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How living in London prepared me for Tokyo

When I moved to London in 2002, leaving behind a successful startup and 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area, I didn’t realize that I would start life over. It had never occurred to me that the cultural differences would be so vast.

There are so many things I loved about London, especially in the first two years. Most of these things stood out in strong contrast to various social and cultural attributes that I never liked much in America. But rather than dwelling on that, I want to focus on the business environment and the large abyss between American and British styles of business. Some of this may be specific to the technology industry, but I will try to make the observations as general as possible. And later, I will draw inferences to Japan.

Of course, Silicon Valley is about as remote a place as possible from the Old World. The fluid and fast-moving nature of the tech world in California is rather unique, fueled by a large early adopter market, a mature venture capital and professional services ecosystem, and decades of growth. While other parts of the world are enamored with the theme of innovation, the old hands in Silicon Valley are always balancing world-changing hype and the hard reality of business models that can scale. Innovation seems to play a secondary role there, taking a back seat to sales and marketing and making it through the rate race of intense competition. The best product rarely wins, and the best-marketed product has a decent chance.

I started as a marketer, partly because I saw the importance of that skill in the industry, but also because I knew that brilliant engineers often struggled to reach an audience. My goal was to help shape products that would satisfy needs in the real world, and connect those products with customers in terms that would resonate. So while I have a deep appreciation for technical excellence, I also view technology as a tool that is only valuable when it is truly useful.

I didn’t move to London with a job or company. I went on my own and explored a native life, finding my identity re-defined and stumbling awkwardly in the professional worlds of music, finance and later the mobile technology industry. It took time to understand the stratified nature of that world, where on a social level people from all walks of life and many cultures inter-mingled with ease, but in the area of making money the paths were prescribed and rigid. It’s quite interesting that the notion of being class-conscious had been self-consciously thrown away, but in business the feudal world of craftsmen, merchants and lords was still very much alive.

As an example, it was difficult not to be an engineer if my career background was in technology. There was a sense that having that background required some sort of certification. Eventually I realized that people thought in terms of vocations, and engineering was basic to technology, just as accounting was fundamental in finance. Being a doctor or lawyer was just another kind of vocation, and on the whole those vocations were not especially elevated (though one could argue a barrister in the UK is much more elevated than most trial lawyers in the US, but not necessarily better paid). After all, every village needs a blacksmith and a farmer and a shoemaker, and those are just roles that common folks are born and grow into.

In the US, and especially in California, the importance of schooling is certainly present, but there is also the understanding that experience in the real world is more valuable. A person’s various successes and failures are their own kind of certification. Perhaps this is why failure has an inherent value in the US, whereas in older societies failure is associated with stigma, and is to be avoided at all cost. A closely knit society must maintain its equilibrium and harmony, and failure causes a rupture in the deep web of inter-connectedness between people.

The deep web of social connectedness is one of the main things I liked in the UK, and later its allure became apparent in Japan. Which brings me to the original point of this post: how the UK prepared me for Japan.

It is tempting to draw many parallels between the UK and Japan, and many have tried, but in the end the areas of similarities and differences almost balance each other out. However, I can make a couple of broad points that may help paint a picture of how moving from California to London could then make it easier to move to Tokyo.

First, the UK and Japan have some similarities and some differences, but on the whole they are both more remote from the US than they are to each other, on a cultural level. In terms of modern commerce, Japan is more actively engaged with the US on the whole, and the general stature of the US in Japan is quite high. But when considering the fundamental cultural background of both Japan and the UK, they are both traditional countries with long histories and a deep sense of social connectedness, even though Japanese and Brits love to complain about how the old values are disappearing.

Second, in the business world, the style of business is strikingly similar between Japan and the UK, at least from an American perspective. Corporate hierarchies are rigid, relationships and formality are dominant, and money is alluded to, not talked about. The behavior of never saying no is also well known in both countries, which really comes from a general sense of being indirect, especially with bad news. One’s school and social background are paramount. And there is not much emphasis on reward or promotion based on merit.

In small tech companies, there is more of a sense of “being like Silicon Valley” in both countries, but the general dominance of large companies is undeniable. In Japan it goes as far as being a sort of economic autocracy controlled by the big conglomerates, though some tech companies have become giants and are definitely threatening the old order.

Interestingly, the UK and Japan share a certain parallel in their histories when it comes to the merchant class. In the UK, merchant families became wealthy several centuries ago and moved up in social status, so that they are basically part of the landed class now. In Japan some large conglomerates are family-controlled and though some of them grew to significance in the years after WW II, there is a sense of lineage stretching back many generations. The point is that large companies and the people who run them have a certain weight in terms of social status, and therefore those companies may have more traditional values than the society at large around them.

Beyond all this, there are aspects of Asian hierarchy that play into the conservative stance of large companies in Japan, but that will be the subject of another post.

To sum this all up, I went through a large adjustment in the UK, especially on a professional level, and that helped my adjustment in Japan. People often ask me what I mean by this, and now you have some idea.