Jinmyaku

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Jinmyaku
Informal practice commonly found in Japan
Japan map.png
Map of Japan, where Jinmyaku commonly takes place.
Japan flag.png
Flag of Japan.
Entry written by Sven Horak.
Sven Horak is affiliated to The Peter J Tobin College of Business, St John's University, New York.

Original text by Sven Horak

The Japanese term jinmyaku (人脈) loosely translates as ‘personal connections’. The word jin stands for ‘person’ and myaku translates as ‘vein’, as in a geological vein of mineral deposits. Jinmyaku is of paramount importance in business and politics and is vital in other aspects of life. Members of a jinmyaku network support and help each other in terms of career progression and in making decisions. Having a large jinmyaku network consisting of influential members is said to be ‘a symbol of security and status’ (Erez 1992: 57[1]). Establishing jinmyaku is a lifetime process which starts early in life at a child’s school. Whereas the Japanese are known to be rather reserved towards people they do not know, an introduction by a third person through jinmyaku can open doors and help in debates or negotiations where rational arguments alone cannot secure an agreement (Mitsubishi Corporation 2011[2]).

In comparison with Westerners, Japanese people in general are considered to be less sociable in terms of establishing social ties through small talk, or in establishing friendships with foreigners, defined here as persons who belong to a different organisation or community (Nakane 1965[3]; Scarborough 1998[4]). In terms of ascribing trust and sociality, Japanese people tend to distinguish between in- and out-groups. The depth and prioritisation of relationships tends to correlate with their duration, thus long-term relationships are maintained on a preferential basis. This is in direct contrast to the ways in which social ties are formed in the West, where people meet less often and frequently move according to career demands, which requires them to develop new social ties in their new place of residence. Westerners tend to establish affinity to others on the basis of shared traits and interests; the Japanese do so on the basis of shared affiliations, obligations or allegiance. Accordingly, the resulting focus on personal relationships, both formal and informal, means that Japan has often been described as a ‘network society’ (Kumon 1992[5]).

In business, the development of large jinmyaku networks is considered of utmost importance in decision making, both as an external source of information gathering for the firm, as well as for career progression (Gilbert 2003[6]). Jinmyaku relationships relate to relationships within the company between superiors, peers and subordinates, and also to external relationships with customers, decision makers in other organisations, and government officials. Tact and skill are required to develop jinmyaku. Within an organisation, important factors include the duration of membership of the network, loyalty and seniority, as well as the care of subordinates and mentoring. The ability to be sensitive to and adequately relate to a situation is also required. As is common in Japanese organisations, decision-making and problem solving involves a large amount of informal coordination, information exchange, the involvement of various stakeholders, and the reconciliation of interests and negotiation before a formal decision is made. The final decision is frequently the official result of what has previously been agreed informally. A trusted jinmyaku network is a precondition for the informal coordination of this process (Suzuki 1989[7]). To complete an important project or task, or to progress in one’s career, job-related skills are important, but a large jinmyaku network is of equal significance. Given both, it is possible to strengthen one’s position as a trusted member of an organisation.

Figure 1: Model of the Japanese corporate communication system and informal coordination.

The typical flow of communication in Japanese firms (see Figure 1) is characterised by a strong top-down attachment, according to corporate hierarchy, which is determined by seniority. Frequent direct communication with lower ranked employees is encouraged, as is involvement in training activities or employee selection. Top-level managers in Japan are expected to be approachable. Whereas the decision-making process originates at the top of the hierarchy, the bottom-up approach ensures that each employee is involved, informed and able to contribute to the solution. This ensures consensus among employees and is considered to improve the quality of decision-making. It is usual for middle management to formally trigger a decision-making process by circulating a document to be signed (by stamp) by each manager involved (the so-called ‘ringi system’), to show approval. Simultaneously informal discussions take place to exchange ideas, reach consensus and convince others, with the aim of attaining compromise among the decision makers involved (Erez 1992[8]). Jinmyaku is a precondition for influencing and reaching decisions. In the first instance it is applied internally within a company, however, as private and business spheres are not separate in Japan, jinmyaku is also part of informal meetings outside of the workplace. Interactions include dinner or drinks meetings, and weekend sporting activities with colleagues, superiors, suppliers, subcontractors and other external stakeholders.

Jinmyaku is important in an external context, as seen in the practice of former retired government officials becoming managers of large businesses, usually at 55–60 years of age. This practice is common in Japan and is known by the term amakudari ([天下り] ‘decent from heaven’, derived from ama meaning heaven and kudari meaning descending. Through amakudari, the government is able to influence and control decision making within a company; in return the company benefits from close ties to the government through the retired bureaucrats (Kevenhörster et al. 2003[9]). This practice has often been associated with corrupt activity as the government-officials-turned-managers help to acquire public contracts, delay inspections and ensure various forms of preferential treatment through their jinmyaku network within the administration (Suzuki 1989[10]; van Wolferen 1993[11]).

Notes

  1. Erez, M. 1992. 'Interpersonal Communication Systems in Organisations, and their Relationships to Cultural Values, Productivity and Innovation: The Case of Japanese Corporations', Applied Psychology, 41(1): 43–64.
  2. Mitsubishi Corporation. 2011. Japanese Business Language. An Essential Dictionary. Oxon: Routledge.
  3. Nakane, C. 1965. 'Towards a Theory of Japanese Social Structure. An Unilateral Society', The Economic Weekly, 17(5-6-7): 197–216.
  4. Scarborough, J. 1998. The Origins of Cultural Differences and Their Impact on Management. Westport, CT: Quorum.
  5. Kumon, S. 1992. 'Japan as a Network Society', in S. Kumon and H. Rosovsky (eds.), Political Economy of Japan (3), Cultural and Social Dynamics (pp. 109–41). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  6. Gilbert, D. 2003. 'Strategic Decision-Making in Japanese Trading Companies: Case Studies of Information Search Activities', Journal of Management & Organization, 9(1): 27–40.
  7. Suzuki, N. 1989. The Attributes of Japanese CEOs: Can They be Trained?', Journal of Management Development, 8(4): 5–11.
  8. Erez, M. 1992. 'Interpersonal Communication Systems in Organisations, and their Relationships to Cultural Values, Productivity and Innovation: The Case of Japanese Corporations', Applied Psychology, 41(1): 43–64.
  9. Kevenhörster, P., Pascha, W., Shire, K. 2003. Japan. Wirtschaft Gesellschaft Politik. Opladen: Leske & Budrich.
  10. Suzuki, N. 1989. The Attributes of Japanese CEOs: Can They be Trained?', Journal of Management Development, 8(4): 5–11.
  11. Van Wolferen, K. 1993. The Enigma of Japanese Power. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle.