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Business customs in Japan

So, you’ve improved your Japanese level by going through the GaijinPot Student Placement Program, gone through the job hunting process, and landed a job! Fantastic! Now, before you start work, you should read up on common business manners!

Although there are countless working environments in Japan and for the most part a lot of Japanese companies have similar rules and manners which are shared between them.  This article will primarily focus on working in a Japanese environment.  Some of these customs may not apply if you are working in a foreign company or some specific industry but if your boss and co-workers are Japanese, then you can’t go wrong with these tips!  

Many people have used GaijinPot to find a job in Japan, but even with the surge in foreign workers in Japanese companies, the culture is still very traditional.

Always arrive early!

Being late in Japan is probably the fastest way to lose a job.  The first few times they may forgive you, but if it’s a semi-regular occurrence, there’s going to be a target on your back!  Even if you always arrive a minute or two before the start time, they’re going to take notice and hold it against you!

You should make it a habit of arriving at least 5-10 minutes before your actual start time.  Take a train that gives you enough leeway so that you’ll still be on time even if there’s a delay.

If you are unable to arrive on time for a reason out of your control, such as a major train delay, then contact your company as soon as possible!  There is probably protocol in place, usually calling the office and letting them know.  If you’re on the train or a place where you can’t make a phone call, then sending a text message or email to the person in charge is usually acceptable.  You should also make sure to get a “proof of delay (遅延証明書(ちえんしょうめいしょ)) from the station staff.  Usually, you can find a box outside of the staffed booth filled with them.

If you’re constantly late due to train delays, then your company will count that against you.  They will think you should expect the delays and therefore should take an earlier train.  Be careful!

Greet with confidence!

In Japanese, it’s called “aisatsu”, and it sets the course for the rest of the day!  Arrive at the office and loudly proclaim “おはようございます / good morning”!  Be energetic and smile!  It may not seem like such a big deal, but Japanese people really find it necessary!  If you don’t greet, or if it’s not so energetic, they’ll hold it against you!

You should also announce when you leave the office with an “いってきます / I’m off” and when you return with a “只今戻(ただいま もど)りました / I’m back”!

When leaving, let everyone know with a “お(さき)失礼(しつれい)します / goodbye”!  Make sure everyone can hear you!

Follow the mood of the office and see what your peers do to see when greetings are appropriate.  Don’t be the one to kill the mood!

Report, report, report!

The Japanese have an expression called “horenso”, which means spinach but is also business lingo for “hokoku, renraku, soudan”, or just 3 different ways to say “report” (technically it means “report, contact, discuss”)!

Everything in Japan revolves on teamwork and sharing the blame if something goes wrong.  Every step of the way, you should keep your colleagues and especially your supervisor informed of what you are doing.  Get them to sign off on every single thing you need to so and expect to discuss in detail about what you need to do.  It is tedious and inefficient, but it’s how business is done in Japan and something that you will need to get used to.  If you try to just go on your own and do things without approval, you’ll be 100% at fault if something goes wrong or even if it’s successful, your contributions will likely not be recognized. Remember that in Japan, it’s all about the group!

Most official reporting sheets will have several hanko spots for everyone up on the chain to check and stamp it.  It’s hard to say just how deeply they all read it, but it has a purpose.  If something does go wrong, at least you won’t be completely on the hook, in theory!

Respect your superiors!

Japan has very strict customs with dealing with those above you. The “sempai” relationship means that you should rely on those above you for advice and direction, and not question their guidance. Even if you disagree with what they’re telling you, trying to go your own way or breaking the chain of command and trying to make your case to someone higher up will only cause trouble.

Many of your superiors may end up having been promoted based solely on seniority and not their skill level. You may not necessarily respect their job ability, but you have to pretend to be fully loyal and respectful. At the same time, the company will want you to guide and be a role model for those below you. These kinds of relationships are everywhere in Japan and develop from the time that they enter school. As a foreigner who is not used to these kinds of strict rules, it may be frustrating.  Do the best with the tasks that they give you!

Also, if a superior gives you advice about the office culture or makes a comment about something you should be doing, you absolutely should listen and do what they say! They’re giving you valuable advice that you’ll want to follow if you want to be successful in the company.

Overtime

It’s no secret that Japan values overtime.  In fact, their hardworking ethic of placing their work above all else is what allowed them to bounce back so quickly after WWII and become a world economic power.  Whether or not their current work ethic is still relevant today is a discussion far outside the scope of this article, but either way, you should prepare yourself for overtime work.

Now, not every company has over time.  Some industries avoid it and it also heavily depends on your status in the company. Regardless, there is a strong (and not necessarily incorrect) image of Japanese workers working far past their designated finish time.

For something like this, we cannot give you any advice.  We can only then to say that you are legally able to return home once your time has finished unless there is a very important reason for you to be there.  Any extra time should receive extra pay, calculated to the minute.  Some companies have a “minashi” system where a certain number of overtime hours go into your pay (so, for example, your monthly salary becomes base plus 40 hours of assumed over time).  You won’t get any extra money until you go above those hours. It may not be a stretch to assume that these kinds of companies may expect you to use those hours.

Again, you are well within your right to leave when it’s time to do so, although you will probably be the only person leaving at the time.  Being the first one out of the office will definitely make your coworkers and superiors notice.  It may have negative consequences in your career at the company, as unfair as this is. Whether or not to stay is something only you can decide.  It’s a decision that you will need to make someday if you want to work in Japan.

It should be noted that there is a push to reduce and eliminate over time in Japan, especially in the big companies. It’s impossible to say what will happen, but it does seem to be something that they are working towards.

Drinking parties

Japanese people love to socialize after work and they might invite you to go drinking after work, either as an office event or just with your team members.  Of course, you don’t have to attend, but they do serve an important function of bonding with your coworkers. It’s a good way to make personal connections and have conversations that are difficult to say in the office. Your superiors may also join in, allowing you to get useful information about your workplace, or just giving you the chance to increase your image with them.

Going out drinking can take a lot of time and money, so there’s no obligation to go but be aware that most of your colleagues will probably attend, even if they themselves don’t want to.  If you make a habit of not joining in, you may find yourself being cut off from your coworkers and not being able to build key professional relationship with them. For any big office events, not attending could potentially count against you in the future as those who always attend develop strong relationships with their managers which leads to career opportunities.

In Japan, the actual work you do is only part of your career!  Relationships with colleagues and superiors make up a big part of business manner.   Even if you’re brilliant at your actual work but don’t follow these customs, you may not end up being successful at your company.  If you have any doubts, just look and do what others do, or ask questions about what is expected!