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Common Mistakes Foreigners Make in Japan, And How To Avoid Them

Don't be that one gaijin who ruins it for the rest of us.

By 7 min read 8

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.

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  • JDanaH says:

    From Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!; Feynman and a colleague are staying at a traditional Japanese hotel in Kyoto:

    “The next morning the young woman taking care of our room fixes the bath, which was right in our room. Sometime later she returns with a tray to deliver breakfast. I’m partly dressed. She turns to me and says, politely, “Ohayo, gozai masu,” which means, “Good morning.”

    Pais is just coming out of the bath, sopping wet and completely nude. She turns to him and with equal composure says, “Ohayo, gozai masu ,” and puts the tray down for us.

    Pais looks at me and says, “God, are we uncivilized!”

    We realized that in America if the maid was delivering breakfast and the guy’s standing there, stark naked, there would be little screams and a big fuss. But in Japan they were completely used to it, and we felt that they were much more advanced and civilized about those things than we were.”

    I’m with Feynman and Pais on this one. I’m an American, but I just don’t get the American prissiness about bodily functions and casual nudity indoors. Personally, I couldn’t care less if a maid comes in and cleans the toilet while I’m taking a leak.

  • Carlos Covarrubias says:

    Liam, thank you very much, one of your lines is changing my approach for the goo!! Thanks a lot!

  • JEBworks says:

    Has been more or less true ever since I lived for twelve years in Japan starting in 1970. The first one applies to people in any business. Don’t know how many times foreign visiting businessmen thought the guy speaking English was a) smarter and b) the decision maker. Mostly wrong on both counts. As a Swiss, i understood very well and had no problem with numbers two and three as these are Swiss cultural traits as well! Racism is real, but hardly unique to Japan and is mostly a defense mechanism when faced with unfamiliarity. Oh, and number five, as New Yorkers would say “fuggedaboutit” no matter how long you stay and how well you peak the language, understand and like the country and culture, if your not a native born Japanese you won’t ever be one. Live with it and enjoy life there!

  • Children Of Nephilim says:

    Are you American? Please remind liberal Americans of that when they want to let men into the girl’s bathrooms and locker rooms, since, as you say, it’s offensive.

  • Du Lo says:

    This is an awesome article Liam. I love Japan as well, the people are so warm and kind in my opinion. I don’t even take offense when I get the “X” when I walk into a Japanese only bar. That is is their decision:) I am going to work there in May and June this year and super excited. I hope to make a visit every single year.

  • Omar Rocha says:

    Thanks It was really helpful, I was on Japan last year and I pretend to go for teaching this year, but I was really unsure about my english level. I even asked my friends about it, they just said: “don’t worry there are even worse” XD

  • Is Japanese citizenship even possible for non Japanese?

    Thanks for this article. Seems to have some hard truths in it that most people would prefer not to know. It’s easier to blame racism than our own incompetence to blend in and be respectful.

    Cheers from Singapore.



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