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Over the past few decades, globalization has dissolved boundaries across the world and provided new working opportunities in a multi-cultural environment (N. Bozionelos, 2009). More and more employees are given a try to work in countries and cultures different from their own country of origin (A. Volkmar, et al, 2005). However, in many cases cultural differences, including differences in management styles, can prevent the success of an international assignment. Our interest focuses on Fear and trembling, a French film based on the novel of the same name by Amelie Nothomb. After finishing her studies in Europe, Amelie, a young Belgian woman, returns to her country of birth in order to work as an interpreter. With her knowledge of the Japanese language, she obtained a one-year contract at a prestigious Japanese firm, the Yumimoto Company. However, her idealized vision of the country is far from reality and she is soon facing the rigid hierarchy of the company, as well as the oppressive authority of her superiors. Interestingly, instead of climbing the corporate ladder, she quickly descends it and work as a "bathroom attendant".
Fear and Trembling is the story of a foreigner who fails to integrate into a society which social and cultural norms are very different from hers.
In this report, we will study the cross-cultural issues that Amelie had to face within the company. The main goal is to analyse both the Japanese and the Belgian corporate cultures through Hofstede's cross cultural model. Finally, we will explain what behaviour she should have adopted to be culturally intelligent and to adapt to the Japanese society.
The Japanese company
A strong hierarchy
On her first day at Yumimoto, Amelie soon realised the importance of hierarchy and loyalty to superiors in Japan. An example of this is the striking formula used at the very beginning of the movie: "Mr. Haneda was Mr. Omochi's boss, who was Mr. Saito's boss, who was Ms Mori's boss, who was my boss. And I, I was no one's boss. That could be said differently. I was at Ms Mori's orders, who was at Mr. Saito's orders, and so on. Therefore, at Yumimoto, I was at everyone's order."(A. Nothomb, 1999, p.7) Moreover, during the introduction of the different employees working in the company, it is interesting to notice how subordinates bowed lower than their direct supervisors. In effect, the Japanese corporate culture stems from the desire to catch up and overtake the Western countries in order to create an economic empire that would wash the defeat of Japan during World War II. The organization is therefore complex and ambiguous based on a strong respect for a productivity based hierarchy (H.Cailliau, 2006, p.121).
A paternalistic model based on team spirit
Since ancient times, Japan has possessed an employer-employee relation similar to that of a master-servant relation (J. Joseph, 1990). Because of this relationship, the employee both respects and fears his master. We can therefore understand the title of the movie, as in Japan, a protocol states that in the presence of the Emperor (the superiors in the movie), who until 1947 had been considered a living god; a person must demonstrate his or her reverence with "fear and trembling" (C. Vance, 2010).
As for the team spirit, Japanese employees are always defined by the company for which they work; they often introduce themselves as "Mr. X from Yumimoto Company". Because of the attachment to the group, it is common to see Japanese people going out for drinks at the end of the day with their colleagues as it enables them to increase their confidence in the team work (M. Zimmerman, 1985). However, there is a clear separation between work and friendship within the organization. So when Amelie felt betrayed by Fubuki, she accused her of having betrayed their friendship. Fubuki tells her that friendship is a big word and that they are only colleagues. For Amelie, spending ten hours a day was an enough reason to consider Fubuki as her friend whereas that was not the case for her manager.
A gerontocracy system
Gerontocracy holds an important place in the Japanese business environment, in fact graduates from well-known universities are hired with pittance wages and start at the bottom of the corporate ladder regardless of their skills (M. Yasuko, 1999). The salary and advancement are tied to seniority, not competencies (Anon, 1990). This is shown in the movie when Fubuki was furious and told Amelie that she tried to get a promotion in which she had no right. She then said "I'm twenty nine years old, you are twenty two. I am holding this position since last year. I fought for years to get it. And you thought that you were going to get an equivalent post in a few weeks?"
Devotion to the company
In Fear and trembling, Amelie describes the depressing routine of Japanese white collar employees. "They work ten hours a day and sometimes stay overnight if a deadline needs to be met" (A. Nothomb, 1999, p.26). Therefore, even Amelie started working day and night to carry out her wok. Japan is a country where dedication to the company must be absolute. The movie underlines the Japanese propensity to nervous breakdowns due to excessive stress at work.
An analysis of the national cultural differences between Japan and Belgium
Hofstede's Framework focuses on five dimensions that explain the differences in values among culture: Individualism/Collectivism, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity/Femininity, and Time Orientation.
A society is considered as collectivist when "the interest of the group prevails over the interest of the individual" (G. Hofstede, 1997, p.49). In Individualist societies people are supposed to look after themselves only. Japan is a collectivist society since it scores 46 on the Individualism dimension. Yumimoto Company shows many characteristics of collectivism such as putting harmony of group above the expression of individual opinions and people have a strong sense of shame for losing face.
At 75 Belgium scores high on the individualistic index. In the work environment, people can voice their opinions and can act according to their own interest.
The culture clash between both cultures starts at the beginning of the movie when Amelie was assigned to serve coffee in a delegation. Thinking that it is polite to speak Japanese while serving coffee, she did so. Mr. Saito got angry and asked Amelie to forget the Japanese language although she was hired as a translator. That was in order to preserve the homogeneity of the social group of the company, which a Belgo-Japanese could not be part of. Amelie might be mastering the Japanese language but for her superior she could never speak like "true Japanese people". Moreover, any individualist act is repressed and regarded as a sin, unlike in a Belgian workplace where personal fulfilment is quite important. In the movie, many scenes illustrate the importance of collectivism in the Japanese organisation. First, is when Fubuki stated that "the main aim of a work is to serve the public interest and thereby even the modest job can be of service to the community." Consequently, Amelie understood that cleaning toilets was not considered as an honourable job in Japan, but it was better than resigning and losing face.
Furthermore, Fubuki denounced Amelie to her superiors when she worked on a report which was not on her attributions. Amélie was unable to understand why she could not use her skills to evolve and be considered as a business partner. Amélie's spontaneity and imperfection were not adapted to Japanese social norms.
Finally, when Amelie assigned herself a function, which was to take care of the mail, she was misunderstood by her managers. Mr Saito told her she was a traitor, a snake and - the biggest insult in Japan - an individualist. Her will to do something different, using her competencies was one of the main reasons for her fall in the Japanese corporate ladder.
Power distance (PDI)
Power distance is "the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally" (G. Hofstede, 1997, p.139). At a score of 54, Japanese employees are constantly aware of their hierarchical position in any social setting and act accordingly.
Belgium scores 65 on the scale of PDI which is also quite high. Consequently, Belgium is a society in which inequalities are accepted.
Even though Amelie is a Belgian, she had lived in Europe for a few years and thereby had a different mind-set. She tried to justify herself after committing a mistake in accounting but her superior was shocked by that behaviour and stated: "Why do you think you can defend yourself?" This reveals that an employee of lower status has no right to contradict the statements of a higher up employee. For Amelie, everything goes through discussion whereas for Japanese people, talking makes things worse and subordinates have no right to argue. Nevertheless, when Amelie was assigned as a bathroom attendant, it is interesting to notice how slowly those toilets became the place for an ideological debate: employees who refused to use them thought that respecting their managers do not prevent them from using their critical mind towards their decisions. Since conflict his highly discouraged and combative personalities would find themselves out of the Japanese company (H.K. Frederick, 1989), the employees decided to boycott the toilets. The result was a decrease in productivity because they had to go to another floor. On the other hand, some continued to use them and showed that their submission to authority was absolute and that they did not care that foreigners were humiliated as they are not part of the Japanese society.
Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI)
Uncertainty avoidance is "the ability for one to handle ambiguity and cope with change" (G. Hofstede, 1997, p.109). In other words, it reflects the cultures tolerance for deviant behaviours and how they feel threatened by ambiguous situations.
At 92 Japan is one of the most uncertainties avoiding countries on earth. This is perhaps due the fact that Japan is constantly threatened by natural disasters. Under these circumstances Japanese prepare themselves for any uncertain situation. This high need for uncertainty avoidance is one of the reasons why changes are so difficult to implement in Japan.
Similarly, at 94 Belgium has one of the highest scores on the UAI scale too. Therefore planning is favoured, when change policies on the other hand are considered stressful.
In Fear and Trembling Amelie who has an individualist mind "committed the crime of showing initiative." Since this was a behaviour that was not often practiced in Yumimoto, she was reprimanded. In effect, employees were to do only what they were told; they only follow the hierarchical orders. Although Amelie is from Belgium where the UAI rate is quite high, the heroine seemed to adapt to her new assignments whenever she descended one level in the hierarchy of the company as she stated "it was good to live without pride and brain. I was hibernating".
By definition "a masculine society will be driven by competition, achievement and the acquisition of wealth" (G. Hofstede, 1997, p.80). By contrast, a feminine society means that the dominant values are caring for others and where quality of life is the sign of success. At 95, Japan is a very masculine society. However, in combination with their mild collectivism, it is uncommon to see assertive and competitive individual behaviors which are often associated with masculine culture. It is still hard for women to climb up the corporate ladders in Japan with their masculine norms of hard and long working hours.
With 54 on average, Belgium has a moderate score on this dimension. Balancing in the middle of this dimension contradiction can be found.
Yumimoto shows some characteristics of masculinity since Fubuki struggled to progress in the company. She was driven, but held back by her gender. Moreover, both Fubuki and Amelie were holding subordinate positions compared to their male superiors and were often victims of verbal assaults. The movie therefore, highlights the role of women and the abuse of power in institutions dominated by men. It also describes the relationship between men and women in terms of physical and sexual violence by using the metaphors of rape (V. Korzeniowska, 2003). For instance, one scene where Fubuki was victim of the fury of the Vice President, demonstrates this abuse of power. Amelie had the impression that her superior "underwent a sexual assault." Comparing verbal assaults to physical and sexual abuse, the movie is judging the treatment of women as well as the unequal power distribution within the company.
Long term orientation (LTO)
The long term orientation dimension can be interpreted as dealing with society's search for virtue, "the extent to which a society shows a pragmatic future-oriented perspective rather than a conventional historical short-term point of view" (G. Hofstede, 1997, p.47). Short-term orientation is characterized by an importance of steadiness and stability. At 80 Japan scores is a long term oriented society. In corporate Japan, long term orientation in the constantly high rate of investment in R&D even in an economic downturn, higher own capital rate, and so on. The goal behind these investments is to serve the stakeholders and the society for many generations to come.
At 38 Belgium is a short term oriented society. In terms of business this short term orientation focuses on quick results. In a Belgium organization, management is based on self-reliance, personal achievement and hard work. Although Japan scores high for Long-term time orientation, in Fear and Trembling it is also shown as a short-term orientated culture. A key element to short-term orientation is "maintaining face." This topic reoccurs throughout the movie when Amelie refused to resign from her job in order to maintain face which is important in the Japanese company.
Geert Hofstede: Comparison of national culture between Japan and Belgium
Conflict between two different cultures
Throughout the movie, the Japanese company is presented as a hierarchical pyramid with rigid organization of work. In the Japanese corporate culture, total submission to the hierarchy, humility, and servility is encouraged (E. Axtell, 1991). Therefore, the values adopted at Yumimoto were:
Respect for authority
On the other hand, the values behind Amelie's actions in a Western company would be considered as the following:
Take an initiative
Protest a decision
Freedom of thought
Defend a colleague
Thus, In Fear and Trembling, Amelie was torn between two cultures having different values and specific norms. The heroine who spoke Japanese fluently, in another sense failed to understand the Japanese values. In one way after another she committed social errors and violated taboos. For all her good intentions she was unable to adjust to the deferential, hidebound Japanese corporate culture. For Amelie following rules and being obedient was foolish. She was provocative, took initiatives without asking for permission and argued with her superiors instead of nodding. Amelie did not try to evaluate the situation, understand the issues and question her behaviour (R.Roger, 1998). This could be explained by the fact that she came from Europe, an individualist society, where people do not try to understand those who criticize them. Because of this lack of mindfulness, Amelie could not develop a repertoire of skills that would have helped her to adapt to the Japanese culture.
An illustration of culture clash issues is the episode where after being publicly humiliated, Fubuki who remained strong went to the toilet. Amelie, followed her in order to comfort her superior but that was a huge mistake. She did not understand that seeing her crying would make her lose her honour at the highest point. The notion of self-esteem and honour is essential in Japan. It was clear that, for Fubuki, Amelie's only goal was revenge.
Another reason that could explain Amelie's failure to adapt to the Japanese culture was the cultural biases she was facing every day in the workplace. All her initiatives were constantly misunderstood and subjected to disapproval of her superiors. She was accused of being individualistic and humiliated when asked if all Belgians were as "dumb" as she is. When she was unable to copy columns of numbers, her manager said that "in Japan, that kind of person does not exist." Her incompetence was often explained by "the inferiority of western brain compared to the Japanese one." Nevertheless, at the end of the movie, Amélie understood that she should present her resignation following the Japanese rules: she met her managers individually, that was four times, respecting the hierarchy.
This movie is trying to show the absurdity of these prejudices, since Amelie was not even considering herself as a Belgian but Japanese instead. Judgments on the part of her superiors were arbitrary, based solely on her appearance.
Getting out of the conflict: Solutions and recommendations
The number of people in today's world who have left their native country and moved to a completely different environment is larger than ever before (G.Hofstede, 1997, p.235). The effect in all cases is that people are parachuted into cultural environments vastly different from the ones in which they were mentally programmed, often without any preparation as in the case of Amelie. As a child, she was comfortable with the Japanese culture, but discovering the country with grown-up eyes inevitably led to gaps. She realised that the way of thinking of Japanese people was very different from the Belgians. Consequently, she felt very disappointed and rejected.
The main cultural differences between nations lie in values which are rarely acknowledged and often misunderstood. It is therefore essential to learn intercultural communication abilities which pass through three phases: awareness, knowledge, and skills (T. Morrison, 1995). Awareness is when one recognises that he is carrying a particular mental software because of the way he was brought up, and that others brought up in a different environment carry a mental software for equally good reasons. This step requires a high capability to put away stereotypes, to listen to and to be interested in other cultures (G. Hofstede, 1997, p.239). Amélie should have interacted more with locals and try to understand the Japanese values. She used to speak with her manager at the beginning but she was not ready to listen to Fubuki's advices and to change her behaviour accordingly. She should have observed more her colleagues attitudes towards their superiors and therefore understand that she should not answer back to them which is considered as disrespectful.
Then knowledge should follow. If we have to interact with other cultures, we should learn about their symbols and their rituals in order to have an intellectual grasp of where their values differ from ours (G. Hofstede, 1997, p.242). It requires being able to reflect on your own behaviour and change your habits. Amélie failed her self-expatriation because she could not put away her consideration about the Japanese culture and her strong belief that she was part of the society. Her individual objectives were so essential to her that they blinded her.
Skills are based on awareness and knowledge, plus practice. It consists in applying the symbols and rituals of the other culture in order to get along in the new environment. This step deals not much with the question of how to live in the other culture, but more with how to get a job done (G. Hofstede, 1997, p.258). The main aim of this process is to extract value from the differences to become culturally intelligent. Only at the end of the movie, Amelie behaved like a "real Japanese" when she understood the importance of presenting her resignation at each level of the hierarchy. We could then notice how her superiors listened to her and were to some extent understanding.
To conclude we can say that because Amelie lacked knowledge about the Japanese norms and values such as hierarchy, submissiveness, collectivism and honour, she could not understand the local behaviours. Consequently, she did not demonstrate any skill that could allow her in being considered as a respectful colleague by her Japanese co-workers. Amélie should have thought about cognitive facts rather than emotional ones in order to gain a better understanding of her new environment and thereby adjust her behaviour. On the other hand, Yumimoto's employees were also ill prepared to deal with their Belgian colleague. There was, a need for simple training programs for local employees interacting with Amelie so that they could learn to look at a specific situation from the foreigner's point of view (E. Hall, 1990, p.102).
In a globalised world, mastering a foreign language and learning some business phrases is no longer enough. Only the ones who will develop their cultural intelligence such as understanding the different ways people work, act, think in other countries, will be successful (F. Trompenaars, 1993, p.157).