Sarah Stuart's 2014 Blog

Sarah Stuart, an MBA student and former editor of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly, reveals the challenges of the programme in a weekly blog.

640x180 Sarah Stuart banner

The most honest city in the world...and the hardest-working

19 September 2014

His day began at 7am and, when I rang his Tokyo office in a panic 12 hours later, he still had an hour and a half of work to go.

The 28-year-old Japanese sales executive who eventually found my wallet and passport, after they had fallen from my bag into a taxi en route to his office, has one hell of a long work day. Every day. When he gets home to his grandparents' apartment late each evening, he eats dinner before making phone calls to South America where a lot of his business is done.

Tall, slim, preparing to propose to his longtime girlfriend and an architectural enthusiast, on my last night in Japan he was indeed a guardian angel. Tokyo is the right place to lose everything the night before you're booked to fly half way across the world.

I had rung the embassy near tears to say I thought my wallet and passport had been stolen. Unlikely, said the calm Kiwi on the end of the phone. You've misplaced it. So I had. The taxi driver, alerted by a passenger two hours later, took the wallet back to the office he remembered dropping me at.

In a 28-storey building of 2000-plus workers, it somehow made its way back to the floor I had had my meeting on. Minutes after my panicked call, word went around a wallet was missing. My hero connected the dots and, as we later drank in celebration at my hotel, the realities of work-life imbalance in Japan were laid bare.

I was one of two members of our small MBA team who had met with a group of young male executives at this enormous Japanese trading company. They had prepared a long presentation for us - hours of work. Our University of Auckland client, a Kiwi producer with an excellent presence in the Japanese market, is pondering whether to diversify its products. We were fact-finding; testing the waters. The five young men in the room were selling. It was an enormously fun gathering with little of the pomp and ceremony we had come to expect.

When the meeting finished just after 6pm, I apologised for delaying their Friday night drinks. These are big in Japan. The previous week we had seen executives still in full suits with briefcases, lying drunk on train station floors. But, as we left the meeting room, a huge open-plan office packed with silent staff greeted us. Fridays at this company don't begin until after 8pm.

"Tell me about your weekly schedule," my hero asked after explaining his work hours. He dreams of a life in New Zealand with 6pm finishing times, weekends off and a house with a garden.

He is lucky to have a role at the prestigious Japanese company he works for. The system of getting young, almost all male executives in at the ground floor and grooming them for decades to hit senior levels, still dominates Japanese business. One he joined the company with may well become CEO, appointed by the previous CEO who leaves to become Chairman. It is a system that is holding Japanese companies back from global success, we were told by a British academic at an MBA group session earlier in the week.
Few women, few foreigners and a system that perpetuates the status quo, is not helping Japanese companies to thrive. With an ageing population, internationalisation is the only way for Japan to grow.

The next morning, most of the 45 University of Auckland MBA students flew back to New Zealand. Everyone, I think, had learned something different. I'd participated in eight Japanese business meetings, finally got my head around the meeting protocol, seen the amazing inroads some Kiwi businesses have made into this gigantic consumer market and learned that Tokyo is perhaps the safest big city on Earth.

It is also the hardest working.