National / Media | Japan Pulse

Blog post sparks a constructive debate on office culture in Japan

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

One person’s cultural observations can be another’s daily gripes but, with any luck, they can lead to an enlightening debate. That was the case last week when a blog post about one non-Japanese individual’s experience working in the country’s information technology sector proved popular with Japanese netizens, who found a lot they could relate to.

San Francisco-based software engineer Alejandro Wainzinger uploaded a blog post titled “Gaijin Engineer in Tokyo” to the site Medium on March 8. The lengthy piece focuses on Wainzinger’s experiences while working at a Tokyo company over the course of five years. It touches on many topics, from specific information that engineers should keep in mind (“UTF8 vs Shift JIS and EUC-JP” reads one subhead) to larger points about Japanese office culture. He writes about the long length of simple emails, power harassment and being a non-Japanese in a majority-Japanese workplace (“Never forget, you’re a foreigner. They won’t ever forget,” reads a foreboding early line).

It’s a welcome addition to a genre of English-language writing that offers a foreign perspective on the typical Japanese workplace. Putting aside the surplus of blog posts and YouTube uploads devoted to English teaching (even the sneaker fetishists at Hypebeast have gotten in on that action), the past decade has seen a fair amount of non-Japanese offer up views on life in the anime industry (explored again this week), video game market and as a general office worker, among others. YouTubers create clips about working in film and as a salaryperson (with a humorous twist).

As other accounts in this style have in the past, Wainzinger’s Medium piece prompted similar reactions from those abroad and those embedded in the same kinds of workplaces. It took a little time — the post started popping up on social media and IT-leaning sites about a week later — but it became the top story on Hacker News last week. In the subsequent comments, there was general agreement with Wainzinger’s observations on Japanese engineering life — long emails, constant meetings — but the post also sparked discussion among fellow “outsiders” in other countries, including Britain and the United States. Scroll down far enough and you can even wade into a debate about the terms used to describe foreign workers, if you dare.

This, though, is all to be expected — those living outside Japan love to learn about its inner workings, while those already here love voicing their opinions about Japanese culture at any given opporunity. I’m doing it right now.

What wasn’t as certain was how many Japanese netizens would end up finding the post as well. The post ended up on the popular Hatena Bookmark site, with more than 1,000 users bookmarking it. Wainzinger’s writing then spread to Twitter, shared by users such as @JICRochelle and @haiji505. The post — written mostly in English initially — gained enough attention from Japanese readers that Wainzinger tweeted his thanks, and promised to translate the article into Japanese.

Non-Japanese individuals commenting on the country’s culture — work or otherwise — can be a dicey move, and many netizens rejoice in mocking YouTubers and journalists’ attempts at navigating the nation. Yet Wainzinger’s post has been embraced. That’s partially because of how he wrote it. He’s critical of several aspects of engineering culture, such as pointless meetings and ambiguous conversations, but fair (and offers lots of positivity, too).

Despite approaching it from a foreign perspective, Wainzinger tapped into the same feelings Japanese engineers have about their industry. Comments on the Hatena Bookmark posting found people praising his realistic take on the less-than-stellar IT industry and praising his ability to look at it objectively. A writer at the “orangeitems’s diary” site went through the piece and shared their feelings, echoing many of the sentiments in the original.

“Unfortunately, embarrassingly, this article is totally true,” wrote user Hiroki Yasui in response to Wainzinger on Medium. “I couldn’t share it with my colleagues because of horrible shame.”

In recent years, some of the most popular TV shows — and given how popular recaps of television are, eventually popular posts online — have used non-Japanese visitors to the country as a way to underline Japan’s “uniqueness” to domestic viewers. Wainzinger’s Medium post taps into something similar: He’s presenting an outsider’s view of the Japanese workplace, but connecting with people here over something that appears to be pretty much universal — gripes about work.

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