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How to Deal with Being the Foreign Chick in a Japanese Office

From eternal genki-ness to getting hit on by your clients, navigating the Japanese workplace can be a treacherous maze of outdated expectations for foreign women.

By 5 min read

You have successfully jumped through all the hoops and got yourself a job in Japan — congratulations! While you should celebrate with a nice glass of bubbly and start brushing up on your keigo (honorific speech), keep in mind that you may have to deal with colleagues and managers who have certain ingrained ideas about non-Japanese women.

Here are five common examples and some ideas about how to deal with these situations based on my seven years of working with/in Japanese companies around Tokyo.

1. You speak for the world

Have you ever wanted to be a UN spokesperson, representing the views of the entire international community? Great, you will love engaging in small talk in Japan! While often used by people who wish to get to know you better, the seemingly eternal standby, “Do all foreigners… ?” gets tiresome very quickly. This question is certainly not unique to women, but it seems that far too often we end up on the receiving end of awkward queries focusing on body parts or relationships. “Do all foreign women sleep around?” or “Do most foreign women have big boobs?” are just two examples that have left my jaw on the floor.

What to do?

For non-offensive questions, point out — in a friendly way — that you can’t speak for everyone else on the planet or ask as to which country they are referring, then be non-committal. Switch the topic to something more interesting, like where your coworker intends to go on holiday. For offensive questions, a weirded-out look speaks volumes with a ticked off “and what do you mean by that?!” tacked on for the densest cases.

2. Remarks about your appearance are compliments

Quite often after a long meeting where I have analyzed a problematic situation and provided in-depth consulting, as I bow my way out the door, I get a remark about my appearance instead of a: “Thank you, that was very helpful!” It is truly dispiriting, as it makes you wonder if they were listening at all and takes away from your position and authority.

What to do?

It depends whether you are dealing with a client or your own company, but I have found a brief freeze to be effective in either case. ‘Reading the air’ or kuuki yomu is of great importance in Japanese society, so your two seconds of coldness are likely to register, especially if you then return to business-related topics (“please send my regards to Mr. X” or “well, I will call next week to see how things are going”) and do not respond to the comment.

3. Your life’s private details are fair game

Are you married? Are you Catholic? Do you have children? When do you plan to have children? Where are your ancestors buried? How much do you weigh?

These are all questions I have been asked (and at job interviews, no less) by people I barely know, or have been brought up as subjects of conversation during business dinners.

What to do?

In a business environment where comments about the marriageability or attractiveness of your fellow female-identified coworkers are bandied about with ease, and where one in three women suffer sexual harassment at the office according to a recent government report, dealing with this can be tough. Extricate yourself from the situation as best you can, then express your concerns in private (if dealing with a colleague or manager) or seek counsel from a woman in a more senior position.

4. You must be genki (energetic) and friendly all the time

Because foreigners are all friendly, and women should always be sweet and perky, right? The concept of genki-ness is insidious, as such basic things as not always wearing makeup to work, disagreeing with a superior’s opinions or occasionally growling at a darn Excel sheet that refuses to format correctly are taken as signs of somehow being unprofessional. No matter that male co-workers’ shadowy whiskers and knitted expression are considered signs of hard work.

What to do?

While you should always be polite and appropriate, perkiness is optional. Let your work speak for itself and if necessary keep pointing out the double standard and repeating it until it sinks in. Another option is to rally support from your female coworkers, who are probably also sick of getting the short end of the stick in a country which ranks so abysmally in the Global Gender Gap Index (111th of 144 countries as of 2016).

5. You are temporary

Non-Japanese women have to deal with the double whammy of managers believing you will leave the workforce post-matrimony and/or decide to ‘go back to your country’, even after having made it crystal clear repeatedly that you have no such intentions.

What to do?

Due to the gender and cultural norms this is perhaps the most ingrained of all expectations, and I am still coming up with ways to deal with it. Connecting and networking with more senior managers (particularly other women), taking on responsibility whenever possible, letting it get around that you are aiming high and planning to stay have all been useful. When questioned directly, mentioning that it is the 21st century and that we should all just get on with it seems pretty effective too. If you do plan to leave the business world/Japan that’s totally cool, but do try to support your colleagues in their efforts whenever possible.

While these are some common themes I have dealt with personally, everyone’s experiences are different. What are some expectations or assumptions you have faced, and have you found any useful tactics? Let us know in the comments!

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