Working in a Japanese company can be quite an adventure, and I definitely made a series of blunders in my early days. When my Japanese manager kept repeatedly explaining to me in detail how the company’s clock-in system worked, I got frustrated and insisted that she make her point clear. In reality, she was trying (in a very Japanese way) to ask me to arrive ten minutes earlier in the morning.
Needless to say, the social norms of a Japanese office can take getting used to. Here are a few things I’ve learned during my work experience to help you navigate the Japanese working world.
1. Humility is better than confidence
When I started working in Japan at a real estate company in 2018, I noticed two fascinating things:
- Whenever I asked a question, my Japanese colleagues answered with hesitation and had a hard time saying “no.”
- In contrast, every time a foreign employee was too confident and straightforward, my Japanese manager would become cold as ice and reject their proposals.
While Westerners tend to think showing confidence through verbal and non-verbal cues, in Japan, you’re expected to show humility through shy speaking and body language. There are two cultural values to describe this—otonashii, which means being humble/reserved, and enryo, which means showing hesitation out of respect.
So, without behaving exactly like the Japanese, tempering your speech to show respect for your colleagues will help you gain their trust.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of the nomikai
Socializing with colleagues is an integral part of work-life, even if it is technically outside working hours. Being European, I was used to early morning chit-chat and coffee breaks between colleagues. At my office in Tokyo, however, absolute calm persisted from morning to night (apart from keyboard clacking), and my attempts to engage in discussion resulted in short responses.
That was until I was invited to my first nomikai.
Nomikai (飲み会) are after-work drinking parties between colleagues. They are in bars or restaurants and meant to celebrate special events or relax after a long day at work. It is in this less formal context that relationships between co-workers become personal.
Don’t doubt the power of nomikai. In my case, I discovered my colleagues in a completely different light. They were relaxed, friendly, and talkative. They were drinking without holding back. We talked about hobbies, their travels in Europe, my view of Japanese culture, and even their love lives.
Ever since the magic of nomikai, a more relaxed atmosphere has lingered in the office.
3. Mistakes are not always easily forgiven
One of my responsibilities in my Japanese real estate company was finding bedding for new tenants. One day, I ordered a new bedding set. Just before the client’s arrival, I discovered to my horror that I had ordered the wrong size. It didn’t fit. I still had time to buy a new one, but I had to inform my boss of my mistake.
“Didn’t you check the size before you bought the set?” she asked me. “How can you not know the difference between semi-double and double size after a year?”
Not paying attention to the details will plant a seed of doubt about you.
It went on like that until she finally agreed to buy a new one. Yet comments about the wrong bedding size continued for months.
In a western workplace, if you make a mistake, you’ll be so embarrassed that you’ll be extra careful never to make it again. In Japan, not paying attention to the details will plant a seed of doubt about you.
You will spend a considerable amount of time trying to regain the trust of your co-workers and supervisors. You may even be micromanaged or sidelined from a task for a while until they feel that you have proven that you can handle it again.
4. Cleaning the toilet will help cleanse your mind
It is common to see Japanese people sweeping the street in front of their workplace and picking up rubbish from the stadium after tournaments. Yet, when my colleague showed me which cleaning products I should use to clean the office and sanitary facilities, I froze.
“In Japan, we believe that cleaning the office and the toilets is a way to clean your mind too,” my manager said after I politely refused. Later, I met a new Japanese recruit while she was kneeling to wash the toilets.
To my surprise, she had a radiant smile on her face. This culture of cleanliness is rooted in Japanese society from an early age. From elementary school to high school, students are expected to clean the classroom, corridors, and washrooms.
Later, I met a new Japanese recruit, kneeling down to wash the toilets. To my great surprise, she had a radiant smile on her face.
BBC Travel explained that cleanliness is also a legacy of spirituality in Japan. In zen teachings, tasks such as cleaning or cooking are considered spiritual exercises in the same way as meditation. Even in Shinto, Japan’s oldest religion, cleanliness and divinity are one and the same. Knowing this, it’s up to you whether to try this approach to cleansing your mind.
5. Playing the gaijin card is okay sometimes
The sheer amount of established yet unspoken social norms in Japan can be intimidating for foreigners, such as not eating on the train or chatting on an elevator.
Although it’s best to respect some rules, foreigners are (for the most part) not expected to live up to the same standards as Japanese people. After all, we weren’t brought up in Japanese culture. We’re typically expected to behave differently. Your company may have even chosen you for the qualities you demonstrated as a foreigner.
For example, since humility and respect are valued in a Japanese employee, it may be difficult for them to position themselves as decision-makers. That is when playing your gaijin card can be of the highest value. Where a Japanese person might be misjudged if he or she stands firm, your lead will likely be more welcomed.
6. A compassionate approach to personal and health issues
While Japan’s work culture is often associated with long overtime, my experience has been the opposite. The companies I’ve for showed high regard for employees’ health and family responsibilities.
The most significant example is parental leave. Japanese law allows men and women to take up to one year off after the birth of a child. For Japanese people, taking an extended holiday—even if you have accumulated days off—remains a frustrating taboo.
Still, things are starting to change. Shinjiro Koizumi, a Japanese politician, announced in January 2020 his plan to take two weeks of paternity leave and hopes he can encourage men to do the same. Please don’t deprive yourself of deserved time off. You could even lead by example and help your colleagues to do the same.
The most beautiful surprise for me has been the respect for employees’ health. After an accident that left me immobilized, instead of putting me on sick leave and denying me any salary, my manager suggested that I work from home and reduce my hours while I recovered.
What other surprising things do you wish you would have known before working at a Japanese company? Let us know in the comments!