Working in Japan

When you're studying at university, it's pretty easy to "forget" or "postpone" thinking about your future - but it's very useful to do it since it provides you with a clear direction for achieving your goals.

One of the choices that you will be facing if you're either studying in Japan or are considering working here is the choice of the company type that you'd like to shoot for - is it better to work for a "Global" company with more western management policies or for a more traditional Japanese company?

I'd say that the answer to this question will heavily depend on who you are as well as what type of life you want to live - and in order to figure it out, it's good to know what different company types can offer to you, which is what I'll cover below.

Japanese company

A Japanese company will usually offer its workers a consistent lifestyle - and that makes it a good choice for someone that would like some stability in their life.

Commitment is valued quite highly in Japanese society, and this spills out into every area there is, including the workplace. Jumping from company to company and "trading up" is heavily looked down upon - the company wants to invest into you expecting you to at some point "give back" to the company.

It can be also worth it to notice that in a lot of companies your performance is being judged more by the time you spend at work, as opposed to the results you produce. While this can seem somewhat strange to some people, this is mostly based on a belief that seniority equals skill. The logic behind it is quite simple - if everyone is the same, then as you spend more time doing something you’ll naturally get better at it.

This value of “sameness” is reflected quite well in the proverb “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, the way that Japanese people dress for work, and the overall desire to conform. It can also mean that not every new idea will be met with a warm welcome - since everything new and exciting is at the same time risky, a more traditional approach would be to stick to the "tried and true" methods, which makes it a great place for someone that finds it easy to stick to the plan and doesn't really want to stick out in the first place.

Japanese "Salarymen" going to work

If you like the above and decide that the way Japanese companies approach work fits you, then you can expect to have a lot of fun with figuring out the “rules” of your company as well as with navigating a complex web of relationships with your coworkers.

The rules can range from easy to understand ones like following a certain dress code or speaking politely to people that have been at your company for longer than you to more intricate ones like bringing some gifts back from your vacation (it shouldn’t be too cheap nor too expensive),  obeying your superior even when you know for sure that they’re in the wrong, etc.

One of the rules that you might not like that much is the expectancy to work overtime without getting paid for it. Leaving your job before your boss can be considered rude, so if your boss decided to stay for a bit longer one day - oh well, you weren't planning to do anything else today anyway, right?

The Japanese government actually recognizes this as a problem and is trying to eliminate this custom - and while there is progress being made, a lot of companies are still considered "black", or the ones that don't treat their employees that well.

Another point that may surprise you is the reluctance of Japanese people to take vacations: since the culture puts a lot of pressure on them to care more about their peers than themselves, taking a vacation could be considered as being "selfish" and making other people work harder than they should. Some people might also care a lot about how they're being seen from the outside, and not do something because of the fear of being alienated by society.

While this means that everyone will be really gentle to you (which is great!), sometimes this "kindness" can wear you out and make you feel like everyone is just acting all the time. This is where the concept of "tatemae" (facade) and "honne" (true sound) comes into play - when at work or in public people will try really hard to hide what they really think and only show their facade to you, but as you get closer to them they'll slowly start to open up - and their real opinions might be completely different from what they might've said before.

Overall, I'd say that my view of working at a Japanese company can be boiled down to the following ten points:

  1. Slow, long-term oriented career growth
  2. Mostly stable, with not a lot of changes going on
  3. Very businesslike attitude to things, a more serious overall "vibe"
  4. Being good at workplace politics is almost a requirement
  5. What matters most is the time you spend with the company
  6. Parties that can be a nice chance to bond with your coworkers
  7. Being respectful to your higher-ups is really important
  8. Maybe not the best environment for highly creative people
  9. Some overtime work is to be expected
  10. Needless to say, Japanese language proficiency is a must

Global company

I'd say that a global company in Japan can offer its employees a fun and competitive working environment that allows a person to develop their skills if they're interested in that, but might not be a perfect choice for those willing to relax and stay in their comfort zone.

Usually, these companies have their headquarters somewhere abroad and the Japanese department is just a local branch. While that means that you will probably have to move outside of the country once you'll reach a certain level in the organization, it usually also means that they don't really follow traditional Japanese rules. Instead, they often have more liberal values, which means that being open-minded and coming up with new ideas is usually treated quite well (as long as you actually take action to turn those ideas into reality).

When it comes to seniority, your manager is more likely to act as your friend, wishing the best for you both professionally and personally and might even encourage you to take a break or a vacation if something important happens.

You can also be expected to make friends with your team and other colleagues, as well as attend different parties - but you can always say "No" to any interactions without damaging your reputation or people thinking less of you.

As for the overtime work, there is usually either no overtime work or you will be compensated well for it.

So far it seems like global companies are a great place to work at, to the point that you might be wondering where the catch is. Well, I'd say that the main downside is the following: they provide you with a lot of personal freedom and money as long as you're really good at doing what you're doing. While you can be a so-so worker and procrastinate a lot in a Japanese company (and still get the same salary as a very good worker since it's a seniority-based system), in a more competitive global environment you'll just be asked to leave - and given the company's worldwide reach they'll usually be able to find an even better employee than you in no time.

To sum up, I'd say that the following ten points represent my view of working in a Japanese company quite well:

  1. Skills matter more than seniority
  2. The workplace style is mostly "business casual"
  3. Your career growth depends on your ability, not just time at the company
  4. Results-oriented, which can be a downside for people seeking comfort
  5. The atmosphere is more friendly and open minded
  6. No obligations to attend any parties after work
  7. Your manager is your peer
  8. Creativity and new ideas can be rewarded
  9. Either no overtime or paid overtime work
  10. People use both Japanese and English to communicate
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