Author: Onomatopoeia

[Blog] HON-NE and TATE-MAE: What do Japanese businesses expect from foreign workers?


Check some job information sites aimed at foreigners posted on the Internet, and you’ll see a phrase to the effect that anyone is welcome with “global” perspectives.  It is true that some Japanese businesses expect to see the viewpoints from people with culturally different background, but I think there is a subtle disparity in recognition between what Japanese think of as global and what foreigners view as global.  Then, what Japanese businesses expect from foreign applicants with global perspectives?  

Can you speak English?


Being a fluent speaker of multiple languages is required to be a global-minded worker.  Especially, speaking English is supposed to be a necessary condition for you to go global.  Here in Japan, though, having the language skills in itself is often considered to be a sufficient condition to be a “global-minded” worker.  Only a few Japanese people speak English even in the age of rapidly advancing global business.  (Going global is what they are seeking for, isn’t it?)  Therefore, in most Japan-based companies, speaking English is considered to be equivalent of being an elite worker.  In some companies from IT-related and other industries, though, English has started to be used as their official language.  

I know an episode about a Japanese researcher.  He works for a Japanese major pharmaceutical company.  He is an excellent worker in a fast track position in his company.  

After several years of his career as a researcher, he was going to go abroad on business and participate in an academic conference to represent his company.  He was supposed to make a presentation on his research there.  But something offensive happened to him before his departure.  He was asked by the conference organizer to make an interpreter of English available for him and have his presentation translated into English.  Actually, he had studied abroad while his college days, and people working in the same workplace as his even recognized him as a “global-minded” worker (and so did he himself).  At that time, some English-speaking researchers saw Japanese researchers in general as excellent scientists, but poor communicators of English.  On account of that, he must have also been considered to be among those people.  On the day of the conference, he made his presentation in Japanese as his interpreter translated his Japanese into English.  All other participants made their speeches in English. 

If you are fluent in English, you might be able to get the job as a translator to help Japanese workers poor at speaking English with their speeches of the language. 

Can you communicate well with Japanese?

It is said that Japanese people these days are becoming more assertive than they used to be before, but not enough to exchange opinions without flinching from heated debates.  Basically, Japanese people tend to hesitate to take an initiative in any events conspicuously.  This is because Japanese social behaviors are based on the culture that values modesty and humbleness,  As a result of the ethnic traits, many Japanese people are afraid of presenting themselves at a discussion session or making presentations at an official meeting.  So one of the most important communication skills required  in Japanese workplaces is conveying your own opinions clearly and without hesitation.  But your self-assertiveness will have to be based on the principle of not breaking group harmony, which is also valued in social communication in Japan. 

Are you receptive to foreign cultures?

Due to their long history of the homogeneous ethnicity, many Japanese people are apt to be “innocently” ignorant of foreign cultures and even about world affairs.  It doesn’t mean that they vehemently deny the existence of any other ethnic group and their ways of thinking than their own.  Rather, they often realize they haven’t reached the level high enough to understand their cultural elements.  Probably, those kinds of sense of “incomprehension” mainly come from Japanese people’s sense of inferiority to foreign cultures rather than their sense of discrimination against the foreign cultures.  

So what Japanese companies would expect from you is playing a role as casual guides to your country’s way of thinking for Japanese people working with you. Remember, the key is the word “casual”.  Japanese people would like you to think how they feel rather than see through their feelings.  If you allow me to use Japanese words, “Omon-pakaru (to think how one feels) is more valued than “Misukasu (to see through one’s feelings).  In other words, they want you to feel in the same way as they do, not in the condescending way.  (Please don’t think how difficult it is to deal with Japanese people.)

Hold a sense of identity as Japanese in high esteem.

Japanese people value their national identity as Japanese.  They also have a great tolerance to other people from different cultures.  But they expect you to respect their sense of values as deeply as your sense of values of the culture you belong to.  In a nutshell, they persist in thinking locally while insisting on thinking globally. 

As I mentioned above, cultural characteristics of Japanese society such as modesty, humbleness or group harmony will never change, even if globalism is more and more advancing.  That’s the Japanese way they survive in the natural selection of cultures. 


There is a Japanese proverb which clearly describe the nature of Japanese society: Deru-Kui-Wa-Utareru (literally translated, the stake sticking out gets hammered down).  This refers to the English counterpart of “the tall tree catches the wind”.  Even when they try to find quality employees, Japanese people tacitly expect you to keep your head up at work but in a “reserved” manner.  They think it is good for everyone to go forward, but no good to play grandstanding.  Literally speaking, you are expected “not to make yourself look too tall” among others.  This goes for the current education scenes in Japan.  Insisting on the importance of respecting children’s individuality, Japanese schools are trying to keep an environment where kids behave like others.  This is why schools in Japan are said to have an environment that can’t produce gifted children. 


You can go visit many kinds of websites that introduce you to a lot of job openings aimed at foreign job seekers and check information about a variety of requirements you need to get the job.  But keep in mind that much of the information only reflects the Japanese “TATE-MAE” things.  And it is only after you start to work with them that you learn their business cultures and detect their “HON-NE” things.  


By Onomatopoeia

An instructor English conversation school.
A certified guide-interpreter of English.
A working mother of two children.


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