How much should we read into the recent appointments of foreigners into the top comms roles at two major Japanese companies, Toyota and Takeda?

After all, while Julie Hamp nor Jeff Cross are the first gaijin to oversee communications at their respective companies, there is precedent for these types of roles at Japanese corporate giants.

In recent times, Nissan's marketing and communications were led by Simon Sproule, with comms now overseen by Jeff Kuhlman. And, Uniqlo has Aldi Ligouri in charge of corporate comms.

Yet, it is striking that Toyota and Takeda have justified the moves as part of an overall effort to increase leadership diversity and become stronger global brands. "It’s a hugely positive move," says Sproule. 'And it’s great that corporate Japan continues to open it’s doors."

Since emerging onto the global scene in the 70s, Japanese companies have not exactly struggled to win over international audiences. But some of their product cachet has been overtaken by Korean rivals in recent times. And China's growth story is considered more compelling.

At the same time, Japan's economy has been mired in recession. Global growth for their companies has never been more important. It explains why a number of Japanese companies — including Nissan, Toyota, Takeda and Uniqlo — have installed gaijin as senior leaders, even if they have yet to fully commit to an international public relations strategy."In general, communications is a weakness at Japanese companies compared to international companies," — former Japan comms pro. "The struggle has always been how to effectively tell its story overseas," says one senior comms pro who previously worked in Japan, but asked to remain anonymous. "Japanese companies are very innovative at making things but less good at communicating."

Which means that the challenges for Hamp and Cross will be significant. "The main stumbling block for some are conservative corporate cultures infamously dismissive of a communications function which usually isn't well understood in the first place," says Huntsworth Asia-Pacific chairman Bob Pickard, who launched Edelman's presence in Japan a decade ago.

"Then there is the entrenched inertia of what in some companies are mighty domestic PR departments anchored in the old 'press club system' which still looms large in Tokyo."

So while installing foreigners into senior communications roles is the first part of the puzzle, the second involves the actual influence they have within organisations that have not necessarily adapted to international communications practices.

Neither Hamp nor Cross, for example, report into the CEO. And, in Cross' case, he joins a company that was questioned last year by more than 100 former executives and shareholders about the appointment of non-Japanese to non-senior positions.

"Organisational structure is everything," says the comms pro. "PR in Japanese organisations is usually a revolving door role that’s given to a generalist — they are there for three years, on their way to do something else. This is why you never get organisational muscle, you just have people who are caretaking an operation."  

Putting a foreigner in charge of communications certainly sends the right signals out. And even more welcoming ones when you consider that Hamp is also the first woman to occupy the top comms role at Toyota. But any real change is likely to require as much of a bottom-up approach as a top-down strategy.

"You have to develop and nurture comms talent hat understands global communications protocol and standards and not just Japanese methods," says the former Japan executive. "This is the constant battle. Some of those practices are so complete outdated and outmoded from how the rest of the world operates."

That has proved problematic at the best of times, but especially so in times of crisis, as Toyota learned to its cost during its US product recalls in 2009 and 2010. There is no question that Hamp's promotion is a big deal for the company, but much will depend on whether she, and Cross, have the clout to actually change culture and practices.

"It's tough to tackle these daunting challenges but overcoming them can be done with ample listening, diplomatic tact, consensus seeking and abundant patience," adds Pickard. "Corporate communications life in Japan isn't for everyone. It can be full of frustrations!"

Still, Pickard is fairly bullish about the potential upside. Japan's country brand is consistently ranked above Korea and China, which surely counts as an advantage for its companies, and the country is comfortable with both advanced communications technologies and social networks, whether international or indigenous.

"The exhilarations are absolutely worth it," says Pickard. "The quality design, the attention to detail, the relationship-centrism, the continuous improvement in the PR craft; these are all Japanese characteristics which can travel well  beyond the country's borders."