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After the imposition of a state of emergency and with the government imploring citizens to stay home as much as possible in order to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, there has been a lot of discussion in the media about the many people in Japan whose employers are still requiring them to come into work. Of course, that workforce also includes non-Japanese and those in the international community.

Working outside of your home country can be stressful under normal circumstances, so a pandemic certainly has the potential to exacerbate challenges. Speaking to non-Japanese people in a wide variety of professions who haven’t been able to work from home, I was expecting to hear a lot about hanko (signature seals) and paperwork, barriers to telework that have been extensively covered in the media. Instead, the most common thing I heard was frustration at the difference in perceptions of the pandemic, and the shock of confronting some hard truths about Japanese organizational culture.

As followers of the English-language media, with its vivid descriptions of spiraling death tolls and harsh lockdowns abroad, as well as hearing firsthand accounts from friends and family at home, many non-Japanese are hyper aware of COVID-19 and highly motivated to practice social distancing. In contrast, many of the Japanese they work with are going about their daily routines with seemingly little change and no social distancing. As a British employee of a prefectural government in Kyushu put it, “I’m sadly deflated from how normal the office is behaving.” This sense of mismatched perception may be accentuated by the fact that many foreign workers are one of a small number of — or the only — non-Japanese in their workplace, leading to a sense of isolation.

Common concerns

For those non-Japanese working at firms that do not allow working from home, the coronavirus crisis is putting into sharp relief some of the less appealing aspects of Japanese corporate culture. Stressful, high-stakes situations like a pandemic make it clear that what is common sense in one culture isn’t as obvious to those who come from another. The potential for serious health consequences means what was formerly an annoying cultural difference can feel more deeply upsetting.

The following were some of the cultural and organizational issues that came up among the people I spoke with:

Rule-driven: Japanese organizations tend to be very rule-based and, in an unprecedented situation like COVID-19, which was not anticipated when the rules were created, the system can become paralyzed. In a 2018 survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication, lack of a company policy was cited as the top obstacle to telecommuting and, indeed, that affected many of the people I talked to.

Status matters: Japanese organizations often have complex hierarchies of different employee groups, from the seishain (“regular” employees or direct hires) to contractors or employees of dispatch organizations, and each group will have its own set of rules and policies that might be radically different. Therefore, schools that employ assistant language teachers directly have the authority to allow them to work from home, while those employed by dispatch organizations at the same school may need to continue to come in each day.

Gaman: Whereas non-Japanese tend to vent when they are stressed, Japanese are more likely to put their heads down and gaman suru (tough it out). A manager at a large English-language school told me that “there is a significant difference in approach between the foreign side and the Japanese side in our organization, with the Japanese side not complaining for fear of stepping out of line.”

Lack of explanations: Several people I spoke with reported a lack of explanation for decisions made by their management as the cause of their frustration, some not even knowing what stage the decision-making is in. For example, one designer reported that, although she was scheduled to work at home, her manager told her to “just come and bring your laptop and do your job.” Although she didn’t understand why it was necessary to be at the office, she felt that she couldn’t refuse. This is a common situation in Japanese organizations, where employees are often expected to comply with what is requested of them even if they don’t fully understand the reason for it. The language barrier can also lead to communication breakdowns, which can feel more stressful at times of heightened tensions.

As a result of these differences, many non-Japanese employees are finding that things are not being done in the way they would hope and expect for them to be done in their own culture. While the ideal for many non-Japanese is managers being empowered to respond to the immediate situation quickly with ad hoc solutions, the more typical reality in Japan is adherence to rules, lack of flexibility and emphasis on facetime. This gap can be highly stressful.

During the COVID-19 crisis, Andrew Grimes, a clinical psychologist and director at Tokyo Counseling Services, has been providing support to non-Japanese who are in situations where they feel uncomfortable about what is being expected from them by their employers. He observes that the gap between what people are hearing from friends and family overseas and the reality of Japanese companies’ “insistence on being there whatever the condition” can produce “an enormous amount of confusion, causing a discord within hearts and minds, and a sense of disillusionment.” He observes that, particularly for people from overseas who have come to Japan and have spent “a year, two years or three years to finally relax and feel supported and appreciated,” the sense of abandonment due to disappointment in your company’s response during this crisis can be particularly painful and “can lead to a sense of hopelessness and the potential danger of going into depression.”

Taking positive action

The key to avoid a negative spiral is to find a way to take positive action. Here are some ideas of what to do if you’re in the situation where you are uncomfortable about being asked to come into work.

The first thing is to try and influence the situation. However, be aware that simply presenting your concerns is not likely to suffice and could potentially be viewed as mere complaining and consequently dismissed. Rather, it’s more effective to use the same techniques that are useful in any other situation in which you are trying to influence the decision-making processes of a Japanese organization.

I’ll share my personal experience here as an example. I teach at a university in Kyushu and as of early April the school had not yet decided to switch to online classes. Some of the other faculty and myself (mostly, but not all, non-Japanese) felt strongly that it would be in the best interests of students, faculty and staff to make that switch, and we worked together to try to influence the conversation about it at the school. We held a Zoom session for those faculty members who had never used the platform before to show them what it was like and how it could be used for distance learning — giving people direct experience with something new is often important for gaining support in Japanese environments. We did some research and compiled a list of 44 Japanese universities that had already announced that they would make the switch — the zenrei (prior examples) that are such important persuasive tools in Japan. Finally, we prepared a memo in both English and Japanese that calmly expressed our concerns and made our case for why we thought distance learning was the right choice.

Taking positive action as a team in this way felt collaborative and constructive, and, to be honest, was much better than the solitary stewing I had been engaged in prior to teaming up with my colleagues. Since I was not personally interfacing with the decision-makers, it’s hard to know what impact, if any, our actions had, but our school did ultimately decide to go online.

The second key thing to keep in mind during this time is that cultural differences are part of the story. When faced with behaviors that are radically different from what you expect or feel are appropriate, it’s very easy to reflexively apply negative labels. Remember to step back and consider what part culture might play in what you are observing. How individuals and organizations behave at a time of crisis is going to reflect deep cultural assumptions.

Most importantly, make sure to take care of yourself.

“Remember that it’s not unreasonable to be feeling overwhelmed at this time,” says Grimes, suggesting that we should all “find someone to share this terrible sense of the unknown that we all have right now,” whether it’s keeping in touch online with friends and family from home, or reaching out to friends in Japan.

Rochelle Kopp teaches at Kitakyushu University and consults with both Japanese firms operating globally and foreign firms operating in Japan. She recently published “Manga de Wakaru Gaikokujin to no Hatarakikata” (“Learn How to Work With Non-Japanese Through Manga”). You can find her on Twitter at @JapanIntercult.

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