Magazine article Management Review

The Tale of a Cultural Translator

Magazine article Management Review

The Tale of a Cultural Translator

Article excerpt

Joint ventures in Japan between Western and Japanese companies usually run into a series of small conflicts that escalate over the years. They easily become big emotional battles, mainly due to cultural differences. Both parties exclaim: "Here they go again. Can't they understand that..."

A company I worked for as director of international operations avoided this entire problem thanks to an employee, George Schreiber. I will describe him, because he became what I call a "cultural translator" between the American headquarters and its Japanese joint venture.

Schreiber was an installation engineer, in charge of starting up our equipment. The company needed to send a person to train the new Japanese employees in the unique technology. Schreiber accepted a two-year contract for temporary transfer to Japan. He was first sent to an intensive course in Japanese.

Schreiber did not belong to the management group in the American company but had a solid understanding of the technical products, their installation and use. So he was highly qualified for training the Japanese engineers.

Schreiber became well-accepted by all of the Japanese employees. The Japanese managers felt that the nonassertive Schreiber was no threat to their management careers, despite representing the U.S. owner. So they did not hesitate to ask his advice on a great many matters, some outside his expertise but within his good common sense. The engineers throughout the company appreciated Schreiber's frequent help with a multitude of problems they ran into in the beginning. It became their habit to ask him when they had a problem, any problem. The secretaries in the office were eager to help this nice gaijin bachelor with his wretched Japanese.

Before expected, the joint venture was profitable, thriving and growing. Schreiber's first two-year contract came to an end. By then, he had learned Japanese habits. His spoken Japanese became good. He drank green tea at all hours, ate rice at all meals and liked to sleep on Japanese tatami mats instead of a bed. He had become "tatamized."

Schreiber was offered a second two-year Japanese contract, which he accepted at once. Other contracts followed. The joint venture soon had more than 100 Japanese employees, and the Japanese engineers soon surpassed Schreiber in the intricacies of the new equipment, which changed rapidly, so he had nothing left to teach them in technical matters. …

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