Japanese Work Culture – A Mix-Tape

January 15th, 2013By Category: Work Tips

Perhaps no amount of research could fully prepare you for the realities of working for a Japanese company, but having learned the hard way that it’s no cakewalk, I would like to offer to newcomers, or even veterans who need a supportive reminder, my advice on how to function optimally in the unique Japanese work life… with some helpful song titles!


1. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

In Japanese culture, true feelings are generally not shown in public. If you’re at work, make sure you’re showing your most genki face at all times. While bonding with co-workers through mutual dissatisfaction may be acceptable in Western countries (ie. “our boss/students are so demanding!”) in Japan, complaining is frowned on, as it is seen to bring others down.

Even making helpful, proactive suggestions- “why don’t we try it this way?”- may be seen as a challenge to the prescribed method, which was originally made for a clear, effective purpose (maybe?)

If there truly is a real problem, there’s a good chance that it might not be handled directly. Conflict is avoided and it can be very hard to get a straight answer from someone. Forthrightness is not valued in the same way here that it is in the West. If you feel confused about what’s going on, just remember that’s normal.

2. “All Apologies”

What else should I be? The most helpful answer is: apologetic. It doesn’t matter if the mistake was not yours, or if it was impossible for you to have known in advance (for example, being blamed for forgetting to submit a form that you were never told about in the first place)- be sure to apologize.

“I’m sorry,” is always better than making an excuse or trying to shift the blame. You can find out later what happened and try to remedy it retroactively, but denying that it’s your fault will only lead to more problems.

3. “Down With the Sickness”

Getting sick in the West is something inevitable that can’t be helped and generates sympathy from others. In Japan, getting sick means you haven’t taken care of yourself well enough. It is not customary for Japanese people to take a sick day unless they might actually be dying. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but don’t expect to get out of work with a bad cold, no matter how much you’re suffering. Put on a mask, pop some pills, and carry on.

That being said, if you have a fever, you should probably stay home, but be aware that your employer will want to know that you’ve been to see a doctor and gotten a prescription. This may seem a little intrusive, but it will make everyone feel more at ease that you’ve been taken care of.

4. “Hard Day’s Night”

Work overtime. Just do it. Everyone else does.

Sound like classic peer pressure? I can’t argue that it’s not. However, staying late can make your day more relaxed because the work is spread out over a longer time period. It can also give you some extra time to bond with co-workers.

Working long hours is incredibly common in Japan. Of course no one expects you to work yourself to death (they have a term for that here actually- karōshi). Set limits for yourself and stick to them- it can be anything from not staying more than a certain amount of time, to making sure you catch the last train home. You will feel less stressed if you sort a schedule out early on.

5. “Taking Care of Business”

-Japanese work culture is all about appearance. Being well-groomed is a good starting point and easy enough to pull off. First impressions are incredibly important in Japanese business, so looking sharp from the start is a must.

-“15 minutes early is on time in Japan.” Maybe you’ve heard this somewhere else; it’s completely true. The Japanese place a great deal of emphasis on punctuality. Even if your train broke down, it’s still your fault for being late because this is seen as not planning ahead.

-You’re expected to always keep in mind what’s best for the company, because this is supposedly what’s good for everyone in the long term. Even if you don’t plan to stay more than a year or two, you should still act as if you’ll be with them until you retire.

If I’ve made it sound like the Japanese work environment is challenging, well… it’s not all bad news. Keep in mind a few things:

a) As long as you look like you’re doing what you’re supposed to, you are mostly trusted and left on your own to complete your tasks. For those who loathe micromanagement, this can be valuable, just be sure to check periodically that what you’re doing is actually ok, so as to prevent future problems.

b) You will surely go out drinking with your colleagues- it’s completely acceptable to make a complete drunken idiot of yourself and show up to work the next day pretending it didn’t happen. This can be a good way to bond and relieve stress (I recommend onsen as well).

c) This isn’t your culture. Even if you exhaust yourself trying you will never get it quite perfect. And that’s ok. And in your free time you can do as you like.

Author of this article

Nicole Sauer

Nicole is a traveler, teaching to pay the bills and because she enjoys it! She loves discovering and taking photos of hilarious English fails on public signage ("Please use a toilet finely!") She currently lives in Nagoya. Check out her other site at http://la-mera-mera-viajera.blogspot.com/

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  • Maree says:

    Great article. Thanks for the heads up! My first job with a Japanese company starts this April. I think I have a pretty good idea of what to expect… but still, it’s surely gonna be a tough transition from what I’m used to with American companies!

  • leslie nguyen says:

    Thanks for the mix-tape list to keep in mind!

  • D4ve G says:

    These all seem to be cons of working for a Japanese company. Are there any pros?

  • zoomingjapan says:

    Yes, on most things I can agree, especially number 1!

    As for being sick, it sucks!
    In 5 years I only didn’t go to work ONCE for 3 days when I had 40°C fever and was really unable to do anything. On all other occasions I dragged myself to work, no matter how I felt.
    What makes me so angry is that I do everything in order to stay healthy, but when your manager sits right next to you, being sick, coughing like crazy and NOT wearing a mask, then that’s that.
    Also, at least in my job, there’s NOBODY else who could take over when I’m not there, so it’s almost impossible for me to stay home if I’m sick.