5 Reasons Japanese Companies Are Not All Bad

5 Reasons Japanese Companies Are Not All Bad

The view from my previous company’s Tokyo office

Working for a Japanese company actually has many unseen benefits compared to an American company. Despite what I wrote in my previous blog post, it’s definitely not all bad. While there are still many drawbacks to being employed at Japanese companies, I think it’s worth looking at the silver lining.

For the first time in my 10 year career, I am starting a job that has absolutely zero involvement with Japan. I will not work with Japanese clients, I will not have Japanese colleagues, and I am most definitely not working for a Japanese company.

As I muddled through my first week at my new American job, I got thinking about how alien and foreign I felt in both my previous job and this one — and then it dawned on me.

Straight out of college, I’ve always worked in a Japanese environment. This is literally my first job where I am not working to any sort of Japanese standard. It’s 100% American.

While the Japanese seriously have some major drawbacks in their corporate culture (such as insanely long hours), there are most definitely benefits that I miss.

A very hospitable welcome and team induction

Nothing screams ‘team’ like a glass of Asahi

When you join a company in Japan, it’s a big deal. It’s extremely difficult to get a full-time job in Japan — landing a job in Japan can be a 5, 10, or sometime even 15 step interview process. The reward for all this grit, however, is a prize like no other: lifetime employment. Thus, it makes sense that as a lifetime employee you’ll get a warm welcome to the organization.

Despite not being admitted as a true “full-time employee,” my previous Japanese companies always gave me a warm welcome. Not only was I given a tour of the office, but I was also introduced to the department heads and peers who could help me with my future responsibilities. Many new joiners at a company will get a celebratory welcome “enkai” (drinking party), where the manager welcomes you to the team and everyone bonds over food and drinks (and usually gets really sloshed). When I started my first job as an English teacher in Japan, the principal of the school took me out to dinner and gave me a tour of the town. He even arranged for an English speaking local in the neighborhood to be my buddy just in case I needed any help after hours. I was truly touched.

At American companies? Well, there’s usually a flashy pre-made welcome video that everyone has to watch about company values and being a team.

And that’s about it.

On the first day at my new job, the boss didn’t even say ‘welcome to the team.’ I ate lunch alone. I was given a laptop and told to hop to it.

Let’s just say, compared to my Japan days, the American corporate welcome was lackluster.

Structure and Order

Look at these orderly trains and buses in Hiroshima!

Japanese people are insanely detail oriented. When it comes to perfection, the Japanese and Germans have it down to an art. Everything is immaculately documented. All work has an organized procedure for execution. There is a clear hierarchy in terms of management and subordinate. There is no grey zone.

Both my Japanese colleagues and I were baffled at the operations conducted at my previous western company, where high level decisions were made completely on the fly with no rhyme or reason. Former Japanese leadership were shocked when I told them that the annual revenue numbers were, basically, made up on a napkin. Other times, they were speechless when they were assigned to high-tier accounts without consent or notification.

“Are you telling me that the reason I am suddenly put in charge of this multi-million dollar account is because someone just put my name on a random google sheet without telling me?”

I virtually bowed over zoom and said in Japanese, “I am terribly sorry, but yes, it appears so.”

My new company is equally disorganized. Files are not arranged cleanly on a cloud server and instead is very haphazard. People are unsure of who their superiors are. Information is hidden. Everyone is winging it all the time.

Damn. I miss my organized Japanese people.

A strong sense of responsibility (aka, they don’t flake)

Working as a team team team!

Japanese people will always make deadlines and show up to meetings. Always. Always. Always.

At my previous western organization, I cannot count the number of times where I set up a high-level conference, meeting, or lunch and my boss simply did not show up. If I wanted my Western boss to submit a document to me by a certain date, it usually involved me nagging him (yes, always a him) many times over email, direct messenger, text, and eventually phone call. It was absurd to me that so many leaders were unable to show up to a meeting or send a file on time.

The Japanese leaders at my previous company? Even though they were twice as busy as the Western managers, they would always message me prior to a meeting to confirm that they could or could not attend. They consistently showed up to meetings with all deliverables perfectly finished and always on time. In fact, when a Western leader flaked on me, it was always a punctual and responsible Japanese leader who swooped in to save the meeting (and my ass).

At my new job, I am already suffering from ghosted emails and no-shows on calls. It’s depressing, but at least I’m used to it now.

Training and guidance

As I wrote about in my previous post, my kickass female boss at my previous Japanese company was a champion and mentor for me. She took me to meet the entire team on day one, because she knew the importance of building relationships and networking. She went a step even further and brought me to client meetings so I could learn more about business and the industry. While not all Japanese bosses are a superstar mentor like Takada-san, the “senpai/kohai” or senior/junior dynamic is very real in Japan. In Japan, it is typical to have a senior (senpai) help a new person at work and teach them the ropes. No one is ever alone.

In America? Well, it’s sink or swim. At my previous and current company I was given a laptop and a pat on the back. That was pretty much my training. The manager at my previous company had the goodwill to at least introduce me to the entire team and ensure I met our colleagues. My current company hasn’t introduced me to anyone yet (and it’s been a month).

Job stability

If you land that big job straight out of college as a “seishain” or “full-time employee” in Japan, then you’ve made it. You’re set for life. Even if you suck at your job, the company will never fire you. Everyone will more or less get the same level promotion at the same time, with the same bonus. It is not uncommon for Japanese to enter a company for life and slowly move up the ranks until they make c-suite or director level in their 50s.

For some, an environment where hard work is not rewarded and career progression moves at a glacial pace may sound like a nightmare. While this wouldn’t be an ideal work situation for me, I cannot deny that having a guaranteed job for life is a pretty sweet deal.

Overall I miss the Japanese work life, but…

I’ll settle on working hard to finish epic hikes in Japan instead

I must begrudgingly admit that I vastly prefer the freedom and work-life balance provided by Western companies. As an American, it is incomprehensible that I would not be promoted based on merit and that I would have to work hundreds of hours of overtime just for the sake of working.

However, after working with Japanese people for so long, I am definitely homesick for the camaraderie amongst my colleagues, the structured and organized system of work, and their strong work ethic to show up on time and fully prepared.

The new job, to be honest, feels very lonely and isolating — it also doesn’t help that I’m the only female on the team. I feel excluded and somewhat outcasted, but I’m doing my best to get the hang of things. I do not have an aggressive personality by nature, so being on a leadership where I have to prove myself to a trio of MBA bros is daunting, but I’m determined to prove that I’m worth it and move forward with confidence.

But hey, at least I get free door dash lunch everyday.

What are your thoughts on your country’s work style and habits? Any fun job stories as a new employee?

9 thoughts on “5 Reasons Japanese Companies Are Not All Bad

  1. Your blog posts are always filled with fascinating insights. I never really thought much about different work cultures unless it was East Coast versus West Coast (East is always on time or early and would never just flake, West will flake and expects you to flake if you get a better deal–or if it rains). But I’ve been out of the corporate world for ages, and so maybe it has all changed.

    1. Awww!! Thank you so much for the compliment Autumn!! Yes, my dad said the same thing about the West coast (as he grew up in the East coast). In East coast it’s very go-go-go, but in the West coast they go with the flow. I loved your ‘rain’ comment that is so true — there’s always an excuse! I worked with a lot of east coasters at my previous job who flaked constantly, but I think it was due to their insane schedules. The bosses at my last company were 10x busier than at my current company, so *shrug*.

      I’m so jealous you got out of the corporate world. Tell me how you did it, haha.

        1. hahaha!! I think my in-laws would die from happiness if all of that happened to me (mostly the child part). Anyway we’ll see how long I last in this corporate world.

  2. Totally different work styles and there’s a lot of potential for cultural clashes moving from one environment to another. It made me think of HSBC’s expat guide country review outlining work culture, hours, punctuality, formality, mode of dress, etc.

    I also think the freeform office and flattened structure without middle management has eliminated oversight. There’s now the expectation that most people don’t want to be micromanaged so managers err on being hands off as much as possible. But yes, this can cause a lot of frustration when you don’t feel included or valued.

    1. Yeah I guess there are culture clashes no matter where you work! I just didn’t think I would become so “Japanese” that I found it jarring to work at an American corporation again. Still, I think American and Japanese work structure is much better than anything China can offer.

      Yes, I miss having some kind of middle management… I wonder of young people prefer the autonomy and lack of guidance? Or does it just create more stress overall?

      1. Well TBH you didn’t really experience the American office until later in life so your formative work years were in a “Japanese” environment. That strong early exposure will leave an indelible mark on your expectations.

        I actually think young people want more guidance. The pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that people are lost, don’t feel valued, and don’t know how to approach work. They need more concrete mentors. Maybe that’s why they hop jobs so often.

        This may be an interesting read: https://www.pwc.com/co/es/publicaciones/assets/millennials-at-work.pdf

      2. From that pdf:

        Millennials have particular needs and expectations when it
        comes to learning and career development. Many respond
        well to mentoring by older employees – in an ideal world,
        they would like to see their boss as a coach who supports
        them in their personal development – but also generally
        prefer to learn by doing rather than by being told what to do.
        One of the strongest millennial traits is that they welcome
        and expect detailed, regular feedback and praise for a job
        well done – 51% of those questioned said feedback should
        be given very frequently or continually on the job and only
        1% said feedback was not important to them. The companies
        that are most successful at managing millennials are those
        that understand the importance of setting clear targets and
        providing regular and structured feedback.

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