Hierarchy in Japanese Society: Its Corrosive Effect and The Often Childish and Petulant Behaviour of Japanese Management 日本社会における階層構造:その腐食作用日本人経営者は、しばしばひどく振舞われた子供のように

Japanese society is very hierarchical. People in authority do not expect anyone to offer advice or challenge their decisions. Japanese people, on the whole, do not complain. This has led to a number of scandals.


My dealings with the management of one company over six years have given me personal experience of, and insight into, this dysfunctional management style. Put simply, I would describe the management of many Japanese companies as being unsophisticated. Because Japanese people tend not to complain, people in authority believe they can act with impunity, even if they are inefficient. The Japanese economy has been underperforming for several decades because of this inefficiency. The lack of accountability and lack of worldliness (in part due to the lack of English language skills) result in managements who often have a fear of losing control, fear of the unknown, a lack of initiative and a lack of imagination, which prevents them from adopting a progressive and successful management style.

Xenophobia linked to the lack of English language skills both also play their part.

One major disadvantage of the way hierarchy works in Japan is the lack of trust in the government. This has very serious consequences for Japan’s response to the pandemic as only 30% of the public will normally take a vaccine. This is the lowest uptake of vaccines in the world, and is down to the peoples’ lack of trust in the government.

Japan is also a country with a surprising belief in conspiracy theories. Many Japanese believe that all medicines have been fabricated to make money for the pharmaceutical companies and have no efficacy whatsoever!

One of the most high-profile scandals was that involving the Olympus Camera Company.

The company CEO was a British man who had worked for Olympus for his entire career. He discovered that some of the senior managers had been siphoning off funds and investing this money in highly dubious Caribbean companies which appeared to be completely unprofitable. This British CEO alerted the board members expecting that they would be so pleased that he had uncovered this financial scandal. However, the reaction was quite the opposite. He was met with opprobrium and asked to resign. At his final board meeting with the company he was served stale sandwiches, while the rest of the board members were served delicious sushi! This has been made into a movie entitled “Samurai and Idiots: The Olympus Affair”, which was released in Japan on May 19, this year having already been released in Europe in 2015.

A friend of mine who worked for Moody’s, the ratings agency, in Tokyo experienced the following: when Moody’s downgraded the rating of a Japanese company, this Japanese company asked him to come to their headquarters. He was kept waiting for over an hour in a small, dingy room where the cleaners took their break. He recounts being surrounded by middle-aged ladies knitting!

No Western company would behave in this childish and petulant way to punish somebody who had acted in an exemplary fashion but whose behaviour upset them.

Managers in the West are taught “damage recovery” or “service recovery”. If you were doing a degree in Business Management or Business Studies you would be taught the importance of pacifying an upset or irate customer by going on a charm offensive; in other words a good manager would seek to make that person happy again.

Other recent scandals involve Toshiba and Fukushima.

A British neurosurgeon I met commented that when he attended a conference in Japan he met quite a few doctors who had trained as neurosurgeons but were not practising neurosurgery because of the hierarchy system. Their talents and long training were therefore lost to potential patients.

I have met several young Japanese men who wish they could live abroad because they see no future with the weight of the hierarchical system preventing their progress.

I have several Japanese friends who have chosen to educate their children in England to avoid the Japanese education system which requires a great deal of hard work, mostly rote learning, but often offers little opportunity for career advancement after graduation. School days are much longer than in Britain and school holidays, already short, were recently reduced to just a few weeks in summer. One of these friends is the son of a diplomat and spent part of his childhood overseas. He wanted his children to enjoy the freedom and fun that he had experienced as a child abroad.


The education system with its emphasis on rote learning is often criticised for not teaching Japanese people how to think. One of the leading Tokyo University’s has two advertisements at Haneda airport, one in English and one in Japanese, emphasising that by studying at this university you will be trained to think!

I met a Scottish man who decided to leave his job in Japan because he did not want his children to be educated in the Japanese system where they would work very hard and probably end up in a very unfulfilling, mundane job.

Women are often discriminated against and few women feel they have the confidence to challenge decisions taken by men. I believe Japan has one of the worst records for promoting women in jobs and government. A recent scandal involved Tokyo Medical College where it was discovered that women candidates were routinely having their test results downgraded in order to ensure that more male candidates were accepted to study at the college!

And then there is the xenophobia. I have encountered more kindness from Japanese people than I would expect in most other countries but I have also encountered more xenophobia. Other foreigners I have spoken to have experienced exactly the same, on the one hand great kindness from some people but also high levels of xenophobia from others. I recently met two exceptionally polite and well mannered Canadian university students who had been denied access to several restaurants in downtown Nagasaki because they were foreigners. These two young men were neatly dressed, one was studying medicine, the other philosophy.

Another friend, an American who speaks fluent Japanese, recounts going out for a walk one evening in Kumamoto at about 10 PM. As he passed a young Japanese couple he heard the male say “Hairy foreigner! Scary!”. This friend was teaching English and to my surprise said that some students thought it was “cool” not to study or try and learn English. Up to now I had always assumed the lack of English was due to the difficulty of learning English and that every young person would want to speak English if they could.

When Japanese companies do make mistakes my impression is that, rather than owning up to their mistakes and making changes for the better, they carry on as before in the belief that they enjoy impunity whatever their actions.

My own experience, after I highlighted the issues surrounding the most popular capybara being sent to China, are in line with what I would call the typical, unworldly, unsophisticated and often counter-productive management style prevailing in probably too many Japanese companies. As I have said, the Japanese economy has been underperforming for several decades and I can now see why. Companies sometimes take decisions based on nepotism at the expense of the company’s success and revenue as a whole.

The director of the zoo had always been very friendly and always came to say hello within a week or two of our arrival back at the zoo each year. After I complained about the most popular capybara being sent away to China, when we returned this year he did not come to see us at all during the 10 weeks of our visit. When I highlighted some Animal Welfare issues (bearing in mind that Animal Welfare Science is acknowledged to be NOT WELL UNDERSTOOD in Japan, and therefore my knowledge on this subject, having studied Animal Welfare Science, would naturally be greater than many/most Japanese zoos) the person sent as emissary was someone who speaks no English! I do speak some Japanese but not enough for a serious conversation on animal related topics. Following my post on Facebook expressing concern about feeding routines, for one day the capybaras had a feast, the second day they got a much smaller treat and after that the feeding routine went back to normal!.

The zoo was upset because I described my observations, which included some animal welfare issues, on Facebook but I had no channel of communication in English with them. In the past the director of the zoo, the only management person who speaks any English, had said I should contact him if I had any observations in the capybara enclosure, however his behaviour this year indicated he had no wish for me to communicate with him. Some years there has been a capybara keeper who is prepared to listen to my Japanese and use the Internet to translate if necessary, and for two separate years there have been capybara keepers who speak English. This year none of the capybara keepers spoke any English, and the chief capybara keeper was the type of rather xenophobic Japanese person who makes no attempt to listen to a foreigner who doesn’t speak fluent Japanese, which is rude, making it impossible for me to discuss my observations. Last year one of the capybara keepers spoke some English and was very friendly to foreign visitors. He was actually a breath of fresh air in the capybara enclosure and his presence benefited both the capybaras and the Japanese visitors as well as foreigners. Because of his excellent social skills he was poached by the assistant director of the zoo, who is a former insect keeper with a continuing interest in insects and preserving endangered Japanese insect species, to become an insect keeper. The capybaras are the most popular animals at the zoo so from a business perspective it would make more sense for this keeper to have remained a capybara keeper. Had he remained a capybara keeper I would have been able to discuss the animal welfare issues with him rather than post them on Facebook. As this keeper completed his training very recently he has some knowledge of animal welfare issues (I was told that Animal Welfare Science has only recently been included in the zoo keeper course in Japan) and is also one of the few keepers who took the job because he likes animals and understands them.

I should perhaps explain that I have spent the past six years intensively studying and observing capybara behaviour in close contact with capybaras. I have read all the research papers pertaining to capybaras and some mammolagists and ethologists consider that I know more about capybaras than anyone. I do not wish to sound boastful but simply to explain that I have some information about capybaras which the capybara keepers definitely do not. Indeed, some of the capybara keepers cannot even recognise all the capybaras in their care! I also spend much more time observing the behaviour of the capybaras, and their relationships, than any of the keepers with one exception (a former capybara keeper from the year 2014).

I believe Japan suffers greatly from the lack of spoken English which is on a scale far greater than most other countries including Third World countries. This means that management is out of touch with the behaviour of managements in other countries and the lack of English also feeds into the xenophobia that often results in managements which fear losing control, lack imagination, and often have a myopic focus on making money at the expense of innovation and long-term success.

Japanese people feel they do not have a voice and rarely complain. A friend was in tears talking about Choco but she would never complain to the zoo about him being sent to China.

An example of a bad management decision was the decision of a zoo to get rid of their most entertaining and very popular capybara. Not only was this capybara exceptionally clever and entertaining and many people’s favourite capybara, but he was also not aggressive. His brother was the aggressive one. Because this brother kept attacking him, the two brothers had to be separated. When the decision to send one of them away was taken any well-informed management would have chosen to send the more aggressive brother away. I love him dearly but he may well fight with the younger, neutered males in the herd in the future which would result in one of them having to be taken out of the herd and sent away. If the zoo had kept their most popular and entertaining capybara, peace would have reigned in the capybara community at least as far as this capybara was concerned. This very popular capybara was also amazingly tolerant of bad behaviour by visitors whereas the more aggressive brother is a much more nervous capybara. He was a capybara in a million.  He was a gift to the zoo and they threw him away!

A friend of mine read an article about a major Japanese company which hired a British manager to fire people, so that no Japanese manager would be tarnished by doing this unpleasant job. Apparently the Japanese management wanted to be able to claim they would never have done this, so none of the laid off workers would be angry with them.

Hopefully in the future things will change. Bright young entrepreneurs who set up their own companies are already making a difference.

Some Japanese mothers try to teach their children “courage”. They do this by creating an unpleasant experience. For example, a friend of mine’s Japanese mother locked her out of the house in pouring rain in winter, on their return home from a shopping trip. The door had glass panes and the mother looked at her daughter through the glass as the daughter cried, completely confused and upset by the experience which could hardly be described as the behaviour of a loving mother.

We often see children in the capybara enclosure who are terrified of the capybaras. As they cry and scream in fear their parents watch them, laughing at them! Not all Japanese parents behave like this and some are very solicitous of their child’s fear and try to comfort them.

There can be some unpleasant consequences emanating from aspects of Japanese culture, including the understanding that life is unpredictable, which translates into behaviours which foreigners find very strange. For example, on two occasions at Nagasaki Bio Park, we were given nasty, old, brown, dried out pieces of bamboo to feed to the capybaras, when we paid for bamboo for the capybaras. There were plenty of fresh, green, luscious branches of bamboo in the container. This behaviour could be interpreted in two ways: “life is unpredictable” so we are not giving you what you expect. OR: Japan’s widespread xenophobia manifest (i.e. giving foreigners undesirable pieces of bamboo), but I suspect the former is the correct reason, since most of the time we got decent pieces of bamboo, and one chief capybara keeper was always very generous to us.