If you are interested in Japan, whether to visit or live, it is likely that you’ve heard the typical tropes about working in Japan, probably most of them negative – long work hours, endless meetings, hierarchical structure, overly formal atmosphere, among others. While some of these may have elements of truth, particularly in traditionally Japanese companies, I would like to explore the Japanese work environment beyond the stereotypes, as well as to express how Japanese companies are internationalizing and changing.
The bases for this article are my work experiences in Japan as a foreigner, other anecdotal experiences as well as other findings from surveys regarding the Japanese work environment. This article is therefore only offering certain perspectives and is not intended to provide any kind of definitive guide. Observations made are of course to some degree generalisations, and there will always be variations upon these in any culture.
Now we have the disclaimers out of the way, let’s begin!
Work club activities
“Club” activities resemble something similar to “societies” which you may see at Western universities. While many companies around the world often have after work activities to cater to specific interests such as sports or music, it is done on a larger and more grandiose scale in Japan, particularly in certain industries such as manufacturing, one of Japan’s core industries. Companies will often invest significantly in such activities, providing funding for the relevant facilities, and there are often sporting and athletics events featuring teams made up of employees from large corporations. Besides the general improvement in morale, it may be seen as a worthwhile investment for companies to improve team relations in order to smoothen business operations.
One general characteristic of Japanese work environments can be the seemingly contrived divide in behaviours and interaction inside and outside the workplace. Like the concept of “honne and tatemae” (true feelings vs what is said to others), the concept is not necessarily uniquely Japanese, but instead the divide is more clearly and vividly established than in other cultures. Work club activities exhibit this trait also – there is typically a more corporate businesslike atmosphere in many Japanese workplaces with generally quieter offices, lacking the chit-chat and water cooler gossip you may be used to in a typical office environment – not to say that Japanese offices are completely devoid of this – but there is a noticeable difference. To truly feel fulfilled in a Japanese workplace, it may be making the most of your time with your colleagues outside of the office!
You may be thinking that in any workplace, apologies for mistakes or misdeeds is common sense, and not distinct to Japan, but it is the way of apologizing that is typically extremely important in Japanese workplaces, not only to outside clients, but to colleagues also. This also extends to wider society and in media – apologies are made with a heavier and more sincere tone than in other countries and may even seem like overkill in some situations. However, showing unequivocal regret is essential for positive business relations when things go wrong, and when this isn’t shown, it can often be seen as “lacking a sense of responsibility” if the magnitude of the apology is lacking. This can be a stumbling block for non-Japanese people, who may focus on the adage of “actions speak louder than words” and put all focus on fixing the problem and ensuring that such issues do not arise again (which is of course important), but may fail to give due care to show the appropriate level of sincerity.
It is this mentality that often means that one of the first words people tend to describe Japanese people is “polite”. There is particular emphasis placed on expressly showing respect and sincerity, with active listening and acknowledgment of the speaker. Consciousness of this type of communication can subtly improve relations and overall work, particularly in a Japanese workplace.
This article is split into two parts, so be sure to check out part 2 as well!
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