Managing in Japan
Working in a Diligent, Hierarchical Culture
Bullet trains, vending machines, sprawling high-tech cities, tranquil hot spring retreats, cherry blossoms, and a swathe of ancient cultural treasures. All of this and more awaits you in Japan – a country famed for both its rich cultural heritage and its technological innovation.
Manners, hierarchy and ceremony all form an intrinsic part of Japanese culture, and learning the correct business and social etiquette will be key to gaining the respect of your new team.
In this article, we'll introduce you to the customs that you need to know to become an effective and successful leader in Japan.
This article is intended as a general guide only. It's important to use your own best judgment when managing your team, and to remain flexible when particular situations arise that require your attention.
Setting the Scene
Japan has the world's 11th-largest population, with 127 million people living in the country today. It is the third-largest economy in the world, and its currency is the Yen.
Japan consists of 6,582 islands. The four largest islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyusha – represent the country's main land mass.
Japan is situated along the Pacific "ring of fire" and, as a result, experiences a high level of seismic and volcanic activity. Earthquakes are frequent, with around 1,500 recorded in the country every year.
The Japanese pride themselves on their strong work ethic. Punctuality and personal presentation are also extremely important, so it's best to arrive early at the office (preferably before your team), and to dress to impress.
Wear a well-cut suit in an understated, formal color, such as dark blue or black, if you want to make a good impression with your team. A conservative approach is best for women. Avoid high heels and jewelry, and be aware that long skirts are preferable to pants, particularly in a business setting.
Be prepared to take a "hands-on" approach with your Japanese colleagues. Feedback and self-improvement are vitally important in Japan, and many companies employ the business concept known as hō-ren-sō, which helps managers to keep track of their people's work.
Team members are expected to remain in close contact with their manager at every stage of a project. This means that every issue encountered (and the steps taken to fix it) is documented from beginning to end. Following the principles of hō-ren-sō will likely help you to gain the trust of both your superiors and your team, and will allow you to demonstrate your leadership and decision-making skills.
Humility, pride and respect are also held in high regard in Japan, so be careful when you are giving feedback, particularly in team meetings. The team is put above the individual, so your colleagues will likely be embarrassed if they are singled out (whether for praise or because of a mistake). If you do want to raise an issue with a team member, it's best to talk to him or her privately.
Getting feedback from your team may prove difficult, so don't be too alarmed if you fail to get a response when you ask questions or want suggestions. Your colleagues probably aren't comfortable being put "on the spot," or they may be trying to "save face" in an attempt to protect their pride.
Be aware that you are also unlikely to be told "no" directly, as it's considered blunt and ill-mannered. Instead, you'll likely be let down more gently.
Hierarchy is important in Japanese culture. As a general rule, older people have a higher status than younger people, and Japanese men usually outrank women in corporate and social settings.
Be aware that many businessmen still find it uncomfortable working alongside women, and may come across as rude or nervous as a result. If you are a woman going to Japan to do business, dressing conservatively and using a respectful, open tone can help to smooth these encounters and avoid any awkwardness.
Japanese people will likely address you by your first name followed by the honorific suffix san. It's a good idea to put san after a name when talking or writing, even if you are using English.
It's perfectly acceptable to call people by their first names. However, while at work, it's best to use your co-workers' surnames (with the san suffix). Doing this will show them that you respect their language and culture – an effort that will be appreciated.
The Japanese might work hard, but they also like to play hard. You'll likely be treated to more than one evening out in Japan during your stay, especially by your host, who will insist on paying. Object politely – at least at first – but be sure to accept his hospitality in the end.
Socializing with colleagues outside of work is good bonding time, and it can often help to strengthen team relationships. It also gives your colleagues a chance to speak with you more freely. Try to avoid joking or sarcasm, however, as it will be taken at face value and could leave the listener feeling embarrassed.
Body language is especially important in social situations in Japan. Sit up straight, with both feet flat on the floor, and avoid crossing your legs. Don't worry if silence descends. Westerners naturally try to fill silences, but it can be a valuable form of non-verbal communication in Japan, especially if it's accompanied by nodding.
Paying in cash is still more common than paying by card. Credit cards may not always be accepted, so ensure that you always have cash to hand. ATMs are commonplace in major cities, but these often stop operating when banks and post offices close (usually at around 5 p.m.).
Meeting and Greeting
You'll undoubtedly want to get off "on the right foot" with your new team. The best way to do this is to familiarize yourself with the customs and etiquette of meeting and greeting.
It's customary to bow when you first meet someone. Men usually keep their hands by their sides, while women place one hand over the other at thigh level. Remember to bow as deeply and as frequently as your colleague, to show respect, and avoid walking or talking when bowing.
Being invited to someone's house is seen as a great honor, so do your utmost to accept such an invitation. Once at your host's house, you'll likely be asked to wear slippers, which will be provided. (Some workplaces may also require you to do this.) Once you've removed your shoes, it's polite to point them toward the front door.
Exchanging business cards in Japan has its very own ceremony. Here are some top tips on how to give and receive business cards:
- Carry a smart case of business cards with you at all times, and make sure that they have a Japanese translation of your details on one side.
- Always stand up when exchanging cards.
- Place your business card on top of your card case and, with the text facing your colleague, hold the card at chest height and pass it to her. State your name and company, then offer her the card, while dipping your head slightly.
- After exchanging cards, both parties normally say "Yoroshiku onegaishimasu" (Yoh-rosh-koo oh-neh-guy-shi-mass), which means "please treat me well," and bow.
- Study any cards that you receive carefully.
- Keep colleagues' business cards respectfully in front of you during your meeting. Once the meeting's finished, carefully place them inside your case.
It's customary for hosts to treat their guests to small gifts, so be prepared to return the favor. The gifts that you give must reflect the recipient's status, so avoid giving the same gift to both lower and higher ranked team members, as this will likely cause embarrassment. You should also avoid giving four or nine of anything, as this is considered bad luck.
It's also important to be mindful of gifts that might cause offence, such as:
- Lotus blossoms, lilies and camellias, which are often associated with funerals. (In fact, white flowers of any kind should be avoided.)
- Red envelopes (such as those used for Christmas cards). These are best avoided as they resemble traditional funeral notices.
See our article on Gifts in the Workplace for further advice on gift giving. Take care to understand the anti-corruption laws of your country and familiarize yourself with your company's policy on corporate gift giving. For example, in the U.S., the legal distinction between a gift and a bribe is not completely clear. See the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for more information. In the U.K., the Bribery Act 2010 explains what constitutes a bribe in Britain, and for any British company operating overseas, regardless of location.
Employment Law and Working Hours
You've probably heard that Japanese people work long hours, and this is true. The typical working week is 48 hours and many people work even longer than this, although overtime is usually unpaid.
The country has particularly strong employment protection laws, so it's rare for an employee's contract to be terminated. In fact, most people stay with the same company until they retire and changing jobs is often viewed with distrust. Employers, therefore, must have a valid reason to fire someone and, in all but extreme cases, they must give 30 days' notice or 30 days' pay before terminating a contract.
Terminating people's employment is not allowed if they are in hospital or on maternity leave, and for 30 days afterward.
Most of your Japanese colleagues will have studied English at school, but it's still a good idea to learn some key words and phrases.
Ohayō gozaimasu (Oh-high-yoh go-zai-moss)
Thank you for your hard work
Otsukare sama desu (Oh-tska-reh sama dess)
Thank you very much
Arigato gozaimasu (Ah-ree-gah-toh goh-zy-mass)
See you next time/Goodbye
De ha, mata desu ne (Deh-wah, mah-tah dess neh)
Here's to a good working relationship
Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (Yoh-rosh-koo oh-neh-guy-shi-mass)
Thank you for the meal
Gochiso-sama deshita (Goh-chi-soh-sah-mah deshta)
Japanese workers are entitled to 10 days' holiday a year. This increases by one day for each year of service given, once a person has worked at the same company for one and a half years (up to a maximum of 20 days).
Several national holidays are observed in Japan and offices are usually closed on these dates. The main ones are:
- New Year's Holiday – January 31 to January 3.
- Coming of Age – Dates change each year (January 8 in 2018 and January 14 in 2019).
- National Foundation Day – February 11.
- Spring Equinox Day – March 21.
- Golden Week Holidays – April 29 to May 6.
- Marine Day – Dates change each year (July 16 in 2018).
- Mountain Day – August 11.
- Obon – August 13 to 15 (Tokyo celebrates on July 13 to 15).
- Respect for the Aged Day – Dates change each year (September 17 in 2018).
- Autumn Equinox Day – Dates change each year (September 24 in 2018).
- Health and Sports Day – Dates change each year (October 8 in 2018).
- Culture Day – November 3.
- Labor Thanksgiving Day – November 23.
- Emperor's Birthday – December 23. (This date changes according to the date of the ruling Emperor's birthday.)
Good manners translate to good business in Japan. Etiquette, customs and ceremony are all important here, so being able to show a good understanding of them will help you to gain your new team members' respect.
Remember that the team is more important than the individual in Japan, so try to avoid singling people out in team meetings. You will likely be expected to take a more "hands-on" approach with your team than you might previously have been used to, so be prepared to get heavily involved in projects, and to keep track of each team member's progress from start to finish.
Most importantly, enjoy yourself! Immerse yourself in the country's rich culture and heritage, and use your time in Japan to expand your cultural intelligence.