SHOULD YOU WORK FOR THE JAPANESE? To some Americans, the experience is fascinating. To others -- especially women -- it can be frustrating. Before you jump, take a close look at these bosses -- and yourself.
By Susan Moffat REPORTER ASSOCIATES Sally Solo and Jessica Skelly von Brachel

(FORTUNE Magazine) – SHOULD YOU work for the Japanese? Americans increasingly are facing that question; at least 300,000 already get their paychecks from Japan and the number could double by the end of the decade. As the Japanese acquire more U.S. companies, some Americans won't have much of a choice -- unless, of course, they leave. Working for a Japanese company can be rewarding. It's a chance to learn from America's stiffest competitor, and sometimes it can provide welcome refuge from the frantic downsizing and restructuring that have been so prevalent in U.S. industry. Says William Tompkins, compensation manager at Hitachi America for the past five years: ''At other ((U.S.)) companies I was finalizing terminations. Here I can practice human resources rather than manufacture golden parachutes.''

Before you rush out to sign up with a Fuji Widgets, however, consider this: For every happy camper like William Tompkins, there is an American who has quit in frustration. Though the Japanese are creating lots of jobs in the U.S., most of the best ones are still reserved for Japanese. Americans are often hired to fill a specific function, with little regard for long-term career development. And while Japanese are slow to fire, their culture of lifetime employment doesn't extend to America. With a few exceptions, Japanese have been good at managing factory workers. But they really flounder when confronted with hard-driving MBAs, many of whom are women. The egalitarian ethos and emphasis on team effort that go over so well on the shop floor often frustrate managers accustomed to individual responsibility and recognition. And while blue-collar workers enjoy a relatively high level of participation in decision-making, Americans in the front office grouse that real policymaking goes on in Tokyo -- or in late- night drinking sessions in New York sushi bars that seem to exclude anyone who doesn't speak Japanese. Americans learn to despise the fax machines that transmit mysterious messages in indecipherable script while they sleep. Of course, managers at subsidiaries anywhere in the world tend to have less authority than those back at headquarters, whether they work for General Motors, Philips, or Toyota. But consider these sobering statistics: Only 31% of senior managers in Japanese subsidiaries in the United States are Americans, according to a survey by Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry; in Japan, foreign companies hire locals for 80% of their top jobs. Japanese companies know they have to change. Says Akio Tanii, president of Matsushita, the largest consumer electronics firm in the world, with 44% of its sales and 34% of its work force overseas: ''If we say Japan is 'special,' we won't be able to internationalize. We must eventually have foreigners on the board of directors.'' But he won't predict when that will happen. IRONICALLY, Japanese firms that try hardest to attract and maintain talented Americans by providing more job training often lose them faster. James Cramer, who advises Japanese firms in Tokyo for the University of Maryland's International Business and Management Institute, says training raises the expectation that Americans will get real authority. ''When that doesn't happen,'' he says, ''they get frustrated and leave.'' Some Japanese companies have tried bringing small numbers of Westerners to Tokyo. Steven White, 27, a fresh-faced graduate of Duke University, was hired by Sumitomo Corp. last year to work in the huge trading company's Tokyo headquarters. He lives in a company dorm and gets the same meager salary as other ''freshmen.'' His boss, Tetsu Kiriishi, has years of experience in New York but a typically Japanese attitude toward young employees. ''Steven is a blank sheet,'' he says affectionately. ''I am looking forward to seeing what kind of Sumitomo man he will become.'' But the vast majority of Americans working at Japanese firms will never see the bright lights of Tokyo. For them, what matters is how decisions are made in the U.S. Many complain of so-called shadow managers, Japanese executives who have the real power while Americans have the titles. The key is for colleagues to have faith in one another. Says Cramer: ''The problem is that to be integrated, Americans must trust and be trusted, and that takes time. Many people don't reach that point; they feel excluded and quit. And the Japanese say, 'See, you can't trust Americans, they quit and take information to a competitor.' '' A tiny handful of American executives have been able to buck the trend. Michael Schulhof, 48, started with Sony 16 years ago supervising the design and construction of Sony's first U.S. speaker factory, in Delano, Pennsylvania. Last year he was named one of two non-Japanese members of the parent company's board in Tokyo (the other is Jakob Schmuckli, a Swiss who is president of Sony Europa). Earlier this year Schulhof became president of Sony USA. Mickey, as he's known to colleagues, was the chief architect of Sony's acquisition of Columbia Pictures and has a hand in determining Sony's global strategy. He talks by phone with Sony President Norio Ohga every day and is in frequent contact with founder Akio Morita. Schulhof, who grew up on Long Island, New York, and was trained as a physicist, probably did well at Sony in part because his style matches Morita's. They're both high-profile characters as fascinated with Hollywood as with tape recorder heads. He hopes his latest promotion will show other Americans that they can get ahead too. Says he: ''Japanese companies offer an unusual opportunity of broad responsibility at a very early stage in a career.'' SHELDON WEINIG, 62, also has forged a happy marriage with Sony, though of a different type. Founder and CEO of Materials Research Corp., an Orangeburg, New York, producer of equipment used in the manufacture of semiconductors, Weinig didn't particularly want to work for the Japanese. But in 1989 the blunt-talking entrepreneur faced the choice of raising more capital or going / under. Unable to find any American companies interested in investing in his high-tech firm, he sold out to Sony. At first, some of his employees were unhappy. Says Weinig: ''They felt that turning ownership over to the Japanese was tantamount to losing.'' That attitude vanished in a hurry. Weinig thinks that if he had been taken over by an American or European company, ''the first thing that would have happened is that cost cutters would have come in to tell us how many people we should let go.'' Since Sony acquired the company, employment has risen nearly 20%. Weinig says his managers have had a tough time getting used to just one thing: the bountiful supply of cash for research. Though he has known Morita for 20 years, Weinig had to make some cultural adjustments of his own. Sony, he says, is sometimes ''a little too attentive -- they send me faxes all night long.'' He also tires of trudging around the links. Says he: ''The Japanese will argue that Sunday golf is a very positive thing. I think it's a pain in the ass.'' Still, Weinig is happy with his new situation. The people at Sony, he says, ''have worked hard to allow me to continue to be as free a spirit as possible.'' Not everyone feels that way. Take the case of an American woman, who chooses to be anonymous. After nearly a decade with a large Japanese firm that deals in trade and finance, she thought she had built up a store of trust. Now she is thinking of leaving. She says her firm, which she doesn't want to name, has not learned how to manage American women. Still, she doesn't want to discourage others: ''Come work for a Japanese company if you're looking for an interesting experience, but don't stay too long.'' The company transferred her from the U.S. to Japan several years ago, on the theory that the move would help her understand the company better. It did. Her experience at headquarters has convinced her that the firm doesn't know what it wants from its foreign staff, that opportunity is severely limited, and that she would be better off elsewhere. Although she is fluent in Japanese and says she ''tried not to make waves,'' cultural clashes often arose. Says she: ''The attitude of too many Japanese is that we understand you but you'll never understand us. They're almost smug about that.'' One male colleague launched into a long exposition on what he perceived to be a basic difference between the two cultures: the fact that Japanese women wore panties under their pantyhose while American women did not. When she pointed out that most American women actually did wear underwear, he wouldn't be swayed. ''He was convinced,'' she says. ''That was the end of the debate. And I'm thinking, 'I can't believe that we're having this discussion.' '' Her fellow workers in Tokyo, who generally do not have the option of leaving the firm as she does, are not sympathetic to her complaints. Says she: ''They say, 'Look, we had our dreams too. You're expecting too much.' '' She says that while she's been given many opportunities with the company, she has reached a glass ceiling that limits how high non-Japanese can go. ''Japanese think of themselves as the managers and Americans as support staff,'' she says. ''I don't ever expect to have Japanese working under me.'' Nancy Ross is another disappointed American. Ross, 43, has an MBA and speaks Japanese. She says that when she took a secretarial job with the fledgling mergers and acquisitions department of Nikko Securities International in New York in 1986, she was orally assured of a chance for promotion to a professional position. She began building a client base. Then one day her boss asked her to type a job advertisement for a ''young American man, MBA preferred/not required, will train.'' (When the ad ran in newspapers, it contained no reference to sex.) She asked if she was being considered for the position. She says her boss answered, ''No. You don't fit the requirements. You're not young and you're not a man.'' She sued Nikko, then left the firm. The company denies her allegations and the case is still pending. Ross has gone to work for a small Japanese trading company in New Jersey. She says it provides good opportunities for both women and minorities. Whether Japanese firms face more legal challenges related to sex or race discrimination than American companies do is not clear. However, many Japanese managers are ill prepared to deal with women in professional positions or a diverse work force. Says the head of the U.S. subsidiary of a major Japanese securities firm: ''We Japanese don't have bias. I can't tell the difference between various ethnic groups -- they all just look like foreigners to me.'' Although the two women above speak Japanese, language can be a barrier for many Americans. The language, notoriously difficult to learn, is also a major handicap for Japanese multinationals that want to promote foreigners to senior spots at headquarters. Only a few companies have many senior executives who can communicate freely with foreign peers. Matsushita's Tanii, who doesn't speak English, thinks language is a major barrier. Sony is one exception: At board meetings when Schulhof is present, Morita, who hawked radios door to door in broken English in New York 35 years ago, and other executives slip in and out of English. Says Schulhof: ''We all speak physics.'' Listening to Schulhof, one gets the impression that he has developed his own mode of communication after years of dealing with his Japanese colleagues: He speaks slowly and clearly, even to Americans. ''Just because you understand Mickey,'' said President Ohga to a Japanese manager eager to be assigned to the U.S., ''doesn't mean you understand English.'' But language is not the only barrier. William Stewart, 30, an American who worked for computer giant NEC both in New York and Tokyo, feels he succeeded in communicating but ultimately wanted a faster track. ''Language is not key,'' contends Stewart, who gets by with less-than-fluent Japanese. ''The key is learning the process of decision-making and collecting information. Either you fight the process or understand it.'' For Stewart, ''understanding the process'' meant 16-hour days six days a week, heavy-duty golfing, and after- work drinking. He says: ''If you work nine to five, you're fighting the process. If you don't want to go with the process, you don't belong in a Japanese company.'' Stewart continues: ''There's no way I could do what I did and be married. Japanese wives and kids understand Dad is not going to be seen much. American families wouldn't stand for it.'' In the end the long hours did not make him leave after five years. He simply wasn't willing to wait as long as it would take to go far at NEC. So, bowing low to all his bosses, he bid a friendly farewell to start his own consulting firm in Tokyo helping American and European firms sell to the Japanese computer market -- including to NEC. WILLIAM AHERN, 33, a vice president at Mitsui Taiyo Kobe Bank in New York, agrees that working for a Japanese firm isn't for everyone. Says he: ''We need someone culturally aware, not someone with idiosyncrasies to drive people crazy. The American cowboy system won't work here. Our egos have to be in check. This is a shared star system.'' That's obvious from Ahern's office, which he shares with eight American and six Japanese officers. They sit at desks pushed together, type their own letters, and send their own faxes. < Ahern shows a visitor his hanko -- the traditional Japanese signature seal, a cylinder about the size of two cigarettes -- with which he stamps his initials in red ink on proposals he's seen and agrees with. The hanko is an essential tool in the Japanese process of nemawashi, or consensus building; before a proposal is brought up at a meeting it circulates among staffers who either stamp their assent or jot down comments and suggestions. HE LEFT his previous American employer, he says, because he wanted a job with a more long-term outlook. He got it. In his first year as part of the New York mergers and acquisitions team looking for Japanese buyers for medium-size American companies, he worked on a dozen deals that never went through, but the bank stuck with him. Patience paid off. In the past 21 months he's closed 22 deals. Says he: ''It takes time to gain the trust of a Japanese firm, but once you've got it, you're in.'' The trust theme comes up again in conversations with Thomas Mignanelli, 46, president of Nissan's U.S. sales subsidiary in Carson, California. Trust is what drives decision-making far faster at Nissan than at Ford, where he used to work. Says he: ''We can make the same decision in a tenth of the time Detroit takes.'' Mignanelli's Tokyo contact is Yoshikazu Hanawa, head of Nissan's North American operations and a member of the parent company board. To hear Mignanelli tell it, he's gone to carmaking heaven. Says he about Hanawa: ''Running a company at my age, you need some senior guidance and experience. He provides that. He's been involved in corporate planning and human resources. I have more experience in operations. So what comes out is a good blend.'' Mignanelli even has good things to say about shadow managers: ''They are support people, but very, very important. When shadows operate efficiently, you don't know they're there. They get everything done that needs to get done.'' How a Japanese firm manages Americans depends a lot on who's in charge in Tokyo. At Honda, many of the senior executives have worked overseas. Typical is executive vice president Shoichiro Irimajiri, 50, who heads worldwide production. He spent four years in Marysville, Ohio, as president of Honda of America Manufacturing. Fluent in English, Irimajiri has a ready smile and frank manner that help him get along with Americans. He says that during his years in Ohio, his children, who attended local elementary schools, helped him learn a lot about American ways of thinking. Once he visited his daughter's third-grade class on show-and-tell day to explain how cars are built. Says he: ''I was surprised at how aggressively these small children asked very difficult questions. That really helped me understand the character of our younger American associates.'' Irimajiri says his goal is to make Honda's American operations self-reliant in research as well as production. One step: The Accord station wagon, developed as well as manufactured entirely in the U.S., will be sold in America this winter and exported to Japan next spring. Irimajiri wants to localize his American management further: Of Honda's 10,000 employees in Marysville, about 4% are Japanese; Irimajiri's goal is to reduce that to 2.5%. But the key, he stresses, is not simply to reduce the presence of Japanese managers in the U.S. but to increase the number of Americans sent to Japan on short- and long-term stints. The company brings about 1,000 employees, from line workers to senior managers, to corporate headquarters each year. Unlike some Japanese companies, Honda prefers to develop its American managers rather than use headhunters: Tom Elliott, executive vice president of American Honda Motor, joined the company 20 years ago when it started selling two-cylinder cars under what was then an obscure brand name in America. Will Honda of America have an American president in the near future? Scott Whitlock, now executive vice president, says Americans ''absolutely'' have a chance. But, he says, ''I don't think it's important. What's important is who is going to make the greatest contribution.'' Whitlock, a Harvard-trained lawyer who left his Columbus, Ohio, practice to run the Marysville plant in 1984, says that Honda is a company for team players. ''If your attitude is, 'I want to come in and run something,' I would not predict success. It's understood that one is going to achieve with other associates.'' Clearly, working for the Japanese is not for everyone. Before signing up to work for a company based 6,000 miles away, take a look at the firm's record of promoting Americans -- and at your own expectations. If they match, go for it.

BOX: SOME TIPS FOR AMERICANS

-- Don't assume that all Japanese companies are alike. Honda is as different from Toyota as Apple from IBM. Before you sign up, study up. -- Don't expect to be a star Within a group, Japanese tend to be egalitarian in the extreme. Think consensus. -- Don't look for a lot of pats on the back. Americans often complain about a lack of encouragement. Their Japanese bosses complain that they need too much babying. -- Don't think pay will always reflect your performance. Japanese firms increasingly are using American-style incentives, but the culture back home still works against the concept. -- Don't set your sights on heading the company's global operations. Unless you plan to live to 100 or so. The Japanese might be ready by then. -- Be ready to deal with a certain level of vagueness. Expect to spend a lot of energy just figuring out what's going on.