The Japanese way of thinking and pull and push14 min read

In Japan when a man retires he may be given a sort of “consultant” job, in which he can still meet his former colleagues even once a week. His advice is often useful to them, as also his friends in other departments or other companies. There is a good deal of tact in making any changes that have to be made, so that he shall not feel too bad about it. I know of course that this is not always done, but still where possible it does seem to be done.

I think that in this respect we in Britain are often rather hard. When a man retires, he retires, and it is made clear to everyone that he has retired. I remember when I was quite a little boy a friend of our family was an Egyptologist, and he took me once or twice to the British Museum, to see the wonderful Egyptian rooms there.

The former keeper of the Egyptian Antiquities was perhaps the most famous Egyptologist of the early part of this century—Wallis Budge. He had deciphered many of the inscriptions, and had himself made some big discoveries. Besides Egyptology he was an expert in the Babylonian cuneiform, and in Coptic and other obscure languages. Altogether a very famous figure who had written many of the standard textbooks.

But as soon as Wallis Budge left, and I think he died soon afterwards, his successor at once changed all the dates on the notices to the exhibits in the Egyptian Galleries, and in the guides and everywhere else in the Museum. He made very big changes to bring them into line with his own chronology, which was quite different from Budge’s. Now I was told that this had been a big shock to everyone, because this successor to Budge was not a man of the same fame or prestige, and it was a surprise to everyone to find that anyone could consider the great Wallis Budge had made such big mistakes.

I asked why it had been done—and I said, “Surely they can’t be sure about these dates.”  “No,” was the reply, “but the new man wants to make himself felt.” In English there is the proverb, “The new broom sweeps clean”—but on the other hand it was not at all sure that those old systems of dating were in fact wrong.

 Anyway one of the differences in attitude is that in Japan you have a certain sense of carrying on a tradition, whereas in Britain it quite often seems that the new man wants to break with tradition by doing something new, whether is he is sure of it or not.

Well, I myself think that the Japanese system is better. In Britain, many executives die soon after they retire, because they feel quite lost. It is the same in the Ministries—there are very few “senior counsellors” kept on; the former heads of Departments seem to become almost like ghosts. They are hardly consulted at all by the new men. A famous and successful former Prime Minister like Harold Macmillan would rarely be consulted by a later Conservative Premier like Edward Heath; there could be nothing like the influence which used to be exerted by old Shigeru Yoshida from Oiso.

To understand how the British system of promotion works, whether in a private company or a public corporation, it is a good idea to consider a very ordinary way of getting higher—namely, an escalator. Just as in Japan, there are escalators in British hotels and department stores, but especially they are in use on the railway and underground stations. But there is a big difference in the way the public use them.

Japanese people simply get on an escalator and let it carry them to their destination. They do not move but just stand still. On a British escalator things are different. There is a big notice saying, “PLEASE STAND ON THE RIGHT”. Japanese visitors sometimes wonder what that means, until they see the British people using the escalators. Most of us simply stand on the escalator like the Japanese people, especially when we are riding upwards. But we stand on the right side, leaving a space on the left for anyone who wants to walk along with the movement of the escalator. There are a good many people, especially young people, who habitually walk with the escalator, and they have then got a free passage. On a big escalator they arrive at the destination anything up to a minute before the others who are simply standing. Everybody walks when they are in a hurry, of course. The point is that those who simply want to stand and be carried recognize that others may want to go quickly, and courteously leave the left-hand side of the escalator free for them. In the rush-hour one sees all the old people and those with heavy parcels and so on standing in a long line on the right, and on the left-hand side there is a stream of energetic people walking quickly down or up.

Foreigners should be careful not to cause annoyance by standing on the left, so blocking the passage of those who are in a hurry.

In Britain an “escalator system” (though we is do not have that name for it) applies to our promotion in our profession, but it is not the same as the Japanese escalator system, any more than the way the British use their escalators is the same as the Japanese way.

 We have those who simply keep working steadily, and with advancing seniority, they can expect that they will be automatically promoted. But the promotion will be slow, and of course it has a limit—namely the retiring age of sixty, as a rule. Now these people, who are sometimes called “ passengers ”, recognize that there are others who become specialists in some field, or who have exceptional qualities, and that these others will attain greater success, and more quickly, than the ordinary man.

These exceptional men are called “flyers”. Nearly every young man at the beginning wants to be a flyer, but quite often he suddenly realizes that he is not prepared to make the exceptional efforts required, and he settles down to the idea that he will just go up by seniority. A flyer quite often remains in his first company only for two or three years. And it may well be that he changes his company four or five times before he finds one where his exceptional energy and abilities will have real scope, and where he can throw his whole heart into the job. In Japan it is sometimes suspected that a man who changes his company like that must be someone who cannot get on with his superiors, or who is unstable in character. But in Britain a man who remains with the same company or organization his whole life is thought to be perhaps rather limited in ability or else possibly a little timid.

The essential point is that in Britain we think that it is not very likely that a man will come upon a company at the very beginning into which he can put his whole soul, as the phrase is. And so we tend to think that a man who has not changed even once might be rather too easily satisfied with any job, and maybe someone who is looking for safety and security above all.

Of course this does not apply to a man who has entered a very big organization with many different departments. There he can find many varied possibilities, and he can widen his experience within the one organization, without having to change his company to do it.

 The British way of thinking is that the flyers have very exceptional abilities and energy, and that they therefore get unusual promotion, and furthermore that they ought to get it. A young man in a department who works very hard with is exceptional ability will be promoted to the same level as men who are well senior to him. And soon he has passed them, and may perhaps be in charge of them. Of course these older men do not like to be passed in this way, but when they recognize that this promotion is based upon real ability; in most cases it is surprising how tolerantly they accept it almost without resistance.

I think this sort of situation would rouse much more resistance in Japan, and I have observed that a very promising young man is generally removed from his section or department when he is promoted, in order to protect him from the resentment of his former colleagues. But in Britain generally the problem is not so intense. It is thought that he will be able, and must be able, to hold his new position in charge of his former colleagues even though they may be resentful. As a matter of fact, though for the first few months there is sometimes some sulkiness, very soon British people accept the new situation. They realize that when he was a new-comer he followed their instructions, and then when he was promoted to be a colleague they consulted together, and now that he has become section head, it is he who gives the orders and they have to be obeyed.

However, though there is a general principle that efficiency and energy and imagination should be promoted, the British business and official world is not a ruthless pushing aside of the weaker ones. There are some subsidiary principles which are not officially recognized as operative at all, but which nevertheless are sometimes quite powerful. As they are not officially recognized principles, they have no official names—they are known by slang phrases which very few foreigners could understand. These are the phrases: Buggins’s turn, kick upstairs, jobs for the boys.

Buggins’s turn (this is slang, and can be written in various ways such as buggins’ turn, and so on) is a principle which comes into effect sometimes when someone with very little ability is nominated to a position whose occupant is expected to change periodically (for instance a committee whose chairman is elected each year). In this group the men of ability have all been chairman already, but this man has never been elected because he obviously has not got the ability. To an English ear, the name Buggins has a sort of clumsy, foolish sound; it is close to the word muggins which has the sense of a country bumpkin.

We have then the situation where among a group of able people there are one or two very dull ones. The group would like to re-elect one of the able men and pass over Buggins, but that would amount to saying that he really ought never to have been in the group at all. Perhaps they cannot do this; or perhaps they do not want to do it because they like him. Buggins is often a very good fellow, who happens to be not very bright. So reluctantly, he is elected to the chairmanship. There is a tacit understanding among the others that they will all co-operate to see that nothing goes badly wrong.

In the Foreign Office, it sometimes happens that a diplomat is appointed to a post for which he is rather unsuited one might think. And when the inevitable question is asked, “Why on earth was a man like that appointed?” the answer is simply “Buggins’s turn”. It means that this is a man without a distinguished career, but who has the seniority which entitles him to a post, and in the end he has been given this one.

It would be wrong to think that Buggins’s turn operates when it is a question of something really important. But it comes in powerfully with positions which are mainly matters of prestige and do not carry much actual power to make vital decisions. There are a good many people who think that this principle is weakening, but others say that it is as vigorous as ever.

To “kick upstairs” is an important phrase in the political world in Britain, though it has applications in business also. It is often used when a politician is given a peerage, which entitles him to make his speeches in the House of Lords, but removes him from the House of Commons. This seems like a promotion to many British people, who are impressed by titles; but the real power resides in the House of Commons, and a peer has very little influence on the actual process of government.

The origin of the phrase is from the old saying “kick downstairs.” In Victorian times and earlier, rich men generally had a flight of stairs leading up to their front door. In those days rich men had short tempers and could generally gratify their aggressive instincts with impunity if a quarrel took place on their own property. So it was a rich man’s pride to be able to say, “I threw him out of the house. In fact, I kicked him downstairs.” This would mean that he threw the other man out of the front door, and gave him a kick which knocked him down the stairs. Probably this did not often happen literally, because in fact it is quite difficult to time a kick so that it will push a man just at the right instant. However, it was a famous phrase, often illustrated in the pictures in popular novels. To kick the man downstairs meant, to get rid of him in that way.

 The phrase to “kick upstairs” is a humorous variant on this. It means that the man we want to get rid of is much too powerful to tackle directly in a fight. Yet we want to get rid of him. In Victorian houses the best room in the house was on the first floor (what Japanese call the second floor)? So another way to get rid of this man is to invite him politely to go upstairs to the best room, where the women of the house will entertain him to tea and conversation. He will be honoured, but he will be out of the way. And this was humorously called “kicking upstairs”. In a company it meant promoting a managing director who was a nuisance in the daily affairs of the company (perhaps because of old-fashioned ideas) and making him a member of the board with some high-sounding title but without actual executive power.   

“Jobs for the boys” is also an old phrase and the meaning is, to create unnecessary positions and responsibilities and posts in a company or in an administration in order to promote friends and loyal supporters to these positions. The phrase “jobs for the boys” is often used about the nationalization policies of the Labour Party; it is said that unnecessary organs of government, committees, commissions and so on, are set up in order to be able to reward loyal supporters like Trade Union officials who have not got the ability for a really important post. There is no reason to think that this kind of thing is any less frequent in the Conservative Party, but probably one could say that this Party can more easily find or create sinecures in some big companies, where not too bright Conservative stalwarts can be fitted in without doing any harm.

About twenty years ago a critic remarked sarcastically that with all this promotion of the “ boys ” to be ministers in the government or to  high positions in business, unless we are careful we shall find that the whole machinery of government, and the boards of the big companies, consist of nothing but nearly useless people.

Kicking upstairs, Buggins’s turn, and jobs for the boys are old English customs, but with the economic difficulties of the sixties there has been a good deal of self-examination in both the political and business worlds. Men like Sir David Barron when he was Managing Director of Shell, is and Edward Heath when he was Prime Minister, began a campaign to stamp them out and said so publicly. It is too early to say how far they have been successful. But sometimes I am asked, “Do they have that sort of thing in Japan?”

© Trevor Leggett

This was taken from Trevor Leggett’s book “The British and the Japanese” published in 1976