Shocking Japanese Work Culture vs American Work Culture Facts

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We are all familiar with the stereotype that Asians are hardworking. But how much of that is rooted in reality? Well, a lot! Japan as we all know is infamous for its stressful lifestyle and working culture. In fact, a term was coined in the 1970s to indicate deaths caused by work-related pressure. It’s called ‘karoshi’. When living in America or the UK, people tend to assume that they don’t have a good work-life balance. But knowing these Japanese working culture can leave you in shock. The work-life balance in Japan is close to zero. From 2015, Japan introduced a mandatory stress check program for companies over 50 employees. One of the most interesting models of the Japanese working style is its long working hours. Read on to know interesting facts about the Japanese working culture, work-life balance, and work style. And if you’re working in Japan as a foreigner, there’s something for you too!

How Is Japanese Working Style And Work Culture? 

  • How does a regular day in the life of a Japanese office worker look like?

Well, to start with, long. Although their morning routines may vary, they all wake up quite early, whether they are early birds or not.

  • Many Japanese workers have to commute 2 hours to get to work.

For example, 24-year-old Emi, who works in Tokyo at Pasona Company, has to take the train to reach her destination. A one-hour-long ride might seem a lot, but other workers must transfer trains too.

  • And what is it that is so odd about how people in Japan work?

The differences range from how they dress, to how many hours they work, to the relationship with superiors.

When we’ve lived amid culture for maybe our entire lives, it’s easy to assume everyone else approaches things the same way. Sure, the media and the internet can smooth the path towards getting to know other cultures quite intimately.

Many of us are still baffled to find out about some drastic differences in how we eat, dress, in how we work, or even how we love.

Although all of these aspects of life are more or less universal, knowing about or even experiencing new ways things are done gives you fascination. It’s like living inside the red color only to discover there is green and yellow too.

When it comes to working, for example, there are many models all across the globe. There aren’t any radical differences, but there are minor approaches when it comes to maintaining work-life balance.

All in all, the entire Japanese work environment differs quite a lot from the Western model. Here are a few things you should know about the strange work culture in Japan.

Japanese Work Culture vs American Work Culture

On that note, let see the major differences between the work culture in Japan vs American work culture.

1. Annual Holiday In Japan vs America

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According to the recent government figures, Japanese people have the largest number of unused annual holidays. Only 52.4% of workers in Japan took their paid leave.

It is even worse in the US. A study found that more than 55% of workers reported not utilizing their vacation time equating to $65.5 billion in lost benefits.

2. Decision Making in Japan vs America

The decision-making process in Japan is cumbersome with lots of hierarchy, meetings, and documentation involved. On the flip side, this maintains consistency across the organization and avoids future errors.

Whereas, in the US the senior employees give good leeway to their subordinates so that they can make decisions quickly. However, this can lead to inconsistent behaviors across the organization.

3. Roles & Responsibilities in Japan vs American Work Culture

In Japan, companies appreciate results accomplished as a team or group. If there is no progress as a group, then the individual contributions have no effect on the managers.

On the contrary, in the American work culture, individual contribution is equally important as a team’s contribution to fulfilling goals.

4. Risk-Taking Culture in Japan vs America

American companies don’t hesitate to commit 100% to their clients even if they are not sure if they can really deliver 100% of the product. They take risks and make the commitment, later try to achieve the best results as much as possible.

However, Japanese companies commit 100% only if they are certain that they can achieve those results. They don’t want to look bad after giving commitment to the clients or customers.

5. Remote vs Face-to-Face communication

In America, contacting clients via email or phone is a very natural behavior.

Whereas in Japan’s work culture, they prefer meeting with the clients face-to-face.

6. Work-Life Balance In Japan vs America

In Japan, several traditions reinforce that work is the prime center of life. They prioritize work over spending time with family and kids. Working for long hours is seen as the man showing his love for this family. Therefore, there is little to no work-life balance in Japan.

On the flip side, work-life balance is a must in America.

This is also the reason why Japanese people are so committed to quality results in the workplace.

7. Maternity Leave In Japan vs America

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A survey shows that more than 30% of Japanese women are worried about how they would be perceived by their colleagues when taking maternity leave.

According to a study by Unicef, the United States ranks the lowest among the world’s richest countries that are family-friendly.

Why are Japanese so hardworking?

The Japanese mindset is to work as a team, and not as an individual. This leads to a lot of commitments in their work-life. For example, in Japan people would wait for others in the team to make a move to go home after work.

They would also stay back in the office as long as their senior or manager is working in the office. This is the case, even if they have completed their work for the day.

Working In Japan As A Foreigner

Japan, unlike other European or American countries, does not easily offer jobs to foreigners. The massive difference in work culture is one of the reasons why companies hesitate to do so. Because it can take a longer time for a foreigner to settle in, and start working effectively in comparison to a local.

But if you are already living or studying in Japan, then you can easily land a job in the Japanese workplace.

Our best bet is to find a job as an English teacher as that will be the most wanted ‘English speaking job’ in Japan.

Highest paying jobs in japan for foreigners

With the increasing demand for skilled labor, Japanese culture is more accepting of foreigners. Here are some of the highest paying jobs in Japan for foreigners.

  • Information technology
  • English teacher
  • Investment Banking
  • Engineering including automotive, manufacturing, and electronics

Here are some of the search engines or websites where you can upload your resume and share interests for jobs:

  • JobsinJapan.com
  • JapanEnglishTeacher.com
  • Jetprogramme.org

Japanese Work Culture, Facts, & Ethics

1. Japanese Workplaces Are Generally Quiet And Formal

This is probably the first thing that may strike you when you enter an office in Japan. How the work environment presents itself also reflects the strict Japanese working style.

First of all, business casual does not exist in their dress code. In that sense, wearing bright yellow or red at work is very unusual and even frowned upon. They encourage pastel colors, as well as simple and elegant tones.

One thing that makes up for their choice of colors and more somber attire is the friendly environment they create. For example, when workers come back from their vacation their colleagues expect them to bring small gifts.

These little souvenirs are known as “omiyage” in Japanese; this is a sign of gratitude that colleagues to their team members for taking a break from work.

2. Business Cards Ritual In Japan’s Work Culture

Another strange thing about Japanese work etiquette is how they exchange business cards, which is an entire ritual. Here’s how they do it: first, they need to make sure the card is facing the person they’re extending it to, and then they should offer it with both hands.

Also, they cannot forget to bow each time and accept it with respect and to carry a cardholder, which is mandatory.

3. Japanese Workers Have a Strong Sense Of Community

A big part of the Japanese morning work routine is the early meetings “chorei”.  This is a tradition that is very helpful for their working environments because they get to share news from other departments and connect.

While American workplaces have a system of structured individualism, Japanese people give precedence to the working community. Of course, Americans will often work in teams and value collaborations.

But in Japan, the group is sacred, and a working system based on solid hierarchies is more prevalent. This is also why, when it comes to giving praise, they would rather do it to the whole team than to a single person.

If you tell a Japanese worker what an excellent job they’ve done, they might blush immediately and feel embarrassed.

4. The Japanese People Are Often Expected To Have A Drink With Co-Workers After Hours

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In Japan, the work-life balance is screwed due to inappropriate expectations amongst co-workers. People consider drinking with your colleagues as “work” and force themselves to do so.

Strange as it may sound, Japan workers must share a drink with their subordinates now and then. Americans don’t expect to do this, but it’s part of the Japanese working style.

Americans can have a beer after hours only with those co-workers they are maybe friends with. In Japan, it is rude behavior to refuse to go out with the people you work for.

The explanation lies in the fact that alcohol helps us relax and reveal things we wouldn’t normally share. So it becomes clear that after a few drinks, the Japanese people are more relaxed and therefore more inclined to reveal their true feelings about certain decisions in the meeting room.

5. The Japanese Work For Long Hours

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Japan is notorious for its long working schedules. However, that doesn’t mean they are productive all the time. Sometimes, Japanese workers are not so eager to finish a project and spend an extra 3 hours at work. But they have no choice left.

This Japanese working style has even led to a phenomenon where people have died from working too much. They call it karoshi, and it literally translates to ‘death by overwork.’

Needless to say, Japan’s work-life balance and work culture suffer a great deal due to overworking.

A few years ago, a 31-year-old journalist died after logging 159 hours of overwork in just a month.

Usually, there is overtime work because many employees will stay in their office until the supervisor leaves. As a result of this practice, the working day for a Japanese person could extend to 10-12 hours.

Moreover, many Japanese workers don’t take sick days or vacation days because they would feel guilty if they took time off from work. Such work ethics in Japan stem from the education system, which demands long hours of study as well.

6. From a Japanese Perspective, The Customer Is God

Work ethics in Japan also differ from the Western working model when it comes to the relationship with customers. In the American tradition, the customer is the king as well, but they are more on an equal footing with the customer service.

In Japan, keeping the customer happy comes above all else. Japanese people are more reserved when they deal with clients and try strongly not to offend them. In the US, there is more freedom of expression between the two parties and a greater tendency to speak one’s mind.

Share Your Thoughts on Japanese Working Style

What do you think about Japan’s work culture? Have you worked in Japan as a foreigner? Did you find a good work-life balance in Japan? Leave behind your thoughts in the comments below.

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Key Takeaways On Japanese Work Culture & Work-life Balance

  • Work-life balance in Japan can be quite different from the rest of the world.
  • In the 1970s the Japanese coined a term to indicate the deaths caused by work-related pressure. It’s called ‘karoshi’.
  • According to a government study, only 52.4% of workers in Japan took their paid leave.
  • To combat stress at the workplace, the Japanese government launched a mandatory stress check program for companies over 50 employees.
  • In Japan, people consider drinking with your colleagues as “work”. And it is considered rude to refuse after-work activities with your manager or colleagues.

Do the Japanese work on weekends?

As per law, the standard working hours in Japan are 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday. So it’s rare to see someone working on weekends in Japan, until and unless they desperately want to impress their seniors.

Is Japan a stressful country?

Japan is known for being a stressful country. And a lot of people in Japan just work and do not focus on their happiness and wellbeing. Although the country is known for several good things like education, manufacturing, food, etc; life in Japan is quite stressful.

Gregoria Petrea is a blogger, poet, writer, and editor with an academic background in Cultural Studies. Her other interests include music, painting, and gender studies.