Settling In: Japanese Work Culture

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Japanese Work Culture 

As part of the titular exchange programme, JET Programme participants are expected to approach the Japanese workplace with an open mind in order to learn from your coworkers and carry what you’ve learned with you to your next job. However, Japan approaches workplace culture from different angles than many Irish workplaces, and coming in unprepared can result in culture shock and unpleasant situations where nobody is in the wrong. This article will go over some of the nuances of Japanese workplaces and how best to handle them.  



The topics discussed below are considered typical elements of Japanese work culture, and they do not account for differences in work places or indeed individuals. Like the country itself, Japanese culture is not a monolith, but a chain of connected islands with their own nuances and idiosyncrasies. It’s easy advice to give, but it’s true: come at this with an open mind and adapt to the situation as necessary. 


Mindset and Attitude 

Easy as ABC, eating your hourensou 

Japanese workplaces are highly focused on communication and discussion. Planning for an event may involve not just multiple meetings, but casual conversations as well (more on that below). In Japan this mindset is summed up by the acronym hourensou, which means “spinach”. It’s short for the phrase “houkoku, renraku, soudan”, which means as follows: 

Houkoku: Report. Inform your superiors of what you’re working on and what’s going on. Even if a situation or problem has been resolved, it’s worth mentioning to your supervisor and above so they can stay informed of goings on. It’s good for them to be aware of what happens in the workplace they lead, and it allows them to better provide assistance to you. 

Renraku: Inform. Projects rarely only involve one person. Whether you’re planning a lesson or an event, it’s good to let all parties involved know what you’re doing and of any changes. Events in particular are regularly multi-department affairs. For example, if an ALT is requested to be a judge at a speech contest, the following divisions might be involved. 

  • School’s English Division: ALT’s workplace, will need to plan around their absence for the contest itself. 
  • School office: processes the business trip request and travel reimbursement as well as any compensatory leave. 
  • Board of Education School Support Division: Organisers of speech contest. Files the request for the judging ALT. 
  • Board of Education Training Division: Assigned CIR translates and forwards speech contest information to ALT, provides support during the contest. 

The ALT or their supervisor will be in touch with all of these groups up to and during the speech contest, and it’s important to stay on top of all of them, especially if there are sudden changes to plans. 

Soudan: Consultation. When one has a problem that needs solving or even just an idea or proposal they want to suggest, it is best to begin by talking about it. The idiomatic phrase for this is nemawashi, literally meaning “dig around the roots”. Consider the idea as a tree stump that needs removing: there is no shovel big enough to dig it out at once, so one must dig at each individual root first. For example, if a CIR wants to implement a monthly JET newsletter, they might begin by having a private discussion with their supervisor to see if it’s feasible.  

This is both a way of gaining information and saving face. If the CIR decides to show initiative by writing up a proposal and sending it directly to their division head, they’ll find themselves summarily rejected. It’s also a way of showing respect for the people around you: asking your coworkers shows that you value their input. 

As you can see, the main thing is to show respect and talk often. If you’ve trouble remembering the Japanese hourensou, just remember this even easier English mnemonic: ABC, Always Be Communicating.  


Don’t know? Just ask! 

When you’re starting out, you may feel that you’re asking too many questions, or be concerned that if you ask at all you’ll come off as unprepared or unqualified. This is definitely not the case in Japan. Risk avoidance is extremely important in the Japanese workplace, especially in sensitive jobs like teaching and civil service. Taking the time to ask your supervisor, or even just a neighboring coworker, “is this right” will ward off crises and mark you as a careful staff member.  

Remember as well that your coworkers will understand that you’ve only just arrived in Japan, and it’s quite likely that you won’t have had experience in a Japanese workplace until now. Nobody expects you to instantly know the idiosyncrasies of your office, speak perfect N1 Japanese and receive an award for service to the country! Do what you can and if you have concerns or confusion, just talk to your supervisor. Asking for help is always going to get you further than suffering in silence and trying to tough it out. 


Know your Contract 

This may seem obvious, but once you receive your contract and full work duty information, study them and refer to them regularly. When you sign something, know what you’ve agreed to! Contracts protect both the worker and the organisation, and you are no different. By knowing what you’re entitled to when it comes to taking leave and your work hours, you can protect yourself from overwork and losing out on compensation (see below). 

Conversely, your workplace will likely assume you understand your work duties, so it can be important to know what’s expected of you. For example, a common work duty is “Any other task as approved by the Department Head” or similar. This wording may be a bit concerning for some people, as it can be read as being justification for making JETs do work outside of their expected duties. However, it is almost always used in order to allow for JETs to take part in work that falls within the scope of their duties, but are too rare or specific to list. For example, some ALTs may be invited to teach once a month at a special needs school that otherwise would not request a full time ALT. A CIR may be asked to speak on local media such as radio or television (though this is much less common!). 

Keeping an open mind about your duties will serve you well. From a career perspective, one of the perks of going on the JET programme is getting the chance to take on a number of varied tasks and responsibilities. As long as you feel you can handle a task, give it a go! 


Things to watch out for 



Japanese workplaces trend towards collectivism, and while this results in cooperative and helpful workplaces, it can also result in breaches in privacy. For example, in the sad event of a bereavement in an ALT’s family, the ALT may confide in their supervisor in a manner they might consider private, only to be shocked when another staff member suddenly offers their condolences the following day. When asked, the supervisor just explains that they told other staff. 

This isn’t an attempt at gossip, or to undermine the ALT. Rather, serious occasions like relationships, sickness, births or deaths can spread around the office quickly, as knowledge about events that may affect the workplace is shared. This goes for all staff; you may be surprised one day to find yourself in a mass email stating that a member of upper management is going on bereavement or paternal leave, even if you rarely work with them.  

The easiest thing to do here is just make your feelings clear. If you’d like to inform your supervisor of something sensitive but would prefer to keep it private, just say so directly.  


Work hours 

As a JET programme participant, you will find that your basic work hours are often more forgiving than your Japanese coworkers’. However, Japan is famous for a dedicated mindset towards work, and if you’re not careful you may find yourself being given more work than you can do in a day. How do we deal with this? 

First of all, never work beyond your set hours without notifying your supervisor and getting permission from your vice principal (if you are an ALT) or kakarichou (if you are a CIR). By informing them, you will have logged your extra time. If they are not available, keep a note.  

The next step is working out what to do with that time. The most common solution is jikan chousei, time adjustment. Essentially, in the near future from the date of your extra work, you can shorten your hours as appropriate. For example, working an hour late on Monday may mean arriving at work on Tuesday an hour late, or leaving an hour early. This is generally the most appealing to management as it requires the least amount of paperwork: your hours worked will stay the same, just allocated differently. This is not to be confused with daikyuu or compensatory leave, which is organised in advance when one knows they will have to work outside of hours ahead of time, i.e. for a weekend event. Most JET workplaces do not offer overtime pay, as it will likely not be included in your workplace’s budget.  

All this said, if you repeatedly find yourself needing to work late, consult with your supervisor about finding a solution. You are not the only staff member in your workplace, and solutions like deadline extensions and reallocations of tasks are options.  



The above points should help you prepare for some of the more nuanced elements of workplace culture in Japan. However, be careful! While workplace culture has a strong effect in your interactions with your coworkers, their individual personalities, responsibilities and beliefs have an even greater one. Perhaps more important than all of the above is the skill known as kuuki yomu: in other words, reading the room. You will meet a great many people in Japan with their own responsibilities, attitudes and beliefs, and treating them as respected individuals will get you much further than relying solely on cultural touchstones. Every situation is different, and so is every person. Understanding this while understanding the Japanese workplace will take you far. 


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