Japanese Working Culture – 10 Facts That Will Really Surprise You

Japanese Working Culture Facts

The Japanese working culture is notorious for being rigid, hierarchical, and overwhelmingly traditional. It’s got quite the reputation and today we’re going to discuss some facts that will astound you even more!

Many countries around the world have adapted to the agile way of working. Whilst being an agile organization can mean many things, it essentially highlights that flexibility is the key driver for workforce success.

This, however, is lacking in the Japanese working culture.

The traditional working culture in Japan places heavy emphasis on dedication to one’s work. Imagine the traditional assumptions of a male-dominated workforce, with distinct levels of seniority and years of jumping through hoops to progress your career. The Japanese working culture is currently all this – and more.

These days, there are many advocates for a more sustainable, flexible, and generally more balanced workplace culture in Japan. They’re making waves in the country and around the world, and their progress is bringing hope to the dated rigid structure of Japanese workplace culture.

Despite this, they still have a long way to go!

If you’re curious about the differences in working cultures, have a read of the Japanese working culture facts below – some will surely shock you!

1. ‘Karoshi’ – literally meaning to work to death

Japanese Working Culture Karoshi

Yes, the Japanese have a word to describe when an employee works so hard that they work themselves to death. It may seem so extreme that it’s almost funny (dark humor, anyone?), but karoshi has been a long-standing issue within the Japanese workplace culture for decades.

Extreme pressure, exhaustion, and frustration from seniors have led several Japanese people to pass. Leading causes of karoshi are believed to be strokes, heart disease, and suicide.

2. Salarymen can only leave work once their managers leave

Work Culture Japan Manager

Staying back until your manager leaves have been a long-standing unspoken rule in the workplace that many employees still abide by today.

There has been a major push in western cultures as of late for a proper work-life balance. Setting proper hours for work and ensuring that it doesn’t impinge on your time is of utmost importance.

In Japan, however, the update of work-life balance has been slow. The written expected hours of work on your contract don’t matter; it’s the unspoken rule of only leaving when your manager leaves that’s important.

3. Salarymen are expected to socialize after-hours

Drink After Work Business Men Women Japan

Waiting until your manager is not the only unspoken workplace rule that needs to be adhered to. Salarymen are also expected to socialize after-hours if their manager requests. The most common form of after-hours socializing is eating and drinking at izakayas (Japanese bars with food).

Gathering after work hours and socializing is seen as an opportunity to get to know colleagues better, but it’s also an opportunity to climb the corporate ladder and build credibility with your bosses.

Declining these offers would be considered rude and insensitive.

4. ‘One Company For Life’

Old Japanese Business Man

Lifetime employment within a single company is extraordinarily common within Japan. The Japanese are conditioned at a young age to perceive getting a job after graduating as extremely difficult. Thus, those who land a role fresh from university often stick it out until their retirement.

This isn’t particularly a bad thing, depending on how you view it. Job security means that you’re able to provide for yourself and your family. There’s also comfort in knowing that you’re good at your job, so why bother looking elsewhere?

This commitment to one company could be traced back to the infamous samurai Bushido code. This code dictated the intense level of obedience, loyalty, and courage that the warriors had to the samurai faction.

In today’s society, though, this type of commitment impedes on a company’s ability to be dynamic, flexible, and adaptable. Fresh young minds can do so much for a company, but workforces are often dominated by employees who have been around for decades.

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5. Decision-making is only for seniors

Senior Japanese Business Man

Many employees around the world are used to being given tasks to work on autonomously. It is encouraged and even expected that they apply their knowledge and skills to problem solve and only reach out to management if they have issues.

However, within the Japanese workplace, most, if not all, decisions must come from an employee’s senior manager.

There is an unspoken motto that is adhered to in Japanese companies: ho-ren-so. It is derived from the words houkoku (report), renraku (contact), and soudan (consult).

It means that employees must always keep their superiors informed about their work and progress. No update is too small and all decisions require a stamp of approval.

This method of micromanagement is ingrained in Japanese working culture and is further amplified by the focus on respect for seniority.

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6. Vacations are rare

Japanese Man Holidays Beach

Taking a holiday is quite a rare instance within the Japanese working culture. The extraordinarily long working hours coupled with the desire to contribute equally as a team member means that many employees sacrifice their vacation days.

It’s been noted through a survey that Japanese workers only take roughly half of their vacation days! Those who do go on leave, do so with feelings of guilt.

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7. Teamwork over individual achievements – ‘Collectivist Mindset’

Teamwork Japan

The East mindset of collectivism over the West mindset of individualism is prevalent in the Japanese working culture. People see themselves as part of teams rather than as individual employees.

Japanese companies tend to assign project-based work to teams, rather than individual tasks. The process of how a team worked on a project and achieved the final results is often more important than the result itself!

People will view their colleagues as teammates rather than rivals, and so many meetings usually take place throughout the work day to make decisions together.

8. Commute is covered

Japanese Business Man Metro

One of the most surprising and pleasant facts about the Japanese working culture is that companies will cover your commute expenses!

When you’re applying for jobs in Japan, you will notice that many job descriptions will include compensation for commute times. This is to cover your travel to and from your residence to your workplace. This is not common anywhere else around the world!

9. Seniority, not merit, is rewarded

Japanese Working Culture Old Business Man

Traditionally, seniority is more valued than merit in Japanese workplaces. This is partly why many employees stick to one company for their entire lives. Regardless of their performance, they will most likely be given annual bonuses and pay rises. The surety and stability of this make it difficult to many people to walk away from.

On the flip side, it acts as a de-motivator for those looking to excel in their role. Effort and merit are not particularly celebrated or acknowledged. The mentality that you will still get paid despite simply blending in with your colleagues means that most people won’t feel the need to try and exceed in their role.

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10. Annual health checks are mandatory and paid for

Medical Health Check Japan

In Japan, all companies will pay for an annual health check for their employees. This isn’t just your standard height and weight check, though. These checks can and will likely include the full range of health checks including hearing, eyesight, blood pressure, and blood and ECG tests.

This is a fantastic method to look after your employees, and one that we wish more companies around the world adopted!

+1 Bonus – Japanese people nap at work, and its acceptable!

Nap Japanese Working Culture

Based on the above, you can tell that the Japanese people tend to have extreme devotion to their workplace, contributing to their team, and pleasing their managers. So much so, that sleeping or napping at work is considered acceptable!

The Japanese practice of sleeping at work is a phenomenon that only exists in Japan, and is often referred to as ‘inemuri’. Whilst this practice would definitely be frowned upon within other workplace cultures, it’s actually celebrated in Japan.

Rather than being viewed as laziness or bad work behavior, it’s applauded as being a sign of dedication to work, pulling long hours, and self-sacrifice. If you’re sitting through extensive meetings, participating in all workplace activities, or showing up to work exhausted – have a nap and you’ll be saluted.

Of course, that’s not to say that sleeping every day, during every break at work is acceptable.

Inemuri roughly translates to ‘I am present whilst sleeping’. Thus, being aware of your environment and napping only when it doesn’t disrupt or disturb others is important. Also important is the idea that you can be woken at any moment by anyone.

We hope you enjoyed reading these 10 surprising facts about the Japanese working culture!

Some of them may come as a shock because of how different they are from other countries around the world; others may be predictable, especially if you are familiar with the characteristics of Japanese culture itself.

Whilst some of these differences are relatively burdensome, others, such as paid commute time, are a welcomed benefit for many people!

Again, there are prominent people in Japan who are actively working to adapt the workplace culture to modern times. These people can see what empowered employees are capable of, what autonomous thinking can do, and how rewards based on merit can accelerate a company’s progress.

What was the most surprising fact that you learned today? For those who have worked within a Japanese company before, what’s a fact that you experienced first-hand? We’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!

  1. What is the name of the practice of banishing an employee to a corner desk if the company cannot fire but has no further use for them?

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