Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Is Japan a good place to work in?

I’d like to discuss whether or not Japan is a good place to work in. At the time of writing, I have been working and living in Japan for more than 6 years. I think my perspective and actual experience can be of help to those who want to know the pros and cons of working in Japan.

Is Japan a good place to work in?

Unfortunately, the data and ranking suggest no.

A 2016 Indeed survey ranks Japan’s workplace the least happy on its Worldwide Workplace Happiness Index.

The situation is actually quite alarming.

According to Swiss IMD Business School’s IMD World Talent Report 2017 results, Japan receives the lowest ranking among 11 Asian countries in the country’s appeal to highly-skilled foreign workers, below Singapore, Hong Kong, China, India, Taiwan and South Korea.

What is it like working in Japan?

Overall, Japanese workers work very long hours and take few vacation days. If working long hours is not your thing then you should think twice about working in Japan.

Here is a very informative video from CNBC explaining why Japan works so hard.

Video source: CNBC International YouTube Channel

On a personal level, I also agree that Japan is a great place to live, not so great to work.

I live in Tokyo, Japan’s No.1 megacity with over 13 million residents and the metropolitan annual GDP rivals the GDP of the Netherlands. In this huge city, despite its size everything is well organized. The trains run on time, the streets are super clean and safe. People are polite to each other and act orderly even at crowded train stations.

I like the amazing variety of food that always tastes delicious even it’s a bento from the convenience store. The universal national health insurance system offers high-quality medical treatment if you are sick. Things like this make Japan seem an attractive place to live.

Japan is a great place to live, not so great to work.

But working in Japan is a completely different world. The group-oriented mentality and many unspoken rules can be suffocating for foreigners in the Japanese workplace. See how many below you think could be an issue for foreigners working in Japan.

Group mentality

For example, because Japanese culture is so homogeneous, the majority of Japanese people believe that group consensus is the most important thing above everything else. If it is about a group of friends trying to decide whether to eat sushi or Italian, it is not such a serious issue. But when this group consensus thinking translates to a work situation, the Japanese would deliberately sacrifice his or her own opinion in order to agree with the boss or the majority opinion. Because Japanese people know that if they raise questions or propose different ideas, their Japanese colleagues will automatically think they are not cooperating with the group, as Japanese people are expected to “read the air” or read between the lines as they grow up. Due to this pressure to be a good team player who can read the atmosphere, no Japanese coworker wants to end up being the nail that sticks out.

So as a foreigner, who by definition of the word “foreign”, can face a dramatic cultural clash with the Japanese group-oriented colleagues or boss at work. So what happens is that in order to fit in or be accepted at the Japanese workplace, most foreigners try hard to “erase” the foreignness and act as Japanese as possible. This is especially common among Asian foreigners like Chinese and Koreans who are from a culture which is not the polar opposite to the Japanese. As an Asian-American foreigner in Japan, I did spend a few years learning how to think and act more Japanese. But at the end of the day I question my effort because the more Japanese I become with the time and effort I spent perfecting, the more it will become a disadvantage if I ever start to work in another country. So unless I live the rest of my life in Japan, I may need to revert the humbleness and group-oriented thinking to an assertive and individualistic mentality again elsewhere.

The business Keigo (敬語)

Another aspect that I find frustrating working in Japan is the need to use Keigo (polite-level Japanese) in business. If it’s like in English, where politeness is expressed by adding “please” or “could you”, “may I” type of element then there is no problem at all. The discomfort for me using Keigo is that Japanese sentences become super long when Keigo is used. Due to the necessary grammatical structure, one needs to add a long phrase at the end of a normal sentence or switch from a short expression to a completely different form of expression to elevate the politeness.

I sometimes seriously think Keigo is slowing down business communication in Japan. Even I heard some English-speaking Japanese colleague say that they feel liberated when they can use English for business meetings or emails.

On the receiving end, whether as a customer or a business partner, Keigo sounds very formal and polite which make the receiver feel respected. But as time progresses, Keigo needs to progress as well.

Vacation and Overtime work

Due to peer pressure and group mentality, some Japanese workers have to work long hours not because they need to, but because their coworkers and bosses have not left the office. Some say the Japanese workers are very good at appearing to be working.

The same goes for taking paid time off, if no one in your team is taking a one-week vacation, it is very hard to be the only person making such a vacation request.

According to Japan’s labour ministry, Japanese employees are entitled to an average of 18.5 days paid holiday a year, but average employee takes only nine days paid leave per year, and 22% of the population works over 49 hours a week—compared with 16% of workers in the US and 11% in France.

In certain high-stress industries, taking any holiday at all is perceived as an act of disloyalty to the company.

Gender equality issues

Gender stereotypes are still a deep-rooted problem in Japanese society.

Japan ranked 114th out of 144 countries in 2017 Global Gender Gap Report annually published by the World Economic Forum. The main reason for this poor performance is the rate of women’s participation in politics remains too low.

“Such a low ranking concerning women’s status in society is quite shameful for the world’s third-largest economy.” An article published in the Japan Times discusses how Japan can fix its gender gap problem.

The number one choice of profession for Japanese school girls when they grow up is still bread bakers, which remained at number one for the 21st year in a row, according to the 2018 annual nationwide survey.

Recently, Japanese national news reported a shocking revelation that Tokyo Medical University has for years deliberately reduced the scores of women who took its general entrance exam, in order to keep the female applicants out. The news has sparked anger and bewilderment among female doctors, students at the university and test-takers. Although in the same Japanese schoolchildren survey above, Japanese schoolgirls chose doctor as their fourth most popular profession. It is indeed very sad.

Kumiko Nemoto, a professor at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies published a book: Too Few Women at the Top: The Persistence of Inequality in Japan.

Good things about working in Japan

For working women in Japan, it is likely that there will be guaranteed paid maternity leave, covered by Japan’s national health insurance.

Typically, there will first be Health Insurance benefits the expecting mother can receive from 6 weeks (42 days) before and 8 weeks (56 days) after the baby’s birth, at least 67% and up to 100% of usual salary, depending on the company’s insurer. Then there are Childcare Leave benefits if the employee has worked for the company for more than 12 months, from the 57th day after giving birth until the day before the child’s first birthday, subject to meeting a few additional requirements.

On average, maternity leave in OECD countries lasts 18 weeks. So Japan’s paid maternity leave policy is at least good enough compared to OECD average for working mothers and far better than the United States, which until this day offers zero federal guaranteed paid maternity leave.

Because of the low birth rate and aging population, Japanese companies and government are definitely taking notes and trying to improve the situations.

Working in Japan…real voices

Video source: Life Where I’m From YouTube Channel

In a Quora post written by Dale Thomas, a British Robotics/AI researcher with over 15 years of experience working in Japan, he concludes:

“I have always said, “Japan is a great place to live, but a horrible place to work.” This is especially true for foreigners…

…If you have a valid love of the culture itself and are okay with always being an outsider, then the country will keep on giving. Also, try really hard to avoid working here. Set yourself up with passive income streams or your own business, or marry someone rich, because working here sucks.


Working in Japan is not for everyone. It’s about making a series of trade-offs to get what you want to get out of working here. In other words, once you work in Japan you almost always have to give up something to get something. No pain no gain.

What do you want to achieve by working in Japan? Is this goal important enough in your life for you to give up some other things once you come to Japan? Please leave a comment below, let me know what you think.

I host the podcast series "Culture Eats Japanese For Breakfast". Now available on Spotify or your favorite podcast apps.


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