Ability to bridge the gap a banker’s boon


For Sanjeev Gupta, senior managing executive officer and head of the Individual Group at Shinsei Bank, his 25-year career in Japan started out with a resume he dropped off at an accounting firm in Tokyo while visiting Japan on a tourist visa.

After graduating from college and getting a C.P.A. license in the U.S. in 1984, a time when the U.S. economy was contracting, he stopped over in Japan briefly before going back to India.

“I didn’t know anybody, so I went to the general reception at Chuo Coopers & Lybrand, and a couple of other big accounting firms,” he recalled during a recent interview at Shinsei’s head office, a glassy bit of modern architecture across the road from Hibiya Park in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward.

“And I just left my resume there with no hope that I would get a job. But fortunately enough, I got a call for an interview within a few hours of returning home.”

He has since moved from that job to Citibank and to Shinsei, moving up the ranks along the way. As a banker whose entire career has been based solely in Japan, Gupta says his ability to bridge the often huge culture gap between Western management and Japanese staff has contributed to his successful career.

“I work very well with Japanese as well as non-Japanese,” Gupta, 49, said. “I work very well with both my peers or subordinates, who are generally Japanese, and my superiors, who are generally non-Japanese.”

Gupta has acquired conversational Japanese with no formal Japanese language education and says Western managers sometimes tend to force their native business customs and ways of thinking on Japanese staff, a move that can cause friction.

“Japan is indeed different,” he says. “If (Western managers) try to impose the same practices and principles in Japan, this can lead to frustration.”

Gupta believes one will do well to put one’s self “in the shoes of the Japanese” and learn “how they work, how they think.”

Gupta finds the Japanese “very sincere and very hard-working people.” To understand and work well with Japanese, he believes communicating in the Japanese language is key — if you are coming in as a mid-level manager.

“If you come as a senior executive or a top executive, you don’t need to be bilingual,” he said. “But one level down — meaning people who are going to be interacting with Japanese colleagues — it is almost imperative to have bilingual people. It really changes everything.” If you know Japanese or if you are bilingual, then you are more receptive to the Japanese way of thinking. Then it works very well.”

Other than the language, patience is also a prerequisite for foreigners working in Japan, though that does not mean you must wait forever. “People generally say Japanese take forever to do things and you have to be patient,” he said. “Yes, to some extent. But once they understand what needs to be done, they are the fastest.”

Gupta, whose two children are trilingual — in Hindi, English and Japanese — and have studied in international schools in Japan, says his weekdays are pretty much dominated by work. “I come to the office around 7:30 in the morning every day and generally I leave around 7:30, 8ish, so basically weekdays are for the office,” he said.

He adds that he will then dedicate his weekends to the family, either going out to eat, having friends over, watching an Indian movie or watching a game of cricket. This is one practice he does not share with many of his Japanese male colleagues, he said, smiling.

“Japanese men of my age would generally go golfing at five in the morning and come back in the evening. The wives are happier that the husbands are out of the house,” he said. “It’s very unlike the typical Indian family.”