What Confucius can teach us

I recently read Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us about Living in the West by T.R. Reid, correspondent for The Washington Post and NPR, along with other credentials. I am fascinated by his portrait of East Asian countries, especially Japan, where he resided for years.

While the volume was published in 1999 and may be a bit dated, I expect that it is still relevant in revealing key differences between American and Asian culture, given that he describes fundamental differences as to what makes the two societies tick.

Reid’s premise is that Confucian thought shapes all institutions in the region, as opposed to the West, where the most important ethical and moral force is the Bible. The book illustrates how Confucian thought translates into daily practices and how individuals interact.

I am especially intrigued by his message because when I worked at a major American insurance company in the 1980s and early ‘90s, a top executive campaigned for us to adopt a more Japanese culture and demonstrate more intense, Japanese-style corporate loyalty to our firm.

He made it all sound good, but as I suspected at the time, there’s more to the story.

The Japanese do demonstrate strong devotion to their employer, but in turn, the company returns the favor with intense loyalty towards workers.

Here are some initial observations from the book that begin to describe the differences between the Japanese and American cultures. I summarize them here as food for thought:

  1. April 1 is the date each year on which new high school and college graduates start employment at their companies. This is one of the most important days in their lives. Each company holds an entering-the-company ceremony at which new hires are welcomed into the corporate culture, learning such details on how and when to bow and how to sing the company song.
  2. Traditionally, Japanese companies have no employee layoffs, regardless of financial setbacks. This benefits the harmony both within the company and throughout society. Companies have a number of practices to prevent layoffs and fill worker days when there’s not enough work to be done, including employee training, maintenance duties and other tasks, and even prescribed idleness. These assignments are administered in such a way as to maintain workers’ self-esteem.
  3. Unemployment compensation benefits are paid by the government but administered through companies. So the workers remain at work and avoid the pain of layoff.
  4. As of the book’s publication, companies minimize disparities between executive and worker pay within the company and throughout society as a whole, in contrast to the U.S. The gap between the two pay levels was shrinking in Japan, not growing.
  5. Confucius taught that the higher the rank of the person, the more important it is for others to challenge him. (In practice, some Asian countries honor this teaching more than others.)
  6. Japanese society recognizes merit, awarding opportunities for leadership in government and business based on academic achievement. In government work, this translates into strenuous civil service exams that open access to better jobs for all youth, regardless of their families’ wealth and social standing. (And by the way, the Japanese emphasize effort over aptitude in encouraging their children to excel in school.)
  7. Japanese education and work are based on group work rather than motivating the individual to stand out. This could be stated as, “the tallest poppy is cut down.” In implementation, public schools favor large class size because this improves access to the group processes that prepare students to succeed in life.

My knowledge in this area is, obviously, limited. But I find the concepts so intriguing that I wanted to share them . . . and recommend Reid’s book.

Are you interested in cultural differences such as these? Have you experienced these issues in your own life or workplace? Do you have other books, websites or whatever to recommend?

I invite your comments.

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