I was watching an interesting program on NHK, the Japanese network, the other night. The program, broadcast weekly, is entitled “Professionals” and shows people engaged in various professions in Japan, everyone from, say, a violinist with the NHK Philharmonic to a waiter in a non-descript udon restaurant. The installment the other night featured a well-known female civil engineer, Reiko Abe, who has faced considerable discrimination in Japan because she works in a male-dominated profession, tunnel engineering. Her solution to the problem is to work for a Tokyo based project management firm that stations her abroad, in countries in need of expertise from Japan e.g. India and Indonesia. Two of the projects she has worked on in recent years are the subway system in Jakarta and the bullet train in India. Denied upward mobility in Japan, she is now regarded as one of the top tunnel engineers in the world.
It was an interesting program not only because it shows the depths of discrimination that women still face in Japan but also for one revealing line Ms. Abe uttered when asked how to explain her success in a country like Indonesia, where building standards and a sometimes feudal mentality among workers are barriers to modernization. Abe said the key to her success on overseas projects is that she always “throws away Japan before going abroad.” I thought that was an interesting way to put it, in other words, that Ms. Abe gives her national identity all the value of an empty can when she is working abroad. But this is what she does when she goes overseas. And this is why she is in such demand now for high-profile international projects. In a foreign country, she obviously knows how to adapt and get things done.
And this is what you have to do when you do business in China. Adapt. You cannot be weighed down by your own customs and flummoxed by unfamiliarity. A case in point is former colleague of mine. Whenever she visited China she would insist on being driven back to her hotel everytime she had to use the bathroom. She just refused to use the bathroom in the office or factory. The exact opposite of Ms. Abe. Needless to say, the Chinese did not enjoy working with her and her projects never went smoothly.
So the next time you are about to get on a plane to China and you see the bin where you have to dispose of all the things that are prohibited on board, make an additional imaginary bin in your mind that says Items Prohibited Beyond This Point: Your Nationality.
Here is a story and interview with Ms. Abe from Bloomberg. Reiko Abe feature