So you’re thinking of working for a Japanese firm. You might be wondering whether what you’ve heard about working in Japan is true. Or, if you’re already working here, you may wonder if what you’re experiencing is typical.
I’ve devoted my career to the subject of non-Japanese working in Japanese companies. I was caught up in the first wave of hiring of non-Japanese employees, back during the bubble economy, when I got a job at the headquarters of a large Japanese bank.
Puzzled at why things didn’t work the same way that they did when I was at an American company back in Chicago, I became curious about how Japanese organizations operate and how non-Japanese can succeed in them. I ended up going back to grad school, writing a book on this issue, and, for the past 25 years since, have been consulting to Japanese global companies on cross-cultural and human resource topics. I split my time between Japan and the United States, where I work with non-Japanese employees working in Japanese companies in both places in industries ranging from cars to video games to pharmaceuticals.
When doing seminars at clients, I ask people what they enjoy most about working in a Japanese organization, and what they find most challenging. I’ve compiled a summary of the top themes that come up.
First let’s take a look at the things that non-Japanese mention most frequently as being what they like most about working in a Japanese organization. Of course, these don’t necessarily apply to every specific company and workplace.
It’s good to keep in mind that there can always be too much of a good thing, and that for every one of these strengths there can be a downside if it’s taken too far. One thing’s for sure, it’s important to keep these positives in mind if just for your own sanity — dwelling on the negatives can easily lead to unhappiness.
Politeness: Care in interactions with others is one of the hallmarks of Japanese culture, and this translates in the workplace as people making an effort to be pleasant and nonconfrontational. It’s easy to take for granted once you get used to it, but it can be a noticeable contrast to the more rough-and-tumble atmosphere of some non-Japanese companies.
Teamwork: Japanese are very good at working in teams to get things done and, naturally, prefer to collaborate with others. This means that colleagues can be very supportive, and also creates a natural sense of belonging.
Social contacts: Teamwork extends outside of the company with a lot of socializing with colleagues, most often over drinks after work. For those that enjoy it, this can lead to very strong relationships in the office.
Consensus in decision-making: True to their team nature, Japanese companies prefer to make decisions based on the consensus of everyone in the group. With the exception of some Japanese companies that are very top down, most firms strive to make sure that everyone (or at least their representatives) is on board with any decisions. Many non-Japanese employees appreciate this consensus-based approach.
Planning, process and details: Japanese companies spend an enormous amount of energy on planning, with detailed information gathering and analysis. They also put a lot of emphasis on the process, including attention to small details. This leads to high levels of quality and a disciplined, organized approach. Many non-Japanese say they learn a lot from this thorough and methodical way of working.
Ability to execute: As a result of the careful planning and attention to detail, Japanese companies are very good at following through with a plan. Once a Japanese company has decided to do something, it makes sure to get it done.
Lack of pigeonholing: Job definitions in Japan tend to be vague, which can give you an opportunity to get involved in areas beyond what you were originally hired for. There is often also scope to take initiative and suggest improvements or new activities, even if you are in an entry-level position.
Increased responsibility: Being one of a small number of non-Japanese employees can give you the opportunity to get involved in activities and take on more responsibility than might be possible when working in your home country. It also gives you more visibility and potential exposure to senior-level workers. There is a lot of potential to leverage your unique skills and viewpoint, including your native language.
Opportunity for learning: There is nothing like being inside a Japanese company for deepening your knowledge of Japanese business, not to mention your language skills.
Alright, waiting for the other shoe to drop? Here it goes. The Japanese office is far from being a utopia and the following criticisms are also pet peeves for many Japanese. Take a deep breath and commiserate, here are the challenges of working for a Japanese company.
The language barrier: Even if you speak Japanese well, doing all your work in Japanese can be a strain. And if you don’t speak Japanese, you’ll find that there is always information that is not easily accessible. Your Japanese colleagues will likely also be struggling with a language barrier, which can sometimes lead to them thinking it’s not worth the effort to try and communicate.
Indirect communication style: People often tell me that the reluctance of their Japanese colleagues to say “no” clearly is a source of frustration. Until you get used to this style of communication, it may be difficult in pick up on the subtle negative signals that Japanese send instead of coming out and speaking directly. This is especially true if you’re from a culture that prefers to “tell it like it is.” The reluctance to confront people with negative information can also turn into passive-aggressive behavior.
A need to read between the lines: Not only do Japanese tend to be indirect, their communication style also tends to be vague. Instructions or feedback may be conveyed very nonspecifically, leaving non-Japanese to wonder what the real meaning is. Or, in some cases, nothing may be said at all, with the expectation being that you’ll somehow figure it out.
Lack of positive feedback: One of the things that tends to get left unsaid in Japanese culture is positive feedback. It’s rare for Japanese managers to praise verbally, and instead they tend to have a laser focus on what needs to be improved. This can feel disconcerting if you’re used to positive reinforcement.
Takes a long time to get anything done: The carefulness, planning and consensus-oriented decision-making discussed earlier has the effect of creating long drawn-out processes when making a decision. The large number of layers in the hierarchy and the myriad bureaucratic rules typical of Japanese firms can add to the time needed to finalize anything.
Slow to change: A corollary of the slowness to make decisions is a tendency to stick to the status quo and avoid change. This stems from the risk-averse nature of Japanese culture and incentive structures that harshly punish failure. As a result, middle managers in particular tend to be very reluctant to try anything new, lest it fail and doom their careers. As a result of the difficulty making changes in a Japanese organization, many employees — both Japanese and non-Japanese — can lose hope and become embittered.
Detail orientation: The Japanese pursuit of perfection means that tremendous energy may be devoted to relatively minor aspects of the work. This can be time-consuming and lead to extra work, not to mention the danger of losing sight of the forest for the trees.
Unclear career path: Japanese companies tend to not define clear career paths for their Japanese employees and, in the case of non-Japanese, the potential future paths are usually even less well mapped out. While there can be a great upside potential, there is also the danger of being stuck in a dead-end position.
Long working hours: This is one of the most notorious aspects of Japanese workplaces. The amount of overtime expected can vary significantly by company — anywhere from none to “a punishing amount.” Realizing this is a problem for all employees, many Japanese firms are attempting to restrict overtime as part of recent “workstyle reform” efforts.
We’re all in the same boat
Of course, issues with Japanese firms and how they manage employees is not only a concern of non-Japanese workers — many of the above challenges are things that frustrate Japanese employees as well.
Interestingly, some recent surveys of non-Japanese working in Japan have turned up similar themes. A survey conducted by job placement firm Adecco showed 77 percent of those surveyed being satisfied with their jobs, with the content of the work and the relationships with co-workers being the top reasons for their satisfaction. The negatives included indirect communication among the top responses, as well as concerns about lack of equality for women in the workplace and perceived discrimination against non-Japanese in general.
In a similar survey conducted by GPlusMedia in 2017, respondents mentioned the opportunity to live in Japan, the cultural experience and good benefits as the best part of working in Japan, and poor work-life balance, lack of flexibility and inequality as their top concerns. For those thinking of leaving their position at a Japanese firm, lack of career progression and compensation issues were the top reasons given.
Again, these are all generalizations, every situation is different. Depending on the specific corporate culture of the firm that you work for and your own personality and tastes, some of the things discussed here may be more or less applicable, and more or less appealing or annoying to you personally.