International student exchange: interview with James E. Burrows, University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce

by Takuya Sayuwatari, Reporter


In our new international exchange student series, we follow special reporter Takuya Sayuwatari (Japan) as he interviews American students and faculty members to analyze the differences between Japanese and American educational systems as he decides which American college is the best fit for him. Here, he interviews James (Jim) E. Burroughs, Rolls-Royce Commonwealth Professor of Commerce at the  University of Virginia’s McIntire School of  Commerce and head of McIntire’s Japan exchange program.

What is the McIntire program in Tokyo? What do students do there other than studying that most enhances their futures in business?

All McIntire students must undergo a “capstone” international experience in which they must spend one month immersed in another region of the globe outside the United States. The program I run is the “East Asia” track which includes visits to Tokyo, Kyoto, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. While in these locations students do a variety of activities, including studying at Peking University and visiting cultural sites, but the primary activity is to visit corporations and meet with top executives at these firms to learn about their businesses and the economic climate in Japan, Korea, etc. Most of these executives are alumni of the University of Virginia. We will also visit embassies, trade delegations, ministry officials, etc.

Why did you decide to become the head of McIntire’s Japan program?

I have been involved in student programs all over the world including Denmark, Germany, Spain, UK, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia, as well as East Asia. I feel it is incredibly important for today’s students (especially business students) to gain a global perspective since at this point the world’s economies are all intertwined. For example, when the U.S. housing market crashed, that affected the whole world. I also want students to be comfortable forming business relationships and friendships with people from many different cultures, and this requires students to experience people from places like Japan in their daily life. I really enjoy Japan. There was a time when Japan was the fastest ascending economy in the world with stalwart companies like Sony, Toyota, etc. Today there has been more focus on China and, to a lesser degree Korea, as the new Asian tigers while Japan has endured the “lost decade(s)” and more recently Abenomics to try and turn Japan’s fortunes around, But I don’t see this as particualarly surprising or concerning. Japan’s economy is still extremely powerful (the 3rd largest in the world). It is still a highly innovative place. I think its long-term prospects are solid, and it will resume a positive growth trajectory (though not at the unsustainable levels of the 1980s). So if students want to go where the action is, economically speaking, they have to go to Asia. And if they are going to go to Asia then they have to understand the major players in the region, this includes Japan. This is why I head the program.

How does your relationship with Japan influence your career and the careers of those who visit Japan?

I am not sure to what degree it affects my own career at this point (I don’t tend to approach it from for personal gain, but rather for what it can do for students and young people coming up). That is the advantage of being a senior professor, you have the luxury of being able to make decisions in the best interest of others. That said, I think to be a business professor you have to be current and maintain an international view, and I’m not sure this can be done sitting at a computer in one country, you have to get out there. In terms of my students’ careers, I think they have incredible opportunities to work and grow their careers in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, Japan has challenges because it has not historically embraced immigration in the way some of its neighbors have, which does create some insularity risks. I still think American students can work in Japan and I encourage them to explore options, but I would like to see more seamless movement among different economies as it is good for everyone.

What do you and your students try to learn in the Japan program?

We primarily study business and the Japanese economy. Lately this includes the recent struggles Japan has had, and also its recent policy initiatives to get back on course. However, you really can’t study business in a vaacuum, so we also study geopolotical issues. The recent spate over the Senkaku Islands is a good example. Here you have a largely insignificant body of land that becomes the center of a major political struggle between Japan and China. At the same time, China and Japan are intimately dependent upon one another for trade. So how do these tensions get resolved? How are they viewed? You have to experience this “on the ground” so we really try to understand the current challenges of the region in a very comprehensive way, but always bringing the conversation back to the business climate.

How does the McIntire program in Tokyo enhance students’ learning?

I have probably answered this already, but the bottom line is that it is impossible to be a global citizen if you have an insular mindset. So student learn a great deal, not only about the cultures they visit, but also about themselves. This is often a transformative experience for them, particularly if they have not traveled extensively before.

What are students’ popular opinions about the Japanese business program after they finish it? 

I think they have a more balanced view. For example, Japan has supposedly had this terrible recession, but when you look at daily life in a city like Tokyo, it is hard to see it (people go about daily life). I think students also have to recalibrate their views of Japan. They often see it as a pretty exotic locale (which I guess it is coming from the U.S.) but when you get to Tokyo you quickly learn that it is a very modern, very livable city. It has all the amenities of any major city in the U.S., and this often comes as a surprise to students. When such myths are erased, students become much more open to embracing the culture and even perhaps making it a larger part of their career plans. They also get to meet Japanese students and quickly find that students are pretty much the same everywhere. Of course, I’m not usually a part of this socializing, but the students tell me about it.

When you visit Japan, what aspects of the Japanese business culture are you impressed by and why? 

I think Japan is a very powerful economy and in the long run I have no doubt that Japan will remain a major player on the Asian and world economic stage for a long time to come. Japan continues to be an outstanding high-tech manufacturing center. It is very efficient with a common commitment to the country. Japanese people are very industrious. It has among the highest per capita education levels in Asia. At the same time, Japan has challenges related to its education system in terms of fostering innovation and creativity. It also has a history of being somewhat insular (though that is rapidly changing, particularly in places like Tokyo). So its like anywhere, it has its impressive aspects, and its limitations and that’s the point (because so does the U.S.). Students learn to see Japan in balance, impressed with some aspects and finding opportunities to do better in others. There is a tendency to see one’s own country in a mixed way, but to stereotype other cultures entirely one way. Visiting Japan provides a more balanced perspective.  By the way, I’m sure Japanese students have the same tendency to view other cultures this way, so its equally important for them to leave their comfort zone and visit places like the United States. We actively work to get students from all over the world to study at places like the  McIntire School and the University of Virginia. These exchanges enrich students from other cultures, and enrich the environment to which they become a part.

What are some common cross cultural mistakes that Americans make when they try to do business in Japan and vice versa?

This is a common question and I’ll respond by saying it’s the wrong question in some ways. There are, of course, cultural differences and these differences can create difficulties but here is what I have found. Nobody actually cares that much whether you understand the nuances of a culture, in fact people understand that is very difficult. What they really care about is your attitude. Take the Japanese bow for example, and let’s imagine that an American bows too deeply (an apologetic bow). One interpretation would be that the American doesn’t understand Japanese culture, but that’s not the way it gets treated. Rather, the Japanese person is impressed that the American has gone to the effort to try to respect and appreciate Japanese tradition, even if they get it partly wrong. And this is true anywhere in the world. As long as you respect the culture and the people, and show you are eager to learn, then almost anything else is forgiven.

The same is true of language by the way. Today English is spoken widely as the common business language everywhere in the world, which Americans are the natural beneficiaries of. However, taking the time to learn some of the basics of conversation so that you can show appreciation and gratitude is very important. When a student shows this initiative, it doesn’t matter if their Japanese is imperfect, people will still bend over backwards trying to help.

So its really not a question of misunderstandings, it’s a question of attitude. Sometimes Americans could learn to be more accepting of other cultures (the Ugly American idiom) but the truth is most of my students love their experience in Japan and enjoy throwing themselves into the culture, including its customs, language, and norms. This is what matters, because everything else will work out fine once the right attitude is in place.

What are obvious business differences between America and Japan in terms of the relationships between customers and companies?

I think that the relationships between Japanese firms and other firms tend to be very closely tied (as well as to other entities such as the government). In the U.S. relationships are still important, but I don’t think that the strength of these ties is as strong or enduring. Like anything, this has its advantages and drawback. For example, these close ties can make Japanese firms formidable competitors. At the same time, it is harder to adapt when environmental conditions change. Another difference is in cultural hierarchy. Japanese tend to be more hierarchically oriented (e.g. the “boss” is higher than the “employee” and this difference is strong). This is true of a lot of other Asian cultures as well. In the U.S. cultural hierarchies are flatter (and more informal). Thus, the “boss” is not always placed as high in the view of the employee as they might be in Japan. There is still a hierarchy in America, but it tends to be flatter. Once again, this has implications (both positive and negative). Japanese firms are often efficient and can respond quickly, but this also means personal creativity and initiative can be more difficult to draw out.

Interestingly, with greater interaction I think these differences are eroding. I have visited a number of firms in Japan that are headed by Japanese executives that were trained in American business schools. The result is they bring an interesting amalgam of American style and Japanese style management practices to their firms. One firm that particularly comes to mind has a very “open concept” office space (even the CEO has a desk in the middle of the floor). Employees are also encouraged to leave before their bosses if they have reason to do so, which is obviously a very “American” thing to do. So it is something you would expect to see in Silicon Valley at Google or Facebook, and here it is in Tokyo. As you would expect, the firm attracts very independent and creative individuals. At the same time, the firm retains distinctively Japanese cultural elements, particularly related to training, organization, support and socializing. So the firm has managed to leverage the best aspects of both cultures and this is a powerful combination.

Japanese culture pays lots attention to hospitality. How do you think it influences Japanese business people and their relationship with America?

I will say that Japanese customer service is some of the best in the world. I think there is an intrinsic pride in providing great service, even in low stature positions. People in Japan really take pride in their work. I think it is just part of the cultural fabric of Japan. Japanese are also extremely warm and welcoming, particularly on a personal level (it goes to the customer service issue above). It would be an insult in Japan not to extend every kindness and consideration to a visitor and so this translates into business and customer interactions. As a result I think most American businesspeople feel generally positively toward Japan and Japanese business people.

I read your paper on stimulating creativity in American executives. What, if any of these principles, do you think can be translated into Japanese business dealings, and if so, how? 

I think this is a very difficult issue. Historically our education system has been geared to proficiency and rote learning, not creativity. While creativity requires a strong knowledge foundation, in many respects structure, hierarchy, memorization, these things are the enemies of creativity. Over time, we have come to recognize this imbalance here in the U.S. and the education system has gradually shifted to place much greater emphasis on creative thinking and insight. However, America is also a place where the culture naturally lends itself to a lot of creativity because we highly value independence (and even irreverence) so making institutional changes is easier. The result is the U.S. is still a highly innovative economy.

But this is not news to the rest of the world, so I spend a lot of time interacting with academics from other places discussing the U.S. education system, and how it emphasizes things like creativity and independent thinking. This is important because the education becomes the foundation for everything else (like the workplace). At the same time, change is very difficult and glacial. I believe there is a saying in Japan that goes something like “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” with the obvious implication of the metaphor being “don’t be different.” Of course, if you want creativity then its all about being, thinking, and doing things different.

For example, in the U.S. if you challenge a professor you are seen as thinking independently, whereas in a lot of other places, including Japan, this would be seen as disrespectful. It is just very difficult to get that notion out of the head of someone who has been raised to believe that teachers are to be respected and not to question his or her ideas. Interestingly, this brings me back to my earlier point about the importance of multicultural exposure. Some of the very best students (best meaning willing to challenge my ideas, coming up with their own insights, etc.) come from places like Japan who are studying in the U.S. They just completely embrace this different way and try and get all they can out of it. At the same time, they also extremely value the professors’ insights because this comes naturally to them whereas American students are sometimes too eager to dismiss the professor’s position when he or she actually has a lot to offer. So the Japanese student studying in the U.S. gets the best of both worlds!

All of this said, I think it is also very dangerous to overgeneralize. The reality is that we tend to stereotype cultures (i.e. the Japanese are collectivist, Americans are individualistic) when the reality is there is a whole lot more variance within a culture than between them. In other words, even if Japan is more collectivist than America “on average”, there are still a whole lot of highly independent, creative individuals with great ideas lurking in Japan. So these entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t need to be created in Japan, so much as tapped. If Japanese companies can find ways to do this by being more proactive about encouraging employee creativity (and also training for it, rewarding it, etc. in what I discuss) then I think it could be tremendous for the Japanese economy.

Did you find any differences in how rewards affect the performances of employees in Japan vs. employees in America?

The research to which you refer was only conducted in the U.S., not Japan, so I can’t speak to how Japanese people might react differently but my suspicion is that you would see the same effects in Japan as we found here in the U.S. The reason is, the things that we were tapping into in that research seem pretty universal to human nature. In other words, all humans have a need for creativity and that being creative is intrinsically rewarding. This is not a cultural thing, it’s a human thing.  But perhaps there are some cultural differences and it would certainly be interesting to see if there are differences in Japan and what they portend.

How do you want to make the international business relationships between America and Japan stronger in the future?

That’s easy, continue to build and grow the type of programs I outline above—bringing American students to Japan, and Japanese students to America. Many of the problems in the world relate to ignorance and cultural misunderstanding. It is just very difficult not to get along with, and like, someone you know. Some of my most enjoyable experiences in Japan are sitting down with some Japanese colleagues and enjoying a casual dinner and intellectual conversation. Some of my students favorite memories are when they get to interact with Japanese students socially, perhaps going out for a drink or a coffee/tea. When you sit down with someone to learn about their interests, hopes, aspirations, and concerns, what you learn is that about 90% is shared in common. Once you have this connection, the economic relationships and exchanges take care of themselves.


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