The clock struck 5—it was officially time to head home and call it a day at the office.
Yet no one was leaving.
Japanese companies worry about local staff pressing legal charges for unpaid overtime in the U.S., so they order us to clock out at 5 p.m. Of course, I wasn’t complaining.
So just like I do everyday, I shut off my computer, grabbed my purse, bowed and announced to the office:
“O saki ni shitsureishimasu” (I humbly apologize for leaving early).
To which they instantaneously replied,
“Otsukaresamadeshita” (We know you are tired, thank you for all your hard work).
After my leave, my Japanese co-workers don’t stay 10, or even 30 minutes later—they don’t head out of the office until 10 or 11 p.m. in the evening.
For the past six years I have humbly excused myself from the office, drenched in guilt that I’m leaving hours earlier than my colleagues–yet also in wonder at how on Earth they could stay so long with so little work to do.
Today, however, it will finally come to an end.
I’m quitting my job with the Japanese government and going to work for an American university. As of today, I officially vow to never work for a Japanese company again.
I have been in love with Japan since childhood. I watched the anime, played the video games, drowned myself in its samurai history—I was crazy about the place. I self-taught myself Japanese in high school and continued my study of the language deep into university. It was my dream to live in Japan someday, and I knew with my cultural and language skills I could land a job at a big company like Toyota. Although I heard horror stories of overwork and discrimination at Japanese companies from fellow friends, I was confident I could be the exception. I knew I could make it in a Japanese world.
Yet nothing could have prepared me for the reality of working at a Japanese company.
Perhaps you speak fluent Japanese and are wondering just what in god’s name you’re going to do with the skill. Maybe you’re dying to live in the land of anime and robots, so you cross the pacific and look for work in the motherland. Perhaps you’re just super unlucky and end up working at a Japanese company by fluke accident.
Whatever your reason may be, before you start a career with Japan you need to know what working with the Japanese is really like.
Ungodly Amounts of Overtime
In Japan it’s very normal to work late into the wee hours, no matter the industry. Employees often work 14 hour days, with one Japanese man confessing that he put in over 100 hours of overtime into his job—each month. In the rare auld times (the flourishing era of the 80’s and 90s) this overtime was actually paid, but now they just call it ‘service zangyou,’ or unpaid overtime. Basically, employees clock out at 5 p.m., but stay until midnight because it’s bad etiquette to leave before your superior.
They stay to keep the ‘wa,’ or harmony of the office. Japan is a very collective society, so they like to stick together and work as a team. Leaving before your superior, or even your senpai (seniors aka people that worked there longer/are older than you), is awkward.
I mean, if Tanaka-san leaves at 5 pm everyday but everyone else works until 10, then Tanaka-san is, essentially, a selfish bastard and doesn’t care about his fellow man. Screw Tanaka-san.
The only one who can get away with leaving early is the foreign English teacher, because s/he’s not a “real” member of the team—but that’s a story for another day.
Productivity Doesn’t Matter, so Don’t Work so Hard
Unless you’re launching a start-up (which Japanese people do not do, they only have 3% entrepreneur levels in the country compared to 13% in America), it’s unfathomable to me how you could have enough work to last 14 hours everyday.
The truth? There actually isn’t enough work to do until midnight. Since Japanese employees have to keep the wa and resign to their fate of working until the wee hours, employees usually spread their tasks out throughout the day and work at a snail’s pace. It’s not unusual for the Japanese to take 1-2 hours to send an e-mail or spend a week creating a simple powerpoint presentation. It’s no wonder, then, that Japan’s labor productivity is only 61% of the United States.
Plus, Japan isn’t merit based so even if you work hard and produce results you won’t be rewarded. Raises and promotions only happen through hierarchy and commitment to the company—in other words, you’ll get a real raise after you work there for 10-20 years. This is why Japanese employees seldom switch companies and often spend their entire life working at the same organization.
Big Bonuses and Job Security
Working 14 hours a day, staying late at the job for absolutely no reason and not being rewarded for your hard work? I know, sounds awful—but it’s not ALL bad.
At a Japanese company, you will most likely never be fired. Even if you suck at your job and spend half your shift sleeping on the desk, you’re still part of the big company family and papa company is going to take care of you. The retention rate at Japanese companies is much higher than other developed countries; however, the few employees that are fired by their company take it really hard; like, suicide hard. In Japan, getting fired is akin to being disowned by your parents—and since you spent your entire life working for the same company, it’s hard to jump ship and be rehired elsewhere. Sadly, for many salarymen in Japan, life ends with the pink slip.
The Japanese bonus is also a nice perk. If you google Japanese salaries, you may be alarmed at just how low they are. The average 35 year old male only makes 3,500,000 JPY annually (that’s about 30k USD with current exchange rate), and while living in Tokyo isn’t actually that expensive, salaries are still far below their American counterparts (about 45k annually, which feels like BS cause few of my friends are actually making this much, but anyway..). Women are even worse off in Japan: a 35 year old Japanese woman earns much below her male counterpart at 2,900,000 JPY annually (that’s about 25k USD at current exchange rate), so just being a woman will automatically give you a pay cut–but hey, but that’s also another topic entirely.
Anyway, the bonus makes all the difference. The average Japanese employee receives two bonuses a year (one in January and one in June) that, combined, can be worth half a year’s worth of salary. Many of my Japanese colleagues have admitted to me that, without their bi-annual bonus, they would not be able to make ends meet. Sadly, with Japan’s ongoing economic recessions, these bonuses are shrinking by the year.
The foreign English teacher, by the way, does not usually receive this bonus.
Don’t Take Paid Leave—Even if You’re Sick
My fellow colleague came into the office wearing a mask. He had no voice, was shaking with fever and could only communicate in short wheezes and coughs—but he wanted to prove to his colleagues and superior that he was dedicated to his job.
He was definitely too ill to work.
Later that day, he went to the hospital on his lunch break and got an IV transfusion. He returned to work two hours later and stayed until eleven in the evening.
And not surprisingly, the next day my American colleague and I were infected with his very same virus.
Yet it was worth it, because he proved to his boss and the rest of us he was serious about his job—or something.
Basically, Japanese people don’t use their paid or sick leave. Ever. Even Prime Minister Abe is begging the Japanese public take a break from their crazy work schedule, recently enforcing a law that will legally enforce them to take paid and sick leave.
We’ll see if it works.
And Finally, A Dead End
Much like it is difficult to be accepted into Japanese culture, being fully accepted by a Japanese company is equally difficult.
Most Japanese treat their foreign employees like temp workers, meaning they are not considered “real” employees and are rarely given opportunities for advancement.
At my current job, the “chuzaiin” (or staff sent from HQ in Japan) have fully covered health insurance, don’t pay taxes (we have to file as self-contracted employees and thus pay more tax), receive a 3,000 USD/monthly stipend for their ‘troubles’ living abroad and, most importantly, have opportunities for promotion.
The local staff (aka the Americans) have none of the above. We have no benefits, no tax break, no monthly stipend (they won’t even help us pay for the parking fee, which is 100 USD/month) and, since we were hired locally (and not via HQ in Tokyo), we will never be able to attain management positions within the organization or move up.
While my previous Japanese company in Shanghai wasn’t this cruel (we at least had benefits, stipends for transportation costs and equal tax coverage), it was still ridiculously hard to move up in the company and it was difficult to imagine just where my career at the company would lead–if it even lead anywhere.
Before you work at a Japanese company, think really hard about your future and where you want to go with your career.
Working with a Japanese company may seem like a good fit if you speak Japanese, but with the vastly contrasting work cultures and the fact you’re a foreigner in a Japanese world–you might want take a look at other options.
Although slightly exaggerated, the Japanese drama Hanzawa Naoki (the story of a Japanese banker’s foray into the ring of Japanese business politics) serves as a great window into the world of Japanese work culture. If you can be like Hanzawa and put up with everything he did then–congrats, I think you can make it in the Japanese world.
One of my favorite bloggers Charlotte also wrote a great post on working for Japanese companies–check it out!
I’m sad to say goodbye to my Japanese colleagues, but it’s time to look ahead and think about the future!
Has anyone else had troubles working for Japanese companies, or other foreign companies in general? What differences have you noticed between east and west?