Why Asian Studies Is Important to the Contemporary Business College Curriculum: Lessons from Entering the Japanese Market

Article excerpt


For several decades a common agenda for Business Colleges has been to internationalize their curriculum. In fact, as far back as the 1950's there have been calls to develop cross-cultural competencies in the U.S. business educational system (Albers-Millers et al. 56). The Department of Education, along with the major accrediting organization (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) and the business community have all actively encouraged international education and research. It is now broadly accepted that colleges need to both facilitate the development of general business skills and knowledge as well as the critical competencies necessary to work in a culture other than one's own. Institutions have typically used one or more approaches to institutionalize the curriculum; discrete international business programs, stand alone international course/s, infusion of international business material across the curriculum (Cant 31). Despite such initiatives being in place for years, many commentators still conclude that business students oft en have a very limited appreciation of other society's values, norms, assumptions and beliefs.

To examine the impact that understanding culture has on business success, this paper focuses on the challenges U.S. firms confront entering the Japanese market. In particular the paper reflects on the experience of a high technology firm that entered the Japanese market in the early 1980's. Beginning with a simple import/ export agreement with a Japanese trading company, the firm's involvement in the Japanese market evolved through several phases until the company ultimately acquired their own wholly-owned Japanese subsidiary. The general conclusion from this case is that for a U.S. firm to be successful in the highly nuanced market of Japan requires a profound understanding of Japanese culture. Incorporating aspects of the "Asian Studies" curriculum into the business programs could provide critical insights for tomorrows business leaders.

While there is conjecture about when China will eclipse Japan as the world's second largest economy, there is no doubt about the continuing financial power and importance of the Japanese economy. Japan is a major trading partner of the U.S. and while many goods and services are exchanged between these two giant economies, many U.S. firms have struggled to establish a lasting presence in Japan. Recent history is littered with examples of failed attempts by U.S. and other international corporations to succeed in the highly demanding Japanese market. Firms ranging from Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, eBay, to L.L. Bean have had complete failures, while others such as Carrefour and Wal-Mart continue to record massive financial losses from their Japanese subsidiaries (Phatak et al. 261).

There have of course been a number of success stories; most notably Starbucks, Disney and 7-Eleven. Evidence however, suggests that failures far outweigh successes. The reason for failure can be attributed to several key factors such as; too much focus on short term economic goals, lack of demand for U.S. produced goods due to perceived quality problems, Japanese government protection of domestic businesses, choosing the wrong business partner, very strong local companies, rigidity and restrictions of the distribution and supply-chain network, Japanese practice of valuing personal relations over economic efficiency, and major differences between U.S. and Japanese leadership and management approaches and practices (Fascol 1999; Yoshimura et al. 1997; Ouchi 1981).

Given that culture, both national and organizational, plays a central role in this case study, it is important to define the concept. The literature provides a rich array of definitions including: the collective programming of the mind (Hofstede 25), way of life handed down from one generation to the next (Barnouw 4), shared meaning (Geertz 8), shared view (Varner and Beamer 7), and system of knowledge (Keesing 75). …