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Alive & Kicking – UK/Japan Cultural Differences

By PhilH

Read Time

By PhilH

Read Time

I ran two training sessions yesterday at the London Branch office of a major Japanese investment bank.

In the morning, I worked with a group of senior Japanese expatriates who have been seconded into the London Office – we were looking at the major differences in approach to business between Tokyo and London.  This session was designed to help these expatriates integrate more effectively into a UK business environment.

In the afternoon, I spent a few hours with a group of UK employees of the same Japanese investment bank.  The objective of second session was to help those UK employees better understand the internal workings of their Japanese parent company and therefore enable them to effectively influence at the head office level.

Both sessions contained a group discussion in which each group was asked to identify what they felt the major difficulties were when working with their colleagues from the different culture.  Thus, the British were asked to identify issues they encountered when working with the Japanese and the Japanese expatriates in turn were asked to explore the difficulties they had encountered when working in the London Office.

The output of these group discussions was fascinating.  It was almost as if I had influenced them in some way regarding the feedback they should give.  However, the feedback was completely spontaneous and merely highlighted the extreme cultural differences that can still be found within a single global organisation in 2018. Some people would like to contest that the cultural differences no longer exist, but I can assure you there are alive and kicking in 2018 even within highly sophisticated, globally experienced financial institutions.

I have put the feedback from each of the two groups into a table below.

Japanese problems with UK approach UK problems with Japanese approach
Extreme lack of attention to detail Obsessed with irrelevant detail
No preparation for meetings and therefore not possible to get to an answer Always come to meetings having already decided the answer
Make decisions too quickly based on insufficient information Very slow decision-making process caused through detail obsession
Make decisions very quickly but then change the decision just as quickly Once they have eventually made a decision they are nor prepared to change it
Prioritise private life over their working life and the company Obsessed by work to the detriment of their personal lives
Mean ‘no’ when they say ‘no’ Don’t mean ‘yes’ when they say ‘yes’
Speak too much in meetings – even when they have nothing of value to add Don’t speak up in meetings and express their opinions – why do they attend?

As you can see from this feedback, the challenges each group face is an exact mirror image of each other.  What one sees as a problem, the other group sees as a virtue.  There are no rights and wrongs in any of these issues merely deeply held convictions around how best to operate in the working environment in order to deliver the best results for the organisation.

I suppose the question that needs to be asked when confronted with such stark differences in viewpoints has got to be, ‘who should adapt to whom?’  This is a question that must be addressed by any international organization who wishes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their internal operations.  Unfortunately, the answer is not obvious or easy.

We spend a great deal of time working with our client base of major global organisations helping them to address these complex questions in a practical and effective manner.  If you would like to discuss how we can help your company you work smarter across the barriers of culture, language, geography and technology please contact me at

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uk japan cultural differences