The first day at my summer internship started with a crisis. Faced with Tokyo’s morning rush hour, I had no idea which of the trains — all seemingly headed in the same direction — was the right one to take.
Luckily, I’d left a little early that morning and had written down the kanji of the station I was headed to. I sheepishly asked a local who responded with a thumbs up.
This was my first trip to Japan and despite the research I did ahead of time, I really had no idea what to expect during my few months interning at The Japan Times. My first lesson? Map out the route to the office ahead of time.
When you finally get to the office, it goes without saying that every situation is different. In general, however, it’s better to be proactive than reactive. If you have a supervisor, ask them if there’s anything you can do. If they’re busy, tell them you’ll be doing some research on the company and are free if needed. Try meeting your supervisor early on and ask what is expected of you and, if possible, try to relay what you hope to get out of the experience. Don’t sit around waiting for something to do, the last thing your new colleagues want is to feel like they need to baby-sit you.
As for the work environment, err on the side of being conservative. Pay attention to how the majority of your office dresses and behaves and follow suit. It doesn’t hurt to let people know when you’re heading to lunch or home for the evening. And if you’re hoping to get time off to go sightseeing, don’t spring it on your supervisor. Ask if it’s OK a few weeks in advance.
It’s also good to study up on some Japanese before heading to the office. I learned that the appropriate aisatsu (greetings) are important in a Japanese workplace. Even if you get them wrong, your Japanese colleagues will likely appreciate your attempt.
If you can speak some Japanese, be honest about how much you understand. Knowing the language can create opportunities, but you don’t want people thinking you know more than you do. The reverse is true as well, if you’re too modest about your ability then you may miss out on opportunities.