Chazen Japan: Cultural Misunderstandings

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It’s been a busy 48 hours since I last posted. We spent an exciting day visiting the Toyota factory and showroom, stayed an evening at a traditional Japanese Ryokan hotel, rode the high-speed bullet train to Tokyo, met with a member of the House of Representitives and SIPA grad Nubohide Minorikawa, attended an alumni reception hosted by the Columbia Business School Club of Japan including a presentation by the CEO of robotics company Cyberdyne, toured airline ANA’s maintenance floor, and visited e-commerce company Rakuten’s headquarters.

I’ve been thinking this week about how terms like the “developed world” and the “western world” are often used interchangeably, yet Japan truly disproves that “developed” and “western” are one in the same. Because of how developed the country is, it’s differences from the U.S. feel even more striking. During our conversation with Mr. Minorikawa, he shared what he believed to be the two most difficult things for Japanese people to understand about Americans: our lack of gun control and our limited social welfare programs. Bernie Sanders, he explained, is proposing “progressive” legislation that is considered an integral part of Japanese society. Roughly one third of Japan’s national budget is spent on social welfare, partially due to providing for its aging population.

On the other hand, Columbia Business School students have had some difficult realizations about Japanese culture. One key observation discussed throughout the week by the women on the trip was the lack of female business leaders in the companies that we’ve visited. When we asked about female participation in the workforce and female leadership we learned that its traditional for women in Japan to attend college, join a company, and find a spouse through work. Once the young couple marries and has children, the women’s career will end. While this isn’t completely unlike American culture, many companies and policy makers in the U.S. take active roles in reversing this trend. Japan, we’ve learned is just at the very beginning of these discussions. We heard discussion about a new government mandate that companies report the number of women employed in management roles, but this policy is just at its beginning stages.

Despite our shared status as “developed” countries, the U.S. and Japan, we’ve learned, have different ideas about societal progress.

-Zoe Fox ’17

Japan, Spring 2016

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