7 Surprising Things About Japanese Work Culture, as Told by Internationals Working in Japan

According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there were around 1.65 million foreign workers in Japan as of October 2019. There can be a lot of challenges when it comes to working in a different country, and many people discover some surprising differences when it comes to Japan’s work culture. We asked some international workers about things they found surprising about working in Japan and got some very interesting responses!

1. No Watercooler Chitchat? Japanese People Silently Focus on Their Work

“I’ve noticed that Japanese people really don’t talk during work. In China, it’s normal to chat with the person next to you, even if it’s about non-work related stuff like fashion!” (China/Female)

“Japanese people don’t snack or take tea breaks at work. In Taiwan, we like to have a snack or order in some tapioca tea and take a break together.” (Taiwan/Female)

“You don’t see Japanese people using their phones at work. In Korea, you’ll often notice people on their phone in the office.” (Korea/Male)

In Japan, spending too much time chit chatting or playing with your phone while on the clock is typically looked down upon. Doing this gives others a strong impression that you’re really not taking your job seriously. That said, taking a break is definitely necessary to boost efficiency, so a break here and there is more than acceptable.

2. Japanese People Work Too Much! Why Is There So Much Overtime?

Japanese worker staring at screen

“My image of Japanese people is that they do a lot of overtime.” (Vietnam/Female)

“In China, we really don’t stay late unless we have to. I am always surprised to see how much overtime Japanese people work.” (China/Female)

“In Japan, overtime is the norm. In the U.S., going home on time is the norm.” (America/Male)

There are a lot of different reasons why people stay at work late, but one of the biggest reasons for Japan’s overtime culture is likely that people who do so are considered more diligent and hardworking. Another reason is that Japanese people are typically mindful of their coworkers, and find it hard to leave on time if everyone else is still working.

3. Lunch Breaks in Japan Are Weird!

Japanese worker eating lunch

“Why do so many people in Japan eat lunch alone? In Korea, we all go to eat together.” (Korea/Female)

“Japanese companies don’t reimburse you for lunch. In Korea, most companies give you a lunch allowance.” (Korea/Male)

“Why don’t people take a nap after lunch? In Taiwan, it’s really common to take a quick nap.” (Taiwan/Female)

“I’ve noticed there are many companies in Japan that don’t have their own cafeteria.” (China/Female)

“You only get an hour’s break a day, and people are really strict about it!” (China/Female)

International employees found quite a few things surprising about lunch breaks in Japan! When it comes to eating alone, it may be that many Japanese people tend to have introverted personalities. The sense that your lunch break is your own time is pretty strong as well, so many people take their hour to run personal errands at the bank or the post office. Either way, a lot of people plan how they’re going to spend their lunch break in advance, so if you want to go out together, your coworkers would likely appreciate being asked the day before.

4. This Is Great! The Company Pays for Your Commute

“I’m very grateful for the company covering the cost of my commute!” (Thai/Male)

“I love getting my transport fees reimbursed! Companies don’t pay for transit back home.” (Taiwan/Female)

Many people talked about travel reimbursement! If you’ve ever been to Japan, you may have noticed that transportation costs can be quite high compared to other countries. Riding even a single stop can cost more than 100 yen, and a short, 2 km taxi ride in Tokyo can cost over 800 yen. This is likely due to the fact that a lot of Japan’s public transport infrastructure is run by private companies, so there’s really no way to avoid the high costs.

5. There Are a Lot of Nomikai!

Japanese nomikai

“There are a lot of company-wide drinking parties after work. In Taiwan, we don’t really get drinks after work with anyone but our friends or immediate coworkers. Also, companies throw a lot of going away and welcome parties in Japan, too.” (Taiwan/Female)

“We don’t have a nomikai culture in the U.S. and I can’t imagine going out to drinks with my boss back home.” (America/Female)

“In my country, whoever is free will sometimes head out for a drink after work, but we don’t really have set events where everyone goes together…” (Vietnam/Female)

Like transportation fees, there were a lot of opinions about nomikai (drinking parties)! Whether welcoming new staff, sending off staff who are leaving, celebrating the end of the year, or celebrating the beginning of the year, Japan has a lot of these work events. Nomikai are intended to help coworkers build good relationships by encouraging communication. However, since your boss and people from all levels of the company also attend, they can feel somewhat compulsory. Since they’re technically held outside work hours, many international workers find this part of Japan’s work culture a bit surprising. That said, they’re also a chance for cultural exchange with your Japanese coworkers, so they’re worth attending.

6. The Process Is More Important Than the Results?

Worker looking at documents

“Japanese companies evaluate things based on what work was done with what process rather than looking at the overall results.” (Australia/Female)

Results are important, but Japanese companies have a tendency to emphasize the work process even more, looking at what actions were taken, how those actions impacted others, and how problems were solved when things went wrong.

7. There’s a Strong Sense of Teamwork!

“People don’t seem to consider the people around them as rivals in Japanese companies.” (Australia/Female)

“A team-based attitude is strong here. In America, people often work on their own.” (America/Female)

“People work as a team, so there are a lot of meetings here.” (Australia/Female)

Each industry is different, but Japanese companies tend to work on projects as a team. People tend to see their coworkers as teammates and decide on things together in meetings.

Some Other Unique Opinions!

“People don’t really ask their colleagues for their personal contact details. I think that compartmentalization is good.” (Taiwan/Female)

There is a fairly strong divide between work and private life in Japan, so people don’t tend to ask their colleagues for their private contact information.

“I was surprised by the mandatory health checks for work!” (America/Male)

Japanese people undergo a health check annually. This isn’t just a quick height and weight check, either! It includes a full range of tests including hearing, eyesight, blood pressure, and blood and ECG tests.

“Japanese people use their hanko a lot.” (China/Female)

“Japan is really behind when it comes to paperless processes. Paper is still used a lot. I’d like to see Japan move forward when it comes to digitizing the workplace.” (America/Female)

The use of name stamps, or “hanko,” is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Just like a signature, hanko are required when signing many forms and contracts. This may be why Japanese companies still rely so much on paper. As a Japanese writer, I also think this is a challenge Japan should tackle. Adopting smarter ways of working would really raise productivity as well.

“It’s extremely difficult to fire someone in Japan! In America, it doesn’t take much to get dismissed.” (America/Male)

There are a lot of conditions that must be met when it comes to dismissing staff in Japan. If the situation doesn’t meet these conditions, you can’t be fired. Firing someone without due cause is called “unfair dismissal,” and can leave the company liable to pay a large compensation payout. This is why it’s so difficult to fire someone in Japan.

“If you take a trip, you always need to bring back souvenirs for everyone in the office. We might talk about buying souvenirs in America, but we don’t give them out in the office.” (America/Female)

People bring back souvenirs to give out at work as a way to thank colleagues for covering for you and to apologize for the hassle caused while you were away. This is an example of the typical considerate Japanese personality.

“Japan has very strict and detailed business etiquette.” (America/Female)

The position of your hands when exchanging business cards, the angle of your bow, the way you speak… However you look at it, there are a lot of strict rules in Japanese business culture. These are so important that it is standard practice for new college graduates to attend business etiquette training when entering the workforce.

“I was really surprised by the custom of everyone chanting the company motto during morning meetings!” (Italy/Female)

This isn’t as common as some of the other observations in the article, but older companies in particular tend to do this. We’re sure there are many international workers who were surprised to see this play out in their office! In fact, many Japanese people these days are also opposed to doing this kind of thing.

Japanese workers smiling

No matter the country, when working overseas, it’s important to understand the local workplace culture. Looking at the results of our interview, it’s clear that characteristic Japanese traits have a big impact on the workplace, whether it be working in silence, doing a lot of overtime, or eating lunch alone. These interviews have highlighted some good parts about working in Japan, as well as some of the challenges. As more international workers join the Japanese workforce, I hope that we can hold onto the good parts of Japanese work culture while learning from international workers to help create work environments that people of all nationalities can feel comfortable in.

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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