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A leader is anyone leading a team or group towards a common goal. There have been many leaders in Japan over the course of its history, not just in politics, but in economics and in society. Here are some key business leaders both historical and present-day we think you should know.
Who are some of the leaders that come to mind when you hear the word? A leader can start with a group as small as two or three, and go up to leading a company or country. They’re responsible for leading people towards a common goal, making decisions, and representing the group in its successes and failures. The leader has to ensure that the team is working together in the right direction.
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What kind of characteristics do you think of when it comes to leaders? We can all think of good and bad leaders, and the qualities that made them that way.
What makes a good leader in Japan? And is it different from the rest of the world?
The top qualities people often look for or see in leaders, presidents of companies, etc. in Japan, based on our observations, include serious, hardworking, a team-player, and experience. While these may not be surprising qualities for a leader, people may be surprised to find that these are considered more important than other “typical” qualities for a leader such as being a good speaker, having charisma and passion, etc. Please note, of course, that there are always exceptions.
Serious and hardworking go hand in hand. In Japanese, it can be summed up as the word “majime” which encompasses both seriousness and hardworkingness. This is often synonymous with reliable, as we can trust the person to understand the hard work that goes into accomplishing the tasks needed to be done. This may be why calm, stoic leaders are seen more than charismatic, passionate leaders - unless the charisma and passion can be backed with a show of hard effort, it is often seen as empty words.
Being a team-player is also essential to Japanese leadership. Rather than a leader spearheading a project and charging forward, leaders in Japan tend to consult with their trusted teams and make decisions together rather than on their own. This can be seen through the many meetings that occur in Japanese offices. Also, anyone who “stands out too much” is not seen as a good thing in Japan, so the leader must be able to balance being the “head” and “face” of a group with working together with everyone below them. In Japan, a leader, such as a manager of a team, up to the CEO, must be informed at all times of what each sub-division under them is doing and thus work in their best interests.
Lastly, experience. And experience is not limited to experience with the particular subject matter the team is dealing with. Japan is a very hierarchical society, with age and experience being quite key in determining rank. Although this is changing as it’s becoming more common to change jobs and lifetime employment is not as expected anymore, there is still a tendency to see years in the company (experience) as the criteria for promotions.
Again, these are just some of the qualities that Japanese people value in leaders. Of course there are leaders who go against the norm and manage to be an “unconventional” leader, and perhaps we will see more of them in the future.
Here are just 3 influential business leaders in Japan’s history.
Shibusawa Eiichi is known as the "father of Japanese capitalism". He had a huge range of influential positions in his life, including Minister of Finance for the Meiji government. According to the Shibusawa Eiichi Memorial foundation, he “founded and fostered approximately 500 corporations” as well as “a central figure in private-sector level diplomacy”. He was key in bringing capitalism from the West to Japan. The NHK Taiga drama for 2021, “Seiten wo Tsuke” is about his life. He will also be on the 10,000 yen note when the bills are redesigned in 2024.
※Shibusawa Eiichi Memorial Foundation, “Brief Biography of Shibusawa Eiichi”
Kiichiro Toyoda (1894-1952) was the man responsible for changing his father’s loom manufacturing company into automobile manufacturing in 1933. One can guess which company he ended up creating, right? Yes, it’s Toyota Motor Corporation. But not only was he noted for creating the company, but with his "just-in-time" concept, he also helped contribute to one of the quintessential Japanese business philosophies, the “Toyota Production System”.
※Toyota Motor Corporation, “Toyota Motor Corporation Founder Kiichiro Toyoda Inducted into Automotive Hall of Fame”
Ibuka Masaru (1908-1997) is one of the co-founders of what became Sony Corporation. The original company, Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo, changed its name officially to Sony in 1958. His amazing innovations led to some of the advancements in technology in our world, including the Trinitron color television system. He was not only the leader in the industry but also a key figure in revamping Japan’s post-war economy.
※Sony Corporation, “Masaru Ibuka”
And of course, there are impressive business leaders still expanding the limits of the Japanese economy and industries. Here are just 3 of them!
Yanai Tadashi (1949- ) is the founder and current Chairman, President and CEO of Fast Retailing Co., Ltd, founding the company in 1972. The name is most recognized as the parent company of Uniqlo, a global clothing retailer that began in Japan. He is recognized as the richest man in Japan, with a net worth of 43.8 billion dollars at the time of publication.
※Forbes, “#1 Tadashi Yanai & family”
Son Masayoshi (1957- ) is the CEO and founder of SoftBank Group Corporation, which he founded in 1981. Softbank is best known for their mobile service in Japan and their ventures in technology, including the creation of Pepper, the robot in the photo above. Son is also the owner of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks professional baseball team, who won the Japan Series for the 4th year in a row in 2020. According to Forbes, he is the 2nd richest man in Japan in 2020 with a net worth of 42.6 billion dollars at the time of publication.
※Forbes, “#2 Masayoshi Son”
Maezawa Yusaku (1975- ) is a businessman known perhaps best for founding Zozotown, a vastly successful online retailer. He founded the company in 2004, and stepped down as CEO in 2019. Maezawa is set apart from the other people on this list for his extravagant lifestyle and eccentric life choices, including offering his Twitter followers 1 million yen chosen at random, not once, but twice! Because of his offer, he holds the position of top 2 most retweeted tweets in the history of Twitter. He is scheduled to be the first private customer to the moon of Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
※Forbes, “#23 Yusaku Maezawa”
Japan is full of great leaders like we mentioned in our article and there are many others. While the characteristics for Japanese leaders are among those we mentioned, there are also many industries in Japan that have started to grow, and with the rise of start-ups and a new digital age, there will most likely be a rise in leaders who have fresh perspectives and new leadership qualities as well. The future of Japan’s global economy will be one to watch.
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