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Working at a Japanese Company – The Good, The Bad, and The Crazy

Working at a Japanese Company – The Good, The Bad, and The Crazy

In honor of Labor Day, I thought I would share some good, bad, and…. well, downright crazy stories I have from working at a Japanese company during my tenure in Shanghai. Although I already recorded some funny stories in deeply buried posts from the past, there are a few more memories that deserve to see the light of day. These memories are so unique to Japan (and China?) that I have just have to write them down.

Can we make her more global?

When I was working at a Japanese company located in Shanghai, I was the only westerner in the building. Besides myself, everyone was either Japanese or Chinese. I was the ultimate unicorn: a trilingual American who somehow ended up working at one of Japan’s top companies in Shanghai. read more

The Truth About Working at a Japanese Company

The Truth About Working at a Japanese Company


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.

Coming here was my dream
Coming here was my dream

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

japanese yen

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, read more