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10 Things to be Mindful of in the Japanese Business World

10. Self-introductions

On your first day at a new company, you will be paraded around like the newbie you are and expected to give formal introductions to the department chair, upper management, perhaps even the CEO. If your place of business holds regular group meetings, you might be asked to give a short introductory speech. Give everyone your undivided attention during these introductions, as they will be giving you theirs.

宴会 (enkai) – afterhours parties with coworkers; depending on the business, these can be regular events. Even though you are “off the clock”, keep in mind people still talk shop while at parties. In fact, it’s a better opportunity to make requests and provide criticism, as you should be drinking and formal language and behavior aren’t expected (even if no one is drunk, it’s assumed the behavior can be excused as such).

9. Breaks and Vacations, yasumi

Short breaks are easily tolerated, but you might find that smoking breaks are much more common (percentage-wise, more teenagers smoke in Japan than the US) and sociable… if you happen to たばこを吸います (inhale tabacco). I myself do not indulge, but I also miss out on shooting the breeze with coworkers from adjacent offices.

Employees are given at least ten days of paid vacation for their first year with a new company, in addition to the national holidays of Obon in August and Shogatsu in January. To be considered a model employee, you shouldn’t use all those days. Generally speaking, you should use about half. However, some managers are amenable (if your manager takes all his vacation time, chances are you can too).

8. Key phrases

おはようございます – Good morning
お疲れ様です – Said during the day to passing co-workers; encouragement to work hard
行って来ます – When going out for lunch or an extended period
ただいま – When returning
ちょっと行って来ます – When going out for a few minutes only

お先に – “Excuse me for going first”; there are many instances of this being used, but a common example would be leaving the table before someone finishes his meal. If you do finish together, try to stand up at the same time.

お先にしつれします – Said when leaving the office early (お先に is also ok, if you’re being casual)

7. Cleaning

Unlike many American and western companies, Japanese businesses, even large ones, do not necessarily hire cleaning crews; even if they do, the janitors might just handle the larger jobs (bathrooms, kitchens). As a result, you will probably be asked to join in with your fellow workers one morning or afternoon a week and sweep, vaccuum, dust, wipe, and empty the trash.

6. Aftertime, zangyou

Aftertime, not overtime; although this type of behavior is slowly being changed, it’s still expected of many Japanese workers. Your contract says 8:30-5:30? Well, you can come in at 8:29:59 without a hitch, but to be seen as a model worker you should stay until 6:30 or 7:00… perhaps later. Don’t leave before your boss. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing anything productive or not, just the appearance of doing work is necessary. If you do leave before anyone else, be sure to bid them お先に (osaki ni).


Naturally, this is starting to change in Japan as many people are starting to realize what a huge waste of time it is (statistics showing Japan was not very productive); even working mothers were and still are frowned upon for leaving work to give themselves enough time to meet their children at home.

5. Language Skills

“…becoming fluent in Japanese can be a double-edged sword. While in some situations it is either necessary or extremely useful to be good at the language, I occasionally noticed colleagues who felt uncomfortable with a foreigner speaking their language. They didn’t quite know whether I should be treated as a local or as an outsider. A Westerner who speaks and reads fluently is sometimes treated as an oddity – like a talking robot: amazing, but does it really understand what it is saying?

What surprised me was how attitudes in the company changed as I gained fluency. When I was at the beginner level, people often praised my stumbling efforts, but as I got better the praise stopped. It was as if I was trespassing into some off-limits territory where I didn’t belong. Many highly educated Japanese are proud of the fact that they can communicate with a foreigner in his or her language and feel slightly disappointed when that ability is made redundant.

When a foreigner has some professional expertise, he (assuming a male in this case) may be more highly regarded and receive better treatment if he speaks little or no Japanese. On the other hand, if he is fluent the issue becomes more complicated. After generating some initial surprise and perhaps admiration, he may find himself compared with Japanese peers more easily and may be found wanting; to older Japanese, who believe a foreigner should behave like a foreigner, he may appear to be getting uppity; some people may assume that greater abilities in the language imply reduced abilities in specialist expertise; and an outside who speaks fluent Japanese will surely have lost some of that foreign cachet by going native, linguistically speaking. It might be compared to a French cordon bleu chef who arrives to work in England. Having a strong French accent and displaying French body language would emphasize his French-ness and might make him more highly regarded. If, however, after a few years he picks up the local ways and begins to speak and act like an Englishman, his perceived professional value may go down a few notches, even though he might be a better chef.”

The Blue-Eyed Salaryman, Niall Murtagh

4. Paying Attention

The level of genkiness (energy) in any workplace is variable. However, many bosses will take it for granted that you, just as any other worker in Japan, should respond with a loud, clear, “hai!” when addressed.

When a boss, superior, or even a coworker is speaking for a long time, it’s better to say something rather than just nodding or looking straight ahead. Filler words show you are paying attention and understand what is being conveyed: “hai…sosososo…eee…”, はい…そそそ…ええ…

3. Commitment

Don’t sign any contract in Japan you don’t plan on finishing. Legally, there may not be any recourse if you choose to break it, but it reflects badly on you, reflects badly on human resources for finding you, and definitely makes your manager’s life difficult for supporting and training you all this time, just to amount to nothing.

Long-term commitment. Even with an initial 3-month or one-year contract, state your intentions beforehand. It’s better they know you whether you plan to live in Japan for the rest of your life, for the next five years, or until the end of the week.

2. Health

Starting at a new company you will be asked to go to a doctor for a complete medical examination – EKG, blood tests, physical, x-ray, blood pressure, hearing, vision, urine, etc. The same can be expected every six months or so into your contract.

1. Business Cards, meishi

Business cards are the insulin, and everyone is diabetic: keep a few on you at all times. To be exchanged when meeting someone new, even casually. These cards contain the information equivalent to a resume. Receive one with both hands and read it before putting it carefully aware, unfolded. Offer yours length-wise with both hands and a short bow.