Working in a Japanese Company #10 – Am I treated Differently as a Foreigner?

I asked on Instagram what questions people had about working in a Japanese company in a non-english teaching job since there seemed to be a huge interest and I received so many good ones! I received so many in fact, I have to break them up into a series of posts and this first post is all about questions on if I am treated differently being a foreigner and if the expectations are different.

For those who do not know me and are seeing this for the first time, I have been working in Japan for 6 years at Small/ Medium size businesses here in the Kansai Region (Kyoto, Osaka, and Hyogo area). I don’t have experience with big corporations at all so my experience might be different than someone who worked at a large company. Please take these experiences as a small look into the experience of working at a Japanese company as a foreigner!

How Inclusive does it feel, do you feel a sense of belonging or do you feel like an outsider? (Are you treated differently being a foreigner?)

I would say both yes and no to this question. The entire time I’ve worked in Japanese companies I have never really felt like an outsider and I was never blatantly treated differently because I was a foreigner. They alway include me in everything, like drinking parties and company events and I was not treated as a an outsider at all, in a Japanese company you are family. You aren’t “close close” per say, but you work with them everyday so you become a team and include you in everything.

Another reason I didn’t feel like an outsider is because I took interest in learning the culture and learning why something the way it was first before acting. You have to keep an open mind when working in a Japanese company, or ANY company in a different country. If you go in with just your own mindset and aren’t willing to be open minded they will not be open to discussion. So ask questions and learn first before diving in and making suggestions. A kind of cheezy example is the Netflix show “Emily in Paris” where she goes to Paris not knowing the language and not seeming to “care” about how the company had done business previously and just dove straight in with her ideas first before listening to what they had to say (though I will say that they weren’t exactly being nice to her either at the beginning). So take that as an example; Learn the language, keep an open mind and learn first before diving in and trying to change things.

With those being said, I learned the above lesson about diving in first before learning the hard way and the closest thing to being treated differently was my western mindset alienating me a bit along with a language barrier at the beginning. Once I understood how Japanese people think and work though, I was able to get my ideas across and those problems went away mostly. From my experience it’s not common to express your own ideas unless asked and even then the boss’s decision is what matters in the end. At first I thought they didn’t value my opinion because I was used to giving suggestions for changes to make my job easier and I kept getting shut down when I did suggest improvements and I honestly didn’t understand why. In reality, it’s hard to change a process that’s already in place in a Japanese company and a lot of backup detail is needed in order to do so, which when I look back I realize I didn’t communicate effectively and had a language barrier that both went against me. I also didn’t learn first and spoke up too soon about my suggestions, which in a Japanese company is very highly valued; as I said above: learn first before suggestions.

Speaking of the language barrier, another thing that frustrated me in the beginning was the constant “wakaru” I received, which translates to “understand?” or “get it?”. I took as condescending, undermining my education and how I was learning a new language, especially at my first job. In reality though, it was a work place… my boss and other coworkers were trying to make sure I understood the tasks and what I was being told so I could do correctly…. if I messed up it would be bad for everyone involved and that was their way of preventing it instead of assuming I understood everything. As time went on and my Japanese improved, this stopped as they began to trust I could actually understand everything. My ideas also were more welcome because I could communicate better at I understood how the company operated after about a year. Looking back, I honestly didn’t understand a lot at the very beginning because I still only had conversational Japanese when I began working at my first company in late 2014.

Would you say that you have the same expectations to uphold as your Japanese peers?

The expectation at a company, no matter what country, is to do your job to the best of your abilities. In terms of my job, that is the only expectation ever put on me. All other “expectations” were cultural ones or ones that aligned with company policy, which they politely taught me and expected me to abide by. An example of this: At the same company mentioned above, I received 10 paid days off in a year. My family lives back home in the US and it takes me THAT amount of days in a year to fly back and be back with my family for a decent amount of time… but despite this over the “summer holiday”, ALL employees were expected to use 3 of their paid days off while the office was closed. I found this EXTREMELY unfair since they could easily go back to see their families, I tried to ask if I could come into work anyway and not use those days off to save them for Christmas, but they insisted that I had to be supervised so I couldn’t… BUT this was what the company decided and the “collective” wins so I had no choice but to abide by it. I chose to live in a foreign country and abide by Japan’s expectations and culture. I learned through this and a similar experience a year later that I’m not special just because I am foreign and it was a pretty hard lesson to learn.

Do you feel like you have to follow the rules of Japanese workers or do you feel more free to do what you want?

If it’s company policy, then yes. I absolutely follow the rules. If it’s voluntary or unspoken rules, I judge by the environment and if I feel comfortable or not, if work relationships will be strained, or if it will dig into my personal time. An example of this is I DO NOT work overtime just for the sake of working overtime to save face and pretend I’m working harder, as that’s common here. At my current company I have to commute 3 hours roundtrip to the office (pre-COVID). My work hours are set in my contract and if I don’t have pressing work to finish I will leave exactly on time to get home sooner. Of course if there’s something that needs to get done or a meeting that happens after hours (I’ve gone in on a Saturday for a meeting before and stayed quite late as well other days), I will do that to get the work done, but in general they don’t expect that all the time from me and respect that boundary.

I think there are a lot of cultural related things that are associated with this, as well as “company culture” too. I’ve found a rule of thumb in a Japanese company is that if it affects the rest of the people around you, it should probably be done but even things that you think are not “group” are actually group things. Like when I ask for an extended amount of time off (over a week), it is my individual choice, yes, but in the mindset of a Japanese company if I’m gone my work has to either stop or be passed onto someone else for that time. Because of this, it’s expected and polite to check with my boss if it’s okay and have a game-plan on how work will continue smoothly as not to create more work for those around me while I am gone.

Have you worked overseas before? Did you feel like an outsider? Let me know if you have any other questions regarding working at a Japanese company as a foreigner in the comments below!

Part 9| Part 11 (Coming Soon)

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