April is the beginning of many things in Japan. It’s the start of the fiscal year for the government and most companies; a new semester for students from grade school to university; and the start of a working career for graduates. It’s also a good time of year in terms of weather (the cherry blossoms are great). People are excited about the start of spring and hopefulness abounds.
Anyone who spends some time in Japan and has experience interacting with people in this country will surely find that when Japanese introduce themselves, they tend to start with their affiliation to an organization such as their company or school, and then their name. In a majority of such occasions (except in casual settings or when specific instructions have been given to do otherwise), you find that a self-introduction in this order tends to be a quite boring list of facts. An interesting facet of April is that it marks a time when you may get a new identity that you use in introducing yourself.
I have thought about this rather unique order of self-introduction and began pondering whether the practice of stating one’s affiliation first serves as “protective gear.” It seems that if you work for a major established company with good brand name or you are a graduate of a good or well-known university, you are perceived to be smart and competent. The affiliation you describe first when you introduce yourself serves as a “certificate.”
There are some problems with this practice. In an interconnected world with increasingly blurred boundaries, and where the only constant is change, any protective gear has a short shelf life. Yet many people still live with the illusion that your label stays good for a long time.
It is well-known that some 30 percent of new college graduates leave their first company within three years. Besides, the company or the industry they join may not be around for long as various business sectors undergo disruptive changes. Even their university degree may not have permanent value.
We see new products and companies that did not exist just a decade ago, while others have disappeared from the scene. How would you describe an iPhone? It is many things — a phone, book, watch, music player, wallet. Does Toyota compete with Nissan and Volkswagen? Or with Google, Didi or Uber? Facebook — now under scrutiny — used to call itself a technology company and not a media company. We don’t know what products or companies will emerge in defiance of traditional categorization as technology advances at an ever accelerating pace.
We may see little change in company rankings in Japan; after all, the current list of top 20 Japanese firms is quite similar to what it was 20 years ago. But the list in the United States is filled with almost completely different names. Even the big established companies with a strong brand and long history are not going to be around forever.
The definition of industry is not fixed or permanent, much less the companies competing in the sector. Video rentals and fax machines are now rare species, and we can cite major companies such as Yamaichi Securities that have either disappeared or been acquired by others as illustrative that guarantees of long life for an industry or big companies is an “illusion.”
Lately, even national boundaries are debated as “not permanent” for tax purposes, as many IT companies such as Amazon and Google operate throughout the world and national tax authorities have a hard time identifying where revenue is generated for taxation.
Though a degree from a so-called good university has value that does not depreciate, will the fact that you graduated three decades ago when the world was quite different guarantee you with new skills and knowledge available today? Transformational change is taking place throughout the world, and yet many traditional disciplines and a distinction between the humanities and science still prevail in Japan’s education system. This outdated distinction not only hurts interdisciplinary initiatives involving data and technology, but also limits creative and innovative endeavors by making use of latest technologies supported with strong humanities, art or design underpinnings.
How do we describe those with a degree or certificate from an online educational program as compared with a degree received several decades ago? Those who completed the online programs may be equipped with much more up-to-date knowledge and skills than those who graduated from a good university three decades ago.
If you work on your own or freelance, independent of an organization or institution, on multiple projects, are you a “nobody” in many people’s eyes? In fact, I myself have been experimenting with this myself — introducing myself first as a “freelancer” and putting no affiliation on my name card.
It appears that affiliation or educational background gives many Japanese a label or an identity that they can refer to easily. What concerns me is that the feeling of safety and security associated with this label does not encourage many Japanese to design their own life and career or seek their own identity and purpose.
According to a multinational survey of millennials, the sense of affiliation to organizations among Japanese youths has fallen recently, while it has increased in other countries. While it is not clear whether the mentality of young Japanese is different from that of older generations, the identity of each individual in Japan is much more strongly tied to the institutions of which they are members than in other countries. The survey may indicate that unlike their parents’ or older generations, young people in Japan are struggling to explore their own identities in today’s changing world. It might also mean that many Japanese have not been trained or given the opportunity to design their identity on their own, much less to adapt and change their identity.
Coherence and continuity are good, rather than abrupt and impulsive short-term-focused decisions. But it’s not good when you lose your ability to recognize change and ignore your innate ability to create and change your own identity. Certain parts of your identity, such as philosophy and purpose, tend to remain solid, but not all. It is time for youths to depart from the illusion of “fixed and permanent” identity.
My advice to young Japanese is design your own label to reflect the world of today and tomorrow, away from your affiliations with organizations.
I would also advise those who interact with Japanese to beware that affiliations and headings function as protective armor for the older, more established groups. Do not attempt to penetrate it at your first meeting by asking what they are. Go slow and even show them how they can describe themselves apart from their titles.
Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.
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