Japanese office culture & things you need to know about work in Japan!

Published August 3rd, 2021

Working in Japan is like a dream for a lot of us. Japan has an abundance of jobs for foreigners, and we have a whole article on the best ones you can apply for. However, Japan’s office culture can be quite foreign. Its emphasis on harmony, teamwork and hierarchy isn’t something all of us are familiar with.

So if you’re planning to move to Japan for work, prepare yourself for some deep roots in traditional values in the working environment. Start off with our list of 8 characteristics of Japanese working culture. Some might come as a surprise to you!

Long working hours

Yes, the rumours are true. Japan’s work culture includes long working hours. In fact, the country has one of the world’s longest working hours! There’s a concept that’s actively practised in Japanese offices: the concept of of “gaman” (我慢) and “ganbaru” (頑張る), which is the passive endurance and active perseverance,

Overtime work can go unpaid, and employees are often expected to work overtime. The paid leave that is given to employees is also commonly not taken because the Japanese fear of inconveniencing their coworkers if they do it.

Don’t let this scare you from working in Japan. Not all companies are like this. Especially in recent years, the country is taking measures to prevent the overworking culture. I’ve never had to work overtime and not get paid!

The work hierarchy

In Japanese culture, there’s a strong emphasis on hierarchy. This is also present in the office. The relationship between a junior and senior is important. This is known as the nenkou-joretsu (年功序列) system. Seniors are expected to be respected because of their higher position.

This hierarchy isn’t just title; it affects promotion and salary, among many others. New employees start off at the bottom of the chain. With each new promotion, their title and salary go up.

With this system, it encourages employees to stay with a company for a longer period of time rather than hopping from one company to another. However, similar to the long hours, Japanese companies are gradually changing to the global merit-based system.

There’s no “I” in “team”

There’s a strong emphasis on teamwork in Japan offices. The group harmony (or wa 和, in Japanese) is more important than individualism. Rather than voicing out your own personal opinions or interests, you’re expected to work as a team and maintain peace with one another.

It’s a more holistic approach as compared to Western companies, where individuals are encouraged to stand out from the rest.

While it may be seen as a negative approach, the positive side of this team mentality is that team members take care of each other. When one member struggles, the whole team does. The managers often take up the role of mentors, so workers often get guidance at work.

Mandatory after-work drinking

If you love to drink, you would love to work in a Japanese company. One of the social etiquettes of Japanese working culture is the after-work drinking. In Japanese, this is known as “nomikai” (飲み会). Japanese companies bring out their employees to drink often to strengthen their relationship with each other and the company. It’s also a way to network in Japan and get the opportunity to climb up the corporate ladder.

Work drinking parties can get out of hand, to the extent of someone passing out! It’s such a common sight in Japan, unfortunately. It’s best to know what your alcohol limit is. But also make use of the free drinks – the boss usually always pays!

An open workspace

To add on to the team mentality in Japanese office culture, the office layout often features an open structure. Known as obeya seido (お部屋制度), desks are grouped together with team members to encourage communication and cohesion. Because of this layout, Japanese offices can get noisier than those with the cubicle layout. For those of us who are more used to a cubicle at the office, this might be quite a change.

It’s the journey rather than the end-goal

Some companies only care about the results. For Japanese companies, it’s the process that matters. They evaluate based on what work was done and how it was done rather than just what resulted from it. With this type of approach, employees focus more on the actions taken and problem-solving. While results are important, the journey is just as crucial.

Lonely lunchtime

Even though Japanese work culture involves frequent after-work drinking, lunch breaks are often spent alone. It’s not an uncommon sight to see a salaryman dining alone during his lunch break. In fact, most locals prefer this!

That’s because lunchtime is considered personal time away from work. Most take this time to run personal errands or just peace and quiet by themselves. Since a lot of Japanese people plan their lunch break in advance, it’s best to ask the day before if you want to have lunch together with them the next day.

No “water cooler breaks”

Chitchat is common in any office. Even in Japanese offices, there’s always chatter among team members. However, taking breaks and chatting is not part of Japanese office culture. Even spending too much time on your phone is frowned upon. Others might have the impression that you’re not taking your job seriously and slacking off.

If you need a break, take a quick power nap. It’s more acceptable than chatting with others, which might even be taken as disturbing others while they are working!

Work-culture shock?

The office culture in Japan is definitely different from a lot of other countries’ work culture. It’s an environment that might need getting used to, but once you’ve gotten the hang of it, it’s just as fun! Do you think you’ll be work-culture shocked on your first day on the job in Japan?