How-tos

In the Japanese workplace, take training into your own hands

by Rochelle Kopp

Contributing Writer

When I graduated from college and went to work for a consulting firm in Chicago, for the first week I was asked to sit next to someone who had worked there for a couple of years in the same role, who methodically took me through everything I needed to know in order to do my job.

So when I took a position at a Japanese bank in Tokyo two years later, I expected a similarly thorough orientation. Instead, I was surprised to find that the extent of my training was my boss taking me around the department and introducing me individually to each of my co-workers. After that I was completely on my own to figure out what I should be doing and how best to do it.

Larger Japanese companies typically have extensive training for employees fresh out of college or university, but unlike the job-specific explanations I experienced in Chicago, the Japanese method is more a general orientation that focuses on things like how to correctly use keigo (polite language) with customers. All the new graduates attend such training as a group, so it doesn’t go into anything detailed about their roles. Then, once they are assigned to their workplaces, learning how to do their jobs happens through on-the-job training, which Japanese frequently refer to with the acronym OJT.

On-the-job training in Japan

One of my Japanese clients filled me in on how this OJT typically works. His firm, like many Japanese companies, uses the standard one-page bento-like format known as A3 for all internal decision-making documents. So preparing a good A3 is a key skill for anyone who wants to get ahead in that company.

I asked him how he had learned to prepare an A3, was there a class? He said no, and that as a young employee he was told to write a report in A3 format, which he did and then turned it in to his boss — who then corrected it with numerous red pen marks. He would re-do it, again to get a bunch of corrections from his boss. And again and again, until it passed muster. Then the process started over the next time he had to write an A3. By repeatedly writing A3s and getting corrected, he learned “on-the-job” how to write them well.

Listening to this description, I realized that it was similar to an experience I had when taking an ikebana course. There was no textbook and little verbal explanation from the instructor. Instead, at the beginning of each class she made an arrangement herself, and then told each of us to make the same thing on our own. I had no idea what I was doing, but managed to cobble something together.

The teacher then came to see what I had done and, without a word, took all the flowers and branches out and put them back in again — in a much more beautiful way, to be honest. This same thing happened week after week and I was tempted to quit the class, thinking that I obviously was not cut out for arranging flowers.

Then one day, the instructor left in place one of the branches that I had put in. The next time, she left in two of the branches that I had put in. Eventually, she made fewer and fewer corrections. Somehow I had gotten the knack of ikebana by trying it for myself and then being corrected.

This model for teaching and learning is a common one in Japan, so it’s important to recognize when it’s happening. Training is taking place, although not necessarily in the way that you might be accustomed to receiving it, and it’s important to realize that the corrections and the repetitive work are not a criticism of your abilities, but rather are the crux of the training process.

Be a good observer

A key aspect of this traditional Japanese approach to training is minarai, or learning by watching. For my client, this would have been his reading the A3s that his manager or other experienced A3 writers had prepared. For me as an ikebana student, it was observing how the instructor made her arrangement at the beginning of each class. It’s important to be on the lookout for such opportunities to learn through observation, and make the most of them, rather than expecting everything to be spoon-fed to you.

I once heard about an American employee at a Japanese auto part supplier’s U.S. factory, who was sent to Japan for training. At the plant in Japan, he was taken to a spot overlooking the factory floor, and was told “Please watch.” Not realizing that he was being given an opportunity to learn through observation, he thought he had been put there to be out of the way, and was miffed that he wasn’t getting the training that he was expecting.

Another example of minarai is something I heard about the chefs working at the Imperial Hotel prior to World War II. The young chefs had come to work there in hopes of learning how to make French sauces, a rare skill in Japan at the time. However, they found the senior chefs were not willing to share their recipes, and simply made them do the dishes. Before cleaning the pots, the young chefs would lick the remnants of the sauce and try to reverse engineer in their minds what the ingredients were. I’ve heard Japanese businesspeople espouse a similar philosophy to the tight-lipped senior chefs, calling it “gijutsu o nusume” — “you have to steal what you want to learn.”

Of course, not all Japanese businesspeople share this approach to the extreme of those chefs, but there does tend to be the expectation that more junior employees will make efforts to figure things out for themselves rather than waiting for everything to be handed to them on a silver platter. Doing your own research and legwork, or making a first attempt at something before talking with your supervisor, can be helpful. You’re much more likely to get a positive response and useful input from your manager if you come to them with a first draft, outline or plan than if you come empty-handed.

Find a helpful senpai

Another good way to learn about things in a Japanese company without having to rely on a manager who may be not used to giving a lot of explanation is to find a senpai, someone who is a few years older than you who can give advice and answer questions. When I worked at the bank in Tokyo, I was lucky enough to find someone from another department who relished helping me learn how to get things done in a Japanese environment. Answering my questions seemed to be interesting to him, and he liked being in the role of explaining things (I also think it was a way for him to show off to the cute gal who sat next to me, but whatever works!)

It’s definitely worth your while to look for a senpai. There may be a natural person to play this role in your department, so be especially nice to those who are a bit older than you and see if they are amenable to giving you advice. Participating in company activities or clubs is a good way to get to know potential senpai in other departments.

Rochelle Kopp is a management consultant specializing in Japanese business culture. She works with Japanese firms operating globally and foreign firms operating in Japan. You can find her on Twitter at @JapanIntercult.