Excerpted from the Japan Career Guide
Jobseekers should understand human habitation in Japan dates back 12,000 years. Japanese art, culture and traditions have developed for centuries. The ancient philosophy of Confucianism, which stresses harmony in relationships, loyalty to the group, and respect for rank, authority and age, is the foundation of Japanese culture. Foreigners who want to obtain employment in Japan must understand and respect this culture and its people. However, even though the society is based on strict rules, the Japanese know very few foreigners will understand these rules immediately, and understand very few people can avoid making mistakes when exploring a different society. Japanese people are generally very open minded and accommodating in such situations.
Seafood, particularly sushi, is very popular in this island nation. Rice also is a staple of the Japanese diet. Japanese traditional breakfasts are hearty and can include rice, miso soup and side dishes such as grilled fish, omelets, seaweed or salad. For lunch, rice and noodle dishes are popular, using noodles such as ramen, soba or udon. Dinner is the main meal, often including sushi and tempura (food covered in egg batter and deep fried) but also incorporating dishes that reflect Western and mainland Asian influences. Japanese meals usually end with green tea (o-cha).
The Japanese communication style reflects the value placed on maintaining harmony. The Japanese are non-confrontational and will rarely directly decline requests. Instead, they will reply that “It is inconvenient,” or “It is under consideration.” They do not criticize, insult, put people on the spot or do anything that might cause embarrassment and thus loss of face. The Japanese present disagreeable facts indirectly. Therefore, understanding body language is of paramount importance in order to read between the lines. In fact, there are books for foreigners (gaijins) that explain and interpret Japanese body language.
If You Want to Act Like a Local...
Always bow when meeting someone.
Do not hug or kiss someone on the cheeks. Avoid physical contact.
Nose blowing in public is considered very rude, as are yawning, coughing and using toothpicks without covering the mouth.
It is inappropriate to walk into an office or reception wearing one’s coat or hat. Remove all outerwear and carry it in one’s hand prior to entering. The elevator is a good place to remove a coat.
Japanese offices operate with strict protocol and rules. This makes it somewhat easier for a newcomer to adjust, as the rules are either written down or can be explained by co-workers.
A typical day at a Japanese company starts at 9 am. Punctuality is extremely important. Some companies still use time cards to assure employees arrive on time. It is a common scene in major cities to see young men and women rushing through the streets to ‘stamp in’ on time. One foreign woman was reprimanded by her manager for being two minutes late twice in a month. When she pointed out she had worked almost every day several hours longer than necessary, the manager told her that was a different subject. However, some Japanese and foreign companies have become more flexible with office hours. As a newcomer, it is important to honor official office hours and be on time. Most Japanese employees work quite late, and for many it is common to stay until their managers have left. The Japanese phrase meshi – furo – neru (dinner – bath – bed) refers to this lifestyle. Foreigners are not expected to follow this rule.
Corporate Hierarchy / Boss and Subordinate Relations
Managers maintain an open-door policy. Their overriding responsibility is to create a favorable environment in which the team can be successful. To do this, they must be available at all times for their subordinates to ask questions and share ideas. In response, team members are expected to keep managers informed regarding all developments in a project.
Managers often give vague instructions. Japanese workers carefully try to understand their bosses’ wishes and act accordingly, but to be on the safe side, it is acceptable to ask for clarification.
Conducting a meeting or giving a presentation
Before doing business in Japan, it is vital to have introductions and contacts already arranged. One must build relationships with important Japanese individuals who can help make the business or individual a success in the country. Without such contacts, a project will simply never get started. An introduction by a third party is critical. Because rank and hierarchy are of great importance in Japan, the contact or intermediary should be of appropriate rank as well.
Women in the Workplace
Men and women have traditionally held separate roles at work, with women performing lower-grade tasks and men having management roles. Although attitudes are changing, women continue to face resistance in the workplace. Women are often expected to leave the workforce once they marry and have children. The average female worker in Japan earns less than the average male worker. Very few women are in management roles, perhaps because their male subordinates are often uncomfortable answering to a female boss. This is one reason many Japanese women prefer working for American companies. Foreign businesswomen are accepted, but they should establish their authority immediately.
This is just a short sample of what you’ll find in over 100 pages of information in the complete Japan Guide.