Corporate Japan Drops Formality

Just picked this up from the NY Times: Japanese Workers Get Word From on High: Drop Formality.

… The 1,366 workers at Elpida’s factory here were told to stop addressing each other by their titles and simply to add the suffix -san to their names.

Yukio Sakamoto, the president and chief executive in Tokyo, believes that using titles like “department chief” impedes decision-making and innovation.

“To call someone `president’ is to deify him,” said Mr. Sakamoto, who was influenced by the 28 years he worked at Texas Instruments. “It’s part of Japan’s hierarchical society. Now that has no meaning. If you have ability, you can rise to the top and show your ability.”

Many Japanese companies, traditionally divided rigidly by age and seniority, have dropped the use of titles to create a more open — and, they hope, competitive — culture.

The long economic slump has forced companies to abandon seniority in favor of performance, upsetting the traditional order. This has led to confusion in the use of titles as well as honorific language, experts say.

The shift also mirrors profound changes in Japanese society, experts say. Equality-minded parents no longer emphasize honorific language to their children, and most schools no longer expect children to use honorific language to their teachers. As a result, young Japanese have a poor command of honorific language and do not feel compelled to use it.

It is so interesting to see the way language shapes culture and culture shapes language. Fifteen years ago I lived in Japan, studying Aikido, a Japanese martial art, with the Kyoto University Aikido team. It was a shock to go from American values of egalitarianism to Japan where every conversation was predicated on status of the speakers. I went from a “All men are created equal” to a “All are unequal and you must know your place to survive” mentality. We gaijin (foreigners) called it the “sempai-kohai” relationship. You were either superior or “sempai” by age or rank, or subordinate “kohai” to almost everyone with whom you interacted. Getting the proper word tense wrong could be a terrible faux paux and create aghast indignation. Thus many Japanese would suffer constant social anxiety, always wanting to speak with the appropriate level of humility, but not necessarily knowing what that would be.

Language in a way can keep people in a mental prison. It will be interesting to see the shifts in Japanese culture as these age old structures slowly fade away.