Is Japan’s business culture of conformity a lesson for us all — or relic of days gone by?

TOKYO — The reference to enjoying the scene in Hoboken after high prices in New York City sent his group to New Jersey was so entertaining that Kazuo Nakamura, the chairman and CEO of CMIC Holdings, made sure the interpreter told the story twice.

There was a tale about recently seeing “Back to the Future: The Musical,” which apparently was as good as another Broadway favorite: “Jersey Boys.” Stories about efforts in the U.S. to find work by famed pop culture artist Keith Haring, which Nakamura keeps in his personal museum. And the one about trying to get his latest purchase out of a warehouse somewhere in Jersey.

The cackles of laughter — from all the key leaders at CMIC — let those in the New Jersey delegation know this wasn’t something lost in translation, it was the personality of Nakamura.

In a country that proudly recites sayings about pushing down those who try to stand out in a crowd, Nakamura was acting up, doing a bit of standup Monday afternoon during a signing ceremony in which his company was partnering with Rutgers University.

And everyone was loving it.

Gov. Phil Murphy, who never misses a chance at comedy, was moved enough to make a Wayne Newton reference.

The scene in the conference room at CMIC on Monday stood in contrast to all the other gatherings that day — ones that seemingly followed a format of formality and conformity. It stood in contrast to a business culture and climate in Japan where men still wear suits (and ties) and still make all the rules. One in which women and underlings seemingly are expected to be seen but not heard.

Is this a proud tradition of professionalism or an outdated business culture that most had abandoned long before the pandemic made Zoom calls in your pajamas something to be celebrated?


Members of the five-dozen deep delegation of New Jersey business leaders and officials on the state’s 2023 East Asia Economic Mission were given a business protocol briefing before making the trip.

  • Dress code: Men are to wear suits (black and dark blue preferred, grey accepted). Nothing flashy with your tie or socks. Women are to cover their shoulders and their knees.
  • Business cards: They are to be presented with two hands — and literally presented. If given one, you should look at it for more than a moment, gathering in the information as if it included the terms of the deal. (Don’t even think about quickly shoving it in your pocket — or, gasp, presenting a QR code that automatically puts your info in someone’s contact list.)
  • Seniority rules: Understand that the most senior person (almost certain to be a man) will set the rules of engagement. Expect that his underlings will follow his lead.

Al Komjathy, the founder of Komjathy & Kean public affairs firm in Trenton and the chairman of the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, said he didn’t mind the formality — and that he had seen its success before.

“Earlier this year, I went to Hungary, where it also is very structured and has a very formal way of doing business,” he said. “I think sometimes that’s lost in New Jersey. I’d like to see more of it. We can learn from the rest of the world.”

Guillermo Artiles, a partner at McCarter & English, agreed. A bit.

“Through Panasonic, I’ve gotten a little bit of the flavor of that over the last few years,” he said. “I do think that we could all benefit from a bit more of that professionalism back home.”


It doesn’t cost anything to be polite. That’s another saying. But, is it true? Can being more formal — or more traditional — cost you a business deal, or just make it more challenging?

Mei Wei, a new vice president for research at Rowan University — and a highly lauded engineer and entrepreneur who holds six patents and has published more than 200 refereed journal articles — said it can lead to problems.

“They can want everything to be very accurate — as if there is only one way to do things,” she said. “But, we certainly know there are many different ways to go. When you talk about innovation, sometimes those positions on precision can prevent you from being innovative.”

Michael Reagan, a senior vice president of CGI, said Jerseyans will need to change a bit of their style to have success.

“I think that style is a little too rigid, so, I think we’re going to have to adapt a little bit to accommodate them,” he said.

Of course, such adaptability can be business as usual, too.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all in New Jersey,” he said.

So, what does the other side think?

Sacha Patera, part of the team that handles strategic research partnerships at Princeton University, said she thinks the other side is questioning its own actions.

Why? She heard it firsthand at a pre-mission trip conference.

“Some of the conversations that we’ve had have been around this tension of, ‘We’ve always done it this way, but we understand the need to change to be more innovative,’” she said. “The question was how much they could change without ruffling too many feathers.”

The payoff potential is great, Patera said.

“They have the infrastructure to transform, they have the funds, they have the intellect, they have the ideas, they have the creativity — all they need to do is just switch that mindset just even a little bit.

“I feel like we’re on the precipice of watching something fantastic. All they have to do is just embrace what they’re afraid of — that uncertainty.”