Jun 26, 2019

First day at work in Japan: What to prepare

First day at work in Japan: What to prepare photo

In many ways your first day at work in Japan will require the kind of preparation that goes into a first day at work anywhere in the world. Maybe given the possible language barrier and a general sense of things being foreign, it might pay to apply a little more diligence to plotting out (and doing a test run) of your route into work, particularly if it requires train or bus transfers.

Of course, preparations for a first day at a new job in Japan will likely vary depending on the kind of job for which it is your first day, but there will be some staple preparations that can be applied to the larger number of circumstances.

In this article we look at the following preparations:


Self introduction (jiko shoukai)

Workplace attire

Workplace appearance

Your desk

New names

Writing your name in Japanese

For some foreigners preparations for embarking on a new job in Japan will begin at home ...

Prepare some omiyage

Omiyage - the generic Japanese term for souvenirs as gifts.

Not an essential but it certainly won’t hurt to present coworkers with omiyage on your first day at work in Japan.  

Emphasis here should really be when your first day at work in Japan is with a company that has brought you out to Japan. In this case then, some omiyage from back home will go down a treat, or may even be expected in some quarters.

The default setting for omiyage in Japan is food -- snack food. Locally made cookies, biscuits, or chocolates will work well. Or maybe some bags of tea. Stay away from booze for now, you don’t want to give the wrong impression and besides, you’d feel weird rocking up to your first day at the office with a bag full of alcoholic bevvies, wouldn’t you? 

Make sure your omiyage is something that can be easily and cleanly divided among a number of people.

Omiyage isn’t always a success though. For my first day at work in Japan with a company that represented a really big break for me I had some specially-prepared omiyage for my immediate boss (the person who got me the job). However, when I handed over a Union-Jack-emblazoned set of stationery and an “I love London” ashtray (I’m from the U.K., the boss was a smoker at the time), rather than look pleased said boss looked confused more than anything. (I’ve since learned that they aren’t one to give too much credence to Japanese customs and formalities even though they are Japanese themselves -- something which makes this article harder to write.)

Bringing omiyage to the workplace in Japan often comes with that annoying internal debate as to whether you go around handing it out to individuals or whether you just drop it in a communal space and muter something to those within earshot that, “There it is, help yourself.”  

On a first day at work in Japan though, you’ll be spared this -- hand any omiyage to the boss and let them deal with it as they see fit.

New job in Japan? Same old self introduction

Oh my word does Japan love a self introduction -- jiko shoukai / 自己紹介 in Japanese. In fact, forget just the first day at work in Japan, think the first week. No, the first month. Actually, just have one ready that you can fire off whenever the occasion demands.

Of course, in one’s native tongue it’s easy enough to rattle off a few words by way of introduction, perhaps laced with a few jokes or witty one-liners.  

In Japanese though, it’s not so easy. Especially the humor part.  

Learn this -- the Japanese have almost no sense of irony, sarcasm or dry wit, and this is a problem given that, depending on your culture of origin, you may be used to first-day-at-work introductions being fleshed out with humor in the form self-deprecating remarks masked in irony. 

Be warned though, in Japan so many of these remarks may be taken at face value. If possible, check any one-liners you may have prepared in advance of starting your new job in Japan with someone Japanese beforehand. Otherwise, the safest bet would be to skip the humor all together. Wow them with your pronunciation instead. Not too much though. You don’t want to set a standard of Japanese that you can’t back up in the longer term. 

What makes for a good jiko shoukai on a first day at work?  

Name, country, what department / section / team you’re here to work with, what your role is, maybe a quick line about how you hope you can help, a line about what Japenese food you like (the more specialized the better) and then you could perhaps get a giggle from the audience when you mention what Japanese food you can’t get a taste for. Finish by saying something about how you’re going to do your best at work.

And repeat ad infinitum throughout your time working in Japan.

New job in Japan? Time to dust off the old suit

If your first day at work in Japan is in an office or school / educational institute environment then, regardless of dress code, it would be better to turn up in a suit. And it would be better to do this for the first week of a new job in Japan, not just the first day, unless clearly instructed otherwise. After the first week, if no word is given, you should feel confident enough to fall into whatever attire is common in the given workplace.

First day at work in Japan: What to prepare photo

While Japan is comparatively still a little fussy about workplace attire, energy concerns, initiatives like “Cool Biz,” and a general sense of loosening the necktie across many aspects of work culture in Japan have seen requirements regarding attire and presentation similarly loosened. It’s still good though to show that you understand Japan’s conservative business roots and can scrub up professionally should the occasion demand it. 

A word on wearing heels in the workplaces of Japan.  

At the time of writing news media across Japan were publishing reports on rules calling for women to wear heels in the workplace. A survey by Business Insider Japan revealed that more than 60 percent of women in Japan had experienced such dress-code enforcement at work.  

Currently the #KuToo movement -- borrowing from the #MeToo movement with a combination of “kutsu” (shoes) and “kutsuu” (pain) -- is calling for companies in Japan to ban such rules, citing health issues, among others. In June a group within the #KuToo movement submitted a petition to Japan’s Labor Ministry with nearly 19,000 signatures supporting any such ban.  

Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto was reported as indicating that he, on the other hand, would not support a proposed ban.  

Those foreigners preparing for a first day of work in Japan, who don’t wish to wear heels as part of their attire, may well be faced with this issue. On a personal level, I say wear whatever formal shoes you feel most comfortable in, if any comfort can be found in formal shoes. 

Another word on wearing suits to the first day of a new job in Japan -- the engineer working near me tells me that in the engineering community suits are not necessarily a good thing. Make of that what you will.

Other issues related to workplace appearance

Staying on the theme of workplace appearance it would be remiss of us not to touch upon the topic of facial hair.

In particular, male English teachers getting prepped for their new job in Japan are often told by their schools that beards, goaties, and mustaches are a no-go, or at the very least have to be thoroughly trimmed and neatly maintained. Outside of schools and in more progressive office environments facial hair, particularly on foreigners, may not be an issue. Hopefully, whatever the place of work this aspect of your appearance will have been addressed, if needed, during the interview, training process.

If you went through the above processes sporting a hirsute form and nothing was mentioned, then it looks like you’re good to go. If you have any doubts about this, then maybe in preparation for your first day at work in Japan it would be better to have a close shave. 

Tattoos are another aspect of appearance to be aware of. While Japan is slowly coming around to the idea that tattoos don’t have to induce clammy bedtime nightmares, it can in no way be recommended that you turn up to the first day of a new job in Japan with body ink on show.  

Again, this is something that will have been addressed at the interview, training stage. But also, you should be aware that even if those who interviewed you for your new job in Japan are cool with the tattoos, others that you meet at your new place of work may not. Cover up for now.

Know your way around a PC, possibly in Japanese

Especially when working in an office there’s a high chance that a first day at work in Japan will largely be spent getting your desk set up, including the PC or laptop that is sitting on it.

This could be the case in any country, of course. It may also be the case that operating systems are set to a language of your choosing. (Even so, are you comfortable making the switch from Windows to Mac, or vice versa?)

But this is Japan so there’s always the strong possibility that the work PC operating system or language setting (in the case of communal use) will be in Japanese. At least be able to do the very basics without having to pester the new boss with questions about which option to click on.

Questions about how to operate fax machines (Yes, still in use), printers and copiers in Japanese can be saved for later. (Nearly four years in and this office foreigner still hasn’t learned how to put someone on hold during a phone call.)

New job in Japan? Plenty of new (and unfamiliar) names to forget

Maybe a notepad and pen will help here. The point is to make a concerted effort to remember at least a handful of names on your first day at work in Japan, and don’t be shy about asking at the nearest natural opportunity should it be that introductions have gone in one ear and out of the other.

First day at work in Japan: What to prepare photo

This is especially the case in Japan where Japanese names are likely unfamiliar.  

As with some of the functions on the office phone, this worker is still not on name terms (first or last) with too many people in the office, and it’s way too late to be asking for them. Instead, I have to eavesdrop on snippets of conversations around the coffee machine in the hope that a face will be matched with a name. It’s pathetic and I regret being in this position.

Don’t be shy about sketching out desk formations and jotting down some names to match them.

Can you write your own name … in Japanese?

Staying on the topic of names, can you write your own in Japanese -- using the katakana alphabet?  

Look, I still have to refer to bank cards in order to feel totally confident about writing my full name in Japanese (the surname is long and doesn’t translate well). But even with something to refer to, writing out your name in Japanese can still be a clumsy business.

You’d actually hope that someone will be on hand to help if, on the first day of a new job in Japan, you’re having to pen your name on documents, but you’ll feel much less of a plonker if you can scribble it out by yourself. And on a first day at work in Japan, or anywhere in the world, every little confidence booster helps.

Take a deep breath and dive in

A first day at work in a job back home is always going to be a tense affair. For foreigners embarking on their first day at work in Japan then, those elements of the unknown that can often overwhelm are likely to be exacerbated by gaps in language and culture.

First day at work in Japan: What to prepare photo

Those same gaps, however, could well be to one’s advantage, in the early stages of work in Japan at least. It’s likely that your boss and coworkers will put on the kid gloves and be even more forgiving of any faux pas or workplace mishaps that can often be put down to a first day at work.

Those foreigners embarking on a new job in Japan may also find themselves blissfully unaware of any petty office politics. Let’s hope it stays that way in the long term, too.  

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