Characteristics of Japanese Working Culture
As an island nation, Japan has cultivated a unique culture throughout its history – and work is no exceptions. Japanese company employees are often seen as diligent, hard-working, and persistent. However, sometimes they are also described as slow, unproductive and dependent on their superiors.
On this page, we introduce you to the major characteristics of Japanese work culture and give you tips on how to adapt to it and use its positive aspects to your (and your coworkers and company’s advantage).
Focus on Organization and Risk-Avoidance
Japan is often called a “group-focused society.” While opinions on this descriptor vary, most would agree that Japanese culture puts a big emphasis on harmony and all things progressing smoothly along pre-arranged paths.
In the story of the turtle and the hare, Japan is very much the turtle. Rather than starting fast and figuring things out along the way, things are organized meticulously in advance and then carried out exactly as planned.
Risk-avoidance is another big factor. When planning a project, management at a typical Japanese company will want to eliminate as many eventualities and risks as possible before giving the start sign. Managers also expect individual employees to limit the amount of individual decisions they make and inform and consult others (especially management) as much as possible.
On the plus side, this means that once the ball starts rolling, employees can focus at the work at hand. However, it also means that things tend to be hard to change halfway through, and information has to be exchanged and checked continually during the process.
Workers from countries where individualism is held to a higher regard tend to perceive the Japanese focus on organization as a “speed bump” that reduces productivity and limits each individual employee’s effectiveness.
To not get frustrated, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s just another approach to the same problems.
The Japanese word “kaizen” has become world-famous. Kaizen encapsulates the philosophy of never thinking of a product or project as finished, but always thinking about the next step and how things could be improved.
Another often-quoted framework is PDCA. Originally developed by American W. Edwards Deming, it has long caught on as Japan’s main way of thinking about the how to realize continuous improvement. The four letters stand for the four stages of the so-called PDCA cycle:
- P – Plan: Lay out a roadmap of your upcoming action and back it up with evidence.
- D – Do: Put your plan into action.
- C – Check: Evaluate your actions and their results.
- A – Act (or Adjust): Re-evaluate the project and its underlying assumptions, using the insight obtained in the Do and Check phases.
Japanese management often encourages employees and teams to go quickly go through as many small PDCA cycles as possible. The goal is a slow, but smooth and frictionless evolution towards an end-product of better quality. Big, drastic changes are met with aversion.
While there are many cases where this goes well, it can also lead to over-adjustment and hypersensitivity to small irregularities in the process that don’t pose any great risks.
In the spirit of continuous improvement, Japanese managers also tend to put a focus on life-long learning. They encourage employees to keep an open mind and seeing every task as an opportunity to grow, even in fields that are not their main profession.
Over-confident fresh university graduates are often met with mistrust, even if they have the skills the company is looking for. A few years’ worth of work experience is often not viewed as sufficient for work as a well-rounded professional.
Communication at the Workplace
Now that we have covered the basics, here is some more detailed information on communication at a Japanese office.
Polite Language and Hierarchical Structure
Japanese companies have a lot of formal and informal rules. Many of them relate to communication and how it is carried out.
For example, while the most common form of addressing someone is with the -san suffix (meaning Mr or Ms), employees with a managerial position are commonly addresses by their rank (e.g. manager or section chief).
In addition to rank, age and work experience are the two other factors influencing “social standing” within the company. Those older or more experienced than oneself are referred to (and sometimes addressed as) senpai. The counterpart to a senpai is a kohai, a lesser-experienced employee.
Employees of lower standing have to address those of higher standing with polite language (keigo). On the other hand, employees with higher standing are free to choose between polite language, regular language or even informal language.
In the past, when the “lifetime employment” system was in full swing, older employees would always have a higher standing. However, in modern Japan, it’s often not possible to differentiate between senpai and kohai on age or tenure alone. Practical skills and the ability to deliver results are valued more highly.
Especially in the creative and tech sectors, companies that do away with the traditional hierarchic approach are emerging as well.
When interacting with people from outside the company (like clients or visitors), many of the rules regarding hierarchy and politeness suddenly change. Here, Japan’s group-focusedness comes in again. An individual is always perceived as part of a larger group. Because of this, speakers drop polite and honorific speech when referring to a person from their own company in front of a client or guest.
Exemplary of this focus on reporting is the Japanese business mantra “hourensou.” The word is made up of the first kanji of the Japanese words for “reporting” (報告, houkoku), “contacting” (連絡, renraku) and “consulting” (相談, soudan). According to the hourensou principle, these three actions should be repeated as frequently as possible.
The main reason for why Japanese managers to such a big emphasis on frequent reporting/hourensou is risk management. Continued exchange of information helps to identify possible problems early on and deal with them before they arise.
Risk management via frequent communication is important because trouble caused by one individual employee is rarely seen as that one individual’s fault. Instead, it’s also seen as the fault of management and, by extension, the company as a whole.
Companies differ in the ways in which they encourage hourensou. Some ask employees to send reports in specific intervals (monthly, weekly or daily). Especially if you’re a fresh university graduate, you should make sure to always keep your direct superior in the loop and send them updates on your progress.
While not an official form of reporting, communication at after-work drinking parties is also a popular way to exchange information and seek for advice. This method of communication has the upside that the hierarchical barriers are somewhat lowered.
Dealing with Mistakes
When employees make a mistake, they are commonly asked to reflect on their actions (反省, hansei). A complete reflection requires three steps, which should be gone through in this order:
- Admitting your mistake
- Giving an explanation for why it happened
- Come up with a solution to prevent the mistake from happening again
All three steps are crucial. Leaving out step 1 lets you appear insincere. Leaving out step 2 implies that you didn’t really think about what you did wrong. Finally, omitting step 3 shows a lack of pro-activeness.
While all three steps are important, step 3 is the end goal. The focus is not so much on where the main responsibility for an issue lies, but what could have been done to prevent it. As a result, even team members who were only tangentially involved in some trouble are sometimes encouraged to reflect upon their actions.
To foreign employees who are not used to this type of dealing with feedback, being asked to do “hansei” can feel strange at best and unfair at worst. Instead of perceiving it as taking responsibility for a mistake you didn’t make, think of it as providing valuable input for the future.
Showing Consideration for Others
Because of the organization-focused characteristic of Japanese working culture, many employees and teams have planned out their everyday tasks far ahead. A coworker suddenly disappearing for a few days or changing up the order in which they take care of things can easily throw things into disarray.
This is one of the main reasons for why Japanese employees take relatively little of their vacation days: Because they think taking days off would inconvenience their co-workers. But as long as you communicate well, you don’t have to do the same.
What’s most important is to talk to your manager and coworkers and inform them about your plans as soon as possible. Be it taking a few vacation days, extending the deadline for a task, putting a task on hold in favor of another one, scheduling a meeting, etc. Depending on the occasion, informing others two days to one week ahead is ideal.
Office Culture and Overtime Work
As of 2020, the average amount of overtime in Japan is 24 hours per month. This means that the average employee is doing around one hour of overtime per day. Of course, there are big differences between industries, job types and often even divisions at the same company. Because of this, it’s impossible to give a definite estimate.
There are many reasons for why employees at Japanese companies tend to do overtime. In some cases, a specific amount of overtime is agreed upon in the work contract, called “fixed overtime” (みなし残業, minashi zangyo). In other cases, employees work regular, paid overtime in order to meet deadlines or take care of extra tasks. For more info on this, see here.
The one truly problematic type of overtime work is so-called “service overtime.” This refers to overtime outside of official working hours, without any extra pay.
Because service overtime is illegal, even exploitative employers rarely request it directly. Instead, they indirectly pressure employees into staying longer. As a result, employees sometimes “voluntarily” trade a few hours of extra work for better interpersonal relations and job security.
“Service overtime” can become ingrained in a company’s culture even without the company itself actively pushing for it. For example, when an employee stays longer and is evaluated better because of it, others might follow, resulting in a culture where more and more employees do service overtime.
Ever since a prolific case of death by overwork in 2010 and in an effort to improve work-life balance, the government of Japan and many companies are trying to clamp down on service overtime and excessive overwork.