I work for a Japanese company. And this means working with Japanese people. Not an easy task.
I still remember the day that I got the news that I would become a full-time worker in a Japanese company. I remember where I was sitting, who I was with, and even what I was drinking. It was a significant moment and one that marked a major change in my life here in Japan. I was excited. Very excited.
But this was a double edged sword…
While working for a Japanese company and working with Japanese people can be a great experience in more ways than I can count, it can also be one of the most crushing and stressful experiences that a non-Japanese person can experience.
I sat on this post for a while, really on the fence as to whether or not I wanted to post it.
Most of my experiences working with Japanese people have been good, if not great.
And I have a great deal of respect for every single person that I work with.
But that is not to say that it has been without its hard times.
And after hearing some horror stories from other people,
I realized it was time to put this post together…
I had always heard stories from friends of mine who worked in Japan as ALTs, programmers, consultants, etc.., that working along side Japanese people can be terribly stressful and more often than not feels like walking a tight rope above a fire pit while juggling chainsaws. There’s just so much that can go wrong…
But I never thought it would affect me. I have been living side-by-side with Japanese people for over 10 years and have been speaking the language just as long. I picked up on Japanese language and culture when I was young and was surrounded with people who I could speak and grow with. I studied Japanese business culture and Japanese business etiquette in anticipation of working in Japan, and got into a Japanese company at an early, but reasonable age.
And in my first couple of years working with Japanese people I came to understand exactly what everyone meant.
It was a totally different world than what I was prepared for.
Now, there are a large number of factors that contribute to the complexity and the difficulties one may have when working with Japanese people. And to save time, space, and your eyes, I have decided to put a few of these points in a list (which will probably be updated as time goes on), for easy reading and convenience:
- No matter how good your Japanese is or how long you have been in Japan. Unless you are a native-Japanese speaker raised in Japanese culture, you will be seen as a foreigner / outsider
- Japanese people tend to form cliques or small groups (remember high school? Japanese people do!). Even Japanese people who are not a part of the clique or group are viewed as outsiders.
- Most (if not all) Japanese people have 2 faces – one for work, social interactions, etc and one for family and very close friends (they will almost never show you the later)
- Note: This is not a dishonesty thing as much as it is a working in harmony thing
- Most foreigners do not understand the concept of ‘wa‘ (harmony) as it applies in Japanese social and work culture
- Japanese co-workers or colleagues may not fully understand your job, and definitely assume that you understand nothing of theirs
- Japanese people are not relaxed at work. If you are, you will stand out in a negative way
- Your Japanese co-workers or colleagues may not completely understand what you are trying to say
- You may not completely understand what your Japanese co-workers or colleagues are trying to say
- Attempting to rectify either of the preceding 2 points can easily lead to getting stuck between a rock and a hard place in the sense that:
- a) If you try to simplify your communication to make things more clear, you may end up being too direct
- b) Trying to be indirect in English can lead to confusing Japanese staff even more
- c) Trying to be indirect in Japanese if it is not your native language, can easily lead to dangerous mis-communications
- Japanese tend not to forgive. Therefore, if any of the following happen,
you are potentially in hot water for a while:
- You’re caught being lazy, taking personal calls, etc (basically if you’re caught doing anything… you’re in the dog house)
- You show up late even once
- You allow yourself to get and or show frustration, stress, or anger
- You argue with or make any negative comment to someone
- You fail at an attempt to indirectly say something negative
- You fail to follow the silent chain of command
- You fail to communicate information in the proper format
- You don’t have an answer ready when you are asked a question
- You say that a request that has been made of you is impossible
- You say “no” or “sorry, I can’t” to almost anything
- You give your honest opinion rather than the acceptable shared opinion
- You show up for work or leave work On Time
- You converse with your Japanese co-workers either too much or too little
This list could probably get a lot longer, but for everyone’s sake, I will limit it to its current contents.
And trust me when I say that if you’re doing good, they will test you. It is far from uncommon for a Japanese person to suddenly say something direct and aggressive (this is usually done in a compact, brief comment that passes as soon as it came), simply for the point of getting a reaction.
Sounds childish? It is.
And for many people this tends to set them over the edge. They allow themselves to get flustered, or react, or even go and complain to the wrong person in the chain of command. And then you’re up the creek without a paddle…
So, it’s at this point that you’re probably wondering either what you can do to make working with Japanese people easier, or if it’s even worth it at all…
Some people will tell you that it will help you to learn the language. Others will tell you that having a strong understanding of Japanese business etiquette or Japanese business culture will be the key. And some people will try to sell you the idea that if you work long, hard hours, that even as a foreigner, you will surely be accepted in the Japanese workplace.
I am here to tell you that while each of those may hold some merit, it is my experience that none of them are worth a grain of sand in comparison to just not caring.
Sure, at first glance this may seem counterproductive to the cause, but in the end, just going in to work, doing your job to the best of your ability, being polite and considerate, putting in overtime every now and then, and simply not giving a s*** what your Japanese co-workers think of you is the only sure-fire way to get through the day with your sanity intact.
Maybe this is already you! And perhaps you haven’t had a single negative experience working with Japanese people. And if that’s the case, good for you!
But if not, then this is something to keep in mind.
It took me a while to learn this, and since I have, every day at the office has been a lot better.
Yes, they will still test you every now and then, but just put on a smile, comply and at the end of the day, detach!
There is a lot more that I was planning to add to this post…
I was originally going to make it more about racism in the Japanese workplace but it would seem that we will cover that in a separate post.
For now, I hope this helps.
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, anecdotes, stories, and opinions in the comments section~