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Japanese cram for the exotic U.S. workplace

The American workplace looks like a battlefield from over here, and Yukio Sadamori is mapping out the land mines for three U.S.-bound executives.

"Race," he writes with a felt-tip pen on a white board, "Color," "Sex," "Religion." Avoid discrimination based on these things, he tells his charges, who sit at conference tables, smoking cigarettes. But particularly watch out for the gender hazard in the United States, he instructs.

"If female employees are put in a harsh environment where there are calendars with women in bikinis or porn magazines scattered around," he explains as the men take notes, "they will feel uncomfortable."

One slip-up and you could face a sexual harassment case you will have no chance of winning, warns Sadamori as a young woman serves tea. "The jury will see that you have black eyes and yellow skin," he says. "It's easy to see what side a juror would be on."

Sadamori, who runs Mitsui & Co.'s international personnel division, is teaching his charges the basics of managing in the United States. He has given them a six-inch stack of homework: U.S. workplace regulations, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, lists of forbidden job-interview questions and manuals on topics such as how to get along with Americans and typical Japanese faux pas abroad.

By the end of this one-day session, 35-year-old Hirohiko Murase is dazed. "There are too many things I have to learn," says Murase, an industrial machinery expert bound for Chicago. "It scares me."

That goes for a lot of Japanese companies these days, particularly since a huge federal sexual harassment suit was filed against Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s U.S. unit. Recognizing that practices tolerated in Japan would be illegal in the United States, many Japanese companies are hurriedly adding sexual harassment cram sessions for U.S.-bound executives.

Some of the practices alleged in the Mitsubishi case _ such as lewd pictures in the lavatories or teasing _ would hardly raise an eyebrow in Japan. Businessmen openly thumb through porn at work, drink at hostess bars with clients and typically know few professional women.

Tradition dictates that women belong at home.

"About 98 percent don't have the foggiest idea what we're talking about," says Leo B. Lawless, who runs training sessions in Tokyo.

Japanese trainees ask some telling questions, Lawless says. One perplexed U.S.-bound executive, he says, asked, "You mean I can't tell a pregnant woman that she should go home and take care of her baby?"

Mitsui, whose expatriates Sadamori is training, has held sensitivity sessions for several years. But the Mitsubishi lawsuit has galvanized other Japanese companies who send staff to the United States.

Just after the suit became big news, the Japan Overseas Enterprises Association convened an emergency session, attended by 100 personnel managers. In a windowless hotel conference room, risk-management expert Takeshi Okuda told it straight: In the United States, "you can't behave as you always have."

Don't necessarily behave as Americans do, either, Okuda cautioned the solemn crowd, who will impart the advice to colleagues bound for the United States. For example, Okuda said, one Japanese expatriate tried to adopt the American custom of giving a hug or kiss to show friendship _ something rarely done in Japan. He spooked a female subordinate with a quick peck on the cheek before he left on vacation; that wasn't appropriate because they weren't friends, Okuda explained.

The audience chuckled as Okuda, who spent several years in the United States, confessed that he himself hates to be kissed. "I try to avoid it," he said, grimacing. "Whenever I can, I put my hand out."

The sensitivity-training bible for expats, put out by Japan's Overseas Employers Association in 1993, is a compilation of case studies of Japanese managers in the United States. It is required reading for trainees like those in the Mitsui class.

One chapter profiles a Japanese company man who hired a secretary because she looked like a model. "Most clients from Japan said, "I envy your beautiful secretary,' when she served tea," the case says. "In the Japanese expression, she was a true "flower in the workplace.' "

But the flower sued for sexual harassment, bewildering her Japanese boss. She was offended, the study says, when the Japanese men looked at her legs as she served tea and by the nude pictures in magazines Japanese clients brought to the U.S. branch. The moral: "The company's intention was not pure when it hired her _ it treated her as a (Playboy) bunny."

In another case, an executive tried to use the same help-wanted ad he had used in Japan. "We want a receptionist to be the beautiful main character" of their business, the ad said. Among the requirements: "taller than 5'8, 25-35 years old, breath-taking beauty." The local newspaper rejected it for being discriminatory, but not before the U.S. employees heard of it and protested, the manual cautions.

Americans, of course, aren't immune to allegations of sexual harassment. The men accused in Mitsubishi Motors' case are Americans, as is Mitsubishi's U.S. personnel manager. But Americans tend to be more skilled at hiding sexist attitudes in public, says Yuri Morita, a trainer in the University of California's Affirmative Action office who also runs corporate training sessions to help both Japanese and Americans avoid sexual harassment.

The Japanese are much more willing to express their true attitudes in class, Morita says. In one of her discussion groups, a Japanese executive argued that it is women who harass men, by wearing revealing clothes. Another said it is a good idea for women to wear uniforms (as they often do in Japan) to reduce temptation.

In one exercise, Morita had men play the role of a young "office lady" in Japan who gets upset when she sees the nude photos in her boss' sports newspaper each time she serves tea. The woman was powerless to confront the man, who was several ranks above her. So the group devised solutions such as going to an intermediary like the boss' golf partner, who can explain why such practices could hurt the company.

Western notions of equality do seem to be catching on with younger Japanese men. Though they have never worked with professional women, Mitsui's trainees seem convinced by Sadamori's presentation.

"Respect for a woman as a person is very important," concurs Sadaharu Nomura, 34, who is bound for Mitsui's Sacramento, Calif., semiconductor-equipment office. "It's a very basic way of thinking. If we think this way, it's no problem."

Still, Sadamori counsels him, "You will face difficulty in California: Workers there know everything about their rights and study them in school."

A steep learning curve

Here's what major Japanese companies are doing to fight sexual harassment in the workplace, based on a survey of 69 firms.

In Japan Planning to implement

Policies designed to prevent harassment 60%

Sexual harassment training for all employees 57%

At their U.S. operations

Policies prohibiting sexual harassment 20%

Sexual harassment training programs 23%

Employ a harassment prevention officer 13%

Department of harassment complaints 15%

Implemented before

In Japan Mitsubishi case

Policies designed to prevent harassment 7%

Sexual harassment training for all employees 6%

At their U.S. operations

Policies prohibiting sexual harassment 53%

Sexual harassment training programs 46%

Employ a harassment prevention officer 33%

Department of harassment complaints 39%

Source: Japan Overseas Enterprises Association, Wall Street Journal