When you look to Asia, what do you see? Countries modernizing, people going to nightclubs, eating McDonalds and aspiring to Western ideals? It can be tempting to interpret this modernisation in Asia as a “Westernization” process, but it’s worth looking deeper.
It’s clear that major Asian cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong resemble their Western counterparts, at least outwardly. They feature the same 5-star hotels and restaurants, are brimming with modern technology and infrastructure, and are home to the offices of many global corporations. Beyond these physical manifestations, we can also see changing tastes in food and clothing, as well as new habits and preferences.
Yet that is where the similarities appear to end. Seoul, Bejing or Tokyo are far from copies of Paris, London or New York. Certainly, modernization does not equal Westernization.
Amidst the flurry of development and outward progress, it is important to understand that there has been a clear effort to retain and bring back traditional values across Asia.
Singapore made a point of integrating Asian values back into school curriculums as early as the 1980’s in order to counter the growing influence of Western culture on young people. Confucianist values featured prominently and remain today.
In Korea, following the economic rollercoaster of the 1990’s, society appeared to have shed its traditional cultural stiffness and emerged as a dynamic, progressive nation. At the same time, a local saying also emerged: “Do what you want, but respect your elders”. Thus capturing the Korean mindset at the turn of the century and again reflecting a deep-set Confucianist belief.
And what about China? How does a country that tried so hard to leave its past behind reconcile tradition and progress? If we look back to the period of Deng Xiao-Ping’s economic liberalization, we see that Marxist-Leninist ideals were already being eschewed in favor of Confucian values. As time went on, it became clear that society was willing and eager to readopt Confucianism and apply its principles to their daily lives once again.
Japan, on the other hand, has managed to protect its own values and traditions throughout the major cultural influences it experienced during both the Meiji period and the Western occupation following the Second World War. This is evident in today’s corporate environment as the famous “Japanese consensus” remains unchanged.
Tradition and Progress
The reason that these, primarily Confucianist, values are so important is because they play such a fundamental role in organizing social hierarchy, behaviors, and relationships. During periods of rapid, otherwise disruptive economic growth, these traditional values have acted as behavioral landmarks to maintain social order and overall stability. In this sense, traditional values can be seen a major enabler of Asia’s modernization, and as a significant component of each country’s “national spirit”.
This significance cannot be overstated. In fact, countries like China, Korea, and Japan are eager to protect their unique heritage by idealising traditional values and beliefs. Due to this environment of respect for tradition and eagerness to defend it, it is important to always be considerate of this when doing business in Asia.
Outside-in: Succeeding in Asia
Indeed, there is no doubt that failing to understand a country’s culture will hinder your ability to succeed there. However, it is encouraging to realise that the associated professional failures can be directly addressed through relevant intercultural training.
In the end, it is up to each and every professional to increase their knowledge to set themselves up for success.