A look at Japan: Social networking for business not so important?

I love LinkedIn.

In the US, lots of people do. This is a recognition that our relationships with people are important, and something worth keeping track of as we move through our careers. In Japan, it can be argued that relationships are even more critical to success than in the US, but few people use sites like LinkedIn, and few are interested to do so when invited by American coworkers.

So why aren’t sites like LinkedIn very popular with Japanese workers?

In America, a typical career will span several companies. People will tend to stay at one job for 3-5 years and then jump to another company. I believe that it is people’s recognition of this lack of stability that makes networking a’la LinkedIn attractive. For the Japanese, however, their careers are founded on the principle oflifetime employment, so they are not as concerned with connecting to outsiders. The most critical relationships for most Japanese careers are those within their companies, and an outside web site like LinkedIn just would not be appropriate. Using a site like LinkedIn would be similar to outsourcing tying your tie or washing your face in the morning. Why would you use an impersonal service like a website to manage critical and important tasks? If Japanese workers have moved from group-to-group within their company, they are already likely to have kept in touch with their contacts by default– and will not need help in doing so as Americans may.

So how do Japanese maintain their personal social networks?

I suppose the Japanese version of extended network maintenance comes in large part in the form of New Years Cards, 年賀状 [pr. /nen-ga-jyou/] and gift giving. My wife’s father, Kaname-san, is a career manager from Mitsubishi Corp. (now retired). even though he is no longer working, come November, he gets himself busy writing about 500 individual letters to former coworkers, managers, and business contacts. Most of these people were coworkers from within Mitsubishi itself, but others are from professional organizations, or former schoolmates. This is an extremely time-consuming activity, occupying weeks of daily writing sessions. Americans do not typically spend this much time keeping in touch. The amount of time spent on each card depends on how close the relationship was, with some being printed out by computer and simply signed by hand, and others being written and rewritten until they are perfectly penned and beautiful to behold. Penmanship (or brush-manship) is highly regarded in Japan, and nengajyoucards are the socially preferred way to show off how much of a scholar or an artist you are.

In Japan, the closest non-family relationships are maintained by gift giving. Particularly when maintaining a relationship with someone of a ‘higher rank’ than you (such as a teacher, a former manager, or a doctor), winter and/or summer seasonal gifts are often given. In my case, I send a basket of fresh American cherries every summer to my shakuhachi (flute) teacher in KurumeCity, Japan. Since I live in the US, this can be an expensive gesture, but it is a great way to show my respect and keep a balance between the kindness he has shown me, and my signals of appreciation in return. This balancing act is called on / giri. ( ‘on’ means indebtedness, receiving a favor. ‘giri’ means doing the right thing for the sake of your honor).

Gift giving manifests itself in the everyday work environment through omiyage. ( お土産 [pr. /oo-mi-ya-ge/]). Omiyage are best described as ‘gifts from travel.’ Every time someone in my office makes a trip to Japan, they bring back a box of elegant snacks (typically traditional Japanese style) like rice crackers or sweets. The gift box usually costs around $20-$30 and is nicely wrapped in paper. At our team meeting, the gift is presented and passed around with everyone taking one or two pieces. When choosing an omiyage gift, people look for something nice (but not too nice) and something that cannot be easily obtained back home. To fail in these points would be mildly disrespectful. Gift giving in the everyday work environment must be done at the group level, since giving a gift to an individual would create an unbalanced feeling and possibly lead to a conflict of interest.

Despite the fact that most Japanese do not use networking sites like LinkedIn, some do. The pattern that I have seen is that these sites are most often used by Japanese who have bucked the trend of lifetime employment in a single company, and have changed organizations in mid-career, or may be planning to do so.

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Kevin Ready

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