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Resolving Conflict in the Japanese Workplace

Have you had issues with a co-worker in Japan? Cultural differences can make it difficult to know what to do, but here are a few ways you can help remedy the situation.

By 4 min read

Communication can be a tricky business. With all the different personalities a person encounters in their daily lives, it’s only natural that problems emerge from time to time. Nowhere is this facet of human behavior more frequently demonstrated than in the workplace.

I’ve worked with some amazing people in the 10 years since I first moved to Japan, but then again, I’ve also worked with some pretty awful people — those who’ve tested my patience and tolerance to the limits.

In Scotland, we tend to talk our differences out. Of course, if that doesn’t work then there’s always the option of what’s known colloquially as a good, old-fashioned “square-go.” However, resorting to physical violence is never an option here in Japan and is probably the quickest route to swift deportation, unless you have a very accommodating and sympathetic boss.

The first option of “talking it out” isn’t exactly easy to do either. Japanese people are legendary for their propensity to bury their problems deep inside and just grin and bear it. You’re unlikely to hear any direct anger or aggression from your Japanese colleagues, no matter how much you upset them. Instead, as I have seen happen to many good workers here, conflicts simmer for weeks, months, even years, and nothing is resolved.

The only time you even realize there’s a problem is when it comes time for contract renewal. You may think you’ve done a sterling job, and that all is in good order. You’d be wrong.

I myself have lost jobs before in Japan because I failed to realize there was a problem.

So, how do we prevent this from happening? As I said before, simply approaching the person and saying “Is there a problem here?” isn’t going to get you anywhere. You’ll get a polite nod and a denial, if indeed you get any kind of response at all.

There are a few things you can do, though.

1) Use an intermediary

If there is one particular coworker you have a problem with, then it’s better to approach the problem from the side rather than head on. Seek out a colleague who you are friendly with, but who’s also on good terms with the person you have an issue with. Explain to them in detail what your worries and concerns are. In time, they will have a similar discussion with the problematic individual in question and, hopefully, help to build a bridge between the two of you.

A friend of mine works at several different schools as an ALT. He got on great with eight of the nine teachers at this particular school, but there was one teacher who was always cold towards him, didn’t bother to meet with him for lesson planning and was generally not especially helpful or supportive.

So, my friend had a conversation with another of the teachers at the school, one who was around the same age and had a lot of shared interests. In the end, it turned out that this teacher wasn’t being particularly cold to my friend. “She’s like that with everyone,” the other teacher told my friend. “Funnily enough, she actually told me the other day that she enjoys your classes.”

Of course, things don’t always resolve themselves that easily, but the use of an intermediary is certainly a good first step in trying to resolve issues.

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2) Sort things out over a drink

If you’ve worked at any Japanese company for any length of time,  you’ll probably notice that there are frequent drinking parties and other similar events held throughout the year. If you have any problems with coworkers, these events present a great opportunity to resolve issues. Much in the same way as it is in the U.S. or Europe, in Japan, drink makes people very honest — sometimes too honest!

So, approach the person in question, making sure you have one of those big bottles of beer ready in your hand. Pour them a beer. In a moment or two, they will reciprocate. Then engage them in a conversation. Keep the talk light, casual and easy going. Once you’ve settled into the discussion, you can start to talk about work and gently broach the subject of relations with your colleagues. As you and your colleague get more inebriated together, discussions will be frank, honest and — with a bit of luck — you may even end the evening as friends.

3) When all else fails, just do your best

If you’ve tried steps one and two and this  person still won’t give you the time of day, then forget about them. Instead, focus on doing every aspect of your job in the most flawlessly awesome way possible. That way, the more unpleasant this person is towards you, the worse they will look in the eyes of everyone else. Remember that Japanese companies function on the idea that we are all equal members of a team, each with our own, important role to play in keeping the system running smoothly. So long as you fulfill your role to its maximum potential, then who really cares what others think.

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