To get ahead in a Japanese company, it is important to have a good mentor. This is a person who can guide you through the often-opaque workings of the company, who can make introductions for you, who can give you behind-the-scenes information, and who can give you honest feedback and advice. But more critically, this is a person who can champion your advancement. Without a higher level person as your advocate, your opportunities for real advancement in a Japanese company are often limited.
This sempai-kohai (senior-junior) relationship is a time-honored connection built on trust and reciprocal obligation. The obligation of the mentor is to guide, protect and help in the advancement of his protégée. This may mean vouching for your reliability and trustworthiness from time to time. The obligation of the kohai is to support and save face for his or her sempai. Supporting him means working as hard as you must to ensure the success of his projects, and making him look good to colleagues or superiors by giving him credit even for things you have done. Protecting his "face" may mean taking responsibility for, or compensating for, his failings. Through these actions, your mentor becomes confident that if he puts in a good word for you, you will not let him, or the company, down.
Although an ideal mentor might be a well-placed Japanese manager or executive, if you are young, a mentor could be anyone senior to you who is helpful. In Japanese subsidiaries in the U.S., there are more and more non-Japanese who are well-connected and who have learned the ropes for being effective in a Japanese company who could also serve as excellent mentors.
In identifying a mentor, you will want to consider the chemistry between you, the person's ability to give you guidance, and his or her overall potential within the company. Other key factors to consider are how well-connect the person is and how able the person is to obtain critical information and influence other. Remember that in the Japanese environment, influential people aren't necessarily the most obvious. Use your observation and indirect information-gathering skills to go beyond the initial perception.
These relationships often evolve naturally, but if you wish to initiate one, it will be helpful to signal your willingness to learn and to display signs of loyalty to the individual you have identified. If your mentor is a Japanese expatriate rotational manager, do not feel all is lost when he leave for Japan or another destination. These are relationships that last a lifetime, and it is well worth exerting the effort to keep the connection alive despite the distance.