Understanding ‘leadership’ in Japan

by Glen S. Fukushima

An American scholar who recently proposed writing a book about leadership in Japan was told by his colleagues, “A book? You’ll be lucky to find enough material to write a chapter, or more likely a newspaper article, on the subject!”

Along these lines, it is said — only half in jest — that Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s main contribution to Japanese politics has been, unwittingly, to demonstrate the dearth of leadership in contemporary Japan. But the view that Japan lacks leadership is widely shared, not only about politics but about the government bureaucracy, business, academia, journalism — indeed, most segments of Japanese society.

Some argue that “Asian” styles of leadership are different from “Western” styles and that for this reason Japanese leaders should not be judged by the same criteria as leaders in, for example, the United States and Europe. But South Korea (Kim Dae Jung), Taiwan (Lee Teng-hui), Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew), Malaysia (Mahathir Mohamad), China (Zhu Rongji) and Myanmar (Aung San Suu Kyi) have all managed to produce public figures who possess many of the traits that Westerners believe are essential for “leadership.”

What are these traits?

The February 2001 issue of the Harvard Business School Bulletin contains a typical discussion of the subject under the title, “What Makes a Good Leader?” The following are identified as the most important qualities of a good leader: charisma, communication, honesty, vision, knowledge and passion.

“Charisma” would appear to be in short supply in Japan. Anthropologists have long pointed out that Japanese society tends to suppress individuals who stand out, so much so that perhaps the best-known Japanese proverb is “Deru kugi wa utareru.” (“The protruding nail will be hammered.”). In contrast to some other cultures, in Japan teamwork and harmony, at least on the surface, are valued. Thus, many of Japan’s most powerful politicians tend to be behind-the-scenes “fixers” or coordinators, and Japanese companies are often said to select as their presidents “organization men” who during their careers have caused the least controversy and made the fewest enemies.

“Communication” skills have rarely been a prerequisite for leadership in Japan. In fact, Japanese who are articulate or eloquent public speakers have often been viewed with suspicion as glib, facile and lacking in substance. The Western ideal of a publicly articulate, persuasive and expressive leader who aggressively seeks eye contact and has a firm handshake is likely to be viewed by many Japanese as overbearing or even boorish.

“Honesty,” as in most societies, is considered a virtue in Japan. But there appears to be little expectation by the Japanese public that their leaders, at least in the political world, will maintain a high standard of honesty. Opinion polls reveal a deep distrust or even cynicism on the part of the Japanese public about politicians as a professional class. Even in the nonpolitical world, the Japanese preference at times for “tatemae” (facade, pretense) rather than “honne” (empirical truth) is seen by many observers as proof that honesty and sincerity in Japan are situational and not valued as universal principles.

“Vision,” as expounded by an individual, is often valued in budding Japanese organizations, especially when an entrepreneurial founder sets a new direction. This was certainly the case with Soichiro Honda of Honda Motors and Akio Morita of Sony. But larger and more established organizations in Japan tend to emphasize meticulous, well-organized, long-term plans that are painstakingly formulated by groups and committees rather than by an individual who claims initiative for or ownership of a bold, fresh and daring vision.

“Knowledge” is important for leaders in both Japan and abroad. But non-Japanese leaders, whether in business or politics, are often expected to have command of a certain defined body of technical or professional knowledge, be it finance, marketing, technology, law, public policy or some other field. In Japan, it is often assumed that the organization will have subordinates who can provide the technical and functional expertise for the leader, usually a generalist with a broad but not necessarily deep knowledge of his organization’s business.

“Passion,” like charisma, is not a trait that one commonly finds, at least outwardly manifested, in Japanese leaders. Except in extraordinary situations when it is permissible for Japanese leaders to display their emotions — for instance, when the president of Yamaichi Securities tearfully announced the bankruptcy of his firm — most Japanese in leadership positions adhere to the traditional Japanese ideal of a “strong, silent, stoicism.” Overt displays of passion or emotion are generally viewed as indicating immaturity or a lack of seriousness.

What does this all mean for the nature of leadership in Japan? If we adopt a commonly used definition of leadership as “the process of influencing activities of an organized group toward goal achievement,” it is hard to argue that Japan lacks leadership, since in Japan influence is exercised over groups, and goals are achieved by them. The methods by which this is done in Japan, however, can differ radically from the six traits discussed above. In part, the difference lies in the organizational and institutional, as opposed to individual, exercise of influence.

One might also conclude that few Japanese actually exhibit the traits considered necessary to leadership in the Western sense. This may be because Japanese — used to conformism, groupism and surface harmony, at least in the postwar period — so dislike the display of individual leadership traits that Japanese who exhibit them are soon forced to suppress them.

This is perhaps why some Japanese reformers — again, only half in jest — have suggested that what Japan needs to do is to import “hired foreigners,” as in the Meiji Period, to bring to Japan skills — in this case, leadership — that Japan has not developed among its own. Carlos Ghosn of Nissan and former U.S. President Bill Clinton are sometimes mentioned in this context.

The fact that Japan, as a remote island nation, has been relatively sheltered from outside influence in the modern period (except for the less than seven years of the Allied Occupation, 1945-52) means that a “Japanese logic of leadership” has developed in virtual isolation from the rest of the world. This form of leadership has tended to de-emphasize the active, explicit, clear, direct dimensions centered on strong individuals that Westerners, and even many Asians, consider to be essential elements of leadership: for example, charisma, communication, honesty, vision, knowledge and passion.

The interesting question is, what comes next? On the one hand, the forces of globalization will almost certainly increase pressures from abroad on Japan to “exercise leadership” as the world’s second-largest economy. The world’s expectations concerning Japan’s role during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 is a case in point. And it appears that some in the Bush administration will now go further and want Japan to exercise stronger leadership in the political and military-security spheres as well.

At the same time, changes within Japan itself — including deregulation, decentralization, diversification, generational shifts and growing use of the Internet — are inducing domestic pressures for a new kind of leadership. This is manifested in the emergence of governors and mayors, as well as younger Diet members, who display more vision, communication skills, and personality, even charisma, than Japan’s traditional political leadership. And, in response to market forces, Japanese corporate executives, as individuals, are starting to exhibit the charisma, vision and communication skills that have been undervalued until recently.

This is a fascinating period in which the rise of internal and external pressures may significantly transform the notion of leadership as it has been understood in postwar Japan. The implications of this change for Japan and its partners should not be underestimated.