The film “Nissan – we are driven” of 1984 by Stephanie Tepper which is examined in the following case study, is a documentation about working conditions, trade unionism and management styles at Nissan, one of the biggest Japanese automobile manufacturers. The film shows the situation of workers in several plants in Japan as well as the application of the Japanese management system to a Nissan plant in Tennessee, USA.
At first, some general cultural differences between the USA and Japan and their consequences for the employment relations are explored. Then, the different employment practices in the two plants are explained.
To illustrate the main cultural differences between the US and Japan, the five (initially four) dimensions of culture developed by Hofstede (1983, 2001, 2010) are used: 1. Power Distance, 2. Uncertainty Avoidance, 3. Individualism and Collectivism, 4. Masculinity and Femininity and 5. Long-Term and Short-Term Orientation. These dimensions were developed throughout large research studies undertaken in more than 70 countries, and as Hofstede (1983) stated, help to explain and understand different management practices within countries. All of these dimensions are measured in a scale from 0-100 (with 0 meaning a weak and 100 a strong value for that dimension).
Power Distance refers to the degree of inequality within a country, and applied to organisations, the degree of centralisation and autocratic leadership accepted by the members of society. The USA is a low power distance country (35), whereas Japan is medium (50) (Hofstede, 2009).
Uncertainty avoidance is about the fact that the future is unpredictable and how people deal with that. In countries with a lower uncertainty avoidance, such as the USA (46), people take risks easier, do not work as hard and are more tolerant because they do not feel threatened by any unknown. When this scale rises up to higher uncertainty avoidance (Japan is very high: 92), people are likely to be more anxious and avoid risks.
The third dimension, which is most important to this case study, measures the degree of individualism and collectivism. In high individualist societies, like the USA (91), great emphasis is put onto self-interest and personal freedom. In more collectivist societies, such as Japan (46), people are tightly integrated in groups and look after the group’s interest and not the individual’s.
The fifth dimension measures masculinity and femininity. In masculine societies (USA middle: 65; Japan very high: 92) masculine values such as success, performance and achievement are more important than for example relationships and caring for others.
The fifth dimension was added later subsequent to a research using a Chinese survey instrument. Long-term orientation includes valuing thrift, persistence and ordering relationships according to status, whereas short-term orientation is about personal steadiness, protecting one’s face and respect of tradition. The US are more short-term oriented (29), whereas Japan is more long-term oriented (80).
Some of these cultural differences can be recognised in the different employment practices in the two Nissan plants, the one in Japan and the other in Smyrna, Tennessee (USA).
In the Japanese plants, in general the labour relations are collaborative, that is to say there is a close partnership between management and employees in which confrontation is avoided. But this partnership is a feudalistic, paternalistic one, where every worker clearly knows their place and everybody has to obey their foreman. There are “clear command chains, similar to a military hierarchy”, as stated by a Nissan worker in the film. This can be explained by the fact that Japan is a medium power distance and a very masculine country.