Weighing Japanese, Foreign Firms on the Job-
Advantage Scale

by Janelle Biddinger

If the God of Good Jobs were to place a Japanese company in one hand and a foreign-based multinational in another to weigh their advantages to a prospective Japanese employee, the scales might tip a bit in favor of the multinational.

In that hand would be a better salary, more decision-making power at a younger age, and as contradictory as it seems, a better chance of remaining in Japan, rather than being sent, family in tow, to a distant branch.

That is according to Thomas J. Nevins, author of the how-to-book Labor Pains and the Gaijin Boss and founding director of the labor-consulting firm of TMT in Tokyo.

For more than a decade, Nevins has specialized in coaxing capable, talented executives from Japanese firms to the increasing number of multinationals expanding to Japan. TMT searches for executives to custom-fit the needs of its clients, the list of which reads like a Who’s Who of the English yellow pages. A headhunter is not an everyday employment agency. It targets individuals it wants to recruit, in the best “Don’t-call-us, – we’ll-call-you” fashion.

The task of Nevins’ staff of recruiters is to crack a system that often promises lifelong job security in exchange for employee loyalty. The system is most entrenched in the large, powerful Japanese corporations that can provide the on-the-job training and professional confidence sought by TMT’s foreign clients.

However, says Nevins, the arguments are often heavily in favor of the multinational.

Nevins says Japanese who switch to multinationals will collect larger salaries and have jobs of greater authority. That, especially, is a powerful lure to an ambitious young executive. “They may perceive that they can consistently do international business, that they can be more involved with foreigners, and be more involved with the head office,” he said.

“You can still have a very excellent man who maybe will not be able to make the board of directors in his firm, but still has more than enough horsepower to make a big contribution in another company.”

Multinationals also hold advantages for the executive who wants to stay settled in Japan, who perhaps is in a job that will require him to take overseas assignments.

“Japanese companies have to send a lot of people overseas to control their operations,” he said. “But if you’re hired by a multinational, often the primary reason is to work in Japan.

“For many people, at about age 35, they’ve seen the world and they want to raise their kids in peace, send them up through the school system. So a multinational can be attractive because it’s possible for them to become a key man and never have had to work for a long period of time at the head office.

“Whereas, if they continue on an international course in a Japanese company – which is the only one that will keep them on the right scale and getting the right pay increases – then they’ll have to work abroad and keep upsetting their lives.”


The headline – screaming internationalization that has drawn so many multinational organizations to Japan has also shaken some of the bulwarks of Japanese business. As a result, Nevins advises executives, they may face unknowns even in what they assume is a stable profession.

“Change is coming so fast that the security of just one big company is not the answer,” he said. “If you had joined Shin Nihon Seitetsu (Nippon Steel Corp.) or any of the shipping companies, you probably thought you were fine.” He pauses. “Even JNR… Everything changes.”

Nevins speculates that younger executives may be more adaptable to the culture shock that can accompany a switch to a foreign multinational. But, “you can’t run a company and stock it with young people; you have to take mid-career people.”

It’s general headhunter philosophy, he said, that an executive who has spent two decades or so in a Japanese company, upon a jump to a multinational, “may make some mistakes. He may be too inflexible and alienate some people. But he learns from that and maybe in his next job he’ll be more successful.”

Indeed, executives eyeing such profession changes must be flexible, simply because the multinationals themselves are more flexible. Such foreign companies have much greater elasticity in choosing its employees: “It’s probably a strength of a foreign company that it is willing to give some different types of people a chance they wouldn’t have gotten in a Japanese company.”


It makes it more difficult for a traditional executive, the so-called selected executive who went to the right schools, and then he goes to a foreign company and he’s got to work with either a boss or someone at the same level who is maybe only a high school graduate.”

So, said Nevins, chalk up one for flexibility — and also the ability to place one’s self in perspective.

“An executive can’t wear his pride on his sleeve,” he said. “If you were from a very big company and were bucho (chief of a department) and now you’re working in a small multinational, it doesn’t do you any good to remind anybody around you of that.”

Also, “a certain level of tolerance is important and a certain amount of salesmanship is going to be important to succeed in a foreign company. But just all talk, employers can see through that.”


When it comes to talking, a Japanese can skid by without English skills, but having the language “increases your chance of getting to the top,” he said. “If you really want to get on the board, even if there are no foreigners there, you have to deal with the head office.”

Nevins recommends that multinationals maintain a staff that is a mixture of foreigners and Japanese. He’s found that working with foreigners can even be a draw to a bright, curious Japanese executive.

“I believe a balance is important,” he said. “The presence of some foreigners gives a certain flavor to the firm. So it can give a multinational a competitive advantage over a Japanese company that has no foreigners working there.”

Some Japanese managers, he said, want to see for themselves how “foreign managers think and work.”

However, if there’s a negative side to that, it’s the lack of discipline that can sometimes accompany a mixed staff.

A foreign firm “is not such a strict disciplined environment. That has an attractive aspect to certain Japanese for sure, but it can result in mediocrity and a non-adherence to standards,” he said. “There may not be anybody making them meet certain standards.”

Nevins believes if an individual is “good where he’s at and has a good track record and has been able to do business, that person will make out fine.”

More Opportunities for Women

Foreign-based multinationals looking to hire Japanese executives often consider women a “better buy,” says a Tokyo-based labor consultant.

“You hear it often – pound for pound, multinationals can attract the best women in Japan, whereas they cannot necessarily attract the best men,” said Thomas J. Nevins, managing director of TMT, an executive search firm.

Because the Japanese employment sphere is male-dominated, “ambitious women who have a lot of skills can’t get too far. There’s a lot going against them,” he said.

“So they will often make a break and go to a multinational.”

Although Nevins believes the exclusion of women “will be quite a loss to Japanese companies,” he said it is often a conscious decision by some Japanese firms.

“There’s already enough competition to get the limited number of management positions. As the economic growth slows down, organization charts don’t expand. And if they really open all that up to women, it’s just that much more demotivation on the men who are competing for the same jobs.”