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I lived in Japan for 20 years and learned 4 powerful lessons from watching businesses there explode


By Adrian Shepherd , Business Insider

  • Adrian Shepherd is a British productivity consultant who's lived and worked in Japan for the past 24 years.
  • Over that time he's had a front row seat to how business is conducted there and has learned four powerful business lessons that can help anyone.
  • For instance, attention to detail is crucial - and rules are non-negotiable.

Japan is a unique country steeped in history, but once you step off the plane you realize Japan is so much more than temples and sushi. Japan is very much a country where the past meets the future. High tech gadgets sit inside buildings that have been around for hundreds of years. For outsiders, it's both mysterious and confusing at the same time. I've lived in Osaka for over 20 years now and had a front row seat to how business is conducted here. Here are four powerful business lessons I've learned.


Cuteness works

While Japan was once known as the technology hub of the world. Today, Japan is probably better known for its influence on pop culture, namely Anime. Characters like Pikachu, Hello Kitty and Totoro have become larger than life and corporations have been licensing them for years.

In November 2018, Mr. Donuts got into the act with their limited-release Pokemon donuts and promptly sold out daily to raving fans. Cities such as Kumamoto in Kyushuu began tapping into this trend back in 2010 when the black bear mascot Kumamon was created and proceeded to do an astounding ¥100 billion (more than $900 million) in sales by 2015.

I admit I used to think it was somewhat silly having cute mascots representing companies but I failed to see the incredible genius behind them. They sell because:

  • They're memorable.
  • We're all kids at heart.
  • They appeal to all ages.

I once had an artist on the payroll, so when a client from Europe asked me if I knew of anyone who could create a logo for a new branch of his company, I said I'd have my artist whip something up for him. I remember thinking it looked pretty good, but when I sent it over to him, his comment was one not uncommon among Westerners "It's too childish." But as the saying goes, "The proof is in the pudding," and it's obvious from the success of many anime characters, cuteness sells.


Quantity over quality

Even today, many executives value time overachievement. This is a holdover from post-war Japan when it grew from a country devastated by war to an economic powerhouse. People worked crazy hours. Fathers rarely saw their children during the week, to give their children a better life than they had.

Today's generation is different. They want a better connection with their children and therefore value their private time more. Unfortunately, some companies didn't get the memo. A few have even been labeled "black companies" by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare referring to those companies that force employees to work large amounts of overtime without pay.

I once had a client who got fired for leaving work on time. Her work was exemplary, but they claimed that she was setting a bad example for newcomers and let her go. In their mind, quantity over quality mattered, and in turn, paid the consequences. No one on staff was capable of doing her work, and as a result, everyone had to work much later to compensate for the loss of my client. As John Steinbeck wrote in his 'Of Mice and Men,' "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry."


Attention to detail

This exists everywhere you go in Japan. But sushi exemplifies it best. Looking at sushi, one might think it's possibly the easiest thing in the world to prepare - raw fish on rice. I remember almost falling off my chair when I learned it can take upward of 10 years to become a head sushi chef.

I recently had the opportunity to visit such an establishment and was reminded of the incredible attention to detail each "kan," or piece is given. The course included a variety of flavors and textures meant to enhance the experience and while 10 pieces might seem relatively small, I left with a sense of Goldilocks, "Not too much, not too little. Just right."


Rules are rules

If you've lived in Japan for any length of time, you're bound to run into this issue. Often. Put simply, rules are rules. No negotiation, no discussion. It is what is it. It can be quite frustrating at times for outsiders, especially those born in the West where we're taught that nearly everything is negotiable.

I can speak Japanese reasonably well but have found that there are times when using English can be advantageous. It's possible you'll be able to bypass gatekeepers and talk directly to upper management which often has the power to make things happen. It doesn't always work, but when nothing else does, it's worth a shot.



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Home Magazine: I lived in Japan for 20 years and learned 4 powerful lessons from watching businesses there explode
I lived in Japan for 20 years and learned 4 powerful lessons from watching businesses there explode
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