Nov 19, 2019

Making a good impression at work in Japan: Tips for the foreign worker

Making a good impression at work in Japan: Tips for the foreign worker photo

Making a good impression at work in Japan as a foreigner requires a slightly more nuanced approach than it might when attempting to make a good impression at work back home. Of course, there are things that the worker can do to make a good impression in Japan that can probably be applied to workplaces around the world and by workers of any nationality but work in Japan, and more specifically working with Japanese people, does present some unique circumstances in this regard. 

Making a good impression at work in Japan: Jump to …

Do your job

“Join in” to be read as “fit in”

Leave the jokes at home, for a little while

Give them some of the foreigner, but not all of it

Know your boundaries

Come bearing gifts

Pander to those lighter stereotypes

OK, so let's start making that good impression ...

Do your job

It may seem like this factor in making a good impression at work in Japan should be filed under, “Well, duhhh?!” but actually it seems that some foreigners who come to Japan under the pretext of “work” need reminding of this.

In particular, those foreigners who come to Japan to teach English.

Perhaps it’s the often snazzy promotional literature that accompanies the teaching-English-abroad industry as a whole, where relaxed-looking TEFL types laugh with friends over espressos in some glorious European street side cafe or gaze up in collective wonder at the marvels of ancient world heritage -- so much is based around the imagery of teaching English in Japan (abroad) as a way to fund an extended jolly.

It comes as a blunt surprise to some English teachers new to Japan then, when they find that their employer expects them to, god forbid, work.  

In some cases the surprise is such that it leaves some teachers scrambling about for the next available flight back home … where they’ll have to find another job, presumably. 

Of course, it’s OK, undeniable and often expected that experiencing Japan is to be a significant factor in the foreigner’s motivation to come and work in Japan. Make no mistake though, for the employer, the Japanese colleagues, clients, and customers work takes priority over how many of Japan’s temples the foreigner working in Japan is able to tick off the bucket list.

Foreigners working in Japan should show that they understand this (or at least pretend to) as the foundation of making a good impression at work in Japan.

“Join in” to be read as “fit in”

OK, as a foreigner working in Japan, especially in a Japanese-dominated workplace, for obvious reasons there is only so much one can do to fit in. 

This challenge of fitting in is exacerbated by Japanese society’s group culture in which consideration and conduct for the good of the many takes precedence over the consideration and conduct geared toward the self. Complete, unfettered acceptance by the group is something that it will take the foreigner living and working in Japan years, if not decades to be afforded. If it will be afforded at all.  

So let’s put such deep levels of acceptance to one side for now -- making a good impression at work in Japan is more for our own benefit anyway. Instead, all we want to do is try and not stand out so much, to try to not be too much of an oddball. Why? Because the Japanese don’t know how to deal with oddballs, or with anyone who isn’t willing to play ball. They haven’t created a manual for it. Instead, such types tend to be cast into a kind of social purgatory where they get free reign to be as odd as they want to be but are pretty much condemned to stay that way with little prospect of improving their lot. 

At the root of all of this is the Japanese’ crippling fear of confrontation. To this end then, one of the best things a foreigner can do to make a good impression at work in Japan, is to avoid challenging Japanese colleagues with conflict.  

More specific examples that might be considered unique to Japan:

Accept criticism from superiors and don’t make excuses, offer solutions and improvements instead

Never argue your point, suggest it gently over a period of time (patience required)

Avoid calling directors, CEOs, presidents and anyone else in the rarified company positions by their name (to their face, at least). Refer to them by their title instead (or avoid referring to them at all)

Don’t wade in challenging company rules right from the get go (unless they really are morally reprehensible, in which case, what are doing working there anyway?). Give it some time before you start bending things.

We’ve concentrated on “fit in” here but do “join in” also. Initially at least. This probably applies to making a good impression at work in any part of the world, not just Japan. In the first few weeks though, accept those invitations to lunch and post-work drinks and dinner. Over the course of your first year working in Japan attend and participate in as many company events as you can. Show some appreciation for the greater good of the company as a whole rather than just your individual role. Never forget, the group reigns supreme in Japan.

Leave the jokes at home, for a little while

I’m not sure what constitutes humor in Japan -- comedy double acts slapping each other about the head? I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t include irony, sarcasm or dry wit though, all of which tend to be taken literally on these shores. An understanding of this is vital when it comes to making a good impression at work in Japan. 

No, leave the jokes at home for the time being. There’s little that’s more excruciating than witnessing a clumsy gaijin flailing about trying to explain their humor to one of the natives, except perhaps the sight of said native desperately trying to show that they are on board or on the other hand, taking it at face value.  

The danger with regards to humor in the Japanese workplace is the ample opportunities presented by working life to give it an airing. Mostly in the form of the jikoshoukai -- the self introduction.  

New to a job in Japan? You’ll be asked to give plenty of self introductions in formal and informal settings. Think twice about busting out some humor during one of these. It’s not that humor taboo (quite the contrary, in fact) it’s just that language barriers and cultural differences can render it painful. Save the jokes for when you’re much more in tune with the nuances of working culture and life in Japan.

Give them some of the foreigner, but not all of it

We’ve touched on this before and will likely touch on it again, but when Japan hires foreigners to come and fill some of the job vacancies, they do so without the willingness (Or is it the readiness?) to accept the foreigner, warts and all.

It’s a brutal truth but Japan hires its foreigners, kind of, a la carte -- it wants the part of you that can speak and write fluent English, not the part of you that is going to miss home at Christmas time. It wants the part of you that can talk on matters pertaining to things that happen outside of Japan, not the part of you that sees wrongs that need to be righted within Japan.

It’s not that the foreigner working in Japan is wrong to feel lonely at Christmas (or whatever season may be of importance to you back home), it’s just that one shouldn’t be expecting an employer in Japan to be compensating for the foreigners’ needs (or feelings) in this regard. And it’s more than likely that any attempts to address this, or to curry favor toward your problems and issues that linger back home, will bear much fruit. More than likely is that they will fall on deaf ears (that are actually making a note of all of this for when it comes around to the performance evaluation).

"It’s a constant balancing act foreigners living and working in Japan face -- the battle between the way things are done back home and thus an integral part of their identity, and the way things are done here in Japan."


If all of this sounds somehow wrong, well, maybe it is. Or maybe it isn’t. It’s a constant balancing act foreigners living and working in Japan face -- the battle between the way things are done back home and thus an integral part of their identity, and the way things are done here in Japan. To maintain the balance you have to know which battles to pick and when to quickly concede defeat.  

Whatever battles one chooses to fight in the name of national and cultural identity, though, for the purposes of making a good impression at work in Japan, leave it for later on down the line.

Know your boundaries

Some work-in-Japan protocol:

Behave yourself at drinking dos and work socials

- no throwing up

- no hitting on colleagues that catch your eye

- no photocopying of ones posterior with the office copier (Did anyone ever do that anyway?)

- no getting gobby or confrontational with anyone, at all

- understand that basically nothing lurid or even interesting should happen at work socials

No hitting on anyone at work (at least not for a while, and keep it secret if you eventually do)

Follow the dress code of the majority (but in general wear a suit for the first week)

No drinking booze at lunch (even on a Friday)

No bragging about how hungover you are

Don’t be loud or gobby in any situation

Check company policy on tattoos, beards, piercings, hairstyles before your first day

Don’t be late to work, don’t leave early

Greet everyone within earshot when you arrive and leave (only a few months in can you stop doing this)

Be vigilant about internet browsing for personal reasons (check out what others are doing first before listening to YouTube while you work)

Smoking still remains comparatively popular in Japan with smoking spaces still a thing in some workplaces. Smokers -- play it cool for a while and limit how much you smoke to levels that are similar to others. Nonsmokers -- leave it a while before you start protesting the presence smoking spaces. 

Say nothing about ...

- Japan’s politics

- the imperial family

- the questionable portrayal of women in anime / manga

- the role of women in the workplace (unless it’s in encouragement)

- Article 9 of the constitution

- China / South Korea / Japan geopolitics

- Japan’s pre-war imperial policies

- Nothing in vain about figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu … 

OK, so we’re getting a little facetious here but the point is, in order to make a good impression at work in Japan, it’s better to tread lightly on the above topics should they come up. It’s even better to avoid them completely (and it should be easily done). Of course, similar topics might also receive a frosty welcome in other parts of the world and we might be doing a disservice to the Japanese by suggesting that they can’t handle a bit of robust debate. That said, topics that polarize opinion come with them at least an undercurrent of conflict and we should know by now how the Japanese feel about that!

Come bearing gifts

Foreigners writing about life in Japan must be bored by now of explaining the culture of omiyage, so we’ll keep it brief here -- “omiyage” is the Japanese equivalent of the souvenir, gifts given to friends, family and colleagues present upon return from some sort of trip.  

Explaining the popularity of omiyage is as boring as it remains a truism about working life in Japan.  

The vast majority of workers who take a trip somewhere (for business or pleasure) bring back some form of omiyage. It’s not required by any means (and not everyone returns bearing gifts) but in terms of making a good impression at work in Japan, presenting colleagues with omiyage will only serve to bolster the foreigner’s cause, especially as it comes with the added bonus of being seen to trying to assimilate to Japanese culture.

Pander to those lighter stereotypes

A controversial one this.  

It’s quite staggering really just how entrenched some stereotypes about the world beyond Japan are, even among learned Japanese adults and career professionals. 

We’re talking light stuff really -- I’m from England so that means I continue to field questions about fish and chips and the supposedly drab quality of British cuisine from Japanese colleagues who have visited my homeland.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe it isn’t. And at a “fish and chip” level I don’t really care. But in making a good impression at work in Japan, I wonder if there is something to be said for pandering to some of these stereotypes. Or maybe “wide-eyed expectancy” would be a better way to express this.  

The bolstering of stereotypes is probably not a good thing (although it can surely be a bit of harmless fun in some cases) but I’m guilty of giving Japanese colleagues what they want to hear, if only to keep up the levels of enthusiasm. Were I to go in all guns blazing, shooting down quips about fish and chips, I can’t help but feel like the air of disappointment would somehow cloud the prospect of friendly, curious relations. After all, many of these stereotypes are used merely as a way to make an approach. If I have a reputation for shooting them down, might that strip more tentative colleagues of their confidence to make an approach? I don’t know. I haven’t tried it and I don’t think I will. At least not at the “fish and chips” level. “Sorry,” to my fellow Brits for that one. 

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