What Is It Like To Work In Japan? Work Culture Explained

by Charlie Horner
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In recent years, and in many countries, working life has come under some scrutiny for being too oppressive. Japan’s long-standing reputation for extremely long work weeks and hundreds of hours of overtime means that their work culture could be under the most forceful dissection of all.

Japan is undoubtedly a hardworking country with many positive contributions to the world economy, but with over 2000 work-related suicides in 2018 alone, many people wonder whether Japan’s working culture is something that should be imitated or avoided completely. Most countries strive to move forward as technology and society do the same. Yet Japan has always firmly held on to their oldest traditions even to their own detriment, especially in the working world. Do the media exaggerations and old stereotypes really reflect the working culture today? What is it really like to work in Japan? And are modern attitudes towards workable to overcome old stigmas?

We’re going to discuss what it’s like to work in Japan, for both men and women, and whether it has changed in the last few decades.

Where does Japan’s work ethic come from?

Japanese culture has long been synonymous with hard work, discipline, and career longevity. Even people who know little about Japan most likely think of Japanese people as polite, or hard-working, or both. Japanese business culture places its focus on diligence, teamwork, and loyalty above all else. Many theorists believe that this attitude stems from centuries of samurai culture, in particular- Bushido.

Literally translated as “way of the warrior”, Bushido is thought to have developed from the Meiji and Showa eras of Japanese history. You could call it a modern interpretation of these eras and ideologies, although some scholars might disagree since the word Bushido did not appear until after the Meiji restoration (the abolishment of the samurai class). While you won’t find the word bushido in any ancient texts, you’ll certainly recognize some of the ideas associated with it: bravery, skill, honor, courage in the face of death, and intense loyalty to one’s family. The idea of “Imperial Bushido” was introduced by the government just before and during WWII. It was pushed aside and forgotten for quite some time because of the negative connotations it had from being associated with the atrocities of war.

But what does this term have to do with Japan’s working practices? Bushido gained popularity once again during Japan’s economic boom in the 1980s. For both Japanese people and those around the world looking to emulate Japan’s success, the term bushido came to represent a distinct set of values that all employees needed to strive for: absolute loyalty to one’s company or employer, a devotion to quality and precision in one’s own work, and extremely hard work at all times. CEOs around the world even read books about “corporate bushido”, hoping to replicate the financial success Japanese corporations were having.

Of course, the corporate boom in Japan did not last forever. Bushido took on yet another meaning as the country’s economy slowed in the 1990s – while employees were still expected to emulate all the qualities mentioned above, they were also expected to bravely weather the storm despite the lack of pay rises, fewer opportunities, and increased pressure to “be productive”.

Where did Japan get its bad reputation?

While the working world in Japan is as vast and varied as any other country, there is an intense amount of pressure for both men and women there (we’ll look into what roles women are expected to take shortly). Unlike several other countries in the west, there’s little attention given to the work-life balance, and more is expected of employees every day. Though they may not realize it, what most people are thinking of when they think about Japan’s negative working culture is a very specific type of worker – the Salaryman. This is also what most of the western media focuses on when talking about Japan’s work culture, even if they don’t explicitly explain that. Because it’s been such a huge contributor to how Japan’s working world has been portrayed, we’re going to delve a little deeper into what the role entails.

The term Salaryman (サラリーマン, sararīman) refers to any “white-collar worker” on a salaried income, whose pay is based on his abilities, rather than his seniority with the company. It’s a term used both respectfully, and derogatorily (depending on who you’re asking). Many Japanese men are expected to get one of these jobs right out of school or university, and they’re expected to stay at that same company for the rest of their working lives. For these types of employees, commitment is key in all aspects of their work. There’s a common belief among all in the Japanese corporate world that “the amount of time that’s spent at work directly correlates to the perceived efficiency of the employee”. That’s one of the reasons they often work 80 hours or more each week, with a large portion of those hours considered to be unpaid overtime.

Not only must salarymen stay at work until after the boss leaves, but most salarymen also try to stay until after their colleagues leave too. Since their progression within the company is largely based on their performance and ability, there’s an unspoken pressure to keep working until the early hours of the morning in an attempt to show their skill, devotion, and loyalty to the company.

Salarymen are also expected to socialize with colleagues after work most days in the form of drinking and karaoke, and it still is not uncommon to see salarymen falling asleep on trains in the early hours of the morning. Circumstances like these make it almost impossible for salarymen to meet new people and start their own families, which could be what’s causing the birth-rate decline in Japan covered in this article.

Thankfully, due to more modern approaches in business, and an entire generation that’s trying to reject such outdated attitudes, things could be slowly changing in Japan, but as you’ll be able to gather from that brief description, life is very intense for a salaryman. So much so that there’s a term for those who have literally died due to pressure at work – Karōshi.

What is Karōshi?

Karōshi describes death by overwork, which is a real problem in Japan. It was thought to be the cause of around 10’000 deaths a year in 2008, and that was not including the roughly 8000 work-related suicides that took place. While more recent research has not been widely published, those numbers do seem to have declined slightly in recent years as companies are being pressured to change their overtime policies by the government.

On speaking to workers in Japan today, however, it’s evident to me that there are many practices within all sectors that could contribute to Karōshi – it’s not just salarymen that are affected. For example, in many fields, it’s expected that workers must go out drinking with senior managers and bosses after long shifts at work – to say no would be considered incredibly disrespectful. It’s not unheard of for employees to work 10-12 hour shifts, then be expected to go and socialize with upper management until the early hours of the morning, and then head straight back to work. Many convenience stores even sell collared shirts, for those that haven’t been able to go home at all.

It’s clear that the pressure is on for Japan’s entire workforce. So much so that the government has tried to implement stricter guidelines on corporate working policies, even attempting to implement “Premium Friday”, a day on which workers get to leave at 3 pm. These attempts have been mostly unsuccessful to date, and a recent survey of 155 large companies in Japan showed that 45% of the companies questioned had no plans to implement the scheme anytime soon.

There’s another important question that should also be addressed – what about women working in Japan?

What is work culture like for women in Japan

Like many countries around the world, Japan hasn’t been great for women in the workplace. Surprisingly (when comparing Japan to other nations) women received equal treatment to men in many areas until the late 1800s, at which point their purpose was relegated to a singular focus – motherhood.

For decades a woman’s role in the workplace was primarily as a “tea-girl”, or ochakumi. A very popular role in the early 1900s, women were expected to support men with basic tasks and menial work – right up until they got married of course. In fact, office lady, or shokuba no hana, was a specific job title, for which only young women would apply. Upper management liked the young female presence, and it would be expected that this was a temporary role before, you guessed it, marriage. Again, as was the case in many countries, women bolstered the workforce while men were fighting in WWII, and the number of women working continued to increase as the decades progressed. In the year 2000, women made up 40.7% of the entire workforce in Japan. It’s slow, but it’s progress, nonetheless.

While the number of women working in Japan has increased, the opportunities for and treatment of women at work leaves a lot to be desired. Many roles are still unattainable for women, despite legislation calling for equal treatment. Even though there are no rulings on which fields women are and aren’t allowed to work in, it’s been an unspoken rule for several decades that females are better suited to office work, food production, retail, and possibly the financial industry, which limits options for work for many women who are afraid to go against the status quo.

That’s not to say there aren’t women breaking the mold and forging ahead in many industries today, just that it’s very difficult for them to do so. Even women who have broken the traditional familial stereotype and are working in Japan say that they face many obstacles. Many women anonymously state that if they want to climb higher up the corporate ladder, they must act more like men, and some women even state that they are subjected to disrespectful practices, such as pregnancy rotas and harassment.

As difficult as the working world is for women, something worth noting is that harassment in the workplace has become a serious problem in Japan, for both men and women.

Is workplace harassment common in Japan?

Sadly, yes – particularly in recent years, and particularly to the younger generation. The term “pawa-hara” was coined by social psychologist Okada Yasuko in 2003, and in his words is “the worsening of a worker’s environment or making the worker feel insecure about his employment by means of speech and conduct that infringe upon [his] person and dignity, in a continuous manner going beyond the appropriate scope of…original duties, by virtue of one’s power.” (Okada, 2003:17). Put simply, pawa-hara is the harassment of lower-ranking, usually younger workers that could come in many forms: psychological abuse, threats, humiliation, defamations of character, and so much more. Sadly, according to a survey done in 2019 by nippon.com around one in three people have experienced this harassment in the workplace.

There are many reasons so many people experience pawa-hara in Japan today. Japan’s struggling economy puts pressure on managers, who in turn put unreasonable amounts of pressure on their staff, which would also be supported by the “bushido work ethic” in Japan. Another possible cause could be the fact that firing employees are incredibly difficult in Japan. Government legislation makes it near impossible to dismiss somebody without a specific cause. Many managers who mistreat their employees do so in the hopes that they will quit.

Another reason could be the hierarchal age dynamic in Japan. A large majority of those who report cases of pawa-hara in their workplace are young, leading some skeptics to suggest that they are mistaking genuine criticisms of performance as abuse. While this certainly could be the case in some instances, what’s more, likely on a larger scale is that the younger generations simply are not willing to put up with a treatment that older generations accepted as the norm, a theory that’s definitely supported by greater global change.

Harassment, limited employment options for women, and intense pressure to perform – maybe you’re thinking that Japan sounds like the last place you’d like to work, which is understandable. Clearly, Japan’s outdated work culture is contributing to the country’s high suicide rate and even Karōshi. However, our aim is not to disparage an entire country through statistics. Every single first-world country has a complicated corporate history, and most have a lot to answer for in the way they’ve treated women and those who are seen as being in a “lower-class”. While they certainly don’t negate the need for serious changes within the work culture here, are there positives to working in Japan?

What’s good about Japanese work culture?

If you’re seriously thinking about starting work in Japan, don’t panic. While the issues raised above are serious problems that need to be addressed, there are positive aspects of Japanese working culture that should be considered, especially if you’re coming from a non-Japanese background. Many foreigners working in Japan say that newer companies are taking a much more modern, “business casual” approach, and seem relaxed in comparison to the traditional salaryman stereotype. Here are just a few of the positive reasons to work in Japan.

Japanese work environments are very polite

You could get a bad boss anywhere, but rarely will you find workplaces that are so polite and thoughtful outside of Japan. Manners and common courtesy are very important in Japanese culture, and people in the workplace make an effort to be considerate and non-confrontational. For many who have worked in aggressive or competitive backgrounds where co-workers are not known for being very respectful, this will be a huge novelty at first, and something you’ll definitely miss if you have to leave it.

A great social life

If you’ve just moved to a new country it can be very difficult to make friends. While some businesses nurture unhealthy socialising practices (as we mentioned earlier in the article), there are some that have perfectly reasonable routines when it comes to spending time with teammates. There’s an expectation at most workplaces that employees will spend at least some time socialising, especially if an older boss asks the team to go out together. Fortunately, regular time with colleagues will not only strengthen your social contacts in a new country but will also create very strong bonds within the office setting too. Plus, who knows – you might make a few close friends.

Teamwork is king (or should I say, Emperor)

Japanese people spend a great amount of time on planning a project thoroughly, and some people say they never truly learned about teamwork before working in Japan. The disciplined, organised approach means you can focus on each small detail of every project you work on, and usually mean there’s no last-minute panic right before the deadline to fix something somebody forgot about.

You’ll work with very dedicated, devoted people

Japanese people are known for being very hard and diligent workers. They are disciplined and dedicated, and many of us from more apathetic, western environments would benefit from spending time working in Japan.  It might take some time to fall into the adjusted pace, but once you do, you’ll find that there’s a lot to learn from Japanese workers.

Japan is a complex country…I mean, aren’t they all?

Learning about Japan’s complicated work ethic can be a shock to people who only think of it as a country of polite, anime-loving people. Having read this article, you might have even decided that working in Japan definitely isn’t what you’re suited to, and that’s fine! Many people enjoy spending time in Japan solely as tourists and have a perfectly wonderful time when they travel there. What if you have decided that you’d like to give the Japanese work ethic a try? Whether you enjoy your time working there will be dependent on your expectations. Don’t expect it to be a walk in the park (although plenty of long walks in the beautiful local parks will certainly help). Just make sure you do plenty of research on the company you’re thinking of working to make sure their practices are less “Imperial Bushido”, and more “business casual”.

Do you have experience working in Japan? Let us know in the comments.

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