Cultural Differences: McDonald’s in Japan

When Ray Kroc established McDonald’s in 1955 he founded the restaurant on the basis of providing customers quality, service, cleanliness, and value. The McDonald’s website still boasts these values as part of its core as well as giving back to the communities in which they do business, celebrating achievements while striving to achieve new heights, approaching all aspects of the business with honesty and integrity, and giving back to the system that provides them their success. Along with the core values, McDonald’s includes its guiding principles on the website– a commitment to exceeding customer’s expectations, belief in success from the ‘three-legged stool’ (corporate, franchisee partners, and supplier partners), a passion and responsibility for enhancing and protecting the McDonald’s brand, a belief in collaborative management approach, and a commitment to franchising and seizing every opportunity to innovate and lead the industry. These values and principles make up the organizational culture of McDonald’s.

McDonald’s is a prime example of Davis and Scott’s corporate culture. Such organizations “rely less on formalized control systems than on the development of a set of common beliefs and norms that participants employ to orient and govern their contributions.” (Scott, 2007: 213) The culture of McDonald’s is stable and well established. Hamburger University, located in Oak Brook, Illinois, is a training center that is used in order to instill the principles of the business to more than 5,000 employees each year.  The university is used to develop the most committed individuals in the industry.

Service with a smile, bright lights, fast food, predictability and cleanliness are all things that are associated with McDonald’s, not only by employees but with customers as well. It can be anticipated, no matter the location around the globe, when a hamburger is ordered it will be delivered by a friendly associate and it will have the typical McDonald’s taste. Having such a strong organizational culture creates an environment in which employees know what is expected of them and are eager to perform in such a way as to uphold the values of the company. 

If any American were asked to sum up the organizational culture of McDonald’s, they would respond with efficiency and standardization. Americans eat McDonald’s because the food comes fast and there is no skepticism over taste. McDonald’s restaurants are a sense of comfort when people travel abroad; there is no need to worry whether or not the local cuisine will be suitable when there are McDonald’s on every street corner. Surprisingly, these corporate values were not the ones that created the most buzz in Asia. Easterners were not looking for a restaurant meal they could eat in eleven minutes, the average time an American spends eating at McDonald’s, nor were they looking for an ordinary hamburger that tastes the same in Hong Kong and Beijing.  Then, what was it that made the organizational culture of McDonald’s so adaptable to Asian culture or so powerful it was able to alter Asian culture to agree with the organization’s principles?

Before answering the question I wanted to first look at some general cultural differences that exist between Americans and Asians. Harris (2002) includes a comparison of these cultural differences in a table in his book Managing Cultural Difference.  These divergent values Harris notes, shown in the table below, make it seem nearly impossible for McDonald’s to not only flourish in the East, but merely survive.


In 1971, Den Fujita opened the first McDonald’s establishment in Japan. In order to understand what he was up against I would like to examine the significance of obentōs in Japan. Obentōs are boxed lunches Japanese mothers make for their nursery school children. Following Japanese code for food preparation, the lunches are intricately arranged and have cultural order and meaning. The lunches are prepared daily by mothers and must be consumed quickly and entirely by the child in the company of classmates. The message surrounding the obentō is that the world is constructed very precisely and the role of any Japanese citizen is to be carried out with similar precision. The lunch represents many ideals of the Japanese state: women are responsible for sustaining a child through food and providing support for the ideas of culture the food embeds; a child’s duty is to education, which is made possible by mother’s who make their lunches; and men, who have no presence in the lunches, are identified by their place of work and are accountable for supporting the family by monetary means. (Allison, 2008)

Obento Box Lunch

Obento Box Lunch

The Japanese ideals, exemplified through the obentō, touch on almost all of the points Harris lists about Asian culture. Allison continues on Japanese culture and says, “To be Japanese is to eat Japanese food. Rice is so symbolically central to Japanese culture that Japanese say they can never feel full until they have consumed their rice at a particular meal or at least once during the day.” (Allison, 2008:225) And yet, Fujita thought he had something when he decided to open the first McDonald’s in Japan.

Food preferences, in the past, were considered culturally oriented. With the globalization and success of franchises abroad, McDonald’s has proven that tastes can change. The corporate culture of the organization affected how the organization coped with competition and changed. When the first franchise opened in Japan, the menu consisted mostly of items similar to those in the United States.  In effort to increase sales, McDonald’s restaurants experimented with different food items such as Chinese fried rice, curried rice with chicken, and fried egg burgers. (Ohnuki-Tierney, 2007) The menu adjustments are examples of McDonald’s playing to one of its guiding principles: a commitment to exceeding customer expectations.

Consumer taste was not the only challenge McDonald’s had to deal with in Japan. Commensality, eating together at one table, is central to the Japanese. One of the most important roles of food is bringing people together and creating a sense of community. Rice, which is delivered to the table in a common container and served to everyone at the table, is the essence of a food that bonds families and creates social relationships. McDonald’s hamburgers, conversely, are meant to be eaten individually and cannot be shared. Not only does the food in McDonald’s restaurants fail to encompass the characteristic of commensality, but the physical arrangement of the restaurants in Japan further de-emphasize this feature. The original franchise in Ginza, Japan had neither tables nor seats; there were counters in which customers were expected to eat their meals on the go. As McDonald’s expanded in Japan, restaurants gradually included tables in the layout. Usually on the first floor of restaurants there is a small space for ordering food and seating areas are on the second and third floors. Still, restaurants have more counters with stools facing walls than they do tables with chairs.

The final obstacle the Japanese posed for the expansion of McDonald’s was their perception of the food as snacks. Any food that consists of bread is not deemed “filling,” and hamburgers have become a snack that is consumed between meals. McDonald’s diversion from commensality and its supply of non-traditional Japanese food coupled with the consumer’s perception of the food as a snack has created an environment suitable for young people to come and hang out.

In Japan, the national culture seems to have had a greater impact on the organizational culture than the reverse. They have not conceded to the traditional tastes of American hamburgers, but instead prefer rice burgers, a slice of meat between bun-shaped rice patties. Though it has become progressively more acceptable by the Japanese to eat at McDonald’s, it has not become a place where lunches or dinner by the masses is consumed. Den Fujita concedes: “McDonald’s has gained ample recognition among Japanese consumers. However, our image is that of a light-meal restaurant for young people. We are not regarded as a place for adults to have dinner.” (Ohnuki-Tierney, 2007:164)

McDonalds Rice Burger
McDonald’s Rice Burger

To read about McDonald’s in Hong Kong click here!

If you missed the first post and would like to read it click here!


10 Responses

  1. […] McDonald’s in … on McDonald’s in Beiji…Cultural Differences… on Organizational Culture vs. Nat…Cultural Differences… on […]

  2. What about commensality? Does McD have an adaptation?

    There are less strong forms in the US. They tend to be focused on friends more and be much less intense. Still, to have a pizza or bag of fires and not share with your friends is the norm. This is not true for hanging out with friends and eating lasagna or (!) sushi.

  3. Very interesting article. It helped me with my paper on McDonald’s and diversity.

    Thank you.


  4. […] Differences: McDonald’s in Japan 2010 January 27 by maceyk In looking at the post, Cultural differences:  McDonald’s in Japan, there was much that stood out making it an effective blog.  From the very title of the blog the […]

  5. due to the busy schedules from work, most people would just prefer to eat on fastfoods .

  6. RUGBY!!!!!!!!!!

  7. In the old days, they just used Ronald, Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese in TV commercials even in Japan!

  8. in America, McDonald’s isn’t necessarily what you would have for a “sit-down” dinner, either.

  9. Mcdonald’s commercials in China are different than ones in the US! Watch this video to learn more:

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