Working in Japan or About the Nails that (do not) stick out

It has been several times I was about to write something about work in Japan, work in Japan and in a Japanese company, and about work with Japanese. All of those times, having read the post, I have never actually posted it.


Nothing ever is as simple as it may seem. I can say a lot of critics towards the Japanese work life and work culture. At the same time, it would not be completely fair, because (1) without its unique approach Japan would not be the country as it is, with its exceptional level of service, safety, cleanliness and quality, and (2) I have many really great Japanese colleagues, whom I appreciate and have no intention whatsoever to criticize.

But, having said all the above, let’s talk about what you can expect when starting to work in Japan for a Japanese company:

Rotation system

All Japanese companies practice rotation system, whereby employees are moved across different departments every 2-3 years, quite often without much choice as to where they will end up. As a result, you have employees who know a little bit of many areas, but nothing in detail. Such approach works fine if you will remember that Japan is known for life-long career in a single company. It is changing, but the approach still remains the same and generalists are always valued more than specialists.

Age and Seniority

Never used as a point of reference in the West, but very common in Japan, you will be automatically situated in the organizational hierarchy according to your age and seniority in the company. It is even more common to describe others comparing with your own age (older/younger than me or same age as me), or comparing the time in the company (joined at the same time as me and etc.). Within a typical Japanese corporate system, a person works hard and promotions come kind of automatically after certain number of years, sometimes, one could be promoted only after people who joined earlier got promoted first. Given the group approach, your individual work results do not mean that much.

“Group” vs “Individual”

The other side of the coin is that at a certain age people who did not get high enough get demoted or have to leave for the same reason, not to block the path to other, younger ones. If you ever wondered why taxi drivers in Tokyo have zero orientation in the city, please remember that in many cases these are ex-salary men who had to retire in line with the company’s policy but still have several years remaining until the official retirement age.

Luckily, the above would not apply to foreigners that are not local hires.

Hiring and Firing

Japanese companies hire a lot of fresh graduates, very often in their 3rd or year of the university, whereby young people know well in advance where they will work after graduation. At the same time, your degree and grades do not really matter, as the job often has no link to the area of studies. The most important part here is to be at the right university.

Firing an employee is virtually not possible in Japan for many reasons, but mostly for fear to damage company’s reputation. As a result, even non-performing employees stay there forever, do nothing, and have an unofficial title of a “window person”.

A lot of rules and even more e-learnings

How do you keep the system working? Setting rules for everything, obliging everyone to go through numerous e-learnings regularly and repeating  the rules over again until they become “common sense” (i.e. common sense does not really exist, all is learned by life-long repetition of the rules). As a result, anything that requires “out of the box” approach is generally extremely difficult to get through. One designer once told me how shocked she was to move to Tokyo from London and find that even in fashion design company the rules where the same as in a manufacturing plant: clean desk policy, no loud talking in the office, strict dress code, strict punctuality, and etc.

Innovation may not be the strong side, but on the other hand, existing things and processes are continuously improved to perfection.

Nemawashi and the art of meetings

If you thought sky is the limit, think again. The art of nemawashi or getting to consensus extends way beyond. You can expect many meetings and even more pre-meetings, though beware, the rules here are different than in Europe or elsewhere. As it is a topic on its own, stay tuned, I will dedicate a separate post to that soon.

Overtime & Holiday

Overtime is very common, I can even say – a norm. From time to time Japanese newspapers will talk about “karoshi”, which refers to death of an employee due to overwork. A recent article in Japan Times said that one out of four companies in Japan said their employees do more than 80 hours of overtime per month.

You have to remember that in Japan work is an absolute priority, more important than family, private life, health or anything else. Employee would never say “no” if a boss asks to do something, and would often not leave office before his/her boss. Also, they would be reluctant to take paid holiday as we talked before. If you think it is not healthy and actually damage productivity, you are absolutely right and Japan sits pretty low on the global productivity rankings in various surveys (while France happens to be among the top ones!).

Women in Business world

Despite the efforts to increase the involvement of women in the work force, Japan remains at the lower end of the WEF global gender equality rankings. In many cases women quit (or are expected and/or encouraged to quit by both employers and their families) as soon as they get married and have children. As a result, women in Japan often feel they are forced to choose: career or family, but not both.

About nails that stick out

To summarize the story about working culture in Japan and in a Japanese company, there is a well-known saying: “A nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. It perfectly describes the group vs. individual approach where everyone is expected to be like everyone else.

Strangely enough, in my company, one Japanese executive, in his speech to all Company’s managers referred to the same saying, however with the advice to stick out not just a little, but a lot, so that you could not get “hammered down” but would rather become a leader.

Do you think change is coming?

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