Taiken Japan

Autumn Leaves 2016

Workplace Culture Shock

Photo: Amir Jina on Flickr

Workplace Culture Shock

Liam Carrigan

For those of us who, like me, are fortunate enough to someday be afforded the opportunity to work in Japan, it can be a joyous experience. However, it is not without its challenges and especially in the initial stages it can be a daunting and in some ways intimidating experience.

This unease can be further compounded if you find yourself working for a company or organization with a predominantly Japanese senior management.

One of the benefits to starting out in Japan working for one of the many English Language Schools (Eikaiwa) as I did back in 2006 is that whilst the companies themselves are usually Japanese and you will find yourself working with Japanese office managers on a day to day basis, in many cases the middle and senior management of these firms will be, at least in part, comprised of foreigners. This lends the company a more international outlook and, as many of these people are former teachers themselves, hopefully they will have a certain degree of empathy and as such will make your transition a lot easier.

Then on the other hand, in my current situation, working directly for a city municipal government in Japan, I am now subject to an entirely Japanese management process.

As in all aspects of life in Japan, there are numerous pros and cons to both styles of management. Today I will take you through some of the main differences in both management styles, and perhaps this will help you to make an informed choice as to which is better suited to the type of worker you are.

Here are what I believe to be the main differences between Japanese and western management styles in Japan:

1) Being a team player vs being a subordinate

In recent years, the “team” ideal, which originated in the 1970s across several larger companies in the US has also spread to European and to limited extent Asian management culture. Employees are referred to not as staff or workers but as colleagues and team members. The difference may seem to be one of simple semantics, but actually it goes deeper than that. In a “team” environment, a sense of equality is projected, at least at the surface level across all employees and management. “Colleagues” are actively encouraged to ask questions, to seek out their boss, or “team leader” as they are often called should they need any clarification.

In the context of a regular Japanese company such notions have yet to take root. When you work for a Japanese firm, you are made aware in no uncertain terms who the boss is, and you must always address him with the appropriately honorific language. Also, the culture is very much one of quiet work and concentration rather than questioning and idle chatter. Japanese offices are noticeably quieter than their European or US counterparts. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing really depends on what kind of person you are.

2) Socializing is Mandatory

Photo : chrisada on Flickr
As someone who used to work for a newspaper group back in the UK I am certainly no stranger to the idea of “it’s Friday, who fancies going for a few beers after work?”

During my Eikaiwa days however, most teachers had an early start on a Saturday so, somewhat inevitably, Saturday became our drinking evening of choice. As someone who isn’t really much of a drinker these days, I could take it or leave it, depending on my mood and how tired I felt that day.

However, when you work under Japanese management, you will find these kinds of events extended considerably. If you wish to build good relations with your boss and your coworkers then you may be expected to attend these “nomikai” or “drinking parties” often, sometimes even every week.

In Japan, the group dynamic is everything. As such it is often said in many a Japanese workplace that those who work together should also eat and drink together. Certainly, considering how many of my Japanese friends met their husbands and wives at such gatherings, it’s fair to say that these events play a big part in the social lives of many working Japanese. Moreover, for those who do not attend, it can be easy to become isolated from the group and in Japanese companies this is never a good thing.


Photo : uzaigaijin on Flickr
For me, I have, I think, managed to find a reasonable balance. I pick and choose these events and make an effort to attend 2 or 3 of them per year. The big ones are the “Bonnenkai” or “End of Year Party” and the “Shinnenkai” (New Year’s Party). That way I am keeping up appearances whilst not overdoing it or setting the precedent that I am expected to attend every such gathering. Remember that even if you work at a Japanese firm, as a foreigner, you will be afforded considerably more leeway in these kind of things than a Japanese new recruit would.

3) Japan’s salary system is much better than the western model!

If you are lucky enough to become a permanent member of staff at a Japanese-managed firm, then you can look forward to considerable financial benefits. In addition to your monthly salary, you can also expect 2 bonuses per year, usually worth one or two months extra salary each. If you’re saving for a home deposit, or looking to upgrade your home, or car then these deals can prove invaluable. Unfortunately, as a temporary contract worker, despite being under a Japanese management structure, I have yet to enjoy such benefits. I can but hope and persevere!

4) Sick Days? What are those?

Photo : Todd Mecklem on Flickr
A Japanese friend of mine met me for a coffee one day after work. It is fair to say, the poor girl did not look well. She was suffering from what looked like a heavy cold, perhaps even the early onset of influenza. “You didn’t go to work like that today, did you?” I asked her.

“Of course I did!” she somewhat indignantly replied.

“You know what they say in Japan: if you can walk, you can work!”

This is sadly very true. I have seen coworkers who at times could barely speak or walk, yet they came to school and they took classes as normal, only to collapse into their desks at the end of the school day.

Japanese people will always play down illness or fatigue and suffer as a result. This sadly spills over into contracts too, where sick days are not a mandated requirement under Japanese law and are instead seen as a perk offered only by the best employers. In most cases, at Japanese managed firms, staff are expected to use their annual leave entitlement, should they be too ill to report for work.

5) A Healthy Worker is a Happy Worker

Whilst taking sick leave may be something of a social faux pas, it would be unfair to say that Japanese companies don’t care about their workers. Japan is one of the few developed countries to have mandatory annual health checks for all workers. It is an important and integral part of health and safety law in Japan that all workers, be they permanent or temporary have their health checked at least once every year.

So, after reading my thoughts on the matter, it’s over to you. Which would you prefer, a Japanese or Western boss?

Leave a comment below and let the debate commence.