I will share some cultural differences I have noticed based on my personal experience working in American and Japanese companies.
Horizontal & Vertical Work Environment
One of the things that floored me when I first entered as an intern for a Japanese company was the workspace. My jobs in America, aside from the freelance part, often featured separate spaces for each member of the staff. Even when I worked in gyms, there was a designated room for each supervisor, human resources, front desk, and trainers. It made stopping by various stations to ask questions or make contact rather awkward and difficult. Plus, it always felt like management was separated from the overall energy of the workplace; but when that door opened to reveal the superior’s space, it never seemed to be for a good reason. In other words, the chain of command was clearly defined by where people worked, how big their space was, and so on.
That said, some work environments in Western cultures are very horizontal.
As for the Japanese working environment, however, though certain departments might be separated by a wall, the management is usually in the same space you are. This makes it very easy to pick up your laptop, walk over to their desk, ask for a minute, and receive immediate feedback. It also increases the amount of productivity throughout the office, because you can easily communicate with everyone present. Whenever announcements had to be made, you simply send around an email then call it. I quite like the level of comfort that people have within this setting. We’re all on the same playing field, in a sense.
Check out the two different work spaces below. The first is a Russian office. On the second is a Japanese office.
Which one would you prefer?
Types of Feedback
In many Western workplaces, when you make a mistake, feedback is often provided right then and there. Or, you are called into the office and given either positive or negative criticism on how you are doing. Usually, the manager tries to be as level-headed as possible and provide constructive criticism so you can improve. Training is designed to ensure you make mistakes then, not when you’ve been hired for several months, then encounter a problem and have no means of correcting or mitigating it until your boss finds out and guts you for it.
Japan, as well as other eastern countries like China, are all about saving face. While it is recognized that people make mistakes and sometimes need negative feedback to improve on their skills, you will rarely be told to your face that you messed up. Rather, you will be told in private or not told at all. For example, a coworker of mine repeatedly showed up late to work one month. Instead of the boss going to him about it and asking why he was tardy all the time, they made an announcement during a meeting about certain people needing to develop better time management skills. Though sometimes, you are removed from a project for a reason that doesn’t have to do with the mistake you made, simply because the superior or person in charge doesn’t want to be the bearer of bad news.
It’s kind of up to you to read the nuances in conversation and note whether the critique deals with something you did or not.
Meetings & Conversations
This is where the lines begin to blur. Meetings are usually the same wherever you go, I’ve found. There is usually an opening greeting from the person leading the discussion, ideas are shared, and then other announcements are made that pertain to everyone in the room. However, it is the matter in which this news is communicated that is different.
English speakers, as well as some other western languages, do not have variations in how you speak to someone, regardless of where they stand on the social ladder. Japan, on the other hand, has a system called ‘keigo.’ This refers to the amount of respect your words carry when speaking to an individual or group whom is either beneath you or above you in the workplace. For example, I wouldn’t speak to the CEO in the same way I would to a high school student. If I did, I’d probably be fired.
The same applies to when you speak with the customers. In America, for example, while you may take on a slightly politer tone, there are no grammatical points that alter the level of respect you show towards the said customer. In Japan, you again apply the rules of ‘keigo.
The other difference between Eastern and Western business would be the Japanese concept of 「飛び込み営業」which has to deal with visiting companies without making an appointment. For a person to approach a company to sell a service or product without setting up a meeting time in many Western countries is unthinkable. You would be turned away immediately. Turns out, making cold-calls and visiting locations randomly is slightly less of a nuisance in Japan.
But as you can see in the picture above, sometimes you have to pay for that cold-call. (Translation: 1 minute, 300 yen for a cold-call for whomever you make the pitch to.)
The biggest difference between the East and West workplace would be the relationships you form with your boss and coworkers. I know that when I worked in America, while friendships would form at work, being treated like family, in a sense, didn’t really happen unless you’ve been with the same coworkers for years on end. There were no real company trips. Hardly any parties. And people were forbidden from dating one another, because that usually leads to unwanted drama.
When I first arrived in the Japanese workplace as an intern, I immediately felt like I was dropped in the middle of a J-drama. People were laughing together, going to the convenience store, talking about going on dates, inviting people drinking, and even the CEO offered to take me to a bar as a welcome. Up to now, we’ve had welcome parties, gone on company trips to onsen (Japanese hot springs), and even have had coworkers dating one another. Openly.
The last major difference I wanted to touch on was how professionals keep in touch and share their information. Though social media has become something of an electronic business card for many Western cultures, Japan still relies heavily on the paper or plastic version. These are handed out whenever you meet someone new or when the information has been updated. Business cards, known as 「名刺」or “meishi” in Japan, are essential to establishing a means of contact with another individual. If you want to be seen as professional, you are going to need to apply this practice. That’s not to say things like Facebook, LinkedIn, and other sites aren’t beneficial, because they are. But the business card continues to reign supreme in business-making traditions.
There are many more differences between East and West workplaces to discuss, but many of them are based off of these main dissimilarities. Overall, it is the culture of the country that is reflected in the work space. Where the West is a bit more loose and casual in terms of how they operate, Japan continues to be a little more rigid with their proceedings and formalities. However, wherever you decide to work, it is important to choose a place that fits in with your lifestyle!
By Valerie Taylor
東京都在住。太陽光発電に関する企業で通訳・翻訳、 国際関係業務を勤めている。 また、ダンスと忍術を訓練している。
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