It’s difficult to establish yourself as a foreign employee in a Japanese workplace. A lot of the time you rely on those around you. But that isn’t to say your insight isn’t valuable, on the contrary, you have the gift of seeing things from outside the shouganai bubble.
Even raising an issue can bring to light something others had no idea would be a problem.
Trying to establish your role and responsibilities, and getting people to respect you as an equal member of the team, is a challenge in any working environment. But there are certain systems and behaviours that are unique to the Japanese workplace. If you’re aware of these and can prepare accordingly, then you’re much more likely to gain respect and, in turn, have your ideas heard.
Listen and learn
It’s important to realize some people in managerial positions may not be direct promotions. For example, you have a biochemist heading the personnel department. As such people are expected to learn on the job at all levels; the same applies for you.
If you ask someone for guidance, they want to teach you what they know. If you appear reluctant to learn, it won’t help when you ask them to learn something from you in turn.
Propose an idea with examples
Pick one idea at a time, and focus on it. It’s likely that your first idea will be thoroughly scrutinised. It will set the precedence for all future ones, so it needs consideration.
It could be something small like an English version of software everyone uses – a simple request that only affects you. It may not be the one you want implemented the most but if it has a good chance of being seen through to the end, start with this one.
Secondly, use previous examples when putting forward your idea. This way it’s easy to find the same information in Japanese and English online, so anybody involved can research your points. It also shows confidence and expertise on your part.
Don’t be vague
There will be times when all you get is “we want X to be more Y” without any more instruction. Other times someone above wants the same kind of goal in two very different fields, and it’s your job to see them through. Having responsibility with low communication seems daunting at first, but can be done. No matter how vague the instruction is, make sure you can compartmentalize your plan of action for anyone who asks. It’s a simple step but helps to no end when words fail you.
Your idea will change, having met dead ends, forks, or shortcuts in the road. Lay out your initial plan into all its parts, separating the what to achieve from the how you wish to achieve it, and be ready to explain that to anyone who asks.
Find your champion
As I said, not everyone is in the field they’re specified for. There might be someone who understands what you want to do, who knows how you can do it, but can’t help because they work in an unrelated department.
Before you approach your boss, exchange ideas with someone established in the relevant department. A person who knows the system well enough to offer an experienced perspective. If you can convince them of its merit, you have a powerful ally to your cause.
Bear in mind, the person best suited to help and the person most willing to help you may not be the same.
Consider your coworkers
The proximity to you of those affected by any change you try to implement also plays a huge factor. When you do propose something, consider the working hierarchy: The more people affected, the more hesitant your boss will be to vouch for you above him or her. Try ensuring that the group affected is within their area of authority.
Understand that others might be reluctant to make a change
Their concern probably isn’t how it’s done, but the change puts the “will it get done” into question. The current state may by no means be the most efficient, but it’s one they know that works.
Learn how each team works in relation to each other and piece together a bigger picture than most would be aware of. Always try to get some background on queries that coworkers bring you, even if something seems simple at first. The more they see that you know about the whole project, the more willing they will be to change with you.
Learn from the experience
In every company, tasks will have different levels of difficulty to complete them. For that purpose, documentation is fundamental.
Some projects are seasonal, some you hand off to others to complete. It’s important every time to take note of the highs and lows, regardless of how things turned out. The way that works best for me is flowcharts: The progression is easy to see, memories can be jogged, and pieces of one plan can be used elsewhere.
The more you can take away from your first bout with workplace systems and bureaucracy, the more equipped you will be for round two. It never gets easier, but you do get more confident at it. Good luck!