22/07/2022

Japan’s Work Culture: Things to Know Before Working in a Japanese Company

You may have heard many things about what Japanese working culture is like, both good and bad. Are they true? We summed up the characteristics and qualities that many Japanese companies share and what they expect from employees. Also, some information about general Japanese work culture like working hours, work ethics, and etc.  


Table of Contents

  1. Key Things to Know
    1. Work Hours
    2. Work Ethics
      1. Hourensou
  2. Job Progression
    1. Getting a Job
    2. Getting Promoted
    3. Quitting / Changing Your Job
  3. Working with Others
    1. Business Etiquette
    2. Office Layout
    3. Office Customs
    4. Nomikai
  4. To Close

NOTE: While the topics discussed in this article are all things that many Japanese companies practice or have practiced, this doesn’t necessarily reflect the values of the writers or all Japanese companies. This article is written based on data from both the Ministry of Labour as well as public surveys, and individual experiences from our team. 

Key Things to Know About Japanese Work Culture

Work Hours in Japan

One of the biggest concerns when considering working in Japan is the work hours. Japan is often said to have lengthy and strict work hours, often with overtime. How true is this? Well, it really depends on the company and your contract. 

On one hand, Japan recently introduced 働き方改革 (Hataraki Kata Kaikaku), or Work Style Reform, as an attempt to revamp the whole working culture after overtime and overwork had become the standard. 

This came with consequences for companies with, among other things, excessive overtime and no to very little paid leave.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare reported that in 2021, 97% of people worked 40 hours or less per week, showing an increase from previous years.

※Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, “週所定労働時間

Employees are expected to take a minimum of 5 days of paid leave per year, in addition to the 16 public holidaysThere are fines for failing to comply to these standards.

On the other hand, there are also individual company policies regarding work hours and time off, such as

  • a set amount of hours relegated to unpaid overtime in one’s monthly salary

  • expecting employees to use paid leave for sick leave instead of providing them separately

  • setting specific days where employees are expected to use their paid leave to cover the “company’s days off” or denying paid leave during a busy season

Not every company does these things, but people from overseas are often surprised when they encounter this in their workplace.

Thus, it's important to know your contract especially in regards to paid time off and overtime work expectations. 

Also note that punctuality is very highly valued. It’s often expected of employees to be in the workplace 10-15 minutes before the start of their scheduled working time, often with strict measures regarding tardiness (having to turn in proof of delayed trains, etc.). 

We have an article discussing a typical work week in Japan, as well as the various systems set up in terms of working hours.  

Japanese Work Ethics

Team effort is often emphasized above individual achievement in a Japanese company. One works hard to contribute to the success of the team, and therefore the company.

This comes into play into how the office is set up to after work obligations - all discussed later on in this article. This is also why new employees (fresh graduates) are often hired for their potential and willingness to learn at the start of their career, rather than what they can already do.

You can read about general work ethics valued in Japanese companies here and what inspired them. However, if we had to choose one to discuss here, it’d be Hourensou.  

Hourensou

One of the important things you might hear and be taught when joining a Japanese company is the concept of 報連相 (hourensou). 

To put it simply:

(hou) - To report

(ren) - To inform

(sou) - To ask for advice or consult

As most workplaces are organized into teams and departments, constant communication with one's team is not just highly valued but also a necessity. It may seem overbearing at times especially when coming from a culture where individual work gets priority or more emphasis, but individual work is seen as a small piece to the bigger picture that is team effort in Japan. Therefore, it’s seen as important to inform your team of your progress.

You can read more in depth about Hourensou here

Job Progression in Japan

So what is it like getting a job, getting promoted, and / or quitting your job and changing to a new one? And yes, Japan does have its own distinct process and culture in this too. 

Job Hunting and Getting a Job in Japan

Job hunting in japan is called 就活 (shuukatsu). It’s an organized process that university and vocational school students go through from around a year before they graduate. This mass hiring process might seem strange to those not used to it, so we explained what it’s like for students in Japan including international students to go through this “fresh graduate hiring” process.   

And for non fresh graduates, those changing jobs and those coming in from overseas, the process is a little different. One can find a job by searching online, going to job fairs, relying on job agencies or getting recruited.

Check out our “Work in Japan” section for everything you need, from reasons to work in Japan to advice about resumes and interview tips, etc.

Getting Promoted in Japan

Many promotions in Japan, called 社内昇進 (shanai shoushin), are based on seniority - the longer you’ve been in the company, the higher your position. This also usually means that your age factors as well. 

However, in recent years, as changing jobs has become more common practice, this is not always the case. There are more and more promotions based on experience and merit, and some people change jobs in order to get more leadership roles based on their experience. 

It is true, however, that many foreign nationals feel that the promotion process is slow and takes too long, according to a survey conducted by Persol in 2019. If you are interested in moving up in your career, it would be wise to inquire what it usually takes to get promoted during the interview process.

※Persol, “日本で働く外国人材の就業実態・意識調査

For more about promotions in Japan, check out our article Shanai Shoshin: Job promotions in Japan.

Quitting / Changing Jobs in Japan

As with getting hired, there is a process to go about quitting your job, as well as changing to a new one. This might seem obvious, but it’s quite important for foreign nationals because it may affect status of residence. There is a long list of tasks to accomplish when quitting and changing jobs, including informing your workplace, informing the immigration agency, filling out paperwork, possibly training your successor, etc. 

For the process of how to quit your job, please take a look at: Workplace Etiquette in Japan: How to Quit Your Job.

For status of residence and visa-related issues when changing your job, please take a look at: The Basics of Changing Jobs in Japan

Working with Others in Japan: The Workplace Culture

Aside from doing your work well, a big part of Japanese working culture is workplace relationships. How well you get along with your colleagues and your interactions with them to maintain harmony in the workplace. 

Below we'll cover a range of topics relating to workplace intercommuncation from business manners to office customs.

Business Etiquette / Manners

There are certain mannerisms that fall under business etiquette in each job, from how you address others according to their job or title, to what you wear, and even where you sit at a table! 

In addition, depending on the company, they may have strict rules about hair color, tattoos, painted nails, how you commute to work, etc.

Some of these business manners or company expectations are taught to you at new employee training or orientation, while others you are just expected to know, as it’s a part of Japanese culture to be mindful of such things. This can be hard for foreign nationals who may be unfamiliar with such customs. 

We cover a range of things to know in terms of business etiquette in Japan here

Office Layout

A Japanese office is often arranged in an open office set up. This means that the office floors are not composed of cubicles. Instead, there are rows of tables with sections for each team and employee. This makes it easier for employees to communicate with one another without a wall in between each person. 

The arrangement also helps the superiors to navigate the space easily and monitor each employees' work. In turn, employees can consult their superiors at any time, as they can see when the superior is present, on the phone, busy or gone for a meeting.

While not all companies look exactly like this, take a look at ours!

Office Customs

This section is also highly dependent on each company’s culture, but here are some common office customs our writers have experienced across various jobs in Japan. 

Polite Interactions

At the start of a meeting, when seeing other employees in the office, or even when getting their attention, it's common to greet each other with「お疲れさまです otsukaresama desu」.  It's simply a formal greeting which generally means "Thank you for your hard work". 

The level of politeness in your interactions goes up if the person is your superior, whether in position or age. There's also a senpai-kouhai culture in many companies, where the older employee will help to mentor or train new and/or younger employee. 

The politeness is of course extended to clients or business partners, as shown through customs such as serving them tea or coffee when they come to visit the office and bowing when they leave, sometimes even until the elevator doors close. Some companies even forbid employees from riding the same elevators as clients, allowing clients to take the elevator first. 

Lastly, during work hours, employees are expected to treat each moment professionally. Refraining from small talk or unnecessary chatter would be one of the best ways to do so. While not every company has a explicit rule against small talk, employees should be mindful that many Japanese prefer to keep their personal life separate from their work and not everyone likes to be asked about their life outside of work. Then how do people get to know each other on a more personal level? Check out the nomikai section below. 

Gifts

Coworkers often buy souvenirs for their team or office when going on a trip, whether for fun or for business. This custom of omiyage or souvenirs means you bring back something for each person - usually individually packaged local sweets and snacks sold in sets for this exact purpose.

Meetings

One thing you might hear about working in Japan is the endless meetings. This goes back to the Hourensou concept discussed above, but these meetings are used to touch base and make sure everyone is up to speed on updates, share information and for discussions. Then, everyone makes a decision as a team. (The movie Shin Godzilla and its scenes of meeting after meeting is a perfect taste of what it’s like.)

Being Flexible and Versatile

Often times, employees end up doing tasks that they did not expect to be doing when they were hired. This is part of the “being flexible and doing what needs to be done” culture in many offices. This could mean anything from helping coworkers with their tasks apart from your own, making copies or tea for the whole team, covering for others when they’re sick or on vacation, etc. 

Nomikai 

Last but not least, we come to nomikai, or drinking parties. Coworkers and teams will often go drinking after work, either casually or in celebration of something. This is usually done to form bonds over a more relaxed environment, especially when being in the office doesn't provide opportunities to do so. 

While these cannot be compulsory by law, there are companies or teams that make it seem like they are mandatory. However, in more recent years, people have been more mindful of respecting employees’ decisions to attend or not. 

As for types of nomikai, there might be end of the year parties, welcome (to the company/team) parties, retirement parties, end of project parties, etc. Some companies or teams make any occasion a nomikai occasion!

Read more in depth about nomikai culture here

To Close

While we didn’t cover absolutely everything, we hope this covers the basic aspects of what working in a Japanese company might be like.

A lot of these aspects are summed up in this video on our YouTube Channel!

We did our best in this article and video to provide a realistic and balanced look at working in a Japanese company. 

However, if you're not used to these things, it may come across as extremely jarring or even negative. But when asked if it's something you can get used to, our team members answered yes! 

One team member in particular answered that some of it you'll just come to accept as Japanese culture. You may still question it at times, which is okay. It's important to know what's simply different because of culture, or if it's something that you personally have a hard time adjusting to - or of course, if it's something you should say no to!

In any case, please be rest assured, many foreign nationals who work in Japan still want to stay here! 

According to a survey by Persol, 61.2% of full-time workers in Japan who are foreign nationals would like to continue to stay in Japan in the future. 

※Persol, “日本で働く外国人材の就業実態・意識調査

And if you’re concerned over any of the topics covered in this article, it’s important to ask about the company culture regarding such things during interviews. We hope you’re able to find a company where you have a positive experience.

You don't have to worry alone anymore A Q&A community about Japan

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