Japanese Work Culture: How is it Different from The US?

Before you rush to find a job in Japan, you need to get accustomed to the Japanese work culture. Japan is a country with immense work opportunities. People from all over the globe look forward to working here. Last year, the number of foreign workers in Japan amounted to a whopping 1.73 million. But you should not glance only at the glitters. 

The work culture in Japan is very different from western countries like America. These include employee-employer relationships, dress codes, colleagues’ behavior, and ethics at Japanese workplaces. Below you will get to know about such differences in detail.

Want to learn Japanese while working in Japan? You might find it difficult to find classes that fit your schedule and may struggle to fully commit to your studies.

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infographic japanese work culture

1. Japanese employees have a strong work commitment to their company

This is probably an already popular notion, but Japanese people have a strong work ethic, which includes punctuality and commitment to work. A lot of employees prioritize work over spending time with their families. They start their day early and spend hours commuting. Working overtime is often a normal practice. In some sense, Japanese people view the workplace as their family. If a person works for long hours then it is seen as a sign of love toward his or her family.   

In America, balancing work and life is given priority. About 72 percent of Americans consider work-life balance while looking for a job. Employees do acknowledge that spending quality time with their loved ones is as essential as work.

2. Formal dress code at Japanese workplaces 

In Japan, companies follow a quite strict formal dress code. Male employees are expected to wear charcoal grey, navy blue, or black suits along with a white shirt and subdued ties throughout the year. While female employees are expected to wear similar color blazers along with trousers, skirts, heels, and tied-up ponytails. Standing out or wearing bright colors is a slight no-no at the offices in Japan. 

On the other hand, in America, things are more flexible as employees are free to wear casuals at work. Mostly suits are worn whenever there is a business meeting or presentation.

3. Generalized skill over specialties and priority over company goal

The Japanese workplaces focus on the group. During the hiring process, a lot of companies give less priority to skill sets and specialization. Instead, they see if the individual is culturally fit or not. This is because Japanese companies want employees that can perform well in a group for a good amount of time. They don’t have a firing culture. Employees work at companies for a very long period. In fact, Japan is known for its lifetime employment system. 

On the other hand, American companies look for candidates who have specialization as well as the right skills for the job. They follow a system of ‘structural individualism’ wherein the main focus is on the individual’s career. That’s why switching companies for better opportunities or strategic job hopping is a common practice in the US. However, this should not be mistaken for the absence of teamwork. Individual employees do participate in group projects from time to time.

4. Japanese companies tend to be a top-down hierarchy

Employees are expected to report to their seniors, inform the seniors about the latest developments, and consult seniors for work advice. Employees are not free to make decisions. They have to approve everything from their superiors, even the small things. This is called ho-ren-so, which means “spinach” in the Japanese language but is actually an abbreviation for:

  • Hokoku (to report)
  • Renraku (to inform)
  • Sodan (to consult)

In contrast to this, American organizations have decentralization of authority and decision-making. Every employee gets to make his or her decisions that could help the business to grow. Of course, employees go to their seniors for professional advice now and then. But ultimately the decision lies in their own hands.

5. Risk-averse  

People have a conservative mindset in Japanese corporations. Employees avoid taking risks unless they are 100 percent sure about the outcomes. They usually go along with safer old ideas which are already tried and tested out.

On the flip side, businesses are much more open to trying something fresh. American employees don’t hesitate to take risks even if they are not certain about the results.

6. Close relationships with colleagues

A Japanese workplace is not just about working on and off. When employees are at work, they only work. However, once the work hours end, employees go out to socialize with one another. They usually hang out at karaoke or restaurants for nomikai, which is a Japanese word for a drinking party. With everyone seated around one big table, co-workers are expected to drink, share meals and interact with each other. Nomikai has all different kinds. It even exists outside the work circle in Japan. Joining such parties is considered socially appropriate. Still, they are completely optional and anyone can skip them if they want. 

In America, there are no social norms for socializing or bonding after work. American employees are already familiar with their co-workers due to their informal working environment. Thus, they largely don’t need to set separate times to get to know one another. This gives them more space for their personal life.

7. Prioritizing harmony over conflict

The Japanese way of communicating is quite indirect. Japanese people are usually accustomed to observing and absorbing knowledge thoroughly. Due to this, asking questions is sometimes considered rude by society. As a result, you will rarely see anyone raising their hands with queries in mind by the end of business meetings or presentations. Even if they didn’t understand anything, people will tend to avoid asking it because of this stigma. 

Meanwhile, in America, questions come and go anytime. There are no social barriers and clearing doubts is a normal thing. The American work culture is more straightforward in these aspects.

how is japan and western work culture different?
Image taken from Canva

Common Business Etiquettes in Japan 

Social interactions in the Japanese working environment can be confusing. Japan has unique business manners and etiquette that differ from western standards. To avoid cultural shock, it’s best if you know them firsthand. In Japan, there are quite a several do’s and don’ts that business professionals are required to keep in mind. Here’s a crisp list of the few most important etiquettes that you need to catch sight of.

1. Bowing to clients till the elevator door closes 

Whenever you have visitor clients at the office, it is expected to accompany them to the front door. If your office is at a high-rise building then seeing off the visitors to the front door may seem too much. In that case, you should escort visitors to the elevator. Once they get on the elevator, you should bow till the gates close. 

2. The employees take off their coats before entering the office  

In winter, you will see employees taking off their coats and folding them over their arms before entering the office buildings. They don’t do so inside building hallways because it might disturb other people. 

3. Business cards are exchanged politely

Japanese business culture is very polite and respectful. Whenever there is an exchange of business cards during meetings, they are done gracefully like a ritual. The first person holds the card with both hands while facing the other person. Then he bows while offering the card and the other party also bows the same way and accepts the card.

4. Seats are arranged according to the rank in the company 

During business conferences or meetings, members are seated as per their position in the company. Leaders or seniors with more expertise get front seats. A similar seating arrangement is used in other places such as colleges, trains, taxis and so on.

5. Customer is the God 

You may have heard multiple times how the customer is the ‘king’ in the market. However, in Japan, the customer is not just regarded as the king but as a ‘god’ as well. Customers are greeted with care whenever they come and go. Their happiness is the number one priority of every business. They are handled with proper respect and offending them is out of option. 

Most popular jobs for Foreigners in Japan

The Japanese job market is vast and it’s open to everyone. However, it’s also true that not all companies are accepting foreign employees due to an array of factors. Still, a large number of foreign job seekers look forward to joining a series of industries in Japan every year. Among this group, there are a few jobs that are more popular. We’ll be covering a few positions, but for the full list of popular jobs for foreigners in Japan, head to this article.

1. English Teacher 

English teachers are always in demand in Japan. With adequate degrees and experience, any foreigner can teach at cram schools and educational institutes. For teaching at public schools, it is mandatory to pass the government’s JET program.

japanese work culture vs us work culture
Image source – Freepik 

2. IT Professional 

It is no surprise that Japan is a technological hub. Opportunities in the field of IT are evergreen. Many Japanese companies hire foreign software engineers, programmers and developers. On average, a tech professional or software engineer usually earns around ¥7.7 million per year.

3. Translator or Interpreter

The job of a translator is pretty much versatile in Japan. Translators are required not only for English to Japanese translations but in many other languages as well. Translators are largely needed in the gaming industry to overcome the language barrier. A good number of translators also do freelance assignments for brands, publishing houses, etc. The salary of a translator can vary depending on the skill level. Usually, a mediocre translator makes about ¥3 million in a year.

4. Engineer 

In the utopia of advanced technology, Japan undoubtedly stands as a key player. From manufacturing world-class automobiles to electronics, there’s so much to this country. It’s thriving and full of prospects. Companies dealing in cars or electronic items regularly have openings for engineers with excellent pay. An average engineer receives a salary of ¥7 million per year. Check out some of the best IT job sites in Japan.

Brush Up on your Business in Japanese

Once you get the job offer and are all set to start working in Japan, brushing up on your Japanese will be the last thing to do.

If you are going to work in a Japanese-speaking environment, your polite business Japanese must be improved to a point where you can mesh with your teams. You will be expected to speak business Japanese and practice Japanese business etiquette. The sad truth is that passing certain levels of the JLPT is never enough for this.

To sharpen your Japanese skills, the most effective way is to take up a business Japanese course at a language school while working in Japan. Coto Japanese Academy offers business Japanese courses covering every aspect of business Japanese. If you wish to learn Japanese in Tokyo, check out our various Japanese courses!

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What are the similarities between workplaces in Japan and America?

Japan and America have a couple of similarities as well. Both countries have very long work weeks. Japanese people are extremely hardworking and working overtime is not something strange to them. There is even an odd phenomenon known as Karoshi where people die due to overwork. Similarly, Americans spend most of their time at work and face similar experiences. 

In both countries, employees prefer to take shorter vacations or time off from work. Japanese employees feel guilty when they don’t work. Just like that, most American employees stay devoted to their jobs.

How to overcome cultural differences while working in Japan? 

Working in Japan can be an overwhelming experience. The cultural shock is quite strong when you first arrive. But it’s only a matter of time. You need to be patient, and observant, and try your best in meeting the expectations. Make friends because having good companions will help you in your lonesome moments. Keep navigating your way, you will eventually find yourself overcoming the cultural barrier.

Do Japanese companies hesitate to offer jobs to foreigners?

Japanese companies hesitate to offer jobs to foreigners. That is primarily because there is a vast difference between Japanese work culture and American or European work culture. They know very well that fitting into the Japanese environment will take time. Thus, Japanese companies prefer to recruit either local candidates or foreigners who are already stationed in Japan.

What are the perks of working in Japan?

There are several mandatory benefits provided to employees in Japan. These includes: 

  • Pensions (for old age, disability, and survivors)
  • Maternity leaves up to 14 weeks 
  • Paid leaves (at least 5 days a year)
  • Insurance and compensations 
  • Dietary assistance

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