November 8, 2023

The Power of Culture: Insights from the Streets of Japan


Have you ever wondered what culture truly means? To search beyond the buzzword it often becomes in business world.

To me culture in its essence is about expected behaviours. Guided by our values it fundamentally boils down to people understanding what constitutes acceptable behaviour and what doesn’t.

Culture in Japan

Recently, I found myself in Japan for a work assignment, accompanied by my husband Steve. What struck us immediately was the absence of litter, graffiti, and vandalism on the streets. But what truly left us in awe was the disciplined adherence to pedestrian rules. In Japan, no one jaywalked… NO ONE!!!

Japan has a culture of respect and regulation. This was clearly visible even at the pedestrian lights. It showed that when everyone follows the rules, newcomers like us naturally fall in line.

Pedestrian Rules

On day two, we found ourselves waiting at a red light on a typical narrow Japanese street – the kind we might call a lane in Australia. Three brisk strides could have carried us across the road. Back in Australia, we most likely would have jaywalked when no cars were in sight. However, a single exchange of glances conveyed an unspoken agreement:

“Don’t even think about it.”

Such was the strength of the Japanese culture of respect that we knew defying the red light would be deemed extremely disrespectful.

This experience demonstrated the vital role of collective adherence to the culture, or as mentioned previously the expected behaviours. I can almost guarantee that had a few locals decided to cross against the red light, we would have followed suit.

The Culture Challenge

This underscores the true challenge of instilling a strong and robust culture. All it takes is a handful of individuals flouting the expected norms to permit others to do the same. The result? The real culture ends up vastly different from the desired one.

We witness this daily in organisations, from minor instances like leaving coffee cups in meeting rooms for others to clean, to larger scandals like the recent PwC debacle.

The key questions to ask are:
• How committed is everyone to your culture?
• Do they truly understand what behaviours are acceptable and unacceptable?
• And, perhaps most crucially, is non-acceptable behaviour sometimes tolerated?

If it is, that is a slippery slope that can lead an organisation far from its intended cultural destination.