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!
The art of Japanese business emails
Business emails in most work environments can be a minefield, but the Japanese language in a business context makes writing appropriate emails difficult even for native speakers, in a way that native speakers of other languages (such as English) are unlikely to experience. In particular, as English is often used as a universal global language by many non native speakers – less than perfect English can be acceptable to a degree, but this is not the case with Japanese.
It would take far too long to cover business emails in one article, but precision in word choice, to convey an appropriate tone and avoid confusion, particularly in the context-heavy language of Japanese which often omits subjects saying who did what, is especially important. One anecdote I can share to demonstrate the difference between Japanese and English is in native speaker proofreading. If a non native speaker gives me a regular email of half a page or so of English to proofread, I can generally do this within a minute or two (assuming it’s purely just to correct the language and not the content). However, when I have asked for my Japanese to be proofread, it will take far longer, which was initially a surprise. I assumed that a native speaker would be able to quickly make any small adjustments or suggest better word choices and expressions, in the way that it can be done in English, but it would often be met by long contemplative pauses and careful considerations of different permutations of words. I would also like to add that these are regular correspondences – not convoluted legal documents or anything of a complex nature.
It was at this point that I realized that business Japanese can actually be difficult for Japanese native speakers too, and that native speakers will often disagree on what is “correct” Japanese to use far more than it would be in English. Therefore, if you’re finding business Japanese difficult, take heart – even the natives struggle with it sometimes!
While some of the above can be considered subjective observation through the lens of myself, an individual brought up in a Western society and holding values as such, one objective fact about Japan is its lesser diversity in race and culture within the country. While many nations often have a mixture of creeds, cultures and ways of thinking, this only exists to a lesser extent in Japan, resulting in a greater agree of values, unspoken codes and actions that are expected to be universally understood. This can be manifested by declarations of certain things being “common sense” (joshiki,常識) in situations where it may otherwise be considered more subjective and depending on what is considered “common sense”.
This can be a particular obstacle for foreigners fluent in Japanese and/or who look east Asian and therefore subconsciously assumed to act “more Japanese”. There can be instances of things which are implied which are generally more likely to be indirectly understood, but may not be so if not brought up in the Japanese culture. This is often applicable in the workplace and can be the cause of breakdowns in communication – non Japanese people may not necessarily be aware of all of the indirect messages, and Japanese people can assume that their intentions were communicated without realizing the tendency for non-Japanese to take things more at face-value. Of course, indirect communication is not unique to Japan,
This sense of assuming implied meaning can be a double-edged sword – it can allow people to be more attentive and anticipate needs, by inferring what somebody may wish for before they directly say it (or if they don’t express this directly) which may be able to avoid a potentially awkward exchange. However, it can also lead to difficulty in clarifying important situations – while the tendency to omit the sentence subject in Japanese generally does not impede communication when there is sufficient context, as a non-native speaker, there are times where I may need to double check who does what for whom, particularly if there are multiple client parties involved.
Hopefully this article provided some insight into Japanese work culture, and whether you work in your own country with Japanese clients/colleagues, or are thinking of working in Japan, this may give you some insight into the background nuances that may influence your interactions. Maybe this article could be a topic of discussion with your friends – do the points above resonate with you, or perhaps you may have a different experience? Hopefully this article can be an initial talking point!
This article is split into two parts, so be sure to check out part 1 as well!
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