The workplace culture in Japan may seem unusual or incomprehensible to westerners. That is because the role of the worker in society is drawn very differently in Japan than it is in the west. In the west, America in particular, corporate workers are often rewarded for their initiative, and for thinking of new and better ways of doing things, and for getting things done themselves. Another western work culture characteristic is that workers tend to get to know each other, learn about each others’ private lives as well as their work roles.
In Japan, workers are rewarded when they follow a certain, set process. Unlike American offices, where there may be a certain amount of “joking around,” in Japanese offices, workers are expected to take a serious approach to the workplace and people in it. Though both Japanese and western workplaces encourage persistence and refusal to give up, it’s generally done with a quieter approach in Japan, while westerners tend to share their frustrations and triumphs with co-workers.
Japanese professionals are more oriented toward working as a group and taking the group’s goals as personal goals. A sense of obligation and trust are essential to good working relations in Japan, while at the same time workers keep their private opinions and feelings out of the workplace. While westerners do work in groups and teams, the goal is often to shine within the group structure. Depending on the western workplace, trust and obligation may take a backseat. In intensely competitive jobs in the west like investment banking, a worker’s autonomy and assertiveness are rewarded, and in many western workplaces workers feel free to share their opinions.
In Japan, there is a definite recruiting season for new employees where employers choose among recent graduates and college seniors. Connections such as teachers and family members are important in helping new graduates find jobs. The job entry requirements are usually very strict. New employees generally start work in April and spend the first several months in training and orientation programs with other new workers, with whom they will work for possibly their entire careers. Mentoring is close, and would likely be described by westerners as “micromanaging.”
Japanese workers generally become first line supervisors in their 30s. Many people of the same age are promoted at around the same time to prevent workers from supervising people who are older. Within a few years, a worker may be transferred to another branch office which may be overseas. While in America, advancing to having a corner office or a window office is considered a sign of higher status, in Japan, just the opposite is true. Japanese workers who are given window offices are considered to have been “put out to pasture” and will not be handling important or significant work. Retirement age in Japan is roughly comparable to what it is in western countries: 55 to 65.
Westerners who spend time in Japan on business will benefit from knowing how the Japanese workplace culture differs from most workplaces in the west. This will help prevent breaches of etiquette and awkward situations. The importance of the group as a cultural framework in Japan, punctuality, and dedication to the job and workplace are fundamental concepts that westerners going to work in Japan or visiting Japan on business would do well to understand beforehand.