Shortly after I began working at my current position, my company asked me to write a piece about the differences between Japanese and UK working cultures. I wanted to avoid adding to the swath of articles online about the use of business cards and focus on my own experience of working in the two countries. As it is difficult enough to draw generalisations across industries, let alone countries, let me preface this commentary with a brief introduction.
After I graduated from university, I worked for two years at a reasonably large UK financial institution and one year at a smaller regional accountancy firm, as a tax advisor. My Japanese office-based work experience is at a corporate legal services firm, where I have been for three months. I do not wish to imply in any way that my conclusions are universal truths – you may find yourself disagreeing vehemently, even if you have a similar background.
I was a little apprehensive about how I would fit into a business environment in Japan, especially a traditionally conservative one like legal services. Like most people, I had heard horror stories of long hours. As the only foreigner in my office, I am almost certainly somewhat shielded in this respect. However, from speaking with my manager, I understand that most people only stay until around 7pm, which is in line with my experience of UK corporate culture.
When I first started jotting down my ideas for this blog entry, I envisioned a hard-hitting article in which I exposed the inner workings of Japanese corporate culture and the clash this caused with a British mindset. Imagine my disappointment when I found myself noting down the similarities which surprised me more than the differences. From open plan offices to the “firm” structure exhibited in meetings where the more senior person does the talking, my UK/Japan experiences seemed to mirror each other.
Reading articles online had led me to believe that the Japanese style of communication would be very difficult to understand. Other UK nationals may disagree, but in my opinion, I have not really found this to be the case: possibly as British people also seem to rely on indirect language and tone. You can find a tongue-in-cheek translation guide for British English below.
The stereotypical example in Japanese is 難しい (muzukashii, literally “difficult”, but often used to reject a proposal). Further, consider the British “If it is not too much trouble, perhaps we might be able to…” vs Japanese “お忙しい中、…できますか” (o-isogashii naka, … dekimasuka, or “I know you are busy, but are you able to…?”).
However, there are undoubtedly differences – they are just a little more superficial than I had initially pictured. One of my favourites is ラジオ体操 (rajio taisō) a warm up exercise set to music which my office does at the start of every week.
In contrast to the UK, my current role does not require me to fill in time sheets. This impacts my interaction with clients, as I am able to focus more on their needs and less on worrying about whether I will meet my targeted chargeable hours budget, whilst at the same time not exceeding an individual client’s quotation. Although I would certainly like to infer from this a reflection of Japan’s wider customer service culture, I believe that this might be a trait specific to my current company.
I certainly have a great deal more job variety working in Japan and would never have dreamt of writing blog articles or translating promotional material in the UK. However, this is likely by merit of me being a native English speaker rather than any innate difference in the two cultures.
Regardless, if you are a non-Japanese person, working in a Japanese-dominated office, you may well have the opportunity to gain experience in new roles. It is this challenge, along with the chance to improve my language skills, which makes working here so fulfilling.