You Give Gaijin a Bad Name! (Workplace Harmony in Japan)
— Where do you stand as a foreigner working in Japan? —
Not all foreigners are equal in Japan. Some take to Japan like a duck to water while others struggle to fit in and understand their place in the work world.
Japan is complicated. It’s great and it’s complicated. There are many layers, cultural rules and expectations when living and working here. Many are never clearly explained to you when you arrive and may never be. Some you’ll have to figure out yourself via trial and error. Others you’ll learn from your peers and colleagues, both foreign and Japanese.
This post is about working in a Japanese work environment and making the best of your time here. I’ll also clarify that my experience working in Japan is limited to the education industry. I’ve spent the majority of my time working for a private company with a mixture of foreign and Japanese employees. I also spent a year working in 3 Japanese public schools where I was the only foreigner. Some of the things I talk about in this post however come from those who have worked in a variety of industries and have been guests on my podcast, the Just Japan Podcast.
In my time here I’ve seen foreigners who’ve worked very well within Japanese companies and were very popular amongst the native staff. I’ve also seen my fair share who immediately irritated their Japanese colleagues and burned every bridge and work relationship around them (sometimes without even realizing it).
One thing I do want to state is that as a foreigner working in Japan you are held to a different set of standards and expectations than your Japanese colleagues. Most often, they realize you are not Japanese and will treat you differently. They know you may not understand their work culture so you can get away with some things a Japanese worker may not (leaving work when your contract hours are done as opposed to staying late whether you need to or not). At the same time you cannot expect to work like you would back home. You do need to adapt to your new work culture to ensure harmony.
Harmony in the work place is a very serious thing and it should never be taken lightly. There are definitely ways someone new to Japan or someone who doesn’t care may disrupt this harmony. Let’s look at a few things:
Japanese people tend not to complain openly at work. That doesn’t mean that they like everything that happens. They may complain, but in the privacy of their own homes, over drinks after work or more clandestinely. They realize that complaining out loud at work will only cause them more problems than do good.
Many foreigners don’t seem to get this. I’ve worked with more than one over the years that openly and very loudly complains about work place conditions, rules and even their salary in busy offices and teacher rooms. Although Japanese colleagues may sit their quietly, they are taking it all in and you are definitely being judged in a negative way.
I’ve heard gaijin complain about how inefficient their colleagues are in their work, about having to do what seem like duties unrelated to their jobs like cleaning as well as complaining about the news, politics and Japanese culture. I’ve heard people down right bash Japan on a daily basis and then be shocked when their contract wasn’t renewed at the end of their work year.
Not a shock…
Save your complaining for home or after work away from colleagues.
More and More Meetings
Meeting are a big part of Japanese work culture. Japanese people of course don’t love meetings, but it’s an ingrained part of the work culture that you aren’t going to change. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow to help maintain the workplace harmony
If you work in a school you’ll normally have a morning meeting everyday. Even if it’s all conducted in Japanese and you don’t understand, fake being aware, acute and look somewhat engaged.
If it is conducted in English you may learn some important information about the upcoming day.
There will also be lots of meetings for things such as special events. Get used to it. You may not like these and feel they are a waste of time, but the only thing whining will do is help build your negative reputation, something we never want in our workplace.
Drinking and After Work Socializing
This is considered an important part of work life in Japan. Drinking alcohol after work with colleagues is considered a great way to build bonds, trust and solidify that work place harmony.
Even if Japanese workers have young families or other obligations, they are expected to put after work drinking or weekend golf ahead of that. Work first, family second. This is very counter to many western family and work values.
As a foreigner you probably won’t be expected to adhere to this after work drinking and socializing like your Japanese counterparts. I recommend you do it from time to time. Your colleagues will definitely be happy to have you join them.
There is definitely a lot more pressure on them to do this than you so count yourself lucky!
Complaining About Pay
This is definitely something you should never do in the office or staff room. Japanese people normally never do this and you should save it for after work hours when only “safe ears” are around!
If you are working in the private education sector there is a very good chance that your salary is higher than your Japanese colleagues. To make it worse for them, as the higher paid foreign employee, you probably have to work shorter work hours and have less responsibilities and pressure from the owners or administration.
Complaining about pay, especially when you voluntarily signed a contract agreeing to that pay isn’t something to do at work.
I wanted to share some tips with people new to Japan or thinking of working here. These are ideas myself and other past guests on the Just Japan Podcast (which this blog is the host page for) have chatted about during the past few years.
These tips are mostly limited to my experiences so if you have something to add to the conversation please leave a comment.
You make some interesting points. I’ve found that most of the time Japanese staff will give foreigners the benefit of the doubt, but it is true what you say: once your Japanese colleagues don’t like you it is nigh impossible to change their minds.
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