January 07, 2009
The Japanese workplace, in general, is rather different from working environments in most of the Western world. For most Westerners, there will be difficulties and a need to adapt and cope. Adapting and coping are the two most important factors for surviving the workplace. Trying to change either yourself or the environment will bring about much unneeded trauma!
Working hours are the first hurdle. The West has sharply defined mental boxes regarding time. There are clear-cut schedules for this and that and working hours start somewhere about 9:00 am and end at about 5:00pm, crisp and sharp. The Japanese do not use the same time frame. Hours are determined by the flow or work at hand and by numerous social factors.
Japanese take pride in the amount of hours they work and for most, work comes first, family second. At the very least, the Westerner in Japan should be prepared to be reasonably flexible (flexible takes on a new meaning here) and try to discard any hard-edged preconceptions of what constitutes a working day. Surveys show that the Japanese work fewer hours per year than US workers, but the official figures don't reflect the levels of "unoffical", often unpaid overtime hours put in.
Company life is very different for men and women. For men, it has traditionally meant a lifetime commitment that will take up far more of their waking hours than will their family. For most men, the workplace is a nonstop commitment from the day they graduate to retirement. Even their annual two-week holidays are often forfeited because it would look like disloyalty to want to have a holiday from the company. The Japanese corporate world is becoming increasingly westernized and "ruthless", with economic hardship causing companies resorting to "risutora" - restructure, a euphemism for firing large numbers of employees. This has caused more and more, usually younger, employees to rethink their loyalty to any given company. But in Japan, change comes slowly. Very slowly.
For women, company-life experience is liable to be limited to four or five years of answering the phone and offering tea to visitors before retreating to a life of domesticity. Women who return to work after marriage, and more and more are doing so, are likely to be involved in small-scale industry that provides none of the benefits available to most Japanese workers. The gap between average female earnings is greater in Japan than any comparable advanced nation.
One thing that must be noted here is the foreigner in the workplace. Not wishing to step on anyone's toes, they often will nod and smile and do what is requested. Please be cautious. As a foreigner you were hired for one reason, your native speaking ability. If it wasn't for this they would have hired Japanese (it would sure be much easier for them to do so). In no way have you signed a contract to be abused or mistreated. Remember, you are quite special to your employer, and they need you as much as you need them. Leave all the Japanese etiquette and customs to them. Do what you know is honest and follow your heart. After all, are we not still human beings?