Working in Japan: What you need to know

So you plan to work in Japan. You may be wondering if what you have heard about working in a Japanese company is true. Or if you are already working there, you may wonder if what you are experiencing is normal.

The cultural differences between the West and Japan in business can be frustrating for some, but there is also a large community that finds working in Japan rewarding. Here is a list of the pros and cons of working in the land of the rising sun.

Pros of working in Japan

Let’s first look at the things foreigners most often mention they like about working in a Japanese organization.

Courtesy: Taking care in interactions with others is one of the hallmarks of Japanese culture, and it translates into work, as people try to be nice and avoid conflict. It’s easy to assume you’ll get used to larag, but the contrast with non-Japanese companies is stark.

Teamwork: The Japanese are good at teamwork to reach common goals, and naturally prefer to collaborate with other people. This means that co-workers tend to support each other, thus reaffirming a sense of belonging.

Social contacts: Teamwork extends beyond the company with social events with colleagues, most of the time involving an after-work drink. For those who enjoy it, it can further strengthen office relationships.

Consensus in decision making: True to their nature of teamwork, Japanese companies prefer to make decisions based on the consensus of everyone in the group. With the exception of a few companies that are very vertical, most try to ensure that everyone is included in the decision making. Many Japanese employees appreciate this consensus-based approach.

Planning, process and details: Japanese companies consume a great deal of energy in planning, with very detailed information gathering and analysis. They also emphasize the process, paying attention to the smallest details. This leads to high levels of quality and an organized and disciplined approach. Many foreigners say they have learned a lot from this thorough and methodical way of working.

Ability to carry out a plan: As a result of planning and detail, Japanese companies are good at following a plan. Once the company has decided to do something, it makes sure to finish it.

Unboxed tasks: Definitions in job applications in Japan tend to be very vague, which gives you an opportunity to get involved in areas beyond those assigned to you when hiring. There is also room to show initiative and suggest improvements or new activities, even if you are new.

Increased responsibilities: Belonging to a small group of foreign employees can give you the opportunity to get involved in activities and take on greater responsibilities than would be possible in your home country. It also gives you more visibility and exposure to higher-level workers. There is a lot of potential if you show your unique skills and bring your point of view, including your native language.

Opportunity to learn: There is nothing like being inside a Japanese company to deepen your knowledge of business in Japan, not to mention improving your language.

Challenges of working in Japan

Here’s the other side of the coin. Working in Japan is far from being a utopia. Here are the biggest annoyances foreign employees have in Japan. Take a deep breath before reading on.

The language barrier: Perhaps it is the most obvious. Even if you have a good level of Japanese, doing all your work in the language can be exhausting. And if you don’t speak the language, you will realize that there is always a lot of information that is not easy to access. Your Japanese colleagues will also have trouble with the language barrier, which may lead them to believe that trying to communicate with you is not worth it.

Indirect communication: It is difficult for the Japanese to directly say “no”, because it is seen as rude. Until you learn to understand this style of indirect communication, you will have a hard time understanding the subtleties of the negative signals that the Japanese send instead of speaking directly. It is especially true if you come from a cultural environment where it is customary to “say things as they are”. The aversion to confronting people with negative information can also turn into passive-aggressive behavior.

Need to read between the lines: It is not just that Japanese are indirect, their communication style tends to be vague and there are many unwritten rules. The instructions or feedback may not be specific, causing many foreigners to wonder what the true meaning behind the message is. In some cases you will not even be told anything and it is expected that you will deduce it and rectify your behavior. KY is an abbreviation of the expression kuuki wo yomenai (do not read between the lines). Avoid being that person.

Lack of positive feedback: One of the things that is not said in Japanese business culture is positive feedback. Japanese managers rarely say compliments verbally, and rather tend to focus on what can be improved. It can be daunting if you expect a positive reassurance.

It takes time to get things done: Care, planning and consensus in decision making have a collateral effect on processes that can take a long time before reaching a decision. The sheer number of layers in the hierarchy and the myriad of bureaucratic rules typical of Japanese companies can add more time than is needed to get something done.

Slow changes: A corollary of this slowness is that in decision-making it is preferred to preserve the status quo and avoid change. This attitude has its origins in the natural a to abhor risk in Japanese culture, and the incentive structures that punish failure severely. As a result, mid-level managers often refuse to try something new to avoid ruining their careers. As a result of the difficulty of making changes in the Japanese organization, many employees, both Japanese and foreign, may be disappointed.

Detail orientation: The pursuit of perfection means that a tremendous amount of energy is invested in minor details of work. It can take a long time and lead to extra work, not to mention the danger of losing sight of the big picture.

Indefinite professional career: Japanese companies often do not have a clear career path for their employees, and for foreign companies it is much more blurred. It can be a good thing, but you also run the risk of being stuck in the same position for too long.

Long working hours: It is one of the most noticeable aspects of working in Japan. The amount of overtime expected can vary from company to company, from zero to a “punitive amount”. Many companies have realized this problem and have now taken steps to limit the number of overtime hours as part of a series of “work style reform” efforts.

We are all in the same boat.

Of course, the problems in Japanese companies and how they handle their employees is not the exclusive concern of foreign workers. Many of the challenges also frustrate Japanese employees.

Interestingly, recent surveys of foreigners working in Japan have mentioned similar issues. A survey of the human resources company Adecco showed that 77% of respondents were satisfied with their jobs, the content of their jobs and with colleagues, the main reasons for their satisfaction. The negative aspects included indirect communication as one of the biggest concerns, as well as the lack of equality for women at work and the perception of discriminatory practices towards foreigners.

In a similar survey conducted by GPlusMedia in 2017 mentions that the opportunity to live in Japan, the cultural experience, and the benefits are the best part of working in Japan, but work-life imbalance, lack of flexibility, and inequality are the biggest concerns. For those considering leaving their position with a Japanese company, lack of career growth and problems with compensation were the main reasons.

Again, these are generalizations, and every situation is different. Depending on the specific corporate culture of each company, who you work for, your personality and your preferences, some of the topics we discuss may be applicable to a greater or lesser extent, and more or less attractive.