Qu Yingyin, a 26-year-old woman from Shanghai, is lecturing Japanese staff on Japanese-style customer service.
“Make sure to say hello to customers,” says Qu, who manages a Lawson Inc. convenience store in Tokyo. Qu, who speaks fluent Japanese, was appointed to run the store in January.
Qu is an example of the drive at Lawson, the second-largest convenience store chain in Japan, and a growing number of other Japanese companies, to recruit non-Japanese and promote them to managerial positions as part of a strategy to capture a slice of the Chinese and other foreign markets in this era of globalization.
Born in 1986 in Shanghai, Qu is one of a younger Chinese generation known as post-1980ers, who are supposed to embrace more diverse values than older generations of Chinese.
When she passed the entrance exam for Shanghai Normal University, a major teacher training center, Qu hoped to become a math teacher. Although initially having no plans to study abroad, Qu came to Japan in 2005 as a foreign student, after her mother encouraged her to broaden her horizons by experiencing something of the outside world.
To help cover living expenses while studying at the department of intercultural communication at Gakushuin Women’s College in Tokyo, Qu worked part time at a convenience store, an experience she found gratifying. So after graduation, she applied for and obtained a job at Lawson, which has been aggressively hiring non-Japanese in recent years.
Since 2008, Lawson has had a goal of making non-Japanese recruits about 30 percent of its new hires. It now has about 90 non-Japanese employees, of whom about 50 are Chinese, including 10 who manage stores in Japan.
“Companies not willing to accept diversity will find it difficult to advance into foreign markets,” Lawson President Takeshi Niinami said.
Lawson beat Japanese rivals in the race to gain a foothold in the Chinese market, opening its first store there in 1996. But it has lagged behind in expanding its store network in China.
Lawson currently has around 380 stores in the country, a far cry from the 1,820 stores of Seven-Eleven Japan Co. and 900 outlets of FamilyMart Co.
Lawson, however, is gearing up to accelerate store openings in China, with its Chinese store managers being groomed as leaders to help command that expansion. “I’m hoping to put them in charge of overseas business divisions at an early date,” Niinami said.
Mo Bangfu, a Chinese journalist based in Japan, said this trend is quite natural given the relentless wave of globalization. “Japanese may have to change their mindset,” Mo said.
Given the prickly relations between Japan and China, there may be concerns over possible strains in the interactions between the Chinese store managers and Japanese staff.
According to a recent opinion survey jointly conducted by China Daily and a Japanese NPO, 8 in 10 Japanese have an unfavorable opinion of China, as hostility has been fueled by what is seen as Beijing’s aggressive posture in territorial disputes with other countries. A part-time Japanese male worker at Qu’s store dismissed such concerns, however, saying politics had no place in the workplace. He also lauded Qu as a “reliable store manager who works harder than anyone else.” Indeed, Qu has increased the store’s sales since she took over as its manager.
Qu is hoping to gain further promotion to the status of supervisor, responsible for giving management advice to franchise stores. And ultimately, she wants to be involved in the management of Lawson’s Chinese operations. “We should let the world know what is good about Japan,” Qu said. Still, Qu and other Chinese store managers could face awkward moments when they have to give Japanese staff a dressing-down.
Li Ling, a 26-year-old Chinese manager who heads another Lawson store in Tokyo, said he exercises delicacy in his choice of words when admonishing Japanese staff. Citing his sensitive status as a non-Japanese boss, he said he is managing his store in the spirit of the maxim, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”