Truths About Life in Japan: Working Edition
Sunday, September 30, 2018
The Good, the Different, & the Baffling
Embarking on a career and new life in Japan will be a thrilling experience and no one can ever be completely prepared for big changes. So, even though there are numerous “I wish I knew before I moved to Japan” lists and videos about life in Japan on the internet, the fact of the matter is that everyone will have their own unique adventure. Ultimately – you will change, learn (about Japan and yourself) and grow, and stepping out of a comfort zone is always a good thing. Now, having said that, if you are looking for some information on what to expect, I’ve scoured the internet to see what people are saying in their “I wish I knew" lists. Most are relatively informative while others some assume the reader is a moron (seriously!). So here I have put together my own version of the big “need to know” list with as little bias as I could manage.
1. Kaizen (改善)
A principle for both work and life, kaizen means to constantly strive for improvement and is often a critical part of corporate culture in many Japanese companies. The “Toyota Way” famously implements kaizen at all levels of the company. Instead of reprimanding mistakes,the “Toyota Way” is designed to identify and remedy them in real time so that employees can learn and assess why the error occurred. Further, employees are encouraged to suggest improvements to systems so that the company and its people can constantly evolve for the better. This is a vital reason why Toyota has become the largest car manufacturer in the world. Working in Japan can teach you about the principles of Kaizen.No job is too menial or insignificant, everyone’s work is respected and as a result everyone can take pride in what they do.
2. Japan is the best place to learn sales and customer service
Japan won the Tokyo 2020 bid by highlighting the concept of Japanese omotenashi, which roughly translates to looking after your guests wholeheartedly. While Japan is known for their politeness and customer service it is difficult to grasp exactly what that means without experiencing it. Small gestures like the way change is returned to a customer to ensure the coins don’t fall down is commonplace even at convenience stores. But the fundamental point about customer service in Japans is that it is part of one’s job to anticipate the needs of their client before the client knows themselves. And this applies to all industries. The sales and customer service “bedside manner” (if you will) that can be learned from Japan is useful and impressive no matter where in the world you take it.
1. Nemawashi (根回し)
Extreme directness will not fare well while working in Japan and I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. The objective in any work place is to get things done and that will always be difficult if some people are antagonized. The system of nemawashi basically assumes that everyone agrees to an idea or direction or protocol (or anything) unofficially before things are made official. What this entails is that higher ups tend to want to be consulted on details of meetings or projects so that they aren't caught off guard at any point. This is useful for ensuring that everyone in a team is always on the same page to avoid conflicts down the line.
2. Haizoku （配属）
Haizoku is a controversial idea depending on how you look at. Japanese companies recruit new hires and rotate them through different departments for the first year or two before they settle in more permanent positions. This can be looked at in two ways: for those who are certain about their interests and strengths this may seem like a chore, but on the other hand it is a fantastic learning opportunity. Not only does it build strong bonds and understandings between departments, but as people rise in the ranks their detailed knowledge of operations in each department makes for better understanding of the big picture of the company.
1. Face time is still a big deal
International news occasionally picks up stories about overworked Japanese salary men clocking in 100 hours of overtime a month. What is also true is that the overtime is not necessarily spent working, rather to just fulfill the expectation that one needs to look like they are working, thus spending extra hours in the office. While this is true, and is a problem in Japanese work culture there are whiffs on change in the air.
Starting with the Tokyo municipal government asking companies to stagger working hours for employees to ease the strain on the transportation system during rush hour, to the first ever law capping the amount of allowed overtime that passed in 2017. The official recommendation of the law is a maximum of 45 hours overtime per month and anything over that needs to be formally approved by management.
Rooted in the sankin kotai system of the Edo period where the federal government required regional lords to rotate between living in the capital and their lands every other year whilst leaving their families in the capital, companies in post World War II Japan retained this practice of moving their employees (99% of the time men) to different posts around the country and abroad while leaving their families behind. The system was an efficient way to ensure that elderly parents were always taken care of and children’s school life was not disrupted, not to mention the costs saved from not moving entire families around. While this system is still common place in Japan today, the younger generation of Japanese men are actually demanding more time off of work to spend with their families.
As the idea of marriage and family has become more westernized in Japan, so to have the ideas of work-life balance. While Japan is still a long way away from reaching the work-life balance standards of Scandinavia, the conversations are real and the change is noticeable. And of course, the more foreigners that enter the workforce in Japan, the more the system will have to adapt to accommodate modern values.
Feel free to open an account in Izanau and start looking for great jobs in Japan.
About the Author
I've been in Japan so long that I say my heart is Japanese. And still this country impresses me from time to time. In those moments I think, "That's why I love living in Japan."