What Japanese Think of Foreigners Working in Japan

Because of its aging population, Japan is trying to attract more foreigners as a workforce. In 2019, 1.7 million immigrants were living in Japan, but it was not enough: the government revised laws to bring in more talents. Even though foreigners are needed, however, the archipelago remains a country where collectivism and homogeneity reign supreme. If you want to work in Japan, you will have to follow its tacit rules and understand its culture.

What It Is Like to Work in Japan

First, you have to understand how Japanese companies work and what the typical mindset is. Unlike in the West, the word ‘company’ implies more a whole than many individuals working together. One’s personal career is less important than the organization’s needs and department transfers are quite common. Therefore, candidates apply to companies whose vision, mindset and philosophy are in keeping with theirs – then, they work hard to reach the firm’s goals. Same thing for recruiters, who hire people based on their philosophy, not on their skills. Since traditionally, employees stay in one company all their lives, employers don’t mind training them – actually, they prefer training them so that they can fit in better. It is easier to mold newcomers if they don’t have experience working in another company.

The first year, new employees do not usually have responsibilities, but they learn the Japanese business culture by serving tea, picking up phone calls, doing basic work, etc. Also, work-life balance is not considered as important as fulfilling one’s role as a team member. Foreigners are sometimes seen as neglectful or not diligent because of that. Even when there is a typhoon, if the temperature is too high, if they are sick, Japanese will do everything they can to go to work and be on time. Even a few minutes late is a big deal and it is common sense for them to send an apology email. Any mistake or misbehavior can make someone lose credibility, while it takes many years to build a relationship of trust.

Difficulties for Japanese Companies

Because many foreigners do not speak (well) Japanese and their cultures differ a lot from Japan – especially those from Europe or America, it makes it difficult for companies to hire them or for employees to feel integrated. Even though Japanese people don’t show it, they don’t act the same with other Japanese or Asian employees as with foreigners. It is easier if foreigners speak the language, but there is still a cultural barrier. People tend to trust their Japanese colleagues better, even after several years. 

According to J-Cast on Niconico News (survey by Persol Group with 872 respondents), 40% of managers felt intense stress from working with foreigners. But why? According to the respondents,  it is because foreigners have much more confidence than Japanese (for 46.1% of people) and because they don’t understand the culture or what is common sense in Japan (41.6%). Managers have to explain what they think should not be explained, which is sometimes embarrassing for them. Also, foreigners demand aggressively salary raises (40.7%), are less loyal to the company (40.1%) and more time is needed to teach them (40%). Almost half of managers said they had not been trained to work with foreigners, which can explain some  of the difficulties they encounter.

Difficulties for Foreign Employees

Read our article about the pros and cons when you work in Japan.

Common Mistakes

  • Asking a client to do something in a short timeframe.
  • Talking about money when you should not (it is better to wait until the Japanese side talk about it to be sure that you are not committing a misstep)
  • Being afraid of insisting: as long as what you ask for is reasonable, show your determination. Japanese companies usually take their time to make a decision.
  • Talking the same way to your senpai (senior) and your kouhai (junior). Hierarchy is at the core of Japanese society, so you should respect your seniors and use a very polite language.
  • Leaving early or arriving late: in Japan, the schedule should be followed to the letter. It is even better to arrive a bit early and leave after your boss – at least, this is what other employees usually do. You will have extra credit if you work overtime, even 30 minutes. You don’t have to spend the same amount of time at work as your Japanese colleagues do, but show that you are ready to help your team by staying a bit longer. Yes, it is illegal, but yes, it will help you.
  • Rejecting an invitation: a Japanese company is a bit like an extended family, and its members like organizing some after-work activities (drink/eat together, go karaoke, etc.). The drinking culture is part of the business culture, so if you don’t hang out with your colleagues and boss, it will be more difficult for you to be integrated.
  • Inviting family at company events: family and work don’t usually go well together in Japan.
  • Questioning your superiors directly
  • Being impatient to make decisions: even if you have good ideas, you have to earn trust before making any decision (you will not have enough power to do so, anyway)
  • Making (up) excuses: even if you are right, don’t say it. It is better to apologize and be careful not to make the same mistake again.
  • Being defensive: your work will be criticized, but it is normal – take it positively and thank people, they help you improve your skills.
  • Not learning Japanese: you will get closer to your colleagues and boss if you do so. It takes time, but it is worth it.

It is not easy to work in Japan and the culture might be very different from yours, but if you overcome those obstacles, you will find your place and really enjoy your experience. Maybe you will stay in Japan longer than you think, who knows? 

If you are a tech company that has high hopes of entering the Japanese market successfully, you can look forward to seeing your business booming with high profits. You don’t have to feel apprehensive about stepping into unfamiliar territory, and you are certainly not alone. We can help your company successfully launch into the Japanese market. Contact us today to expand your presence in Japan!