Jun 7, 2017
What is it like to work in Japan? Well, here’s the brutal truth that you’ll probably not want to hear … the same as anywhere else … eventually. Yes, the power of work to make life feel like a repetitive slog seems to know no bounds. One could own a nice little bar by a tropical beach spending lazy days serving fresh coconuts to beautiful-bodied holidaymakers and still feel dread at the prospect of a Monday. Stick around in Japan long enough, and you’ll find yourself in the typically bipolar rhythms of the working week familiar to myriad workers around the world. But hang on! Hopefully it will take a good while before working in Japan loses its lustre. In that time there will be much to enjoy, fascinate, frustrate, annoy, bemuse and amuse.
Doubtless, for many, the prospect of working in Japan will excite and overwhelm, but like all experiences with the unknown, things typically fall into place one way or another, leaving you to think, ‘What was I so worried about?’.
While we can never comprehensively answer the question, ‘What is it like to work in Japan?’, we can highlight some of the quirks, misunderstandings, and things to be aware of.
Day-to-day working life in Japan
Gossips at coffee machines, chainsmokers, conversations dominated by moans about the boss, pointless meetings, David Brent style management, bland office decor … Japan shares the same fixtures and fittings of places of work all around the world. Indeed when it comes to it, it’s just work; the lucky ones want to be there, there rest of us would rather be somewhere else.
The characters are the same in Japan, too; the office clown, the one who doesn’t say anything, the horrible boss, the nice boss, the one who won’t stop talking, the one who’s jaded to the point of not caring, the one who’s going to become your best friend, the one you fantasise about, … the list goes on. They’re all here.
Where things will differ significantly for the expat working in Japan is a feeling of exclusion and / or comfortable distance. Language and cultural barriers (that go beyond work), and the prospect of leaving after a couple of years can sometimes make you feel like a bit of a spare part. Not always, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sometimes this is a good thing. For a start, it typically frees you from any tiresome workplace politics. For those looking for more responsibility and career progression however, it might take a little more of a show of commitment in order to get on this path.
It’s a job
At the risk of sounding patronizing, let’s get into this, and aim it squarely at some of those who come to Japan to teach English. It’s not uncommon to meet teachers here in Japan for whom the realisation that they’d be doing a full-time job never quite sunk in. To be fair, it’s understandable to a certain extent. Fresh out of uni, a head full of dreams, and surrounded by the prospect of adventure, sex (if you’re lucky), and travel, nobody ever makes it clear that most of the time spent in Japan would be spent at work.
Writing this reminds me of when I first came to Japan as teacher. At the end of initial training the school manager asked us what we had seen during the week. Still unsure as to why we were all here, someone bravely asked for confirmation as to what he was referring to; the training or the cool stuff we’d seen in Tokyo?!
All that being said, it would be a fallacy in most cases to try and deny that the reason we are here is for the job, not Japan? Right? Maybe?! And there’s nothing wrong with this. Just make sure to turn up for work!
In Japan, things are loosening up a little in this regard. Although, depending where you hail from, attitudes to workplace appearance may still seem a little Draconian in Japan. Certainly, if you’re reading this as a native speaker of English, standards will likely seem stricter than you are used to. Tattoos, while beginning to creep out in the nation’s onsen will still need covering in the workplace. Piercings should be approached with a higher degree of caution, and beards are still a bit of a grey area (keep them in check, and no weird designs).
While corporate Japan is becoming more progressive it’s likely that you’ll need to be suited and booted for the office, although the implementation of energy saving policies like ‘Cool Biz’ for the summer have seen ties loosened (and ditched altogether) and top buttons undone.
Perhaps the best way to convey attitudes towards workplace appearance in Japan would be to turn to the nation’s schools. The visiting teacher might be surprised just how stringent the rules are applied towards how students should make themselves up, or not. Girls with long hair should have it pinned back in a certain way and fringes adjusted accordingly. Any degree of hair dying will not be tolerated. There’s even a ‘correct’ posture for sitting during assembly. ALTs in Japan often remark of the nation’s jr high schools that the main item of the curriculum is to teach students how to be ‘Japanese’, and this 'education' they bring to the workplace.
Office Parties in Japan
It’s a truism that the corporate stooge in Japan is often at the whim of superiors when it comes to post-work drinks. As with many aspects of working life though, these things are often not applied to foreigners. Still, the culture of the post-work drink is strong in Japan so don’t be surprised to find yourself a part of it. You may even get your drinks on the company coffers!
It may come as disappointment or relief to hear that the debauched Christmas party isn’t a thing in Japan. (Risks of inter-colleague snogs to a soundtrack of Wham! and photocopied bums are very low.) Work parties do happen though. If there’s one party during the year that you really should attend, it would be the bounenkai (忘年会); a kind of end of year bash that could take place as early as November and certainly before the nation shuts down around the end of December ready for New Year’s celebrations. All companies hold them, usually outside of the workplace, although sometimes a meeting room might be used. Don’t expect any music.
Another party to be ready for might be the new year party, shinnenkai (新年会). This is held once everyone has returned to work after the New Year holidays. It’s likely to be a little more sedate (for obvious reasons)!
Workplace parties assume an important role in Japan, being as they are, a rare opportunity for people to actually talk to one another. Yes, apparently working life in Japan is so busy that people don’t have any time to chat. This is what the locals will tell you. It’s not really true. Colleagues lunch together, take coffee breaks together, smoke together, and have plenty of chance for a chinwag. I think what we are referring to is work parties as a chance to socialise outside of your immediate circle, and maybe make some connections.
Somewhat of a grey zone. English teachers in Japan often lament the fact that they don’t get paid when taking a day off sick. Rightly so (the lamenting part), but then so many English schools in Japan are busy cutting corners so as to save money. They can’t afford their teachers to be sick. It’s their own fault for over stretching themselves and getting involved in price wars, but that’s another issue. The fact of the matter remains, that as an English teacher in Japan, you’ll likely have to use your paid holiday if you want to get paid while sick.
For a nation so famed for a slavish attitude to work, you might be surprised just how many people are taking days off sick, and how often. If there is any consequence to individuals in this case, it will only be revealed when it’s time for the performance review or the contract renewal. It’s unlikely to result in the loss of employment though. A pay cut or transfer to another team is the more common course of action.
Procedures for calling in sick vary. Some employers might require of you to make that awkward phone call in the morning, when you try to make your voice sound as miserable as possible. Others just put employees on a massive mailing list, requiring them only to send in a quick message should they not be fit for purpose on a given day.
During ‘influenza season’ (Yes, that’s a thing in Japan.) the nation switches to a kind of DEFCON 1 status of paranoia. Any signs of the flu and it’s pretty much an unwritten rule that you’ve to take a week off work, paid or otherwise.
Another surprise to be had about working in Japan is just how much holiday you have. There’s an assumption that Japanese workers have very little vacation time. Not true (comparatively, at least). You’ll get more holiday in Japan than you would, say, in the U.S. The Japanese government recently introduced a new national holiday in June, meaning there is now at least one national holiday every month in Japan. On top of this, you’re average company worker is given up to / from 20 days of vacation time. Where the confusion comes in, is that most of employees don’t make use of all of it. It’s a load of nonsense, but taking one’s vacation time in Japan has a bit of a stigma attached to it. Something about not wanting to burden others. Hell, even the government had to step in and give employers a gentle push to encourage staff to take more holidays. This is where that bit about some of these habits and unwritten rules not applying to foreigners comes in. If you’ve got holiday time to use, use it. It’s for the greater good. Just be sure to make your holiday plans early.
In many cases, holidays are designated anyway. Golden Week (end of April - early May) and New Year being the most obvious cases. Some workplaces in Japan shutdown during these times meaning employees have no choice but to take vacations. The obvious downside is that travel costs soar. However, at least the worker can approach the year knowing for sure that they have some holiday time set up and ready to go.
The Unions in Japan
Most full-time corporate workers in Japan will automatically be enrolled in a labor union. It’s usually something ‘in house’, for which dues are required each month (a few thousand yen).
However, gone are the days of the 1950s to the 1970s when union organized ‘spring offensives’ would have industry bigwigs in Japan sweating over how much they were going to have to increase salaries to get people back to the office. The power and membership of unions in Japan has decreased significantly since those days. A part this change is down to an increasingly itinerant and flexible workforce. While not quite reaching the questionable nature of ‘zero hour contracts’, more and more workers in Japan are taking up part-time positions or are being ‘dispatched’ from agencies meaning they’ve little interest, or reduced power, to effect any kind of change in their working conditions. This pertains to many foreigners in Japan too, particularly teachers.
To be honest, if you only plan to work in Japan for a year or two, there’s seems to be little point in getting involved with union activities. Get your head down, make the most of your life in Japan, and leave with plenty of happy memories.
Those staying longer may want to get more involved. Particularly those who teach English. The big employers in this industry arguably have a lot of issues that need to be addressed, and some strong-willed teachers are keen to have them do just that. This expat used to work for one of the ‘big hitters’ (using the term with a sense of fun) in the industry and was enrolled in their ‘in house’ union upon starting work. Within about three months I was being dragged off with a group of gung-ho teachers to the headquarters of an ‘independent’ union to discuss our rights and the possibility of ditching our ‘in house’ union (which we were perfectly entitled to do). Only three months in, I couldn’t be bothered to ‘jump ship’ but the others did. What ensued was a battle of wills, social-media based arguments about which union would actually be able to achieve something, and clandestine meetings between union representatives and management. Quite what was achieved I’m not sure, and most of the key members who sparked that particular revolution all left Japan within a couple of years anyway, thus highlighting one of the problems faced in trying to get English schools to do the right thing; too many teachers leave after a short time to make it worth the time, money and effort.
Still, there are unions out there fighting the cause for English teachers in Japan. If you want get involved, you shouldn’t feel afraid to do so.
Do women have to make the tea? …
… was a question I recollect seeing on a Japan forum somewhere. “No!”, would be the official answer to that, but it is unfortunately true that Japan has some distance to travel in terms of bettering / increasing / equalling opportunities for women in the workplace. To what extent foreigners will ‘feel’ this in Japan, I can no longer be sure, and it’s probably the case that attitudes and habits will differ between places of employment. There is an increasing awareness though that things need to change. Current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has implemented a ‘Womenomics’ policy (?) to try and bridge the gender gap in Japan. Like all things political though, it’s either effective or ineffective depending on who you listen to or believe.
It remains true that when it comes to making the tea for visitors to the workplace in Japan, it’s the usually the women that take up the task. This is unlikely to change anytime soon (although it’s unlikely to be expected of female employees from overseas) but that’s no excuse. We can all make a cup of tea, can’t we?
Company Exercise Drills
To work in Japan no longer means being dragged up to the rooftop of the office to do some stretches before work. Those days are all but gone. In fact, it seems almost incomprehensible that anyone reading this would find themselves in that situation in Japan.
Exercise in the workplaces of Japan has assumed a much less militant role, if any role at all. Some companies do encourage workers to get out and get the heart rate up; company marathons, lunchtime jogs, exercise-based fundraisers are increasing signs of the progressive company in Japan. They are always going to be voluntary though.
Overtime in Japan
Japan has a bad reputation indeed for overtime. How much is this likely to touch foreigners working in Japan? Well, again, it’s going to depend on your place of work and, more importantly, your colleagues and the nature of the tasks that need (or don’t need) completing. Locals will try to tell you that overtime is down to the fact that they have so much to do. Obviously true to a certain extent, but one wonders how much overtime is undertaken simply to show commitment / servitude to the cause. Quite a lot, this expat suspects. There seems to be a pervading attitude of quantity over quality in this regard.
High profile cases of overtime-based suicide have forced the government’s hand. (Or is it more to do with increasing consumer spending?) Either way, greater pressure is being applied to Japanese employers to make sure workers are leaving the nation’s offices at a reasonable hour. Some Japanese acquaintances of mine work for one of the biggest companies in the world out of an office in Japan. Management there has taken to sounding a kind of end-of-school bell at 19:00 on the dot to alert workers to the fact that they have to leave. Other companies in Japan have employed the system of automatically switching off the lights at a certain time. All well and good one supposes, but how many of these workers just carry on with their work at home?
Much like with ‘appearance’ we can perhaps trace this back to Japan’s schools. Back home, students are crawling up the walls waiting for the bell to sound so they can get out. Here in Japan, teachers have to actively force students to leave school. I mean, what has the world come to?!!
In the case of overtime, you should use your own adult judgement. Overtime isn’t exclusively the realm of Japan. Which tasks must you complete? Which can wait for another day?
Where extra caution / diligence should be applied is in the case of Japan’s ‘industrial trainees / technical intern’ programs which bring workers over from ‘developing’ countries under the idea of a win-win ‘we give you the skills to take back home while you give us the much needed labour’ situation. These programs have often been accused of exploiting cheap labor under terrible working conditions which in some cases has lead to the death of workers. Approach these programs seriously and with caution. Internet searches will reveal plenty of horror stories, informative news articles, and avenues of support.
Be careful with what you read on forums about what it's like to work in Japan. Quite often these places act as a medium through which to vent anger, grudges, and just plain weirdness. The English teaching industry is particularly vulnerable to a bad rep in this way. Ultimately, one's experience of working in Japan is largely what you make of it. If the work part sucks, well it could suck anywhere. No, much better then to concentrate on all that's wonderful about Japan.
Resources and further reading ...
It would be unfair to point you to a particular labor union in Japan. Let's instead direct you to a summary of union data for Japan.
The organization responsible for managing Japan's 'technical intern programs'
Expat experience of quitting work in Japan
Relating to company health checks
What's it like to work in Japan for you? Share your experiences in the comments or put them in a blog post on City-Cost.
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