Common Mistakes Foreigners Make in Japan, And How To Avoid Them
By Liam Carrigan
On January 29, 2016
Whenever anyone moves to Japan one of the initial impressions that is often reported is the sheer difference between Japanese culture and the culture from their home nations. It all looks so weird, so alien, so vastly different from that which we would call familiar.
In this situation it is an all too common conceit to take on an often myopic view of things. In doing this, we fail to see things from the other side of the coin. To the Japanese, often we are just as weird just as alien and just as different.
In these circumstances, misunderstandings and miscommunications are common. So, what can we do about it?
Whilst every individual has a unique experience and unique perspective, there are some common trends and similar experiences I have observed down the years. With this in mind, today I offer my thoughts on the 5 most common cultural faux pas that foreigners commit in the Japanese workplace and how to avoid them.
Confusing a lack of language skill with a lack of competence
This particular issue may be more prevalent in the English teaching industry than in other professions, but I’m sure it isn’t unique to English teaching. Anyone who has worked in the public school system in Japan will know that the English level of your Japanese English teacher colleagues varies greatly from case to case. Over the last few years I have worked with some teachers who had near native English and others who could barely string two sentences together.
However, for those new to Japan, it is an all too common mistake to assume that a teacher who cannot speak English well is a poor teacher. Some of the best teachers I have ever worked with would struggle to have even a simple conversation in English, but their knowledge of teaching, student motivation and other such areas was phenomenal. Conversely, I’ve known some teachers with a brilliantly high level of English, but actually very weak classroom management skills. Anecdotally, I have heard similar cases in other industries outside of teaching too. It’s important to remember that Japan is a country where less than 1 in 20 people have basic conversational English ability. Does this mean that 95% of the working populace are incompetent? Of course not!
Why so serious??
In researching for this article, I had a chat with one of my Japanese colleagues. In her various dealings with foreigners down the years I asked her what was the one thing she found confusing when interacting with them. She said that often, her foreign colleagues appeared to be very lax and casual about working duties, whilst she, being, in her own words, a “typical Japanese”, always approached her work with a high level of diligence and care.
In contrast to this, newbies to Japan often remark that Japanese are too serious, cold and robotic, to the point of being humourless. Again, this is an erroneous assertion. As my colleague explained, she takes hours, sometimes days to prepare documents and such like for work. Whereas her foreign colleagues have a tendency to just throw things together in a matter of minutes with a general “no worries, it’ll be alright on the night,” kind of attitude.
Such an attitude, whilst normal in the hard and fast environment of a typical European or American firm, isn’t really how it goes here in Japan. Understanding this difference in approach is key to building strong, successful relationships with colleagues and management in Japan.
But, I was only 2 minutes late!
To say “time is money” is something of a cliché in the modern business world. However, I would not be surprised to discover that this notion originated in Japan somewhere. I don’t know where it actually came from, but it does seem to fit the prevailing Japanese mindset very well.
I remember, when I first took up an ALT (assistant language teacher) job back in 2007 in Yotsukaido City, Chiba. The boss of my dispatch agency had two simple pieces of advice: “Don’t go to work drunk, and more importantly don’t ever be late!”
This may seem like quite rudimentary advice, but it is often taken to the extreme here in Japan where I have heard cases of workers being docked an hour or sometimes even an entire day’s salary for being as little as one minute late for work. Whilst the legality of such penalties is questionable, the notion of punctuality is so heavily ingrained in the working culture here that such sanctions are seldom challenged. Again, in certain other countries, the notion of always being on time for work is taken far less seriously and as such, this can be a potential flashpoint for foreigners new to the Japanese workplace.
Wrongly assumed racism
We’ve all got those one or two co-workers in the office. The ones who, no matter how hard you try to be friendly and accommodating with them, always seem to shun you and go out of their way to avoid you. Being in a foreign environment and amongst a different culture, it can be all too easy to cry racism in such a situation, when 99 times out of 100 this simply isn’t the case. I’ve blogged before that I think the notion of racism in Japan is often taken out of context and grossly exaggerated. Certain national newspaper columnists here have even built entire careers out of whinging about it. Such imagined slights are often a consequential symptom either of culture shock or personal burnout.
I recall a time whilst living in Chiba, when I almost fell into this trap. I was walking home from a particularly bad day at work. Once again, the trashy dispatch company I was working for had short-changed me on my wages, the kids at my school were playing up, and I’d just had a decidedly mediocre meal out with my then girlfriend. As the two of us walked home, I spotted a particularly cute cat walking down the street. As a cat lover, I wanted to have a closer look.
I got down on one knee and said “hey kitty, come here, come here” and I held out my hand to stroke the cat. The cat just stood there staring at me like I was weird. My girlfriend, a Tokyo lady, got down and said something similar, this time in Japanese, the cat came bolting over to her, purring as she stroked it.
“Dammit, even the cats in this country are racist!” I said.
“No Liam,” my girlfriend softly replied. “she’s not racist, she just doesn’t speak English!”
It’s funny how a cat can totally change your perspective like that. It’s not racism that pushes those co-workers to avoid you, it’s either indifference or a lack of understanding and empathy.
Trying to be more Japanese than the Japanese
This final point is a particular bone of contention with me. If you’ve been in Japan any length of time you’ve probably met someone like this. The foreigner who does everything they can to be Japanese, to the point of shunning and ridiculing anyone who exhibits any kind of “foreign” tendencies. They will knit-pick your grammar when you try to speak Japanese, they will begin almost every sentence with “Well, in Japan, we do it this way…”, and even a simple question becomes an hour long lecture on Japanese manners, culture and etiquette. I have to say, I honestly can’t stand these people, and in truth neither can most of my Japanese friends.
These people, in shunning everything that defines who they are, in order to try and become something they are not, end up alienating themselves both from the foreign community, who find them condescending, arrogant and irritating, and the Japanese who see them as objects of ridicule and fun.
I love Japan, I intend to spend my life here, someday I may even pursue Japanese citizenship. However, I will always be different. I am a product of Scotland, but I identify more with Japan. Scotland is where I come from, but Japan is my home. I have made peace with this. The people I speak of haven’t accepted this duality. They are in denial. Guys, you will never be Japanese! Deal with it, make peace with it and we will all be a lot happier for it!
Japan is a fascinating country, and for all the ups and downs, working here has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. Hopefully today you can take something away from my ramblings that will enhance your experience here too. Best of luck everyone.