Jul 30, 2019

Character traits that’ll serve you well in the Japanese workplace

Character traits that’ll serve you well in the Japanese workplace photo

There’s perhaps a certain level of truth in the sentiment that says the reason why many foreigners are working in Japan is exactly because of their foreignness. In the context of a foreign worker in the Japanese workplace, this goes at the top of the resume and may even be the raison d’etre.

There’s probably even more truth though behind the sentiment that the Japanese like to consume their foreignness a la carte. That is to say they’re not interested in the full package and all the emotional, logistical baggage that comes with this, preferring instead to take only those foreign elements which they need or desire. A bit like pic n mix at the movie theater.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is the way that commercial Japan likes to use the English language -- a constant source of humor for many foreigners living in Japan, and well as of hair-pulling frustration for some foreigners working in Japan. 

Here the native English speaker looks on in perplexity as marketing and advertising types ditch any sense of the rules and the grammar in favor of English-language usage that would appear to be devoid of, well, any sense at all. No amount of appeals and of pointing out the absurdity seems to register. They like it this way, end of discussion.  

The writing has been on the wall for some time. Modern Japan is supplemented with elements taken and borrowed piecemeal from around the world -- science and medicine from Germany, British engineering, pop culture and sports from the U.S., … the Portuguese term for bread (pan) and the Koren BBQ -- while the rest is casually dismissed in a way that barely disguises an undercurrent of arrogance that the Japanese way is best.

All this is pertinent to the foreigner working in Japan, telling us that some skills and characteristics are welcome or indeed needed, while others are best left at home.  

One might be tempted to file all of this under ‘when in Rome …,’ standard advice for almost anyone venturing overseas. But when you know your status of working in Japan is powered largely by being foreign, well, it’s perhaps forgivable to think that doing your best impression of being Japanese is to defeat the purpose.  

Ultimately, the foreigner working in Japan has to perform a balancing act, learning when to deliver and when to hold back or assimilate to the Japanese working environment. 

And that learning starts here, by looking at those characteristics (rather than skills) that will help the foreigner go far in the Japanese workplace.

Jump to:

Accept criticism, don’t respond with excuses

Come well stocked with patience


Speak with empathy

Understanding the lack of irony

Willing to embrace the foreignness … to a certain degree

Character traits that’ll serve you well in the Japanese workplace …

Accept criticism, don’t respond with excuses

Criticism, which may sometimes appear as blame, gets dished out in the Japanese workplace just as any other. Thinking that by being a foreigner working in Japan will somehow save you from this is a mistake. Criticism is coming. Why, the boss may even get angry with you. And show it!

Criticism dished out in the Japanese workplace has to be taken on the chin. It’s just the way it is. Maybe it’s because Japanese people, ever conscious of group stability and fitting in, or of rigid hierarchical structures in corporate Japan, do their best to avoid confrontation. Whatever. Responding to criticism with a phrase that starts with, “But … ,” will go down as well as the pay cut that you could well be subject to if you keep responding to criticism with a sentence that starts with, “But … .”

Instead, own that criticism. Make use of it. Learn from it. Quickly make a concerted effort to show that you have learned from it, even if it means manufacturing a situation specifically to do so.  

If you must give an excuse, try phrasing it constructively rather than defensively. Like, “Ah, this is what I might have done wrong,” rather than seeking out some other source of blame.

These ideas that you’ve got to stand your ground, fight your corner, give as good as you get, these should be taken with a pinch of salt in the Japanese workplace. Of course, when something is clearly wrong or unjust, fight away and good luck to you. Otherwise, don’t see any confrontation with the boss or authority as a bragging right for the post-work booze up. It emphatically isn’t.

Come well stocked with patience

We’ve touched on the importance of being patient in previous articles about working Japan. In fact, being patient really comes with the territory when living and working overseas.  

In the Japanese workplace though, one’s ability to be patient can really be put to the test. In fact, being patient is more about making your own life working in Japan easier. Avoiding the part where you start getting up in people’s faces out of anger is about making the work environment as comfortable as possible for others -- including those who might have to speculate about what happens when a foreigner working in Japan gets all aggressive with Japanese colleagues or a Japanese boss.  

The point is, you can be impatient if you want, just never show it. 

All the usual cultural quirks aside, patience in the Japanese workplace can often be tested by how long it takes stuff to get done on these shores. They love a meeting over here about as much as they hate taking the initiative and doing things for themselves. This equates to lots of hesitation or layers in the decision-making process as the collective shuffles tediously towards a decision and course of action. Attempting to hurry the process along could well result in unwittingly adding yet another layer (in the form of another opinion or option) to proceedings.   

Patience can also be tested when Japanese staff or clients dare to question the fruits of your labor that has been derived from your very foreignness.

Oh my word do I hate this. To have the locals pick and prod away at my English-language texts and compositions like they are in anyway qualified to do so. For my sins, sometimes I just concede -- it’s not worth the sleepless nights. At other times I take a deep breath and try to explain as rationally as possible why things are better phrased the way that they have been.


The Japanese have perfected the art of being humble, of dismissing their worth. It’s part of the national psyche with sombre doses of self-deprecation injected into just about every formal ceremony or celebration from kindergarten graduation to accepting a gold medal at the Olympics. They even have a thread of language specifically to express it. 

It’s arguably futile then to try and match them in this.

In the early days (or years, I should say) of a job here in Japan I spent many a moment longing for my boss to drip-feed me with a bit of praise. Just every now and then, if only that I could understand I was on the right path. That I was making a positive contribution rather than just being tolerated as a mistake that is hard to undo.

It was during an evaluation that I eventually dropped a hint to the effect that it would help me to be told when I was doing something right as much as when I was doing something wrong. The hint was received, and to be fair, maintained.

A new problem manifest itself. I may have become so assimilated to life in the Japanese workplace that receiving praise almost makes me squirm. I just don’t know what to do with it. Where do I put it? Can I tell others? Did they already hear? Do I even care? I think so, but I’m not sure. Does this mean I have to be nice to my boss? So many questions. So much gaping insecurity revealed. It almost isn’t worth it. (Maybe I’m not worth it!) 

The key takeaway here is that in the Japanese workplace it’s not cool to bask in such glories as praise from the boss. Not even in an ironic way (irony almost doesn’t exist in Japan).  

Every year at my current place of work in Japan, we hold a kind of light-hearted ceremony during which one or two of the company’s best performers, the office stars, are recognized and awarded with a wad of cash. I dare say that the cash prize gets spent on a slap-up meal with team mates rather than stowed away in some savings account. Either way, the winners are forgotten as quickly as they themselves were to get off the stage during the “award.”

Speak with empathy

It had never occurred to me that the native speaker of a language would need reminding that when speaking in their native tongue in front of those whose grasp of said lingo is minimal they might want to slow down and enunciate a little more. I always thought this was a given.  

People need to be told though, it seems. The amount of times I’ve seen English-speaking friends launch into a complex topic of conversation at full speed only to leave a bunch of Japanese locals utterly confused in their wake, leaves me almost as confused.

Similarly the number of times I’ve been party to conversations with Japanese colleagues where they break down which of the native English speakers in the office is easiest to understand and who leaves them wishing their desk would swallow them whole. (Of course, accent and dialect come into play, but it’s almost always those native English speakers who aren’t prepared to, or are unaware of the need to, give some kind of concession.) 

We’re not talking about the clumsy holidaymaker abroad here, who feels they need to shout and point in order to be served a cerveza, but we are saying that in the Japanese workplace it will be appreciated if the native English speaker could tailor, at least a little, their English delivery to suit the audience. At least then that would save us all the awkward moment when colleagues, who’ve given up and are just feigning an understanding, are called into making an informed response to which they can’t deliver. 

Now, here’s hoping that colleagues in the Japanese workplace can return the favor!

Understanding the lack of irony

We mentioned somewhere above that Japan doesn’t really do irony. This can be a problem when one comes from a country where the national sense of humor is based almost entirely on this.  

You could try it out, of course, but just be aware that there is every chance your irony-laced humor will be taken at face value over here.  

I continue to give it a try though.

We recently welcomed a new member to our team at work. Japanese. As is always the case, we all went together for a “welcome” lunch on their first day.  

Feeling that the conversation was a little stunted, I asked our new team member if they could speak English. They can’t. Fair enough.

I then asked if, during the interview process for this job which they had just started, their ability (or lack thereof) to speak English was brought up at all. It wasn’t, I was told. 

“Well, that’s shocking,” came my exasperated response, dressed up in full irony of course. It wasn’t shocking at all (rather it was fully anticipated, and I don’t particularly care).  

Except I do care, that our new team mate might have taken my remark literally and that they now feel uncomfortable about not being able to speak English, which there is every chance they did (or still do) feel like.

Sometimes this irony comes out as a nervous twitch. Sometimes I unleash it out of boredom. Sometimes I wish I could better keep it under control.

Maybe you will fare better, should it apply.

Willing to embrace the foreignness … to a certain degree

There’s something about being a foreigner working in Japan that seems to make it easier for Japanese colleagues to turn to you, invariably when they don’t want to do something themselves. Such occasions are often dressed up with the implicit, but unspoken, excuse that you, being a foreigner, were brought over to Japan to do just this. You are the default setting turned to in any number of awkward situations.

English teachers in Japan are most vulnerable. They’re the ones turned to when it’s deemed a good idea that a member of staff get into some stupid costume and act the fool on stage at a school event. (Notice how Santa during a language school’s Christmas-themed event is almost always one of the foreigners, regardless what country they hail from.) 

The ALT working in the public schools of Japan is always the one turned to when staff feel that a live renditioning of some tripe by The Carpenters is required in order to get a class of psychotically bored students onboard with the singing, despite said ALT being at least 30 years too young to understand the relevance.

I had thought that leaving Japan’s English teaching industry would free me of such calls to perform in this way. Not quite.

There are still those occasions when it’s put forward that I might be the best person to deliver a presentation simply by virtue of being foreign -- to show the audience that, “Look, we do have an actual foreigner at our disposal.” -- even though I might be emphatically underqualified in all other aspects.  

Here then, we have to bring some of the above characteristics to the fore. The humility -- “Oh, there are far better people than I for this kind of task.” The patience as you have to listen to, and not scream at, the nonsense reasons behind why you are being nominated for the humiliation. The understanding of irony, as you’re being careful to avoid it at all cost lest you’re taken at face value and are deemed to be volunteering for the job. The ability to take things on the chin and not give excuses as you realize that this is a battle you just can’t win.  

Stick it in the bank and bring it out the next time you’re suggested for an undesirable task.     

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