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Working in Japan

What to Expect in the Japanese Workplace

A street scene in Tokyo: Working in Japan.
A street scene in Tokyo.

So you have landed a job. Your flight is booked. The apartment has been provided and a representative of the school will be at the airport to pick you up. You find yourself in a new country and culture. Sure, you don’t speak the language, but you’ll get by. After all, work is work, right?  Wrong!

Working in Japan can be culturally and financially rewarding. However, while foreigners in Japan are not expected to know all the rules of social behavior, understanding core conventions can help things run much more smoothly.  For teachers holding an education degree or a B.A. without a proper understanding of the work ethic, time spent in Japan will quickly devolve into far less than had been anticipated.  

The logical starting point for successful cultural immersion is a grasp of the role of "the group" in Japanese society. A great deal of information on this subject is readily available, and any worthwhile guidebook on Japan is sure to explore its relevance. For brevity’s sake, I will define the group as the framework of Japanese society — the arteries through which all other aspects of protocol, obligation, and decorum flow. 

Genki and Gambatte

If the group constitutes the nation’s arteries, then the concepts behind the terms genki and gambatte are its lifeblood. Both terms share an equal weight in maintaining the driving force of Japanese society. Genki, which has no literal translation — but which roughly means a happy, healthy, energetic manner of being — is everywhere. Be it an energy drink commercial or a child drawing a picture, its presence is felt. As a feeling, it is a healthy jolt of can-do attitude with a splash of unrelenting energy, spiked with no time to complain. People asking each other “Genki desu ka?” or “Are you genki?” is a common greeting.

Gambatte — literally translated as, “Do your best” or “Don’t give up” — takes the already elevated concept of genki and puts it into overdrive. Both ideals work together, as a fast and furious method for keeping the group buoyant. Today Japan’s stunning advancements in industry and economy can arguably be credited with three major components: genki, gambatte and the group.

When working as a teacher in Japan, both genki and gambatte will be expected by your employer. The grade or level of students makes no difference. Most teaching jobs in Tokyo, for example, involve teaching children — some as young as infants. All teachers should be well prepared from day one to showcase their ability to put genki and gambatte into their teaching style. Your employers know that the only way to keep young children captivated is to make the lessons fun. Song and dance numbers bursting with energy and smiles may look and sound silly, but that is exactly what will be required of you. Employers expect teachers to be consumed by intense energy the moment they set foot in the school. A smile should never leave your lips. A palpable eagerness is mandatory and without this your employers will be dissatisfied. I mention the necessity for these elements in your teaching style quite simply because you can’t expect your employers to tell you themselves, because genki and gambatte are so engrained in the culture that it seems superfluous to request it of anyone. Once your job begins in Japan, it is vital that you remember: You are no longer in the West. What worked there doesn’t necessarily work now.

Work and Punctuality

Japanese gas station attendants are a particularly interesting window into the nation’s work ethic. They run to attend to the cars, go over them with swift and meticulous care and send them on their way spotlessly cleaned and refuelled. There is a strong sense of pride in the work they do, coupled with the desire to do the best job possible, regardless of the task required of them. Stripped to its core, this eagerness and hurrying to please serves to highlight two major aspects of work in Japan: Punctuality is vital and there is no such thing as a small job in this country. Certainly there is a world of difference between being an English language teacher and a gas station attendant, but when placed side by side, the inherent values that should motivate and guide you at work are indistinguishable. To display lacklustre attitude or behaviour is to insult your co-workers and to insult the group. Back home, it may have seemed perfectly acceptable to arrive at your job 15 minutes prior to your shift. The Japanese standard however, averages anywhere between 45 to 60 minutes prior! This can be extremely frustrating. Even as a part-time English instructor, working three hours a day, five days a week, I was required to be at the school no less than 45 minutes early. I was required to do so despite the fact that both the curriculum and the lesson plans were pre-fabricated, and arriving so soon meant that I was to sit aimlessly and wait for my students. For such a small job the required enthusiasm and punctuality were by no means a small demand.

The End of the Work Day

A friend of mine whose wife is Japanese once told me what she had told him. In Japan, it doesn’t matter how much work you do, but how late you stay that truly matters. Arguable advice, perhaps but you’re sure to notice something rather curious:  Rarely–if ever–will you leave your place of work later than your Japanese co-workers. This curious phenomenon occurs even when your co-workers earn less than you. You may ask yourself, what is their motivation?  Well, staying late is the perfect method for displaying one’s dedication to the job to co-workers and to the boss, as well as indicating your enjoyment of the job itself. Such a commitment directly correlates to what your co-workers and employers think of you as a worker. In other words, it is a very safe bet to assume that management knows who stays late and who does not. That is not to say that going home when your shift is over will cast you in a negative light, but rather that staying late will cast you in a very positive one. When leaving work before your co-workers, the Japanese even have a saying, “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu”, which translates as an apology to co-workers for leaving before them.  By saying this you are not only apologizing for your departure, but also acknowledging the continued vigour of your co-workers.  A lively worker is a busy worker, a dedicated worker, and a worker who leaves before others does well to acknowledge this with an apology for not following suit.

Socializing With Co-Workers

It may sound like a cliché, but the Japanese do indeed work hard and play hard. The evenings in train stations of nearly every city ward across Japan find hordes of black-suited salary men, stumbling home from an after-hours meeting or celebration with their co-workers and superiors.  Although upper management asks workers to join in these good times after work, the invitation is something of a formality. The truth is that going out with your boss and co-workers is never truly optional. The adage of not mixing business with pleasure doesn’t exist here. Rather, it is an extension of the loyalties and dedication that regularly take place in the work environment. There can be numerous reasons as to why drinks and dinner and often karaoke are offered by your school — anything from a new teacher joining the ranks to the school opening a new location. Whatever the reason for the invitation, you will do well not to turn it down. Even if you do not drink alcohol or are a strict vegan with highly particular dietary needs, it is important to make an appearance. In fact, it is not uncommon for language schools to throw staff parties where attendance is compulsory. In these instances, don’t be surprised if you’re still asked whether or not you can make it. It may seem trivial or relatively minor to tell your boss that you won’t be able to attend Friday’s staff party because it’s your boyfriend’s birthday, but your boss will not see it as such. By saying no, you are rejecting the efforts and hospitality of your hosts. In the gift-giving culture that is Japan, to turn down a gift is extremely rude, a social faux pas. Aside from insulting your hosts, skipping a night out with the staff and management will place a silent rift between you and them from that point onward. The impression has been given that your fellow co-workers are not worth your time, that you are not one of them, even if it was unintentional on your part, the damage has been done.

Beyond the politics of attending social functions organized by your school, attendance not only strengthens the bond between you and the people you work with, but also provides a great insight into Japanese culture and customs. It can also greatly enhances your Japanese speaking ability and helps familiarize you with the great variety of Japanese cuisine beyond sushi.

Problems in the Workplace

Unfortunately, maintaining a constant state of "genkiness" can be draining and enormously challenging. This frustration is compounded when a workplace problem arises which you would like to discuss with employers. Because workers are expected to always do their best and persist despite odds or challenges to their progress, talking about your problems with your boss can be an extremely taxing. The good news is that your opinions, as a form of courtesy, will be heard should you choose to voice them. Remember though, the silent nodding of the head during conversation is done to show that you are being listened to, not agreed with. Should you ever find yourself about to lose your temper over any issue, know that raising your voice and arguing, aside from being rude and inappropriate, will get you nowhere. 

Many of the common problems that occur between English teachers and their employers in Japan can be minimized or otherwise avoided altogether, by simply doing your homework.  Before you leave, the internet, guidebooks and travel videos all available for free from any local library, can provide you with valuable information.  Take the time to do the research.

After arriving, take advantage of your newfound Japanese friends’ savvy regarding any cultural or workplace questions you may have. The Japanese are an incredibly generous and warm-hearted people, and will offer you excellent advice. 

You are entering a new world of strict practices and rules. Yet at the same time, it is an amazing world of experiences, sights, and sounds like none you’re likely to have ever known before. The patient and hard-working are rewarded with something truly rare. So put on your brightest smile, take a deep breath and most importantly, gambatte!

For More Information on Japanese Society and the Workplace

The Japan Times: Keep up with what’s going on. Basic information on work in Japan, plus plenty of information on finding somewhere to live.

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