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As cultures around the world differ, so does the way they think about and approach business. If you’re looking to work here, understanding Japanese work culture is crucial. This article will explain:

  1. Cultural differences in communication
  2. Japanese work etiquette
  3. Salarymen and lifetime employment
  4. Changes in Japanese work culture

Drinking Party Culture

In Japan, drinking parties (nomikai 飲み会) are part of the work culture. It is seen as an opportunity to bond with your coworkers, and although they aren’t compulsory, there is a lot of unspoken pressure to attend. Unlike in the west, getting drunk at these functions is completely acceptable.

1. Cultural Differences in Communication

cultural differences in communication

The way communication is approached in a Japanese workplace may be very different from what you’re used to.

High Context and Low Context Cultures

Many western cultures are what is referred to as low context. This means that verbal communication is very important. If something is left unsaid, it won’t be inferred, so westerners tend to directly say what they mean to express.

In contrast, Japanese culture is high context, and one needs to have a deep understanding of the culture and norms. This is called reading the air (kūki wo yomu 空気を読む) and means that a lot of communication is inferred. This could lead to miscommunication.

Faxes, Stamps, and Paperwork

These days, email is the preferred method of communication for businesses around the world. Although many companies in Japan have adapted, some more traditional ones still prefer to communicate by fax.

Paperwork is also still very important in Japan and often needs to be stamped with an official seal (hanko 判子). However, as more people are working remotely and/or as freelancers, the hanko is becoming outdated.

2. Japanese Work Etiquette

Japanese work etiquette

Whether you are working as a freelancer, full-time, or applying for a job, it is good to be aware of cultural norms in the workplace.

Greetings

Whereas westerners consider handshakes to be professional, in Japan people bow as a polite greeting. It is, however, not necessary to bow deeply. Most of the time, a slight nod of the head, held for a second or two, is sufficiently polite.

Dress Code

Fitting in with coworkers is important in a collectivist culture such as Japan. This means that there is a quasi-official office uniform in corporate Japan. Men tend to wear white shirts, dark blazers, and trousers with dress shoes. Skirts and high heels are considered appropriate for women. There are even shops that specialize in the correct corporate wear.

Business Cards

Business cards are still seen as very important in Japan and should be treated with respect. It is best to give and accept a business card with both hands. It is also not appropriate to write on or fold a business card. If you are sitting at a table, you may place a business card on the corner of the table. In other situations, a cardholder is a good idea for storing business cards.

Universal Etiquette

However, there is no need to worry too much. Many of the same rules that apply in other countries also apply in Japan. Politeness, punctuality, professionalism, reliability, and efficiency are important everywhere.

3. Salarymen and Lifetime Employment

salarymen and lifetime employment

Traditionally, companies recruit new university graduates into a system of lifetime employment. These white-collar workers are often referred to as salarymen (sararīman サラリーマン). This system is at the heart of Japanese work culture, and has its advantages and disadvantages:

  • Employees get all necessary benefits, such as health insurance and pension.
  • Promotions are based on seniority and are ensured throughout your career.
  • Firing a salaried employee is very difficult, providing robust job security.
  • Job security means that lifetime employees seldom quit their jobs.
  • Employees are basically expected to center their life around work.
  • Long hours and the pressure to drink with coworkers after work are part of the job.

Although this system still keeps the economy ticking, it is slowly falling out of favor.

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4. Changes in Japanese Work Culture

changes in japanese work culture

Although the traditional salaryman still exists in Japan, times are changing. Many younger people are opting for a less traditional lifestyle, in order to avoid the pressures of the traditional route.

The Rise of the Gig Economy and Freelancing

Many younger people are now working part-time and short-term (also known as gigs), or as freelancers, stitching together a salary from a variety of jobs. This allows for flexibility and the chance to gain experience.

An Increase in Foreign Workers

As the labor force continues to shrink, there has been an influx of foreign workers entering Japan in recent years. This is also slowly changing and influencing office life. In fact, some companies (most notably Rakuten) have made the shift to using English rather than Japanese in the office to promote internationalization.

Technological Development

Another shift has been the movement away from the traditional economic model towards one which is more start-up friendly and technologically minded. A proponent of change is the newly-appointed digital minister Taro Kono, who also wants more of the workforce to go online.

Remote Work

The Covid 19 pandemic has normalized remote work. Although Japan has not embraced it as much as other countries, it has nevertheless become far more common in the past two years than ever before, as the government’s modernization of the economy continues.

Find a Tech Job in Japan Today

With borders slowly reopening, these trends will likely continue. Inbound Technology can help you take advantage and find your dream job. If you want to work in Japan, you can get in touch with a career advisor here or on LinkedIn. They will be happy to advise and assist you on your journey.