How to Work in a Japanese Office

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Learn to behave or feel the pinch!

As promised, I have for you a post on how to survive in a Japanese office, should any of you be as unfortunate enough to work in one. My current Japanese office is very unJapanese, and has hardly any of the following rule in place. However, my last place was very much like all the things you are about to read.

These are all cultural tips I’ve collected after having worked in Japan, and then in Japanese companies outside of Japan. Sometimes companies make these little booklets on how to work with the Japanese, which I find hilarious because they are often very wrong.

Age over talent

Looking to climb the ladder, so you’re putting in extra effort to wow your boss? Save your energy, because your sparkling talent won’t get you that promotion; putting years into your company and growing through the ranks is how Japanese companies work.

While this is meant to show dedication to your company, it often means that useless people sail up through the company without being any good at what they do. I’ve certainly known some 60 year old Japanese men who seem to be doing pretty much nothing (more on that later!)

Don’t break the wa

Whatever you do, don’t break the 和 – the wa, meaning peace. This isn’t regular peace, like flowers down the barrel of a gun or opposing war. This is all about not sticking out and trying to be different in your Japanese surroundings. If there’s something you don’t like, do you complain about it? NOPE! Get your head back down and carry on paper pushing, you crazy westerner! It doesn’t matter if you see corporate mistakes on a ridiculous scale, bad things will happen if you try to act out.

You should be harmonious with the rest of your team, and your company at all times. You should not disagree or try to do something different.

A friend of mine met me hungover in a cafe in Frankfurt sometime last year. I asked if he was OK, and he told me he’d been a victim of “aru-hara”. “You know ‘seku-hara’; the Japanese term for sexual harassment? Well ‘aru-hara’ is alcohol harassment”, he explained. His boss had started to be really mean and spiteful to him when he said he wanted to stop drinking after just a few beers, until my friend had succumbed and drank more than what he was capable of. This is a common thing in companies, and I’ve heard stories from foreign friends in Japan as well of them being encouraged to drink so much that they just tell their colleagues they have an allergy.

Don’t break the wa.

Look Busy All the Time

This was something I noticed while working in Japan – a lot of the time my colleagues just looked busy, but were in reality doing very little. Then, once home-time came, they actually started doing their work – stacking up the overtime hours.

They’re not trying to gain extra money from overtime work – they don’t get paid overtime. They’re trying to prove to the boss that they are going the extra mile, even though the race could have been finished at 5pm.

Another great outcome of Japanese people trying to look busy at work is the “Japanese office run”. You know the kind of run where you’re actually walking, but putting as much upper-body effort into it so to make you look like you’re properly running? Yeah, you can often see that done by Japanese people. Again, I don’t get this so much in the current office; we’re much more chilled and I think it’s probably more likely that I’m the one doing the Japanese office run…

Get Some Proper Polite Japanese

Think you can speak Japanese? Nah, not until you’ve been in a Japanese office, can you know what it’s like to feel the brain burn of Japanese. Pretty much everything you say has to be said in totally new ways, depending on how high above you the person you’re speaking to is. The difference is similar to:

“Yo, morning, dawg”

“Good morning!”

“I wish you a pleasant morning”

“I humbly wish you the most wonderful morning and if it so happens that your morning is not full of sunshine, rainbows and fluffy bunnies, I will offer my life to the gods so that you can forever more enjoy mornings knowing that my blood has been spilled”.

No matter what your level, try to get some polite Japanese phrases down, because they’re always good to impress. For example, before you leave the office, it’s common to say “oh saki-ni shi-tsu-re shimasu” which vaguely translates as “I am so rude as to leave before you, please forgive me”. Yeah, tell me about it. But it’s a good phrase to use, and whipping that out for your Japanese colleagues will always impress.

 

I didn’t expect to be so completely negative with my Japanese office tips – though I guess after my experiences, it’s not surprising. Working in a Japanese working environment can be tough and strict and seemingly without fun, but I enjoy working with Japanese people very much (unless they are old smelly Japanese bosses who need to get with the times), and I do love my current Japanese office and colleagues very much. Last week I found an area of the building I’d not been to before and found a library area with Japanese and English business books. There was a book in Japanese called “Japanese Companies are Pretty Weird”, which I thought was hilarious.

If you’ve ever experienced a Japanese office, I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

Comments

  1. I read Niall Murtagh’s The Blue-Eyed Salaryman a few years ago, and really enjoyed it. Especially the part where he initially failed his medical on grounds of having the wrong colour eyes…

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Blue-Eyed-Salaryman-Traveller-Mitsubishi/dp/1861977891
    Simone recently posted…Winterwonderland Didn’t Last…My Profile

    • Ah I seem to remember reading that once years ago… I should read it again, because I remember it being really good.

  2. Our parent company is Japanese and we frequently have visitors from Japan, as well as an assigned Japanese CEO. However, we’re still an American company. The resulting mixture of cultures means that I’ve seen fragments of what you describe, but not all of it.

    I will say this, though: The single best thing about working for a Japanese-owned company is that whenever visitors come over from the mothership, they bring us Green Tea Kit-Kats. Nomnomnom.
    Steven Glassman recently posted…Auf Wiedersehen, 2014.My Profile

    • Also, I saw that you’re currently reading one of my favorite books of all time. Yay!
      Steven Glassman recently posted…Auf Wiedersehen, 2014.My Profile

    • Charlotte says:

      Getting the balance right is key, I think. If your CEO is wiling to take on non-Japanese business plans then that’s really awesome.

      Also green tea Kit-Kats are amazing. But the lemonade ones are better.
      Also also – yeah I’m reading a cool book! I’m not getting into it as much as I’d hoped, though. It’s a little dry for me.

  3. Really interesting…. thanks for sharing this. “Look busy all the time”, I’ll try to remember to do that!

  4. “I humbly wish you the most wonderful morning and if it so happens that your morning is not full of sunshine, rainbows and fluffy bunnies, I will offer my life to the gods so that you can forever more enjoy mornings knowing that my blood has been spilled”.

    This is terrific and you spoke my heart lady…. lolz … I am still laughing at it, in some part I am angry though… who can understand my volcanoes fuming…

  5. Hey, I have received an offer from a Japanese Company (CAC Corporation). I know the team members as they were my Clients from previous organization, but am still confused over whether to accept the offer or not. It’s a new country for me, don’t know much about the atmosphere that I’ll have to work on and Japanese is something I need to catch up on. Any idea about this company?

    • Charlotte says:

      Hey! I just did a quick search of CAC on Glassdoor (if you don’t know this site then it’s a must!!) and I got a couple of honest reviews on there that will be of use to you I think! Enjoy!

  6. Hi,
    thanks for this I’m currently researching about this topic and I can say it was helpful
    I’m 22 years old, I speak Arabic and English very well and I’m beginning to learn Japanese cause I thought that I’d like to work there after graduation (I still have one year and I’m studying Information Technology Engineering specialized in the field of software and information systems).
    Unfortunately, I’m not American or European to get a job more easily whether, in the US(which is now impossible for me), Uk or Japan or wherever
    anyway, my questions are:
    -I’m good at drawing and I’ve been thinking of learning Japanese and improving my skills to work in the anime production industry but I’ve heard terrible stories from the internet about the wages and overtime work, do have any advice about that? if the real work is so little but you can’t leave before your colleagues and senpais can you do some freelance work on your laptop or is it rude to do so?
    I’m sorry for the long comment and thanks again

    • Hey,
      No worried about the long comment.
      So the overtime and wages thing is true. Also, unless you are ridic talented, they’re probably going to pick a Japanese person over you. I’d say in any job, it’s rude to be doing freelance work on your laptop during work hours. I’d advise against that.
      I’d ask yourself why is it that you want to live in Japan? If it’s to experience the culture, then go there for a bit as a tourist, or a student. If you really want to work in animation then look at roles in your country first and build a name for yourself.
      I hope that helps!

      • thank you so much, I’m getting to see that it is better not to waste the effort to go there for work.
        the Japanese anime is so unique that it gives me hope and I’ve spent my childhood watching it so it means a lot to me that’s why I thought about making a living out of it.
        we probably don’t have anime production companies here mostly the job here to dub the English animations or so.
        maybe it’s better to work as a software Engineer after all.
        I’m really thankful to you for all the help

  7. Hi Charlotte,

    I’ve found your article not only extremely informative, but very funny as well.
    Could I ask you a question on a related topic?
    A friend of mine works at a Japanese-owned company here in the States. This sparked her interest in learning japanese and started taking lessons.
    However, she was somewhat discouraged after trying to greet a Japanese engineer with “ohayougozaimasu” (a coworker, not a stranger). She says that he told her not to greet him that way again and to stick to the usual “Good Morning”. She felt he was being rude to her and took it as a “you don’t deserve to speak japanese”.
    I told her he probably would feel awkward by being greeted differently and that it might be he didn’t know how to politely ask that, ending up sounding rude. What do you think of this Charlotte?

    Sorry for the long post!! But I don’t know anyone else I could ask this

    • Charlotte says:

      Hey! Thank you for the comment.
      I don’t think Japanese people think for a second that people are undeserving of speaking Japanese. What I imagine the Japanese dude is thinking is that it took him a lot of time and effort to learn English, and he doesn’t want to stress your friend out by making her try Japanese. He wants to make it easy for her.
      Perhaps if she tried “ohayo” next time, which is more informal, it would work out better?

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