From Implicit Towards Explicit Comparative Research
When I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s, majoring at a German University in Japanese Studies (contemporary Japanese society, politics and business) and business administration, there was broad consensus among scholars of Japanese Studies not to engage in explicit country comparisons but instead to concentrate on analyzing Japan in its own institutional context and complexities. Depending on the research topic, this required knowledge of the relevant discipline and its methods combined with openness towards other disciplines. Additionally, good knowledge of Japanese was expected, to be able to capture the empirics and to understand wider discourses among policy makers, in society, the media or among Japanese academics. Achieving this level of understanding was challenging. Detailed country studies were welcome given a perceived need to learn more about Japan in the context of its increasing economic importance. Research could therefore be straightforwardly justified by reference to the need to better understand Japan or the need to rectify what had been wrongly assumed until then. Often, disciplinary treatments of Japan felt somewhat crude, especially in business studies where Japan was openly welcomed as the grand other, fundamentally different from the West and with these differences, in and outside of Japan, often rather vaguely attributed to cultural than properly historically traceable institutional contexts and developments.
I thus chose Japan’s retail sector as the topic of my doctoral thesis and examined how a sector that had hitherto been perceived as backward, merely a pool for unwanted labor or even an overprotected barrier to international trade, had in reality been a place for entrepreneurship, innovation and progress (Meyer-Ohle 2003). Of course, whilst seeking a more nuanced understanding of Japan, implicitly comparison was always present, asking how the situation in Japan fit with or differed from other countries, whether Japan would develop in the same direction as elsewhere and how far theoretical frameworks developed elsewhere were relevant to Japan. For my studies on Japanese retailing, this concerned matters such as deregulation of planning regulations for the retail sector, the changing influence of wholesalers and manufacturers on the retail sector and the prospects for foreign retailers. Yet, dealing with relatively large issues and seeking to explain the logic of the situation in Japan as such, I did not see the need to set up a comprehensive comparative research framework and to conduct empirical research on the situation beyond Japan. Instead, I found it sufficient to implicitly frame my study and discuss my findings within patterns of development that previous research on the US and UK had identified, asking whether these patterns had explanatory value for Japan, and if not, to come up with suggestions for more suitable explanations.
As the international reputation of Japan as an economic success faded somewhat after the 1990s research on Japan was less able to find receptive audiences. At the same time, research on Japan generally moved towards more detailed questions. In these contexts, I see the need and opportunities for more detailed explicit comparative research.
First, from an educational perspective, teaching in a Department of Japanese Studies in Singapore, yet still largely having to rely on texts that more or less openly assume an underlying comparison between Japan and the West, I would welcome more comparative work across Japan and other Asian countries. Trying to learn about Japan, but as prerequisite having to decipher the implied assumptions of authors about the situation in the US or other Western countries, is not only demanding for my Singapore-based students but also does not do proper justice to the rapid economic development elsewhere in Asia; a comparison with these countries now possibly leading to more relevant frames of reference.
Second, research on business in Japan has advanced to increasingly specific questions and also my own research has increasingly moved into directions where it has become difficult to make clear assumptions about the situation outside of Japan, this making it difficult to frame, evaluate and communicate comparative findings. For example, I have found that when compared to the development of retail formats such as department stores and supermarkets the study of the development patterns of shopping malls is far less advanced. Yet, the shopping mall has become the dominating modern consumption format in many non-western countries and here the existing predominant discourse that critically discusses shopping malls as places of exclusion and control seems to be far less relevant (Salcedo 2003). Yet, at the time when I was interested in this topic, alternative points of reference were still missing and this resulted in my only explicitly comparative study so far (Meyer-Ohle, 2008). Research on human resource management has largely focused on clear differences between Japan’s internal and Anglo-Saxon external labor markets, taking the Anglo-Saxon system largely for granted and then asking for Japan questions such as whether Japan’s employment system would converge towards this model or continue to show distinct features. This framing has continuously proven itself robust enough to accommodate the discussion of new developments. For example, we have discussed the recent tendency of Japanese companies to recruit graduates fresh out of universities outside of Japan into careers in corporate headquarters in Japan. Applying the framework of internal vs. external labor markets allowed us to focus empirical research solely on Japan, without having to resort to comparative empirical research of recruitment practices outside of Japan (Conrad and Meyer-Ohle, 2019). Yet, while conducting this research, we found that we lacked an understanding of the workings of the human resource departments of Japanese companies and this led us to an explorative interview study on this topic. The results are challenging to interpret. For example, we found that there is intensive communication between HR managers of different and often competing companies in Japan in a situation where companies struggle to adjust their human resource strategies. We think that this finding reflects the wider logic of Japan’s business system. Nonetheless, it is difficult to judge the significance of the findings without detailed information on the situation in other countries. The concrete workings of HR departments and especially questions of organizational learning in HR are an understudied field and the discussion on professionalism in HR management is generally confused by normative undertones. Thus, driving research towards more detailed questions leads to the need for more and “equal-level” comparisons. With this come questions about the scale and scope of comparison. Admittedly, personally being deeply socialized and invested in area studies, comparison also comes with concerns with regards to establishing equivalence in data collection, understanding and analysis in terms of data availability and linguistic abilities.
Conrad, Harald and Meyer-Ohle, Hendrik. (2019). Overcoming the ethnocentric firm?–foreign fresh university graduate employment in Japan as a new international human resource development method. The International Journal of Human Resource Management 30, no 17, 2525-2543.
Meyer-Ohle, Hendrik (2003). Innovation and Dynamics in Japanese Retailing – From Techniques to Formats to Systems, Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Meyer-Ohle, Hendrik (2008). Two Asian malls: urban shopping centre development in Singapore and Japan. Asia Pacific Business Review 15, no. 1, 123-135.
Salcedo, Rodrigo (2003). When the global meets the local at the mall.” American Behavioral Scientist 46, no. 8, 1084-1103.
Hendrik Meyer-Ohle is an Associate Professor at the Department of Japanese Studies at NUS Singapore. His fields of research include Japanese Political Economy, Marketing and Consumer Culture in Japan and the Internationalization of Human Resources in Japanese Companies.
Citation: Hendrik Meyer-Ohle, “From Implicit Towards Explicit Comparative Research” in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.04.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27757.