I was born and raised in Japan, but moved to Southern California to go to college. I briefly moved back to Tokyo after graduating from college and have worked for several Japanese companies but these were all part time contracting jobs so I do not pretend to understand what it is really like to work for a Japanese company.
However, my father is one of those extremely dedicated Japanese salary men. I am forever thankful for all his hard work, as he worked under enormous pressure to support our family.
There are pros and cons of working for Japanese companies, and it is a matter of personal preference but here are some differences I’ve seen between Japanese and American work environments and conditions.
No matter what you do and where you work in Japan, you are expected to show your dedication as an employee by working long hours. Japanese culture tends to value hard work. If you want to move up the ladder in Japan, do not clock in and out on time! Try to arrive in the office at least 15 minutes before your scheduled start time. Before you leave your work, ask your coworkers if they need any help.
When I worked as a part-time waitress at the restaurant, the lead waitress in her late 30s scolded me for clocking in and out on time. I was told that I should always ask if other waitresses need any help and if they do, I should stay and help. Harmony and teamwork are extremely important in Japanese companies.
This is especially true for Japanese salary men. These career employees often work up to 16 hours a day or even longer without overtime pay. We do that here in America also but it is much more common and even more excessive in Japanese.
After-Hours Drinking Party (Nomikai):
My sister’s husband is a salesman at a Japanese medical device company, and even after working long hours each day he is still expected to take his clients for drinking (it is called “settai”) after work.
Drinking after work is considered part of the job for Japanese salaryman. Drinking parties wasn’t the only thing that kept my father busy for all these years. He was expected to participate in sports activities sponsored by his company, which often meant he wan’t home on the weekends.
Open Office Layout:
Another interesting thing about Japanese companies is the open office layout. I do have to say that I like working in America better because you are often given a larger space with your own cubicle or even your own office.
In Japan the most common office type is an open room filled rows upon rows of desks. Usually Japanese firms do not have cubicles, instead, Japanese employees sit right next to each other. Japan is a small country, so unless you have an executive level position, you are most likely not going to have a spacious private office.
Long Inefficient Meetings
My American friend who works for a Japanese firm told me an interesting story about her meeting with her Japanese boss and other colleagues. She was complaining about the inefficiency of their meetings and how her Japanese boss and her colleagues need to reach an absolute consensus before they can wrap up each meeting. In Japan, consensus is more important for Japanese management than reaching certain conclusions.
Whenever we go into a meeting at my American company, we already have an agenda with discussion items, and we try to not waste any time and have our boss review and make quick decisions on these items. “Time is money” in America so my work in America usually sticks to the agenda and try to wrap it up and make decisions within the scheduled timeframe.
When I was in elementary school in Japan, it was mandatory for us to do a calisthenics in the playground. It is silly, but many Japanese firms incorporate this exercise into the daily morning meeting since they believe that this exercise improves the employees’ productivity level. My Japanese friend Yoshi works for Toshiba, and he told me that he had to do exercise in front of his boss every morning. That is a great way to start a day but he also told me that he felt like a kid doing this exercise in a playground again.
There are pros and cons of working for Japanese companies, and given the drastic differences between Japanese and American work environment, it is hard for me to simply say that American work environment is better. It all comes down to your personal preference.
If you grew up in Japan and are comfortable with traditional Japanese corporate culture, you shouldn’t have any problems finding and sustaining the job. It has changed in recent years but Japanese companies normally offer high quality pension plans and also offer a life-long career plan.