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Working in a Japanese Company as a Foreigner


Japan has an incredibly unique culture, including its business ethic. If you come from the western, you will need a couple of adjustments to working in Japan. If you come from another Asian country, you will also need to adapt since Japan might be unfamiliar.

Over time, many Japanese companies expanded into multinational corporations and hired foreign workers. The work setting is slowly changing into a more diverse and open environment. However, it's a good idea to learn Japanese traditional business culture. Better safe than sorry, right?

The Formality

In Japan, formal is professional. There are strict rules to follow. It's understandable for foreigners to not know at first, but your Japanese colleagues will appreciate it if you go by the customs. The formality is in the workers' language, manner, looks, and clothes. For example, the bow you give to your superiors is different with the one you give to equal coworkers and there are seating rules based on rank.

Japanese culture has various types of bow

The language used in the workplace in Japan is different from the Japanese daily style. Employees use Japanese honorific speech or keigo (敬語) to their coworkers. Keigo means respectful language. The forms are divided into three depending on the situation. For example, staff must address their boss using the sonkeigo form.

Japan is hierarchical. Most companies have a pyramid-type structure from the CEO to the directors and manager to the staff. Everyone should understand their position and act accordingly. For instance, an employee must bow lower and longer when greeting their superior.

The Japanese work environment requires formal attire. Appearance is important because it shows how you take care of your body. Being well-dressed is also considered polite and respectful. Both men and women usually wear darker or neutral colors for working looks.

In traditional companies, the dress code is usually pretty strict. Male workers in Japan usually wear navy or gray plain suits. The work dress code for women includes modest and not too tight clothes. Bold makeup and flashy hair color/styles are a big no for white-collar or service workers. However, if your company is more flexible, you can wear smart casual clothes.

Facial features such as a mustache and beard may be unacceptable in some places. Tattoos in the visible body area can be a deal-breaker as it is frowned upon in a professional environment. However, some companies may allow tattoos as long as it is covered during work.

The Decision-making Process

Japanese companies emphasize group teamwork rather than the individual. They need to decide as a group where everyone can consent. It's necessary to reach a consensus between the employees. On the downside, every decision takes a long time to process.

In traditional Japanese companies, there is a system called the ringi system. The term may vary in different companies, but it refers to the same decision-making process. Multiple related people receive a document about the issue, the data, and everything that needs to be considered before making a decision. They can add their opinion before they approve it. The responsible department then collects all approval before finalizing the decision.

Even though the ringi system takes a long time, it gives each department time to think it through. It also worked to avoid confrontation as most Japanese do not like it. The outcome of this process is a super cautious decision with minimal error and smoother implementation.

The Meetings

Communication is one of the teamwork pillars. Japanese employees are trained to report, communicate, and ask advice from their superiors. This act is called HoRenSou.

The employees don't have the authority to decide something on their own. If they find any problem, they have to report to the manager. Sharing information is important because everyone needs to work together as a group. They also have to let each other know their progress in the project.

As everything needs to be discussed, of course, there will be a lot of meetings. Remember, punctuality is important in Japan. Please come 10 minutes before to show your respect and consideration to others. It also gives you time to learn the seating arrangement based on hierarchy. If you aren’t sure, you can ask where your designated seat is.

Many Japanese companies also conduct a daily morning meeting or chorei. All employees gather in the morning before starting their work that day. The main purposes of chorei are to boost productivity and share information.

The Office

The need to communicate is showing up on the Japanese office layout. Most of the office has an open workspace. The CEO or higher-ups may get a separate room, but the other employees do not. Another reason for this layout is to save spaces.

The employees' desks are usually grouped based on the department with the manager at the end. This way, the team can discuss without moving to the other room. There are no individual cubicles and walls to hinder the communication process.

This layout results in a noisy and packed office. Unaccustomed people may have a problem concentrating on all the background noises. There is also a concern about privacy as everyone can see and hear each other the whole day.

The Overtime

Loyalty is one of the keywords in Japanese companies. Employees are expected to give their utmost dedication to the company. It means employees have to spend long hours of hard work in the office.

Based on the 2020 data, employees in Japan work overtime on average 24 hours per month. Working overtime can also happen solely because no one wants to head home first. They don't want to be seen as an uncommitted employee even if it's time to clock out.

The long working hours pretty much ruin the work-life balance in Japan. This problem is also related to the declining number of births in Japan. People are so busy that they do not have time for family and kids. However, the Japanese government has been trying to reduce the number of overtime hours, and it's slowly changing.

The Annual Paid Leave

We said before that many Japanese workers don't want to go home first because of the pressure. It is the same with annual leave. Based on the Japan Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare 2019 survey, the workers only take 52.4% of the entitled paid leave.

The reason for the hesitancy is mainly fear and guilt. Almost everyone glorifies the concept of working overtime. This thought makes taking leave look like a bad thing, as if it deserves a social punishment.

The employees in Japan are afraid to disrupt group harmony by their absence. Since Japanese companies focus on the group, everyone's contribution is crucial. If someone is missing, someone else has to cover the workload. The guilt of inconveniencing anyone else makes most employees rarely take leave.

The Drinking Party

Nomikai is a drinking party at the end of the workday. The whole team, including the manager and the employees, goes into a bar together. The purpose is for the workers to familiarize themselves with each other. Japanese companies are group-centered, so it is necessary to get along.

The drinking party sounds like a fun casual bonding time. However, it counts as a professional company activity. There are some rules and etiquette you have to learn before attending one. For instance, you have to sit in order based on rank and position. Then, wait for everyone to have their beverages and cheer together before drinking.

The nomikai is an inseparable part of Japanese work culture. During the pandemic situation where gatherings are not allowed, the drinking party is held virtually. A Japanese company even made a video chat website for employees to drink together while staying in their homes. During the first two months, the website has gained 2.4 million users.





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