Baffling Japanese Business Buzzwords

On July 20, 2015

Photo by Andrea Hale

The Japanese attitude to work is so unique that many of their words have made it into English management speak untranslated. Of course, these loan words are only some of the many unique Japanese ideas that are out there. Tellingly, most of the ones that are unique to these islands reveal a lot about Japan and its attitude to the world of work.

One of the more unique ones is 年功序列(ねんこうじょれつ). This word is a common way to describe the promotion of elderly people over hungry, younger candidates in Japanese companies. At the time that most people in the West are planning retirement, Japanese people are being promoted into upper management and entering the most important stage in their careers.

Another interesting, but more comical left-over from former times is ラジオ体操(たいそう). This practice consists of workers gathering in halls to perform dance steps designed to give them a little exercise before their work and build teamwork. This activity evolved as part of the Japanese belief that companies should be responsible for the physical as well as financial health of their employees.

This simple act of letting off steam in the mornings can help a lot, as Japanese people are expected to work a lot and rarely have time to properly take care of themselves. This attitude is reflected in the Japanese language too. While most Western companies thank people for their work after they finish a day’s work, Japanese workers often thank their colleagues for their hard work by saying how tired they look お(つか)(さま)でした.

Unfortunately Japanese can often take this to extremes and the word 過労死(かろうし) or ‘death from working too hard’ entered the lexicon after a 29-year old was overworked to the point that he suffered a stroke. Thankfully Japan has started to realize that this is an unhealthy state of affairs and introduced labor laws to limit the amount of overtime workers can do. Companies that continue to overwork their workers despite these warnings are labelled ブラック企業(きぎょう) or ‘black’ companies.

One of the bizarre outcomes of this was that workers began to feel guilty when they couldn’t carry on working because of the new labor laws. As a result, a new word was coined: 風呂敷残業(ふろしきざんぎょう) which describes working unpaid overtime in secret out of a sense of obligation.

While these words are unique to the Japanese way of doing business, in the same way that English borrowed words from Japanese, the same is happening in reverse. As the Japanese business world is becoming increasingly westernized, Japanese people are increasing adopting ideas from abroad. As a result, many of the words from English management books have started popping up in Japan. Restructuring (リストラ), layoffs (レイオフ) and outsourcing (アウトソーシング) are some commonly used examples.

So, whether it is good or bad, you can bet that Japanese has a word for it. As work is such an important part of the Japanese psyche, it is not surprising that many Japanese people believe in 自業自得(じごうじとく) which literally translates as ‘one’s work; one’s gain’.


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