What I Learned Working in Japan’s Corporate Culture

In the mid-90s I moved to Japan from San Francisco with my fiancée to take a job at an interactive educational media group based in Tokyo. Aside from …

In the mid-90s I moved to Japan from San Francisco with my fiancée to take a job at an interactive educational media group based in Tokyo. Aside from picking up some handy Japanese and developing a life-long reverence for the country’s highly-evolved cuisine, I also had the privilege of gaining access into the interior of a nation that has a workplace culture steeped in cultivating inter-dependence among workers. My four-year experience in Japan has, in some definite ways, influenced my entire professional career and also has given me a unique vantage point to compare work cultures in the Americas.

The motivation to share this bit of personal history comes from a CNN report recently about a young professional, named “Stu”, a British national living in Tokyo who chose to document his exhausting, sleep-deprived experience working for a finance firm there. Stu in Tokyo is clearly working a lot harder than I did, and without question earning a lot more money.

But his experience is intriguing, largely because Japan is still a fascinating country that defies outsiders – namely Gaijin – to explain why things are the way they are. In fact, after a few years’ there I learned the preoccupation with asking ‘why’ is a major cause behind the self-inflected bewilderment foreigners mire themselves in when trying to ‘sort out’ Japan.

Still, the desire to work ‘till you drop is a uniquely Japanese condition.

Overwork, of course, is a bad thing. We all know that. And Japan – over the last several decades – has earned itself the dubious distinction as the epicenter of Karoshi, the phenomenon literally described as ‘death from overwork’. Going the extra mile in Japan is the norm – there is great pride in stoic endurance and sticking around to all-hours showing that you can’t get enough of your work-mates and that air-conditioned office. Not surprisingly, the willingness to make massive sacrifices and subsume one’s identity to serve corporate masters is a concept that looks pretty unappealing from the viewpoint of a Westerner. We have grown to cherish ‘work-life balance’, but in practice many people I know in the U.S. still work very hard and make sacrifices similar to those made by their counterparts in Japan.

What Japan taught me, at least in my big city corporate experience, is the worker is made very aware that they are a direct participant in the success of the organization. In our daily meetings, not unlike scrum-standups in the IT world, I participated in a time-honored ritual where our managers encouraged us to strive despite the awareness of our shortcomings. I found the willingness of managers to talk about their own lapses – personally and professionally – to be truly refreshing having never observed such humility in workplace leaders in the U.S.

Every single day we were all told to simply ‘do your best’, and at the close of the day, we were directed to utter these specific words: “otsukare-sama deshita‎” –which I took to mean – I regrettably depart from my duties expressing my gratitude for our shared toiling. Contrast this concept to the self-focused ‘be your best’ slogan popular in the U.S. and you begin to see the division between the ‘me first’ mentality of the U.S. and the virtues of thinking and acting as a collective unit, popular in Japan.

The deal in place back then (although less so now), was that if you gave your heart and soul to your employer, you were guaranteed a job – virtually for life. Therefore, you got a broad, universal sense of worker ‘buy-in’. Hearing a Japanese co-worker complain, by the way, was highly unusual.

In Japan, there was also a fundamental acceptance of human frailty and that only through pooling the energy of co-workers would obstacles be overcome. I observed a real potency in this collective approach, but I came to also understand the rigidness necessary to keep that cultural scaffolding in place. Not surprisingly, you seldom saw people leaping up to take on leadership roles – there was constant deference: “No, please, you go first.”

I remember a good friend, a Japanese journalist, approached me one day with a question that had clearly been confounding for quite some time: Why was it that Americans are so capable of abandoning convention in order to break ground creating new ‘things’, while the fundamental talent among the Japanese was to take those already established creations – automobiles, appliances and electronics, for example – and optimize them to a higher level of performance and efficiency? “This special capacity for innovation the Americans have is not something we can duplicate in Japan,” he said in a way regretting the lack of courage needed for the individual in Japan to strike out on his or her own.

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“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” – that is one of those phrases that deeply symbolizes how Japan society works. But what about achievement and outcomes – that famous concept that people in outsourcing have grown to adore? And, does the tightness of the worker unit ultimately lead to better performance?

I can only speak from experience, but I sensed a true sense of responsibility among workers concerning both the performance as well as the ultimate fate of the organization. In the U.S. we might call it dedication, but in Japan the concept took on a far more deliberate tone.

Notably, Latin America seems to have some workplace traits that closely align with Japan’s: There is a sense of worker obedience that has its good and not so good connotations. I also believe there are common displays of humility in both cultures, however there are distinct differences in the way that humility is expressed.

The capacity to speak candidly is more in vogue in the workplace in the Americas these days, and I don’t think I would get an argument that the U.S. is more permissive of this open ‘feedback’ style compared to Latin America. Research shows that millennials in the U.S. in particular seek work cultures that encourage openness and transparency and part of that, I believe, is due to the desire for assurance and a sense of security.

Reflecting on what I observed in Japan has led to this short list of lessons, cautions and takeaways that are primarily directed to the Americas’ workplace:

  • In a new job situation, ask first what you are bringing to the organization, instead of focusing immediately on what the organization will grant you.
  • Some work-mates are annoying and you want to have nothing to do with them. This may be true, but ask yourself one important question: Is that person’s participation in your company more valuable than your personal disagreements?
  • If you’re a manager, when’s the last time you reflected deeply on a miscalculation or error in judgement that led to negative results. And, to take it a step further, have you contemplated how to reveal your fundamental humanness (as in, lack of perfection) to your colleagues?
  • Obedience to corporate masters has its limits: Do you know what those limits actually are for you?
  • If a new co-worker is an absolutely miserable Karoake singer, are you willing to tell that person to give up their plans to appear on ‘The Voice’?
  • If you find yourself resenting the fact that you must lie through your teeth in order to comply with work-culture norms, do you ‘act out’ those resentments on the company in some form?
  • Did you ever expect to sacrifice your life as much as you are to ‘service’ your company or career?
  • Is living in a Japanese temple starting to sound appealing? (We have some good contacts.)
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