Have you ever wondered what working in a Japanese office is like? Most people know that the culture in Japan is very different from most Western countries. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that working in a Japanese office environment is full of unique customs and challenges for non-native Japanese employees.
However, there are industries in Japan that have their own culture. Many foreigners in Japan work in English schools, which often use Western-based rules, organization, and management for their foreign staff.
If you’re not interested in teaching English or are thinking of working for a Japanese company, this article is for you. I’ll share my experience and insights about working in a Japanese office environment.
- Layout of the Office: Japan vs. the West
- The Japanese Work Environment: Things That May Surprise You
- Japanese Work Culture: Being a Part of the Team
- What Can I Expect from the Japanese Work Culture?
- Pros vs Cons of the Japanese Workplace
- Cons of Working for a Japanese Company
- Pros of Working for a Japanese Company
- Is the Japanese Office Environment Healthy?
Layout of the Office: Japan vs. the West
In Japan, most workplaces follow an open office layout. They’re cheaper for the company to set up. Just like in the US, they’re supposed to encourage better relationships between your fellow employees and help with teamwork. The layout discourages you from doing tasks unrelated to work, which is a bonus for employers.
The traditional image of a Western office is a sea of cubicles. The cubicles were supposed to provide a bit of privacy while cramming as many people into the smallest possible space. This layout has come under fire in modern times, but it’s still iconic of the West.
Japanese Open Offices: Good or Bad?
Open offices look busy because the work isn’t happening behind closed doors. It’s easier for management to spot employees who are slacking or are late to work. You may be expected to announce what you’re doing whenever you leave your desk, even if it’s just a quick trip to the restroom.
But open offices are pretty bad for your health overall. Germs spread between sick employees much easier. Even though conversations are quiet, the overall noise in the office can be deafening to some, and the use of headphones is heavily discouraged.
The lack of control over your interactions with coworkers can be distracting for some. If you’re like me, you might get hyperfocused on your work. Someone asking you a question can completely smash your productivity for the next hour, which can be frustrating and affect your satisfaction at work.
The Japanese Work Environment: Things That May Surprise You
Here are some unique aspects of working in a Japanese office that many Westerners find surprising.
1. Differences in Formality
Westerners, and Americans in particular, should note that the office environment is usually much more formal than in your home country. Business attire or a company uniform is standard. Many larger offices even have a changing room to make sure you’re wearing clean, presentable clothes.
Interactions with your coworkers will also be done using formal speech. As a foreigner, you probably won’t be expected to be a master of keigo (honorific language), but not using it at all will make you stand out as an outsider. Making an effort to match your coworkers, and attempting to fit in, is critical.
2. Outdated Equipment?
The use of physical copies and paper are still quite common in Japan, and as a result, so is the fax machine. I’ve never used a fax in the US, but I’ve used one many times while working in Japan.
3. Employees Do the Cleaning
Employees often help clean the office. This is usually done in rotations instead of every employee cleaning every day. However, you’ll be expected to keep your desk tidy.
This is something Japanese people learn from a young age. Japanese employees also don’t draw the same line that we in the West do regarding job duties.
4. Morning Exercise
Routines Some companies still have their employees do radio program exercise routines each morning, although I’ve never experienced this personally.
If you have never seen radio program exercise performed before, here’s a video for you to check out. I’ve also heard that some companies ask employees to recite the company song each morning.
5. Dental Hygiene
Something I find very weird as an American is that the Japanese also brush their teeth as soon as possible after every meal, including lunch. I was taught that brushing my teeth too soon after a meal can cause damage due to the change in pH that comes after eating, but it seems Japan (and parts of Europe) never got that memo.
Japanese Work Culture: Being a Part of the Team
I think this is the biggest cultural difference foreigners need to understand, because just about everything you’ll encounter in Japanese work culture centers around their definition of “team.”
I’ll use an analogy for comparison.
Teams in the West
In the US, teams are often role oriented, like the positions of a soccer team. There’s a coach, a goalkeeper, defenders, midfielders, and forwards. Everyone focuses on what they need to do for the team to succeed and when they perform their job well, they get rewarded.
I think this fits the basic model of a company in the West. Everyone does what they need to do to the best of their ability and are rewarded based on their effort.
Like the players on a team, you can get “subbed out” of the “match” based on your health and energy levels. Most companies acknowledge that their staff needs time off and prepare appropriate leave packages as part of your contract.
Teams in Japan
Teamwork means something very different meaning in Japan.
Think of a wall of people, marching forward with their arms linked and shouting, “together, we are strong.” Just like a real wall, everyone shares some of the load. The structural integrity can become damaged if a part of the wall fails.
I think this video probably describes it best.
In other words, if you need to call in sick, take a vacation day, or even leave work early, you’re damaging the “wall” of people in your company. A coworker, or several coworkers, will have to take on your workload while you’re away.
You’re rewarded based on your ability to stand the test of time rather than your performance. Once you understand this, I think a lot of the other aspects of Japanese work culture fall into place.
What Can I Expect from the Japanese Work Culture?
I think it’s important to remember that most of the issues you’ll encounter are derived from a fundamentally different definition of teamwork that’s steeped in centuries of history.
If you’re not at least 5 minutes early, you’re late.
Employers highly value punctuality, so you should arrive at work reasonably early to show that you make an effort not to be late. Some employers go as far as to mandate an earlier time you’re expected to be at work.
I was scolded once in the break-room 10 minutes before my shift for not clocking in and getting to work. At the same company, tardy employees were announced aloud at the weekly all-staff meeting.
Ironically, the emphasis on being early only applies when you arrive to work. Earlier this year, a Japanese employee in Kobe was fined half a day’s pay for repeatedly starting his lunch break 3 minutes early.
Pros vs Cons of the Japanese Workplace
While there are many pros and cons of working for a Japanese company, here are some of the major factors to consider.
Let’s take a look at the cons first.
Cons of Working for a Japanese Company
Here are the negative things you should consider if you are thinking about working for a Japanese company.
1. Overtime or Zangyou(残業)
Overtime is both expected and frequent. The amount varies from industry to industry, but being at work for at least 10 hours a day is common.
The Japanese teamwork ideals are a primary culprit in why overtime is so prevalent. Employees stay as late as their coworkers because leaving early can hurt the morale. If done often, it can give others a negative impression of your work ethic.
Both the government and some companies are working to change this. Legislation is being discussed to impose mandatory monthly overtime limits, although there has been some controversy regarding the suggested limit.
Some companies have imposed minimum rest requirements, such as at least 8 hours off between shifts, for employees. There is still much more that needs to be done, but it’s a start.
2. Difficulty in Taking Days Off
Workers are legally entitled to 10 days of paid vacation in Japan. Despite this, the vast majority of employees do not take off of work. The Japanese government is aware of this and has created 16 national holidays in Japan.
Why so many?
To encourage companies to close their doors so that employees can get a much-needed break. Why don’t workers take their leave?
Once again it comes down to Japanese teamwork. If an employee leaves early or takes off, their coworkers pick up the slack in their absence. This puts pressure on employees to have regular attendance. Companies also usually have hefty attendance bonuses to discourage employees from taking off.
3. No Sick Leave
Japan does not have any laws regarding sick leave. Many workers rely on their 10 days of paid vacation to cover times when they are too sick to commute to work. Even then, many feel the need to show up to work to show their commitment.
There is also the issue of maternity leave and leaving work to care for children. This could be an entire article by itself. If you’re a female employee thinking of announcing a marriage or pregnancy to your coworkers, proceed with caution. If the stories of the currently trending hashtag, #私たちは女性差別に怒っていい, are any indication, it can cost you your job.
Pros of Working for a Japanese Company
While working in a Japanese company does have many negatives, there are many upsides as well. Here are some of the biggest benefits you’ll get if you work for a Japanese company.
1. Solid Insurance Programs
A huge upside is the insurance system. Europeans may disagree, but the insurance system in Japan is pretty cushy for Americans.
Most health insurance covers at least 70% of your health care costs, which are already significantly lower than in the US. Your payment is usually in proportion to your salary and is very affordable. Your employer also has to provide unemployment insurance and pension payments.
Pension is a sticky subject for many foreigners in Japan. English schools purposefully use tactics to avoid paying it (along with health and unemployment insurance). However, it was finally ruled last year that foreigners can withdraw pension after working in Japan for at least 10 years. If you plan on living in Japan long-term, you should try to pay into the pension program.
2. Low Salary but Hefty Bonuses
A lot of people on expat forums are surprised by the low salaries Japanese companies offer. A starting salary fresh out of university is around 200,000 yen/month (or lower) before taxes, regardless of the industry you’re in. At the current yen to US dollar exchange rate, this is just under $1,800.
However, most Japanese companies offer hefty biannual bonuses that are awarded based on attendance. Bonuses of 200,000 yen or more are typical and get dished out during Obon (August) and New Year’s. A friend of mine working in the automotive industry gets 600,000 yen (approx $5,400) for her biannual bonus.
It’s also important to remember that unlike in the US, most Japanese companies offer a commuting allowance. Larger companies often give subsidies to employees with children and offer discount lunches. Some even provide housing allowances.
3. Low Cost of Living
Contrary to popular belief, living in Tokyo is not the nightmare of expenses it was at the peak of its economic bubble. Nowadays, the cost of living for a single person living alone in Tokyo is between 140,000 yen and 194,000 yen/month. This includes rent, utilities, taxes, insurance, and a reasonable amount of discretionary spending.
I lived in Tokyo for a year on 110,000 yen/month while I was a student. I could’ve lived on less, but I enjoyed the food options of the konbini, or Japanese convenience stores. When I was working in Tokyo and making 250,000 yen/month at an English school, I was putting around 100,000 yen/month into savings.
4. Difficult to Get Fired
It’s also virtually impossible to get fired in Japan. It’s not unheard of, but the law is pretty harsh on companies and is on your side. Forced resignation is much more common.
Employment termination is not to be confused with a refusal to re-contract workers on fixed-term contracts. There was a recent controversy in Fukuoka about their refusal to rehire their entire foreign teaching staff when they decided to enter contracts with OWLS and Interac.
Many of the teachers were experienced and had been working in their schools for years. However, it was perfectly legal under Japanese employment law because the Fukuoka Board of Education had kept their teachers on fixed-term contracts.
Is the Japanese Office Environment Healthy?
I think it comes down to a variety of factors. If you can find a company that has a decent work/life balance, I think the benefits are definitely worth considering. Attitudes in Japan are changing as productivity data favors shorter workdays.
But what do you think? Have you worked in Japan before and want to share your story? Feel free to leave us a comment below.