The workplace comes with its own rules about how to get along with your co-workers, so in this article we will give you a few pointers on how to behave in order to get along well with Japanese colleagues. We’ve even asked actual international workers who navigate Japanese workplaces every day and included what they have to say – give it a look!
How Japanese Workplaces Work
If you’ll be working in Japan, there are three rules that you absolutely must keep in mind. Each country manages its workplaces differently, and in Japan, the major points of workplace culture are that:
1) Manage your time well (don’t be late!);
2) Hierarchical relationships are strict;
3) Respect the opinions of supervisors and elder co-workers.
These 3 points are the major characteristics of workplace culture in Japan, and you’ll find them referenced throughout this article. Getting along well with Japanese colleagues means always following these three points.
With that in mind, here are some specific points of advice!
The Golden Rules of the Japanese Workplace
Be On Time
Japanese companies are very strict about timeliness. If you’re due to begin your workday at 9 o’clock, you’re expected to be at your desk, fully dressed, and ready to work by 8:50. Similarly for meetings, it is an enormous taboo to show up late, save for extraordinary circumstances. While not codified in formal rules, it is very much the social expectation to operate 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
Say the Proper Greetings
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that proper personal relationships begin with proper greetings. Greetings allow two people to recognize each other, providing the base for a relationship of mutual trust. In particular, Japanese companies are very particular about vertical relationships, so you should always take care to greet your superior when you arrive at or leave from work, or simply bump into them at work.
Don’t Be Too Forceful With Your Opinions
Japanese companies value harmonious relationships. While it’s naturally important for everyone to state their opinions, if you’re too insistent about it, you risk making a bad impression on others. It’s generally desirable to respect and support your superiors’ and elders’ opinions.
Avoid Excessive Small Talk
Japanese people are expected to do their work silently, so you should generally avoid personal conversations during work time. In Japanese companies, excessive small talk gives off the impression of being unserious. Additionally, you should avoid using your smartphone outside break times.
Report, Contact, Discuss (“Ho-Ren-So”)
Japanese companies operate not on the mindset that individuals do their own work by themselves, but rather that everyone is part of a team that accomplishes tasks together. So that your team can function smoothly, it’s important that you regularly report on your task progress (報告, hokoku), keep contact (連絡, renraku), and discuss any unclear points (相談, sodan).
Here’s What You Should Keep In Mind, According To Real-Life International Professionals
Better to Avoid Discussing Private Matters
The nation of Japan extends quite a bit geographically, and people from different regions can behave differently. Broadly, people are more reticent in cities, where you should avoid asking your coworkers questions about their marital status, their age, or whether they have children. On the other hand, in the regions, personal relationships are much tighter, so you might find discussions delving quite deeply into personal matters. Since people in different parts of the country react so differently to personal questions, it’s wiser to stay on the safe side and avoid bringing such matters up at all.
Consult With Your Team Before Taking Vacation Time
Compared to those in other countries, Japanese companies are less friendly to individuals taking time off. Of course, companies are required to offer paid time off, but the atmosphere discourages workers from taking it. The main reason for this aversion to vacations is simply that there is too much work to be done. Since, as mentioned, Japanese workers operate in a team mentality, there is a feeling that taking time off would force other team members to pick up the slack and cause an inconvenience. To avoid this, before taking time, always discuss dates with your teammates and superiors.
Bring Back Gifts From Your Vacations
People take time off for all sorts of reasons, but if you’re taking time off to go on a trip, make sure to bring back an omiyage (a souvenir) for your co-workers. Individually-packaged locally-made snacks are the safest option. Handing out omiyage to your co-workers is a tradition in Japan, as it conveys the sentiment of “Thank you for letting me take time off.”
Read the Room and Read Others’ Expressions
Japanese people tend to be quiet and introverted. They tend to avoid declaring Yes or No and give ambiguous answers instead. Even when a Japanese person feels negatively toward something, they’re unlikely to state it outright, so it’s up to you to figure out how they really feel and “read the air.”
Careful With Your Phrasing
As mentioned above, Japanese people tend to express themselves with ambiguity, out of a concern that declaring themselves too forcefully might reflect poorly on them or hurt another person’s feelings. To get along well with Japanese people, rather than finding the most direct way of saying something, find the way that is most sure to avoid conflict and unpleasantness.
To build strong relationships, mutual trust is crucial. When you’re assigned a task, you should recap the task in your own words to clarify that you’ve understood it properly. Make sure that there’s not a single point of uncertainty or misunderstanding. By doing this, you can not only get others to trust you, but you can also convey your enthusiasm and ambition.
Break the Ice By Getting Lunch Together
By getting lunch with a co-worker, you can get to know each other better and break down barriers. However, many Japanese people like to get errands done during their lunch break, such as stopping by the post office or bank, while others simply prefer to eat by themselves. To account for this, ask them if they’d like to grab lunch at least a day in advance, and do it casually without being too pushy. But on the other hand, Japanese people are introverted and rarely invite others to lunch, so don’t be hurt or offended if no such invitations come your way.
Do Your Best to Learn Language and Manners
Making an effort to learn about Japan is certain to reflect favorably on you. Ask people around you about points regarding the Japanese language, manners, or culture, for example during lunchtime. Introducing your co-workers to elements of your own culture is also a good idea: it will help improve understanding between the two countries, and create better relationships at a personal level as well.
Participate in the Major Annual Parties
Japanese companies have three major drinking parties each year: there is the end-of-year bonenkai (literally “forget-the-year party”, i.e. to forget the stresses of the past year), the beginning-of-year party, and the welcome party for that year’s new employees. These parties serve the important function of allowing you to interact with employees (including supervisors and seniors) whom you haven’t met before. Always participate in these events if you can help it!
Each country has its own distinct habits and unique characteristics at the workplace. If you’re just setting off on a new working life in Japan, or if you’ve been having difficulty with personal relationships, we encourage you to look through this article and take its points to heart. But you must also remember not to go too far or put up with too much for the sake of pleasing others. You should have confidence in yourself as you build relationships with your Japanese colleagues.
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Title image credit: PIXTA
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.