Pros and cons of cultural diversity

by Terence MacNamee

People around the world have been reading that the Swiss have voted to put a brake on foreign immigration because the character of the country is being diluted and the quality of life for the Swiss is going down. Switzerland is a bit like Japan – a long economic success story due to people pitching in and working together, sacrificing individualism to the common identity. Both nations cast a doubtful eye on foreigners.

In Japan, everything works well because the Japanese do it together. They work together so smoothly, they have every reason to keep out foreigners, and a go-it-alone Japan was always able to defend the archipelago against all comers. At least until the disaster of 1945. Even then, Japanese esprit de corps was a decisive factor in the country’s recovery and rise to economic power. But Japan has been stagnating since the 1990s. At the same time, the Japanese population is ageing and declining, which brings the spectre of mass immigration as in Western countries like Switzerland.

Japanese firms would now like foreigners to join their executives and boards, to get outside the cultural “box” and have some new thinking. This is not going to be easy. The Japanese do not take well to diversity and have a streak of xenophobia. On the other hand, the Japanese language seems to be an almost unsurmountable obstacle for foreign managers. So some companies are trying to to attract foreigners by making English their working language. Not Chinese, interestingly enough, although the mainland is the historic source of Japanese civilisation and may well also represent the future of Japan in a Sinocentric world.

The e-commerce company Rakuten, which is expanding by buying up competitors in Europe and America, intends to require its employees to know English. “No English, no job” says the CEO. English is already the language of the board. The whole staff is supposed to conform. For the Japanese, the diversity that goes with globalisation speaks one language, English. A European might wonder if the English-only approach really leads to diversity, or if it will just mean a stifling new homogeneity. For languages are not culturally neutral – not even English.

For years we in the West have admired the successes of Japanese management and wondered if we could imitate it. The Japanese themselves now seem desperate enough to abandon the collectivism and homogeneity that made their kind of management possible, and open the door to foreigners – Westerners, who will bring Western ideas of management back with them. The whole thing sounds as difficult as squaring the circle.