When Qian Zhuhui joined Nissan Motor Co. eight years ago, she was bewildered by the reactions to her suggestions about the legal risks of a new project.
She kept insisting, acting in the company's best interest, but was told, "People are gonna hate you."
Qian, 43, is now an executive in Nissan’s Legal Department, the group that draws up contracts. And as the company rapidly increases production and sales in a country that has become the world's largest automobile market, Qian is perhaps the most essential person in the negotiations with China.
Born in China, she listens to the Chinese side as she sits beside Nissan's chief negotiator. It is a contest over who can gain the most advantageous contract conditions. Whenever Qian notices a risk for Nissan, she does not hesitate to interject.
With executives from 13 countries, around half of Nissan's top 97 people are foreign-born. But even in such a global company, few women have reached the department-chief level.
Embodying the diversity that the company promotes, Qian fights to unite overseas business operations with the Japanese parent company.
"I think up solutions with minimal risk so we can do our business,” Qian says. “It's an interesting job."
Qian is from China's elite. Born in Beijing, she passed the bar after graduating from university. However, after her father, a man with many friends in Japan, began working in the country after retiring, both of Qian's parents invited her to join them in Japan.
In 1994, she did. But they wanted her to quickly become financially independent, so Qian cooked and washed dishes in ramen shops and Japanese restaurants in Shinjuku while attending Japanese language school. She was ambitious and competitive.
“I want to take on new challenges," she says.
Qian studied such subjects as business law in a master's program at Keio University. She was later hired by a major Japanese electronics company.
Qian submitted an essay addressed to the company president, explaining how corporate law in China will become more important and expressing her desire to maintain the international perspective she had acquired in Japan.
"I thought it would be interesting to be in the middle rather than just in Japan or China," she says.
Qian worked at the electronics company for six years. She then joined Nissan Motor, the year after the company had created a joint venture in China. This time, too, the reason for Qian's decision was "integration."
"Companies that are purely foreign-financed don't interest me,” she says. “I thought a place that was well-integrated might be good for me because it allows its employees to think in lots of different ways."
Qian says that lately she is often mistaken as Japanese.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of normalized diplomatic relations between Japan and China.
While political quarrels continue, more "Chinese-Japanese" people are emerging in both countries and know the way that both peoples think. Qian is one of the more successful of the bunch.
Even now, Qian keeps a copy of the essay she sent to the electronics company president on her computer. Sometimes she reads it over. When looking back on the pledge she made to become an international person, Qian is pleased that "I didn't stray."
Excerpts from the interview follow:
SINO-JAPANESE RELATIONS A 'WIN-WIN'
Question: Why did you decide to work at a company instead of a law firm?
Qian: I worked for nearly three years at a law firm before coming to Japan. I felt really removed then. I never knew if my proposals at the law firm were taken up. There was something lacking. I thought it would be more interesting to see how my influence and expertise is helping.
Q: How did you end up joining Nissan Motor?
A: When I submitted an anonymous resume on a scout page at a job recruiter's Internet site as I was looking for work, Nissan and some other companies contacted me. I knew quite well that the automotive industry was growing in China, so I was interested. I didn't want to leave Tokyo, and I felt that Nissan was sincere because they "wanted" me. Plus, I wanted to do a job with a positive atmosphere and work for a company with a global personality. But of course the most important thing is that the business is interesting.
'YOU'RE CHINESE, AREN'T YOU?'
Q: That's when Nissan moved into the Chinese market, right?
A: I was told at my first interview: "We've just made a joint venture in China, so you would work there for about a year. Then when things get settled, we'd have you do some other work." I was happy because I wanted to have lots of experiences, but my work in China would quickly build up.
Q: I suppose it must be an advantage at negotiations with Chinese companies to know how Japanese and Chinese people think. But do you ever feel torn between the two sides?
A: I do. When I worked for an electronics company, sometimes a person from a Chinese company we were negotiating with would say something to me like, "You're Chinese, aren't you?" That’s probably because I pick up on things in negotiations that Japanese-only groups don't. And when I do, I point out various things to the other side, so they seem to think, "I wish she'd keep quiet for a bit." But I can't do that because the company assesses me on my work performance. I can never leave risks as they are, knowing they are there.
I gradually got the Chinese company's people to understand my situation when I'd tell them: "Let's go out for drinks after work. At the negotiating table, think of me as somebody from a Japanese company."
Q: With a lot of non-Japanese at Nissan, how does the company foster communication among employees?
A: The company's intranet offers lots of things like employee interviews and symposiums on diversity. I even appeared in one last year. My co-workers, bosses and subordinates are all a mix of Japanese and foreigners, so in the interview they asked me stuff like how I feel about communication, what I'm careful about in my job and what I find hard about it. There's been quite a response and I've gotten e-mails from people I worked with.
NOT ABOUT THE MONEY
Q: I think it's a strength for a company competing in the global market to produce ideas with views from people of different cultural backgrounds clashing against each other. What sorts of things specifically do you find difficult about working with Japanese people alongside many Westerners?
A: For example, if I'm just with Japanese, they still understand me even if I'm not explicit, but Westerners won't. Cultures are different, so I adapt how I deal with them depending on whom I deal with. But when I do that, sometimes Westerners are dissatisfied when they see me dealing with the Japanese. But we all have the same purpose. I work under the idea that I can find the answer by trying different communication approaches.
Q: With the increase in Asian non-Japanese employees, the drive of young people from China and elsewhere seems conspicuous. Where does that drive come from?
A: Perhaps it's upward mobility. Competition is tough in China, and it's an emerging economy with a lot of opportunity. In Chinese, we have a saying: “bujin zetui.” It means that when you stop, you fall behind because everyone else is moving.
Personally, I always want to do new things. To give a mountain climbing analogy, the higher you climb, the more you can see. Right now I'm glad I came to Japan. I might have become a rich and famous lawyer if I'd stayed in China, but I would have had completely different life experiences.
I've gotten a lot of high-paying job offers from Chinese and other companies, but I turned them down. Life is not about the money. I think it's how many experiences you can have.
Q: Traveling back and forth between Japan and China, do you sense any change in the two countries' relationship?
A: At first I thought that Sino-Japanese relations were limited to government and had no direct connection to us, but that's actually not the case. When there were really bad anti-Japanese demonstrations, we were aware of it in the workplace, too. We were careful, keeping quiet. The friction is problematic because Japanese and Chinese work together.
But lately I feel like there's a new trend in which people are thinking of Sino-Japanese relations as a "win-win" relationship in which we should cooperate and grow our economies while improving each other's living standards. In fact, when I came to Japan and applied for part-time jobs, some turned me down because I'm Chinese. Now Japanese people seem to have matured.
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