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Work Culture and Labour Market for Expats in Japan

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: March 2015

Work Culture

On meeting a Japanese person, you will normally shake hands. The Japanese may bow as well, but you do not have to. It won’t do any harm if you do though, especially with senior employees and older people, who it is best to treat with respect at all times. Business cards are habitually exchanged on introduction. They too should be treated with respect: you should receive the card two-handed and read it rather than just casually stuff it in your pocket. You should avoid writing on the card too.

To address someone, you can use either the person's family name plus the respectful suffix -san or their professional title. In offices, the dress code is strictly suits and ties for men and a conservative dress, blouse and skirt or trouser suit for women. At all times, it is important to be punctual as lateness is regarded as disrespectful.

Business meetings are particularly formal affairs, and they demonstrate the group-orientated nature of Japanese culture. The amount of decision-making input employees have depends on where they stand in the hierarchy. Senior colleagues have the most input in decision-making, though they usually leave the fine details of negotiation to the lower ranks. In all formal conversation, the Japanese tend to be indirect, avoiding confrontation.

Treating business relationships as transactional will be counter-productive. It is important to establish firm relationships with your business partners in order to build up trust. This may include their asking you questions that you may find personal, such as about your family.

Previously, a job in Japan was a job for life and loyalty to one company was very strong. Nowadays, there are increasing numbers of part-time jobs (known as arubaito, from the German word for work, Arbeit) and the situation is rather more flexible.
The Japanese work extremely hard. Although the laws are changing, many companies still oblige their employees to work overtime unpaid. This leads to many employees working for 60 hours a week or more. There is even a Japanese word for death from overwork, karōshi. While as a foreigner, you will not be under such intense pressure to work long hours, it is worth bearing in mind.

In general, Japanese businesses are expected to behave in a moral manner and make a genuine contribution to society, rather than being strictly about making profit and pleasing their shareholders. Finally, networking is an integral part of Japanese business culture. There are numerous business groups and professional associations in Japan. For more information, see Business Groups, Associations and Networking.

Labour Market

The Japanese economy has gone through some vicissitudes since the onset of the global recession. Although the immediate impact of the tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima has passed, the economy has not yet stabilised. Japan’s GDP has decreased slightly for the last three quarters, though it is forecast to increase for the rest of the year. On the other hand, unemployment in Japan, which has historically been low, has fluctuated around the 3.5% level for more than a year. This is less than half the world average of 8%.

As these statistics indicate, there is scope for working in Japan at present. Although it is an expensive country to live in, salary packages often more than compensate for this. Overall, it is likely to be worthwhile considering a move to Japan, especially if you have a skill that is in shortage there. Typically you need to be qualified to degree level or higher, or have substantial experience to be considered.

If you do not have any academic qualifications, finding a job will take longer. However, there is usually work in the English-speaking field, and positions in hospitality, entertainment and certain unskilled positions. These are suitable if you just want to experience Japanese culture or learn the language. Such positions may not be sustainable long-term, due to the high cost of living in Japan.




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