Module 12.7

Ms. Elainius, Foreign Co. Executive

Ms. Elainius has just  taken up her new position as the Tokyo branch manager of International Brands Corp., a US company. Elainius is excited about her new position and wants to improve the performance of the Tokyo office. In particular she has several ideas for sales promotions. This is her first visit to Japan and she doesn’t speak Japanese. 

Ms. Elainius has a difficult entry situation. She is the branch manager of her US company, but she’s also a cultural child. Her position as company executive from the main office makes her a bone fide uchi member. Yet her staff will treat this cultural child as a “guest”, wrap her at the entry point, and resist her attempts to manage the office. This executive’s employees can’t easily “guide” their manager to cultural adulthood when it is the ‘senpai’ who is the “child”. Instead, they are likely to keep wrapping her throughout her term and continue to run the office themselves. 


Entry Point Challenges: Like Devita, Ms. Elainius faces a set of dilemmas at her entry point. How can she successfully manage the branch office—and get her staff to follow her directives—when she is a cultural child? She must “grow” to cultural adulthood if she is to successfully manage the office. But how can she learn from her subordinates when they cannot correct their superior? Even though she’s a bona fide uchi member, how can she avoid being treated like a perpetual guest in her own office? Consequently, Elainius faces the most daunting challenges of all the newcomers. She must work much harder to get through the hazards along the pathway, since dilemmas and Catch-22 situations abound.

Witherspoon: Points to take away—for all newcomers

Not everyone is going to make it all the way uchi, and Witherspoon provides an example of someone who makes a good accommodation to a “guest” status, and partial movement toward uchi. Witherspoon is constrained by his expertise/age, which give him high-status and ensure he is well-wrapped. The downside here is that this cultural child is too high-status to be given guidance in how to “grow up”. However, Witherspoon’s response to his situation is useful for all newcomers:

  1. Witherspoon’s easy-going attitude toward the lack of response of the office bureaucrat to his requests for changing things in his office is useful for any newcomer whose requests have been turned down. Witherspoon accommodates his hosts’ denials of his requests with good humor, and makes an adaptation (he brings his laptop to the office). He also accommodates his lectures to his students, and gives his caretaker assistant the advice he needs for publishing abroad.

  2. Witherspoon’s adaptations to his situation, and his flexibility in accommodating himself to the needs to those around him, make him a “good guest”, who is liked and respected by his colleagues. He makes few demands on his hosts, and carries out his duties in ways that satisfy everyone around him. The result is that even though this professor speaks little Japanese, he is able to make relationships with his colleagues, caretaker and some of his students (some of whom guide him to various events in Tokyo).

  3. Witherspoon’s case shows that you don’t have to get fully “inside” Japanese culture—and reach uchi—to have quite a satisfactory experience in Japan. As the professor’s pathway shows, for some newcomers, the hazards along the path to uchi are insurmountable—yet they can still manage to thrive in their new homes, if they are sensitive in grasping the “unspoken” communications around them.Elanius: Points to take away—for all newcomers

    Elainius’ pathway has none of the pleasant qualities of Witherspoon’s experience as a “good guest”. This is undoubtedly because of the contradictions inherent in her situation: she is the boss; but also a cultural child. She needs an expert to guide her, like Matt, Abby, Carlos and Devita, yet she is the expert in her office. She is also a bone fide uchi member; yet because she lacks the skills to function socially (as a cultural child), her office staff “wraps her” and runs the office themselves. Elainius’ path is the most difficult of all the foreigners because her status as an office manager, and expert, conflicts with her lack of social abilities as a cultural child. For this reason it is especially important for a newcomer in a management position to have good language skills, along with a grasp of organizational basics in Japan, such as the pathway to adulthood outlined above. But these are valuable skills for any newcomer to possess. Other things newcomers can learn from Elanius’ situation include the following:

    1. You can ignore the hints of your staff in your Japanese environment only at your own peril. They usually have precisely the knowledge you need, and although they can’t correct or guide you directly, if you “follow their lead”, they can communicate what you need to know. But you need to be flexible enough to be receptive to what they are “telling” you, rather than being too fixated on your own goals.
    2. Japanese language skills are a huge benefit for any newcomer, but especially those in expert or management positions. It is especially important for these newcomers that language skills be oriented toward functioning appropriately in situational contexts. But this is important for any newcomer.
    3. While older newcomers can and do have successful “growing” experiences in Japan, younger newcomers have the best opportunities to “grow up” from cultural childhood because, as social underlings, they can be mentored much more easily by senpai, homestay hosts, and other “elders”. Older newcomers will tend to be wrapped; and thus have more difficulty in reaching ’uchi’ / cultural adulthood. 
    4. Success stories of foreign managers in Japan do exist. One is that of Lou Weston, important in establishing Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan (See Kentucky Fried Chicken (Japan) LTD. (Field Case study by Christopher Bartlett, U. Stinivasa Rangan).

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Module 12.7
Elainius, Foreign Co. Executive
Ms. Elainius, Complete Summary

1. Entry Point: When she arrives Elainius is most concerned about increasing sales in the branch office, while her staff is concerned about setting up relationships they see as crucial to her job. Thus a wide gap exists between her perspectives and those of her staff (which resemble those in Modules 2.1, 2.2). But if Elainius can take the cues her staff is giving her when she first arrives, and be open to the fact that she is supposed to gain something from the dinners they set up, she will find herself beginning to deal with this gap, and taking the first step along the path to cultural adulthood.

2. Being Helpful: Being helpful by offering to do something useful is the first step for most newcomers in adapting to their new environment. Abby participates in her school’s sports day, Molly serves dinner to otoosan when okaasan is at work, and Devita tries to help her mother-in-law by doing the laundry. But all these newcomers are in subordinate positions, and as “the boss” Elainius can’t really “help out” in this sense without inverting the office hierarchy. What she can do, however, is to be as accommodating as she can to any suggestions (or hints) that her staff gives her when she first arrives. Witherspoon’s flexibility when his initial demands aren’t met would be a good response for Elainius as well. She has to be open to bridging the initial gap (and learning to do things differently)—even if she is the boss. 

3. Dealing with the Expert: While Elainius is known as a sales expert in her company, ironically, she won’t be able to utilize her professional expertise until she achieves cultural adulthood. Her staff has the expertise that will allow her to reach adulthood, but like Witherspoon, she has no opportunity to be an apprentice to an expert (like Matt, Devita, Molly, Carlos, or Abby). Like the professor, she is the expert. But Witherspoon is a visiting professor; not an uchi member. He can enjoy being wrapped as a guest without contradiction—especially if he is a compliant guest. Elainius, on the other hand, is a bone fide uchi member, who, like Devita, shouldn’t be treated as a guest. But she also resembles Devita, from her mother-in-law’s perspective, since her staff also thinks she “doesn’t seem to know how to do things around here”. Elainius’ young staff members won’t be able to guide her so that she can know “how to do things”, unless she is very sensitive to their cues, which will be largely unspoken.

4. Uchi hazards: Witherspoon is able to stop moving toward uchi, and still enjoy being a “wrapped” guest. However, Elainius’ wrapping is distinctly unenjoyable. Like Devita’s mother-in-law, Elainius’ staff is wrapping her because they don’t know what else to do with her. Their wrapping, in effect, prevents her from assuming her position in uchi as the boss, and thus inverts the lines of authority in the office, since it keeps her from interfering as the staff continues to run the office themselves.

5. Honne messages: By now you should be able to envision the dynamics in Elainius’ office. While the boss is carefully wrapped in tatemae, the underlings manage everything according to their own scenarios. Missing in this situation is any honne message that would tell Elainius how she’s really doing—or, what’s really going on in her office. The “gap” between boss and staff provides the basis for comedy and satire in the well-known book series, “Max Danger: The Adventures of an Expat in Tokyo” (Robert J. Collins date).

End of Elainius’ pathway: Elainius’ pathway ends right where it begins when she misses the cues of her staff and finds the dinners they set up a bore. She will be unable to proceed from there because she can’t begin to deal with any of her entry point challenges. In fact, she is likely to remain a figurehead, stuck at the entry point, and feeling like she doesn’t really know what’s going on in the branch office she’s supposed to be running (as illustrated in the Max Danger series). In fact, each of the steps along the pathway represent contradictions for Elainius. She cannot be a “good guest” (or subordinate) because she’s the boss; for the same reason she can’t begin to “help out”. She can’t follow the expert because she is the expert. But if she can’t follow, it will be difficult for her to navigate the uchi hazards, unless she is very sensitive to what her staff is communicating through things such as the dinners. By the same token she will get few honne messages giving her clues to how well (or badly) she’s doing. She will largely be out of range because she’s carefully wrapped by her staff, to keep her from interfering in their running of the office.

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