of different types, and in dealings with leaders, may be seen standing to attention, bowing and only speaking when spoken too. (This is one reason why comedian Eddy Izzard's “Death Star canteen” sketch is so funny. A kind but firm serving staff in the canteen insists Darth Vader uses a tray, explaining the benefits for him of not burning himself, and forcing him to comply, despite his insistence that he is at the top of her hierarchy and could order her death. ) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sv5iEK-IEzw
Japanese business people can learn from the similar-to-Global-business friendly style of the rebels, by avoiding “closed” unfriendly behaviour such as poker face, crossed arms, silence and lack of eye contact. Instead, smiling when asking questions, keeping direct eye contact, offering a firm handshake and other “open” communication can help build win-win friendly relationships much faster.
VERDICT: Empire similar to: Japan, Rebels similar to: US
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