When you come on board with a new company, it is always exciting. However, working in Japan may seem a high hurdle, given the very different culture and personal and professional ways of interacting.
As many of you reading will already know, Japan’s work culture is often associated with long hours, strict hierarchies and a focus on respect and harmony. This can be a significant adjustment for foreigners, particularly those from Western cultures.
Your job is a crucial component of your life in Japan, not only providing financial security but also offering a sense of accomplishment, connections and helping underpin a comfortable life. So, it’s important to be well-prepared for the unique experience you may encounter.
Worry not. To reassure those thinking of joining a Japanese company, already with a company or about to step on board, this handy guide will help prime you on what to expect and not just how to adapt to your new work environment but thrive in it. However unique or challenging your experience, remember it can be hugely rewarding too.
First and foremost, it’s essential to understand the importance of respect and hierarchy in the Japanese work culture. Be prepared to bow when greeting your Japanese boss and coworkers as a sign of respect. The depth of the bow may vary depending on the person’s rank, but a safe rule is to bow at a 15-degree angle for most situations. Greetings are expected whenever you enter the office in the morning (Ohayo gozaimasu) and leave at the end of the day (Shitsurei shimasu).
You should also address everyone by their last name followed by “-san.” For example, if your coworker’s name is Taro Yamada, address him as “Yamada-san.” This practice also extends to written communication, such as emails. Remember to be mindful of your tone and avoid overly casual language when speaking or writing to your superiors. Additionally, always be not only punctual for meetings and appointments but at least five and preferably ten minutes early. Punctuality is highly valued in Japanese work culture. If the meeting starts at 15:00, you can be sure that most Japanese will be already sitting by 14:50.
As a new employee, you’ll be expected to show humility and eagerness to learn. Make an effort to arrive early, stay late, and volunteer for tasks, even if they’re outside your job description. Demonstrating initiative will help you gain the respect of your coworkers.
And don’t be shocked if you’re asked to perform some menial tasks as a way of demonstrating your willingness to contribute to the team. This can include making coffee, photocopying documents, or tidying up the office space. Embrace these tasks with a positive attitude, as they are an opportunity to show your commitment to the team and your adaptability to the Japanese work culture.
Needless to say, building and maintaining positive human relations is a crucial life skill. It’s never going to be more important than in a Japanese workplace. Building rapport with your colleagues is essential for a smooth transition into your new role.
So take the initiative to introduce yourself and show genuine interest in learning about their work and personal lives. Remember things people tell you. Consider bringing small souvenirs to your closer colleagues when you travel domestically or overseas. Share details of your family if applicable, especially with your peers who also have children.
Also, don’t always shy away from participating in the notorious after-work social gatherings or nomikai (drinking parties) either. They’re a great way to bond with your coworkers and learn more about Japanese culture. These days, you are less likely to be forced into unwanted socializing and drinking, but once in a while, take the chance to see your coworkers let their corporate guard down and show their real feelings (hon’ne) as opposed to the public face (tatemae).
If you’re unsure of the company’s dress code, it’s better to err on the side of caution and dress formally. For men, a dark suit with a white shirt, conservative tie, and polished shoes is a safe bet. Make sure your suit is well-tailored and wrinkle-free, and opt for a solid-colored tie without flashy patterns or colors. Once you’ve observed the company’s dress code, you can adjust your attire accordingly. For instance, if you notice that your coworkers dress more casually, you can gradually incorporate more relaxed pieces into your wardrobe, like swapping your suit jacket for a blazer or opting for dressy loafers instead of formal shoes.
For women, a skirt or trouser suit with a blouse and sensible shoes is recommended. Choose neutral colors like black, navy, or gray, and avoid overly revealing or tight-fitting garments. Make sure your skirt is knee-length or longer and wear minimal jewelry. When it comes to makeup, opt for a natural look, avoiding heavy or bold makeup that might be perceived as unprofessional. Similarly, go light on perfume, as strong scents can be overwhelming in a shared workspace.
When you’ve taken a look at the company’s dress code, you can change your attire accordingly. For example, if you notice that people dress less formally, you can slowly adjust, for example by swapping your suit jacket for a blazer or choosing dressy flats instead of heels.
It’s common for new employees to give a short speech and self-introduction (jikoushoukai) at welcome parties or in greeting emails. Practice a simple, concise introduction that includes your name, previous work experience and enthusiasm for joining the company. You may want to include one or two personal details like a hobby or your favorite football or baseball team for example to help build bonds or lighten the mood.
Speak clearly and maintain eye contact, as this demonstrates confidence and sincerity.
The exchange of business cards, or meishi, is an essential ritual in Japan and taken very seriously. Always treat business cards with respect, as they represent the person giving them. When receiving a card, accept it with both hands and take a moment to read it before carefully placing it in your cardholder or on the table in front of you. You may want to make a comment on the company, name or role. When presenting your card, hold it with both hands and ensure the text is facing the recipient.
By following these guidelines and being open to learning more about Japanese customs and traditions, you’ll be well on your way to successfully integrating into your new workplace. Embrace the experience, stay curious and enjoy the rich and rewarding journey of working in Japan. Ganbatte! (Good luck!)
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