7 “Features” of Working in a Japanese Office

Somehow, things never work out like you think they’re gonna.  Take for example, my plan, if you could call it that.  I was working an office job in the U.S., and I concocted this great escape by which I’d run off to Japan and teach English to pretty girls for a year before settling into another “real job.”   Tangentially, the dream also included laying on the beach, drinking Asahi beer, eating cotton candy, and improving my tan.  So why I chose Tokyo, God only knows.  Hindsight, as they say, is a bitch.  Or at least I say that.  Well, whatever, after a horrible year of teaching English, I somehow managed to interview and get a high-paying office job in Tokyo, twice.  I’ve got good credentials, so people often mistake me for being responsible and able to get stuff done.  Hey, just because it says that on my resume doesn’t make it true.  And you know I was also pretty naive at that time, because I thought there was nothing worse than teaching.  So color me shocked when I learned that working in a Japanese office is like that musical with all the singing, fake French people–miserable.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  “That’s only two jobs,” is what you think.  That and, “Ken Seeroi, though brilliant and ruggedly handsome you may be, even you know that’s not much of a sample size.”  Okay, good point, but hear me out.  See, there are some things that are part and parcel of working for a Japanese firm, and if you plan on working here, you’re gonna want to know them.

Job 1: The Small, Personal Company

So my first office job was a managerial position at this small company in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood.  Real nice spot, with a park and trees and the whole bit.  And on paper, the job looked great, because it came with a high salary and, well, okay, that’s about it.  But the salary was high, so whatever.  I bought a couple of new suits and this excellent red tie that I later lost in a karaoke booth.  God, how I miss that tie.

Anyway, on Day One they put me in this little room with two middle-aged Japanese ladies.  One was my immediate supervisor.  She sat behind me looking over my shoulder.  She had a bald spot on the top of her head, so I figured that’s why she was behind me.  The other lady was my employee.  I sat behind her, looking over her shoulder, although my hair is rich and luxurious.  We did this for twelve hours a day.  I drank a lot of coffee and went to the bathroom all the time.

But, you know, I’m a pretty positive guy, so I tried to fun things up right from the start.  I figured we could use lunch time to get to know each other, break the ice, even do some team-building.  You know, real corporate HR kind of stuff, just like in the movies.

“Hey, so what’s happening for lunch today?” I said.  “You know, first day and all, how about we grab a bite at that cafe across from the park?”

“Gotta work,” my boss lady said, and kept on typing.  My employee lady said nothing.  She just looked at her hands.

“Well, okay,” I ventured, “How about ordering up a couple pizzas?”

Nobody said anything.

“I like mushrooms and green peppers,” I said.  “How ‘bout you?”  My boss lady stopped typing.  Until then, I hadn’t noticed just how good the room’s sound insulation was, but it was really quite excellent.  “Although I’m open to anything,” I continued.  “Corn and mayonnaise?  Octopus and broccoli?  Sausage-lovers supreme?”

“I brought a bento,” said my boss lady.  “Bento” is the Japanese word for a Tupperware full of cold rice, cold fish, cold boiled spinach, cold omelette, and a meatball.  Though it really tastes better than it sounds.  She resumed typing.

“Me too,” my employee lady added quickly.  She still hadn’t moved.  I was beginning to suspect she had a disability.

“All right, how about tomorrow?” I asked.

“Working,” said my boss lady.  My employee lady sat like an ice sculpture, slowly melting into her chair.

So, having thus gotten to know each other, we worked another eight hours in silence in our little room, until it was dark and we all went home in turn:  first the employee lady, then me, and I guess at some point the boss lady too, but maybe not.  All I know is that at 8:30 p.m., I softly put on my coat, said a polite, “excuse me for leaving early,” quietly walked out the door, then ran around the corner to the first bar I saw and promptly got plastered as hell.  It was Monday.  I lasted there seven months.

Job 2:  The big, also Personal Company

The next place I worked was an enormous room full of people.  I figured a large company might do the trick, with a good mix of foreigners and Japanese folks.  The only problem working with Japanese people is that they’re about as fun as sofa cushions; and the only problem with foreign people is they’re all weirdos.  I don’t mean that in a bad way.  Okay, so I do, but if you live here, you know what I’m talking about.  Being in Japan for a few years has a way of making one strange.

At lunch on my first day, I went to the “lunch corner” of our enormous room and sat balancing my bento on my knees, since there were no tables.  Two white guys and a Japanese dude were doing the same thing.

“Hey, my name’s Stephen,” said this white guy named Stephen.

“Nice to meet you.” I said.  “Ken.”

“You speak Japanese?” he asked.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“I passed the JLPT 2,” he said.

“Hey, great.”

“I got 92% on it.”

“Wooow,” I said.

“Hi, I’m Randy,” said this white guy named Randy.

“Ken,” I said.

“You married?  Got a girlfriend?” he asked.

“I’m kind of between situations right now,” I answered, “if you know what I mean.”  Actually, I didn’t even know what I meant, but it sounded like a reasonable answer.

“Yeah, I’ve got a few ladies myself.  Check these out,” he said, and proceeded to give me an iPhone picture tour of the women he was dating.

“Wooow,” I said.

I looked at the Japanese guy.  He nodded.  “I’m Ken,” I said.  He nodded again, mumbled something into his rice, and kept on eating.  Then we all went back to work for another 8 hours.  I lasted there six months.

7 “Features” of Working in a Japanese Office

Now, I know somebody out there likes their Japanese office job.  I mean, people like snakes and spiders for pets too.  Like, what about a puppy doesn’t work for you?  But that’s cool, obviously everybody’s different.  I even dated this one girl who slept with a ferret in her bed, so whatever.  Damn furry thing kept waking me up all night.  At least, I think that was the ferret.  Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yeah, so whether you like it or not, there are a few, uh, “features” that come with working in a Japanese office:

1. Expect to work a mind-blowing number of hours.  Ever heard of work-life balance?  That’s because you’re not Japanese.  By law, hourly employees are entitled to paid overtime after 40 hours per week.  To remedy this, the company will ask you to clock out at 5 p.m., and then to “voluntarily” continue working.

2. Forget cubicles.  Get used to being surrounded by people that you try to ignore but are unable to.  They in turn, will try to ignore you, only to be shocked when you blow your nose, look out the window, or breathe.

3. Are you a people person?  Great, your co-workers will be incredibly friendly the first week.  Then, having exhausted all possible conversation topics, you will sit in silence for the remaining years you work together.

4. You will learn to visualize success, as your boss, co-workers, and people you don’t even know come to you with requests.  Soon you will have such a huge number of miscellaneous tasks that you could only complete them by working 100 hours a week.  As people approach your desk holding documents, you will visualize successfully killing them with staplers, tape, and whiteboard markers.

5. High achiever?  If you do an exceptional job, your boss and coworkers will hate you.  Don’t do that.  On the other hand, if you fail to accomplish everything asked of you, you’ll be considered a slouch for leaving before midnight.  Learn what value lies in mediocrity.

6. When flu season comes, you’ll be surprised how well you can recognize your coworkers from the different surgical masks they wear.  Sick?  No problem.  Broke both legs and you’re in an iron lung?  That’s fine, just wheel your bed next to your desk and somebody will prop you up so you can keep typing.

7. Like money?  Bonus!  As in, you’ll get a bonus once a year, bringing your hourly wage to just slightly above that of a convenience store clerk.  Want a raise?  How 1990 of you.   A decade from now, you’ll still be making the same amount, unless the company does poorly and your salary goes down.  Better work harder.

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like working in a Japanese office is all bad.  On the plus side, you’re not in an Antarctic research station studying icicles.  That’s something.  Depending on your workplace, you may have light, and heat.  Those are good things, right?  You may even have amenities like green tea, a coat rack, and a toilet seat that shoots water.  You gotta learn to appreciate the small things in life, is all.  But above all else, there is one priceless advantage of office work.  Namely, that when you’re in an Irish bar—and trust me, you will be—and everyone sizes you up as an English teacher, you can be like, Teacher?  Huh, no way.  I’m a salaryman.  They’ll all be like, Wooow.  And that, perhaps, makes it all worthwhile.


Have experience in a Japanese office?  Comment and share!

97 Replies to “7 “Features” of Working in a Japanese Office”

  1. Holy mother of sweet potatoes. I sure hated my teaching job in Korea (lasted 6 months). After giving two months notice, on my last day, they demanded that I work for another week for free because they had failed to hire a replacement. I politely declined their most gracious offer. That was the worst job I’ve ever had, but apparently the worst job I’ve ever had is a luxury cabin on the pleasure train compared to a salaryman gig.

    Speaking of job stuff, I went to a doctor recently to inquire about getting a penis reduction, and when said doctor found out that I used to test video games professionally he sat down and spent ten minutes explaining to me why being a doctor sucks and why we should pursue jobs that don’t make us miserable, regardless of the paycheck.

    But he doesn’t get to brag to miserable, sexless, drunk old men after work. Maybe I should open an izakaya in San Diego…

    1. Okay, right there—your conversation with the doctor—that’s the difference between Japan and the U.S. In the U.S., there’s an underlying, cultural belief that life should be enjoyable, and work shouldn’t be any harder than it needs to be. In fact, you can be rewarded for making a job easier; that’s called efficiency.

      Japanese culture is built on a different belief system, one that says that work, and life in general, is by nature hard, and should be hard. If it’s not hard, you make it hard. I’m trying not to devolve into penis jokes at this point. Anyway, the point is that Japanese culture tends to place emphasis not on the result of the work, but on work itself. If you do a great job and complete a project early, you don’t pat yourself on the back and take the rest of the day off. You just launch into the next project. That’s work.

      1. I guess lots of things in Japan can be harder that they look. Every day you have to put in the elbow grease, and keep on working at it, working yourself raw, sucking it all up without ever giving yourself a chance to vent some steam and blow it all out…


  2. I never worked in Japan but I worked at a Japanese company in Vienna, being the sole local amidst an all-Japanese team. On one side I know that the Japanese I worked along with must have been different, why else would they work abroad, but I got along well with all of them. We made jokes, we bitched about our boss and if there was nothing to do, we did chat and share news and personal stuff.

    The problem with Japanese companies though is that they rotate their managers (at least in bigger companies). Which means that after a blissful honeymoon phase our excellent boss was switched for someone who had no idea about our work and no interest (he disappeared on “meetings” for hours) in it. He’s basically the reason I quit.

    Well and the really low salary. That was quite horrible. But I learned a lot there, so it was alright while it lasted.

    And overtime: Even though they had a “punch a card” system which gave you a 15 minutes penalty if you where 1 minute late (of course you could work 14 minutes overtime and it would not count unless you stayed for minute 15 as well) I had less overtime than at any other job since.

    1. Yeah, Japanese people who go abroad often want to stay abroad. It’s no picnic coming back to Japan. And absolutely, Japanese people who live overseas and speak fluent English, well, that’s like a white guy in Japan who speaks fluent Japanese—not exactly your “normal” individual.

      Just a question, though. If you left work promptly at 5:00 every day, did everyone else leave with you?

      1. We pretty much left all at the same time except for bosses of course. They stayed longer. And I did not leave promptly, there was still stuff to finish up, but aprox. 15 minutes later we’d be out of the door. Sometimes I was even the one to stay longest (once again except for the bosses) but that’s usually because I was also the one who was always unable to make it on time in the morning.

        Opposed to the other jobs I had since then where I stayed to 8pm and sometimes even came in during the weekend. Basically for free as my contracts were “all in”.

        1. Wow, the only Japanese company that even remotely resembles what you’re describing is the Mitsubishi Unicorn and Rainbow Corporation. You sure they were Japanese, and not just cleverly disguised Peruvians? I’m going with that, if only because no Japanese person has ever worked less than a 10 hour day in the history of the world. There weren’t a suspicious number of llamas in your office, were there?

  3. A good article as always Ken. Though the article does make me want to ask some questions. I hope that you find the time to answer them.

    A) How did you even get an office job?

    B) How was your Japanese at the time?

    C) How do you make such an amazing blog?


    1. Thanks a lot. Okay, here you go:

      A) Getting an office job isn’t particularly hard if you’ve got good work experience. If you come to Japan right out of college, it’s going to a bit challenging. However, if you’ve worked in a high-demand field (programming, for example) for a few years, then when you come to Japan, you might find it easier to get a job here than, for example, in the U.S.

      Bear in mind that it’s much easier to get an office job if you’re already in Japan. The last thing a company wants to do is hire you way over from another country. So what options does the company have? 95% of the foreigners here are English teachers, many of whom have no particular job skills and who’ll go back home in a year or two. Of the remaining maybe 5%, most are already settled into jobs. Sure, there’s competition, but talented people in Japan can find jobs.

      B) The real demand is for people who speak English. Like, nobody needs another Japanese-speaking programmer. Japan’s already got loads of those. Usually, they want you because they’re an international company, and half their employees, or customers, speak English. The only reason you need Japanese is so you can get along with the other half of the company. Your boss and co-workers may not speak English (especially your boss), and company-wide emails may be sent entirely in Japanese. PCs and software are likely all in Japanese, so you need enough language ability to be able to handle that. By the time I got my first office job, I could already converse fluently in Japanese, but make no mistake, it was stressful. If you misunderstand some old dude in a bar, well, so what; but when he’s the company president, well, that’s your ass.

      C) Seriously, thanks. I always want to write more and better, but you know, all that time on the PC really cuts into my beer and carousing. It’s all a matter of priorities. Unfortunately, it appears I was born without any. Hey, genetic defect, don’t hate the handicapped, is all I’m saying.

      1. Ah, your reply raised my hopes a bit. I’m studying software development in university right now (That’s what brits call college) and I have plans to get a job as a programmer first so I can make the money to come to Japan and teach english or whatever. I was worried that I’d chosen a job that wouldn’t let me switch careers but the way you say it, it sounds like I’ve chosen a good enough career path.

        1. Thanks for translating that British stuff into English. I can never understand those people, what with their bumbershoots and lorries. Anyway, yeah, I think your career plan sounds pretty solid. It’s extremely helpful to have one or two jobs on your resume before you come to Japan, since if all you do is teach English here, your resume will be utterly indistinguishable from the hordes of other foreigners all doing the same thing. Anything you can add to it will be a bonus.

          1. It’ll probably still be pretty soul-draining. I did some GIS contracting work for a Japanese company once. Never again.

  4. Matt,
    Is your experience with the Koreans so bad that you needed a penis reduction? Ouch!

    I really identify with your job hate complex. I worked in the military and then for the civilian government for 30+ years and I never found a job I didn’t eventually HATE. One of my most favorite hated jobs was being a reliability Engineer on the Space Shuttle and if that’s not oxymoron enough for you, my particular responsibility was the Solid Rocket Boosters. You know the things that caused the Challenger disaster, cost the government 2 billion dollars, nearly cancelled the US Space Program and killed 7 astronauts, including the first teacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe.

    We knew that there was a problem with the O-rings and had changed the mission criticality code on them to require extensive tests before launch, but the President wanted the launch to coincide with his State of the Union address and his PEOPLE told NASA not to delay the mission, so none of the required checks were enforced.

    On the day of the launch, the ice buildup on the SRBs was tremendous and a flight no-go was requested (and was rejected). Then I had to watch as the whole thing happened live on TV! I even knew about the real reason the Bird broke apart, an inappropriate strut re-design (this never got into the news though) that was made to reduce the weight of the vehicle and increase the cargo weight allowed, which eventually was determined as the actual point of failure, though no one actually knows it (except those reading this).

    You see, the Shuttle scientists had never predicted that it was possible to have an External Tank detonation with loss of life and mission (from a document called the Failure Mode Effects Analysis – FMEA) and not instantly kill all the astronauts; which is why they justified not having a crew escape plan. It turned out that they had never considered a conflagration as a possibility and only looked at confined detonations that generate several times the magnitude shock waves (which are impossible to survive). For some reason, its harder to accept their deaths knowing that for the several minutes that the Shuttle fell back to earth, they were likely aware that they were going to die and had realized their fate.

    I knew that NASA was complicit in the cover-up of their unnecessary deaths when they left the vehicle wreckage of the Challenger on the sea bottom for weeks and didn’t recover the bodies hoping that the ocean would somehow destroy the evidence. They finally recovered what was left of the bodies and then snuck them back into the Cape in Giant Green Trash containers. How’s that for honoring the dead!

    Then in another similar act of stupidity they killed another 7 astronauts with the Columbia accident and can you believe it was all because they didn’t want to admit they screwed up again. A chunk of ice damaged the leading edge of the Shuttle wing and created a visible crack, yet they wouldn’t allow telescopes to inspect the damage because then they knew that the failure of the Space Transportation System would finally be pointed at politicians. Did you know that they had enough fuel on board to reach the Space Station (but not return to Earth) and chose not to take that option because it would mean begging the Russians to resupply the ISS out of contract and ask them for help (which the Russians would have made us pay for dearly in the world press)! Forget about the fact that budgetary cuts had eliminated the Shuttle repair module that was supposed to be a part of the ISS – it would have had parts and tools to repair the tiles on the Shuttle and fix minor structural damage to the vehicle. Another 2-3 billion dollars lost and 7 more astronauts dead!

    Yea, I really hated that job!

    1. Wow, that’s an amazing story—I feel like you could make that into a magazine article with no problem.

      “I never found a job I didn’t eventually HATE.” A classic line. I’ve had a couple of jobs in my life that were good, but the rest, eh, I’d probably choose to live in a cardboard box if I had to do it all over again. All that fresh air’s bound to do a body good.

      1. OK, so I know that NASA at least has cubicles, lots and lots of cubicles and they pay pretty well (the benefits are OK too), but you do work long hours sometimes. I believe NASA and large Japanese corporations have something in common: they play a game called “cover your ass” where management sets up little empires that always have someone to blame and someone always is expected to fall on their sword when there is any F-ups so that the higher ups don’t get in trouble! I heard that the Japanese corporations were the masters at that too!

        FYI, just by chance, I had been down at the Cape checking out the bond locker at the Vehicle Assembly Building for some Cable failures some weeks before the Challenger launch and bumped into Christa McAuliffe. We talked about teaching since I had also taught chess to advanced classes in local schools.

        Then on the day of the accident, I remember staring in shock at the TV watching the SRBs wave forming along with the rest of the STS vehicle scattering all over the place and just remembering her smiling face and thinking about her kids in her class and all of the people that were going to be affected by her death and I just sort of shut down and cried in total disbelief and shame for what we (NASA) had done!

        You know, living that story was enough to make me a basket case for many years. I don’t think anyone would get anything out of rehashing any of that, since all the people responsible are either dead or no longer with the government, but I would have liked to find out who really made the decisions that cost those lives and see them face justice in some way.

        Do you think the Japanese JAXA would have acted the same as NASA did and covered up things? BTW, I hear the Japanese are getting excited about the planned 2020 moon mission that is supposed to set up a moon base and have some Japanese astronauts participating (don’t count on it happening though with America’s debt problems). I often wonder if Japan will ever have a fully fledged independent space program.

        1. Japanese in Space–I can imagine that pretty easily. The population is used to living in closed quarters and eating food that looks like it came from another planet. Just set up a pachinko parlor on the moon, and you’ll have astronauts lining up to go.

        2. First thing I’ll say- I usually only comment on these things after coming back from a bar.

          That said, Bud’s story reminds me of every single job I’ve done working for an environmental agency, only if they were running a space program they’d have managed to kill almost everyone on the planet somehow.

  5. This article is quite timely for me as my time on JET is coming to a close. I’ve always known I wanted to avoid working/living in Tokyo and your article just re-confirms that. Hopefully, I will be able to find something that’s a good match with my skills. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yeah, I think you’ve got a pretty good situation down there in Okinawa, so I wouldn’t mess with that if I were you. From what I’ve seen, being a JET is a pretty good gig. Good luck finding a new job.

  6. If you can hack it and find a visa somehow try freelancing, it’s better than being paid to do nothing all day.

    1. I don’t know; getting paid to do nothing all day sounds like a pretty sweet job.

      Freelancing is certainly a viable option for those with a multi-year visa. Complete a one-year contract and you can usually stay for another two to four years.

      Some people like freelancing, but I really don’t. Sure, the money you make per hour is great, but you can end up teaching two hours in the morning, one at noon, and two at night, and spending hours between jobs riding trains from one part of the city to another. It’s really all over the place, and the money you make goes up and down depending on demand, time of the year, and the alignment of stars. I like having something steady, with weekends off, but that’s just me.

      1. Getting paid to do nothing is a good way to do nothing, I agree.

        You seem to be a conscientious writer, have you thought of translation?

        1. “Getting paid to do nothing is a good way to do nothing.” That’s good. If I ever go to prison, I’m getting that tattooed across my shoulder blades by an inmate with a ballpoint pen.

          I do some Japanese-English translation, and it’s okay, but talk about a lot of work! Pretty much anything where you’re writing, in any language, is hard. I try to avoid that. I just want to drive the ice cream truck.

          1. Depends on what you are translating I think. I find translation pretty close to copying someone’s homework, which is much easier than writing it yourself.

            There’s more than one ice cream truck.

          2. “Sure, the money you make per hour is great, but you can end up teaching two hours in the morning, one at noon, and two at night, and spending hours between jobs riding trains from one part of the city to another. It’s really all over the place, and the money you make goes up and down depending on demand, time of the year, and the alignment of stars.”

            I totally feel the pain of anyone in that situation. My pay (literally) ranges anywhere from $0 to $300 an hour.

  7. If I may be so bold, I’d like to make a request. Out of all the ‘foreigners in Japan’ stuff I’ve read, no one has ever explained why they’re in Japan. I’ve seen lame attempts like ‘I’m teaching here for the money’ or ‘I like the food,’ but it’s easier and more lucrative to teach in Korea and you can get great Japanese food and find Japanese markets in any major American city. I’ve seen better attempts like ‘the trains are clean and nice,’ ‘I like the business etiquette of shop owners,’ and ‘some girls like white guys,’ but the sum of these pros never outweighs the daily, soul crushing, death-by-a-thousand-cuts cons.

    Thus your challenge: what is the unspoken of dark matter that keeps you there? You don’t have to do it next or anything, but just keep it in the pipe somewhere if you feel up to it.

    1. That’s a really excellent question. Hmmm. I pretty much ask myself that every day. Hmmm. Maybe because I’ve never been to Korea? Okay, let me get some new ink for my MacBook and I’ll try to write some stuff down. Somehow when I changed the ribbon in this typewriter it clogged up the USB drive. Damn you, Apple.

        1. Sure, yeah, I’ve got a sweet spot for pandas too, but that doesn’t mean I want to live with them. Like, they look cute and all, but pretty soon your apartment’s full of bamboo and if you don’t feed them properly they kill you in your sleep. But eh, that’s just Japanese women for you. Pandas are probably a bit easier, actually.

      1. Yeah, I’ll second that.

        I mean, it really depends how much you’re into Japanese food. I pretty much eat it every meal, which for me is like eight meals a day. No way I could do that in the U.S. without resorting to—what’s that terrible activity? Cooking? Oh, hell with that. Here we just walk to the corner and pick up a dish at the convenience store that blows any U.S. restaurant out of the water. Food’s on a whole other level in Japan.

  8. First time commenting here! Stumbled upon your blog from somewhere else. After reading a few articles, I notice you got a slightly darker approach in writing about Japan. Dark humor and all..

    I admit I would like to try how it feels to work in a Japanese office, but hearing from my friends who are actually working in Japanese companies, I’ve decided to not try. Inflexibility seems to be out of option for Japanese, they always tend to follow rules strictly. Low salary, long hours of work.. meh, forget it.. I ain’t gonna do that.

    I love Japan, but I hate their corporate culture.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I really appreciate that. Yeah, I can’t say I’ve had any good experiences in offices. But I’m sure somebody out there somewhere has. Knowing Japanese culture, it just doesn’t seem too common or likely. But it’s a big country, so maybe . . . perhaps . . .

      Generally speaking, Japan is a great place to be a customer. And for that very reason, it’s not a great place to be an employee. But your mileage may vary.

  9. Hiya Ken

    I love your blog and your writing!! I have just discovered it today and LMAO. You have a wicked sense of humour and an astute eye for Japanese foibles.

    This is another brilliant blog about Japan, working in Japan and the pitfalls.

    Just a quick comment about the NASA disasters with the shuttle. I work in IT and their is theory (not a conspiracy) that MS Powerpoint was utimately responsible!! Yes I know it is an outrageous claim but check out Google with “Edward Rolf Tufte” its about information design and cognative abilities.

    Or if you want the short story:

    I worked in japan for 3 months about 5 years ago as a contractor for an English IT company that was installining GIS software in the 2nd largest Telecom in Japan. I loved every moment I was in japan except the work when we had to deal with the Japanese Project Manager who was in casual Western IT terms a “physco”. It was a complex project and the Japanese were out of their depth and did not like that! The English company was small and agile and wanted to move fast but decisions took forever to be made because the chain of command was so long and everybody had to be included.

    However as foreign contractors we got to leave at 5 after arriving at 8am and having an hour for lunch and so it was a great gig, set up in serviced apartments and a daily per diem tax free. For the Japanese workers it was 8 am to 9pm and don’t leave unless the boss has.

    I was absolutley shocked by the behaviour of the Japanese workers, just as you have described they were bitter disempowered workers who led miserable lives judgeing by their demeanour. I have always been of the delusion that work should be fun and you might as well make it as enjoyable as possible. Well my attempts at humour and levity went down like a lead ballon and I was told on several occasions to stop talking and get on with my work by Japanese co-workers. Well youu can imagine a typical response to that.

    Anyway it was a complete shock as the Japanese management took every opportunity to make things as difficult as possible and incredibly dreary with time wasting requests for minutes and progress of meetings and status of project issues. To make it intolerable they kept a set of their own reports that they prepared from our reports. They had no concept of co-operation and working together in a non-confrontational productive and cooperative manner as we would do in a similar project in the west.

    I could go on about some of the incidents but they are all silly and unnecessary and really made the project very difficult for all the foreigners and a more expensive and lengthy project for the Japanese.

    PS: that CAPTCHA is a bitch..

    1. I can definitely relate to everything you wrote, but the part that really jumped out was the bit about making work as fun as possible. That’s a real cultural difference. Westerners tend to view work as something they have to finish so they can go home and get on with their lives, which somehow usually involves watching TV. Anyway, while they’re at work, they want to minimize the negatives and make the best of the situation. For Japanese people, it’s almost the opposite. If you’re having fun at work, you’re doing something wrong, and you should work harder until it stops being fun. There’s also no conception of “finishing” work. There’s always more you could do. So going home becomes impossible, because it means you’re leaving things unfinished. It’s like a perverse Japanese variation on Zeno’s Paradox. Thus for a great many Japanese people, work is the only thing they have.

      To make things worse, this approach to life doesn’t stop at work either, but usually extends into the home. If you’ve ever visited, or lived with, Japanese people, you may have been struck by how much they work around the house, cooking, cleaning, gardening . . . they never relax. Not too many people just put their feet up and order a pizza.

      PS: Thanks for reading, and sorry about the Captcha!

    1. I know, change is hard. I loved it too, but even the cutest of us get bigger. So new hat and bib are cute, right?

  10. Whoa, I just found this post of yours while searching for information about working in Japan, and then I realized you’re the same guy who wrote a post about “delicious daikon radish strewn everywhere” which I read not too long ago. I really like your writing style.

    I’ve recently been offered an entry level position at a big manufacturing company in Tokyo. As much as I’ve always dreaded dealing with the kind of stuff that you wrote in your post here, I’ve also always wanted to work in Japan, but always kept hoping that “for me, it’s going to be different!”.

    A question I have for you though, is how your two companies reacted when you told them you were leaving after just less than a year? Did they seem to care at all, or did they give you a hard time about it? And were there really no colleagues at those jobs that you could genuinely bonded with?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Glad you found me again. Thanks for reading.

      To answer your questions: both companies were naturally displeased with my leaving, and tried to work out some way of keeping me. I don’t really feel it’s that different from the U.S. Nobody wants to lose a valuable employee. But I think employers also know quite well if they’re dealing fairly and honestly with you. A company that’s asking you to work your butt off for relatively low wages doesn’t have much grounds for complaint. So they didn’t really give me too hard of a time.

      As for friends, I did have some coworkers whom I really liked, and whom I miss. But at the same time, making deep friendships isn’t easy in Japan. I don’t know if it’s the society, the large, impersonal cities, or if it’s just me. Probably a combination.

      I will say that, in the U.S., it’s not much of a jump from “let’s have a beer at happy hour” to “I’m having a barbecue at my house this weekend, why don’t you stop by?” That doesn’t seem to happen as much here.

      1. Hi, and thanks for the reply.

        Yep, you have a way of captivating your audience. I’m pretty sure I’ll be coming back more often to read your blog from now on.

        “To answer your questions: both companies were naturally displeased with my leaving, and tried to work out some way of keeping me. I don’t really feel it’s that different from the U.S. Nobody wants to lose a valuable employee.”

        Honestly, the way I understand it is once you have told your place of work about your intention to leave, the last thing you want is for them to make you stay by giving you some incentive, simply because the trust has already kind of been breached by that point. So as soon as they find a replacement who is more motivated than you, they could very easily just dispose of you. Maybe this happens more often in the West than in Japan, but still. I wouldn’t accept any counter offer they’d make.

        I hear you on the Japanese friends thing. I don’t really blame them or myself for this. We just grew up in a totally different environment which makes it hard to relate on a deeper level. Which isn’t to say I haven’t made good Japanese friends over the years, but I certainly do feel that I can somehow relate more easily to my foreign friends here.

        Oh man, I actually almost cringed when I read the sentence about ordering pizza at work. I was like “dang, I think I’ve been in Japan WAY too long to even feel remotely comfortable asking if we should order pizza for lunch at work!”, haha.

        And on a side note, those other foreigners from the second company did indeed sound weird. During your first formal introduction you don’t want to be telling them about your JLPT score or about how many girls you’re dating. Sheesh…

  11. What a horrible place to live! How can you stand it? Go back to the U.S or even to Canada! You’ll have a much happier life.
    I loved japan/japanese things when I was young..didn’t know better.
    Now, that I’ve done my research I’d never even want to step ONE foot in that country!
    These people completely suck! Without any display of human emotion, (unless they’re drunk?) complete androids..
    What are they so proud of? their shitty history of bowing incessantly, I could go on but wow just makes me angry

    For your own good Ken, never marry a Japanese woman. Your life will be miserable! Ask the white gaijin on forums who regret their marriage.

    I wish you a nice day. I’m not being rude, just realistic

    1. Yeah, I feel what you’re saying, and I think that’s valid. But I try to remind myself, you know, when disposing of bathwater, don’t insert baby.

      Realistically, there’s a lot of suck in all countries. Well, maybe not Spain, but they’ve got cows running down the streets night and day, so it’s not perfect either.

      So while I agree there are a number of things not to like about Japan, there are also good things too. I mean, it’s easy to be critical and think that things are better some place else. Like Oz, with wizards and lions and flying monkeys. And no, I don’t mean Australia.

      I think the key is to see both sides—how the good and the bad are linked. So Japan: the food’s good, the place is clean, and there’s low crime. But that comes at a price, which is how people interact. Change one variable, though, and you affect another. But I do appreciate what you’re saying.

  12. Hey interesting post and I can relate to a lot of it. I currently work at a pretty big Japanese company and as its a household name it will give advantages when I decide to change jobs and escape lol but to be honest yeah I don`t recommend anyone take a job here.

    As you said a white person being fluent in Japanese is strange, I wouldn`t say I`m fluent I learn new things everyday, but I`m treated like a Japanese person, all my mails are in Japanese I`m doing sales calls in sickeningly annoyingly polite Japanese, all my work documents and everything literally 100% including all my discussions with colleagues down to requesting vacation and insurance requests is all in Japanese. When I was hired I was told oh you don`t need to speak Japanese you`ll do blah blah. (As there are other non-Japanese people who don`t speak Japanese who are doing somewhat interesting jobs at my company) It`s exhausting and I`m trying to get out as soon as I can haha. Sorry for the dramatic monologue but yeah. They will take advantage of you. Why a white bilingual foreigner is doing domestic sales I don`t know as I was hired thinking I would at-least being working in the international department doing expansion etc.

    If anyone is reading this GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN. Language is not an issue for me at all and I still feel ill just going to work because of the enormous amount of BS I have to deal with on a daily basis. It`s exhausting and please runrunrun. haha. Anyways if you`re an English teacher or a job where you`re allowed to be a foreigner I say take it and enjoy a few years here.

  13. Hii,i have always been inspired by the japanese word ” karoshi” ,and also i like their working ability . but after reading your article my view about japanese working style is totally change.thanks for the article.

  14. Hii,i have always been inspired by the japanese word ” karoshi” ,and also i like their working ability . but after reading your article my view about japanese working style is totally change.thanks for the article.

  15. Hello Ken! I really like your post, and I especially like your sence of humour. I am really finding your post helpful, since I recently started a new job in Japan. Alright so here is my story.

    I am currently 22 years-old, have been studying Japanese for about 3 years.

    I am currently working in a Japanese CG production company as a 3D artist. Creating 3d assets for games and anime. I had about 3 years of experience before coming here.

    I have been working it only a brief 3 months, and its my first time coming to Japan. I can honestly say that, what I am experiencing is basically the same as you have written in your post.

    The work hours.
    My collegues are working no less than 12 hours a day, some even like going to work on weekends. I am personally a ”love my social life” type of guy, so I try avoiding going to work on weekends, but work my butt off during the week. Some people have like 200 hours overtime per month ( not sure how they pull it off ). But, hey at least you don’t need to worry, that you will be working on a project until late hours ”alone”. ( not sure if thats a positive side ). Although hard work is appreciated in Japan, unless you work more than 100 hours of overtime per month, it won’t impress anyone.
    Hey, who needs a social life anyway?

    The work environment
    I can honestly say that the work environment excluding the long work hours is pretty good. No one will bail on you when you need help, and they take their time to explain things carefully. And they won’t hesitate to share their knowledge, which makes it perfect, if you want to learn a lot like me. But, I am basically being treated as japanese. Emails, converstions, phone calls, pc’s everything in japanese, which makes it a real challenge.There is about one hour for lunch, most of my collegues bring a bento, and eat in front of their desk while bashing the keyboard. Most of the times, I go eat alone, since finding the right time to ask someone is too hard.

    Life so far
    Leaving the work aside, I like Japan so far. The food is awesome, the nightlife is also awesome, not to mention the pretty girls roaming the streets everywhere. One of the things I don’t like is the Japanese banks.They are totally not fond of foreigners. The first bank I went to, refused to open a bank account, even though I am not a tourist. The reason? Well,.you need to have stayed in Japan a good 6 months until we can do that. In other words we hate foreigners. The next bank I go to not only opens a bank account, but gives me a local credit card with a decent limit, all within a week! And guess what, It turns out that filling the application online is 1000 more effective than going personally. Thats logic for ya. Healthcare is pretty good though.

    The overview is that Japan, definetely has its pluses and minuses, its a great country. But very far from perfect though.

    1. Fucking Japanese banks. *beats head on wall*

      Funny story, when I opened a bank account here I had to have a hanko, a stamp for my initial. Everywhere else I had gotten by with a signature, but for this bank apparently I -needed- to have one. The good news? Apparently it didn’t have to be my name. Any old hanko would be fine. I was directed to go buy one from the yodobashi camera store down the road. So I stamped my new bank account as “Takahashi”.

      Hilarious. But anybody who lives here any decent length of time will have half a dozen stories equally as crazy.

  16. Hi!
    Just stumbled upon your blog, and really enjoy you writing style and your experiences are very interesting.

    However, experience of you and other commenters made me worry a bit. I am graduating from Japanese uni next month and start working in Japanese company from April.
    I knew where i am getting into, but all the comments made me a bit anxious…
    Working in management/strategy consulting might be different experience, but thinking that such companies will become clients is worrisome…

    1. Well, you’re not exactly graduating from the Ibiza School of Bartending, and now you’re going to be mixing Mai Tai’s on the beach. So you might have to work a little hard.

      But you’ve got a job, and you can live in a fairly nice country, so those are good things. Certainly, there are better and worse companies, and maybe yours will be one of the nicer ones.

      Personally—and this is just me—I’ve always believed in keeping my options open. If this doesn’t work out, find something better, move to another country, or do something else. Don’t spend your life doing something you don’t like.

      Anyway, drop back around June or so and let everyone know how things are.

  17. So i’ve had a bit of a looksy loo at the wages i’m likely to earn as a pronunciation teacher, would it be prudent of me to ask how much a salary man takes home a week? Just trying to weigh up my options. As the queen of lazy, who’s day revolves around what she wants to eat next (i’m a serious foody) i’m trying to decide just what kind of work i could manage. I mean…i love money but…i’m lazy as hell soooo…

    1. Lazy and salaryman/woman don’t exactly go together. You’ll probably be working more than you ever dreamed possible. As for how much you make, that’ll depend on exactly what your job is. Salary-whatever is just a catch-all for someone who wears a suit. If you have a specialized skill, you might make good money. But most people starting out don’t, especially once you calculate the rate per hour.

      For lazy people, you’re better off being an ALT.

  18. 7 months in. Looking back fondly on the misery that was unemployment. We are on the ground floor of a six story building. I often have to climb to the fourth or fifth floor to find an empty toilet stall. Every office building in this city is like this I guess. Full of people hiding with their phones for company.

  19. IT person here and is currently on a business trip in Sapporo. Been working in Sapporo for
    a few months (jsut 6months) already and I can
    definitely agree with #1, #2 and #3! Coming from a workplace where each of us are in a cubicle,
    the Japanese setup is a bit awkward. I can hear or see in my periphery what my colleague is doing
    and sometimes I cannot focus in what I do! Sometimes when he sighs my brain goes on haywire thinking
    what I have done and was the reason of that sigh me? I sometimes think I am such a paranoid parrot.

    Working with Japanese is a bit stressful.Sometimes, I don’t want to go home early even if I am done
    with my tasks because my Japanese colleague doesn’t show
    any signs of wanting to go home OR sometimes a day goes on without me speaking more than 5 sentences.
    Small talks/chitchats are very RARE. I don’t know how they build rapport with each other or maybe
    they build enough rapport at nomikai to last another nomikai session.

    And I am always curious, how can they be ALWAYS be busy? Like everytime I take a peek at his monitor, that colleague is either
    coding, debugging or doing stuff in cmd and I’m like here beautifying my source code.
    Do they have a task reserve that will never get empty and if there is, can I do anything
    to empty that reserve? My conscience is sometimes stupid like that.

    I use your blog when I am in the mood for procrastination. Thank you for this awesome blog!

    1. Thanks for the awesome comment. Yeah, the ability to manufacture work is something the Japanese perfected in 1868. And it’s not just in the office either. I’ve lived with several Japanese women, and they were always busy, wiping the floors or cleaning the windows. I’m like, How ’bout we just sit around and watch TV? Nope. Gotta scrub the toilet, no time to waste. Must be a genetic thing.

  20. Hi Ken,

    I came accross your blog awhile ago and I like it the most so far, since it depicts the dry and cold reality (at least I think, what do I know, never been there).
    Japan is (or was) currently the number one in my “country I am interested to move to”-list. Now, the more I read your blog, the more I doubt if I really want to. I was thinking of studying in the IT field before moving there.
    The most important things for me is : How is working there? How social are the people? How’s the weather?
    How is working there?
    Well, after this post I am pretty sure that I would rather unload a shotgun inside my rectum than work in Japan. I sure as hell don’t want to work 12 hours a day and get paid pathetically low only for 8. Actually I have to work exactly 8 hours here in Germany and get overtime paid extra. When do you even have time to actually enjoy Japan? Is it like this only in the “office work” field and only in Tokyo? If it’s more casual in, let’s say Osaka and maybe as a mechanic, then I guess I’m fine with that. I guess I would need to get into a international company there, since they apparently are doing fine with 8 hours a day.
    How social are people there?
    Since everyone apparently needs to work 12 hours a day (or more) to keep the economy rolling, who actually has the time to make friends? When I read “I have lived here for __ years and made so many japanese friends”, I can’t help but wonder, are they jobless? Also they are super reserved, rarely(never) talk about themselves and have no hobbies beside work and showing Gaijins that they don’t belong here. Womens’ life goal is to get married and only do housework. Marriage is only for him to bring money and her to make him food and housework, rarely love.
    How’s the weather?
    Super hot, super cold, super normal. Ok.

    What’s the point? Is it really worth it to consider Japan for migration? I mean, given how many hikkikomori, “herbivore” people (which I am 100% don’t exist, they just never got the oppurtunity to learn how to approach the opposite sex), extreme progress in sex robots and virtual dating and salarymen with dead faces there are, it’s obvious that the society is flawed big time. Does good food, clean places and low crime rate really outweight all this?
    I’m starting to think that my best option would be just to stay in Germany and go to Japan for holiday or something. At least the I get 4-5 weeks off instead of 2 days for summer vacation (which some Japanese guy told me in a forum, 2 days, what’s the point?).

    1. So here’s how it’s supposed to work: you come to Japan filled with illusions, stay for a year or two, then go back home and tell everybody what a wonderful place it is. Your friends then visit full of the stories you told them, and stay for a year or two. That’s the circle of life.

      Ex-pats who hang on longer grow disillusioned and bitter, then eventually go home, or else get married, stay for the sake of their children, and spend their free time haunting internet forums.

      You’ve broken the pattern by being pre-disillusioned. You’ll never have any fun that way. I prescribe a ton of manga, taking karate classes, and watching The Last Sumurai a dozen times hoping the love returns.

      But let me touch on a few of your points. Weather? Eh, it’s all right. Rains a bit too much, and the lack of home insulation is a major downer. If it’s five degrees outside, it’s five inside, unless you run the heat 24×7. Japan still uses hot water bottles. That should tell you a lot. But whatever, you’ll look great in a wearable sleeping bag.

      How social are the people? Now I know you’re joking, because you’d be hard-pressed to find a less social place than Japan. However, this actually works in your favor, at least short-term, since Japanese people find it virtually impossible to make friends with other Japanese. So guess who they flock to? Yup, your white/black/brown face. Avoid learning any Japanese. I’m trying to think of another nation where the populace rushes to embrace immigrants. Maybe Germany? France? England? Well, certainly the U.S. Thank God, finally a Mexican person! Let’s speak Spanish, amigo.

      By the way, herbivore, uhh, you better believe it. Nobody’s ever accused the Japanese of being passionate. And the low crime rate, better not; but it’s not the U.S. either, so I guess it depends on your frame of reference.

      How’s work? Well, if you’re a “foreigner,” you might literally work 50% less than your Japanese colleagues. And like everywhere else, there are good and bad companies. The further you get from Tokyo, the better it’s likely to be.

      So if you’re considering moving here, well, better come for that visit first. Still, did I mention the food? The food’s really good. Service too. Such a polite nation, full of smiling people. Come for a visit, be clueless, speak no Japanese, and you’ll have a great time.

      1. You can’t imagine what kind of pain it is to not be able to were rosa-tinted glasses all day, Mr. Seeroi. Life would probably be so much more easier if I could. I can never decide if being realistic or disillusioned, whatever you might call it, is a good thing or not.

        Anyway, about making friends: Japanese people tell me, the most important thing is to understand what the other is saying. So, learn Japanese to fully understand each other. Foreigners tell me, don’t learn japanese, because, uhh. Also I can somewhat confirm that japanese people probably like talking to gaijins more than with other japanese, because then they can “be themselves” without not having to think so much about “honne” and “tatemae”, if it tells you something. It probably won’t work in my favor anyway, since I’m half white, half asian. Also they don’t use sarcasm. I mean, what? How? Why not?

        About working hours, how is it actually done in reality? Like, everyday, after 8 hours, can I just stand up, say “sorry for going early” and then “HAHAHA, time for japaneseruleof7!!!” while walking out with big steps while ignoring that feeling that someone wants to stab you? I mean, come on, why would I go there if I can’t even enjoy the country in the first place?

        Would be glad if you could give me some further thoughts on this.

        Oh, Herbivore people. I want to believe that showing them how wonderful it is to exchange strange smelling body fluids would change them. Sigh, guess there goes my plan for making a living there by running a sex school. Gosh, and I was so sure that it was THE idea.

        1. So your plan is to market hot dogs to herbivores? That’s good. Right up there with my plan to open a brewery in Saudi Arabia. Once we show them the light, the ignorant masses will surely flock to our bandwagons.

          Well, my love of mixed metaphors aside, I’m happy to offer further thoughts on how you might enjoy life in Japan. I mean, that’s in the ballpark right up my alley. And I figure it’s either write a really long reply, or a disappointingly short post. Give me a couple of days and we’ll see if I can’t produce the latter. Thanks for the inspiration.

  21. Absolutely true.
    Fortunately, we have desk partitions which gives the illusion of privacy… And I am fortunate to have a few friends with whom to go out to lunch.
    But yes. The salary is ridiculous, the bonus system is nuts and the hours are idiotic. You know what I missed about your post? Maybe it’s only in my office, but for some reason people just “disappear” with the excuse of going out to smoke. For 20, 30 minutes. 3, 4 times a day. No wonder they stay until past midnight…
    Me? Well, they know I’m half-Japanese but raised in Europe, so I try to take advantage of that. It’s been over a year, but I think I still haven’t lost that “oh, but in Europe we do things differently” thing. So when I get fed up I just sit up, “otsukare-sama” everyone and leave.

    1. I totally feel your pain Ken.
      But on the other hand, have you ever thought what it must be like to be a Japanese person raised in the west to come back to this country and work in corporate Japandom for 6 years? It’s totally another flavor of licorice flavored shit-tastic!

      But here’s a twist: I currently work in Japan, in a Japanese organization, surrounded only by Japanese folk. Most everybody works 8 to 5, with a real one hour lunch break thrown in, but only when the Kims aren’t throwing a fit. Guess where I work!

      1. I’ve thought about it a bit, having known some folks in that situation. They grow up overseas, as a “Japanese”-Americans and then move to Japan. That seems a challenge. The weird thing is “Japanese” people raised in the U.S. are more accepted in Japan the moment their plane lands than the white and black people born here (of whom there are many). But I guess “African” Americans don’t stand out as much in Ghana as “Japanese” Americans do either. Racism’s a weird thing.

        As for where you work, sorry but I can’t begin to guess.

  22. Hi Ken,

    Great article again! On the contrary, I was wondering if you could comment on English speaking offices in Japan. Because after reading this, I think I would rather work in an English speaking office in Japan.


  23. Your Japanese office experience is similar yet different to my experience in Korea.

    I worked at a pharma company, and yep, we did pull crazy hours. About 3 months at my work, I got curious about just how much overtime (unpaid…I was on salary) I could put. So I worked my ass off, and still it was only 187 hours lol.

    Our department had cubicles, and my 4 office coworkers, kachou, and I had a freaking blast. Sure, we worked from 9 to 8~9pm, but we only did about 5 hours or less of actual work. My kachou was mostly searching for gundam figures, buying the newest release of airplane figures, etc, while the female colleagues were busy looking at clothes and accessories online and looking up fashion blogs and ordering stuff. The male colleagues were constantly on kakaotalk (i.e. Line), took 5-6 smoke breaks per day, and played phone games. We chatted incessantly, and made jokes on each other all the time, talked about TV shows, celebrity scandals, and bitched about bosses not leaving work on time thus ruining our Friday night plans.

    The best part was that the company paid for lunch and dinner (if overtime) for all employees.

    And we did have nomikai, it’s just that it starts at like 7pm at a meat grilling place with lots of sozu (mass-produced version of shochu), then hit a karaoke at about 9 or 10pm with even more booze, dried squids, snacks, then those still not drunk enough (not passed out and helped into a taxi) go to a bar and taste such delicacies as “imported” beer like Bud Light (puke) and other liquor and listen to drunk old men tell their life stories. Oh all these are paid by the company or the highest ranking person. And if the buses/trains don’t run at the time, they gave taxi money.

    I graduated from a top 10 ranked party school in the US of A, and these Koreans sure knew how to freaking drink and get totally wasted.

    It was a moment I felt like I was back in college. LOL

    1. I am a Japanese who lived in US for 9 years. I finally came back to Japan but having a hard time although I am a Japanese. I do really like some staffs in Japan but work life is not good though. Most of normal jobs expect you to work overtime. The job description says we do not require much of overtime and encourage workers to leave as early as they could. But at the interview, they still ask you if you can do overtime. So, I was like what`s the point of stating encouragement of leaving early on the job description then?? Efficiency is considered good in USA but not in Japan. Japan thinks efficiency is good but your boss will not think so because the boss will want you to stay late. your boss doesnt want you to leave early stating `I work efficiently` So basically working efficiently doesnt matter. Even if you do work efficiently, they will give you more work so you will end up work overtime anyway. This is getting a headache for me now. I know i have to suck up but it seems very unefficient and unmotivating although I am willing to do work hard.

  24. Aw man, if only I was there with you at that large mixed-ethnicity company, even though I am a woman. Lmao I would have talked up a storm about whatever. People who just end up bragging about themselves in distasteful manners, and then don’t even give a shit about anyone else are terrible.

    It’s nice to see your later responses to people who speak English and work for a Japanese company! However, I doubt I would be of any help to any Japanese company, since I only have a major in Japanese and Art. I have no clue what to do 🙁 unless I pursue a TESOL M.S. ~

    Thank you for your stories though!

  25. I hate to generalize but Japanese co workers have the worst office etiquette (or complete lack of) I have ever had the misery to be around.

    I have, for the last 3 years, been cursed by 3 of the loudest sickly office mates you could ever imagine. From 8am to 8pm every single day, they at their desk to loudly sit slurp coffee constantly, eating, clearing their throats hacking up their lungs 1200 times a day. Each one will come in to work with the flu, touching everything in sight For the love of god it has driven me nearly insane.

    I was going to quit – but god has mercifully descended from the heavens to recall 2 of them back to their motherland. I am not even religious but after this blessing I might be,,, Now I will only have to deal with one of them for about another 18 months.

    1. Jeez, where do you work, the pneumonia ward? That sounds pretty gnarly. By the way, are these three guys or gals? Just trying to get a clearer picture here.

  26. It is quite hilarious reading your blog, and it is bitterly true. I am not sure if it is harder for me as a female or not, but in the first week at the company, a kind gentle man told me that “what else does a woman have to do but to… sit in a place”.. err… on your face, sir, I really wished to reply.
    The honeymoon phase was pretty nice where everyone was so interested in who you are, what you did, how different your culture is, how great you are with English and Japanese. (I am not a native English speaker). And then it is a bit annoying, everyone cares what I have in my bento, and my colleague told every single person coming to my office about my first trip home. I feel like my privacy is lost.
    I am amazed by the Japanese technologies, but working at two small and mid-sized companies since I landed, I am still surprised on how backwards they are. Decision making is completely slow, employee empowerment does not seem to exist. It is not like they are thinking about a decision, they just don’t want to decide or just sit on it as it would be no harm, not implementing it. They do not communicate with me on their concerns as well, no matter how much I have asked. I was hired to do international business development, but I could not develop anything. Because comments on any new deals would be like, let’s wait, Trump is becoming a president (damn him), let’s wait, Japanese Yen is fluctuating (when does it not?). After 6 months of proposing new ideas without any feedbacks or decisions made, I am now resigning to my space, reading newspapers. A little risk is a huge one here, so no one wants to take on the risks for fear of losing faces, if failed. Salaries will still rise when spring comes, so… who cares?
    It hit me real hard, to realize I would be forever an outsider in here, no matter how much I have learned about their internal-external culture. I was not given the new year card, which every other employee got, my colleague told an insurance agent who came to talk to me that I may leave one day, my boss expressed it very vocally to our customers, he did not want some investment, which I proposed, because some day I may leave, what will they do? Noone told me on any strategies or plans regarding my work, no trainings or whatsoever.
    As the only foreign person in the office, who is also the only female that is not doing admin work, I do feel some extent of jealousy from my female peers, from the freedom I have with my clothes choice, to my hair color which is different from them and I think maybe also the fact that I am working less and getting more. (My salary is notably lower than Japanese of the same level, but still higher than most female admins in my office).
    And getting paid for doing nothing is not as sweet as it seems. Pretending to work every day is harder than I thought. I am not such a good actress, anyway. Still I am learning my hard way to survive, trying to playing their games, reading their minds. There is a way to make things work, but I haven’t found it yet, or maybe it is magically hidden from foreigners like me.

    1. Sounds like a shit job with a shit company. Don’t buy into the “just put up with it” story that often goes around. Perhaps a Wajin would stay silent and bear the mistreatment, but you’re not being treated the same as your Wajin coworkers, so why should you adapt the same strategy for dealing with racist abuse?

      When you get treated differently, pull the person in charge aside and say extremely politely, “I’m so sorry for whatever bad thing I did to deserve this treament. Will you please tell me what I did so I can fix it? I want to get along with everyone.”

      Of course, the reality is you’ve done nothing wrong, so this will put them in a corner. This sort of backhanded, passive-aggressiveness has produced results for me. Also, when someone is rude to you, you have to very exaggeratedly and grandiosely apologize profusely, then talk to them excessively politely. Like, take the 敬語 to the max. This will embarass the person, and they should back off.

      If you’re having a problem with someone constantly trying to speak English at you, you can give them the kiddie treatment to the nth degree too. Never answer their questions, but instead put on a big smile and praise them loudly in 敬語. If they keep it up, turn it up a notch and clap for them or pat them on the head like a 5 year old. Any person who treats you like this is acting like a child, so I see no harm in treating them like one.

      Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, but the above methods have been effective for me. Ignoring unpleasant people by pretending that you didn’t hear them or responding to their question with 「ああ、そうですか?」 with a big smile has worked too.


      1. You’ve got a great handle on Japanese communication, which uses passive-aggressiveness and talking-down to others to great effect.

        Ignoring people who are talking directly to you is also an essential skill. When they don’t want to speak to someone or find their comments objectionable, Japanese folks will just turn their backs or make a “talk to the hand” gesture. It’d be rude as hell anywhere else, but here it’s normal. Kind of gives a different perspective on Japanese politeness.

        Still, you’ve gotta wonder just what sort of a place we’re living in, when this is what it takes just to get along.

    2. I think you’re spot on in everything you mention (except one), and your experience likely echoes that of millions of others, including myself.

      And I love this: “I am still surprised on how backwards they are. Decision making is completely slow, employee empowerment does not seem to exist.” That’s gold.

      The only thing that stunned me was when you said, “I am amazed by the Japanese technologies.” My reaction was Really, what? I mean, Japanese people are very good at manufacturing—putting stuff together carefully, and then doing it again and again—but by and large I feel like we’re living in the 1970’s here. I mean, they make a nice TV, I’ll give ’em that. But when I think of the near future—robotics, automated payment systems, self-driving electric cars, cloud computing—a lot of those technologies are being driven by the U.S. Here, folks rarely even have PCs at home, debit cards are almost unheard of, and cities string power lines like chicken wire. I guess they can make a train that goes pretty fast though, so that’s something.

      I’d love to know what technologies you were referring to.

      1. Yeah I have to agree with that…when I first went to Japan I was amazed that you had cellphones that could “roughly” go on the Internet and had cameras built in them. However, since the iPhone introduced true smartphones and apps, every time I go back to Japan it seems like the country is falling further and further behind in nearly every aspect of near tech.

  27. Love this write up. Very creative in phrasing ! Cheers and I hope I will have a EASY work stay in Japan this fall!

  28. Stumbled upon this article for writing and research purposes. Laughed my arse off. Thanks so much for the tickle! Going to Tokyo in June for the first time ever….can’t f—ing wait.

    1. Well, there go your chances of improving your twerking. But I’m glad you enjoyed it. Have a great trip and let me know your impressions of Tokyo.

  29. Not to pry, but I assume you went back to teaching after your stint as a salaryman? Have you worked for a Japanese company or else outside of education since you posted this article?

    Given that Japan’s economy has been in decline for the past 20 years, along with its preeminent status on the world stage, do you see any Japanese people getting fed up with these dismal corporate conditions and forging more life-affirming alternatives? Are there people active in blazing a trail towards prosperity that do not require working 120 hours a week and dying of karoshi? Clearly, this has yet to produce much in the way of economic resurgence.

    I remember reading some years ago about the soushoku danshi, young men who were not looking for romantic relationships, due to their status as freeters and NEETs, which is, in part, a result of their rejection of what they saw as the discredited salaryman masculine model. So, essentially Japanese sexless slackers.

    In your experience, does this characterization represent actual conditions in Japanese society? If so, do you see any developments towards a new, perhaps healthier masculine/economic model beyond the salaryman’s bleak existence, as well as the celibate indifference of the soushoku danshi?

    1. Wow, much questions. Let me try to provide some succinct answers.

      Me? I still teach, but I also do other stuff. Maybe just leave it at that for now.

      Regarding Japanese folks venturing out of the dismal corporate world and “forging more life-affirming alternatives,” uhh, wrong country for that. This isn’t a place where trying and failing is considered okay. Also, a long economic downturn doesn’t exactly fire people up for “blazing a trail towards prosperity.” Maybe if things got to the point of social unrest that would happen, but right now the economy’s just a wet blanket weighing everybody down. The template is: don’t attract attention, keep your job, and save your paychecks. Works for me.

      As for “soushoku danshi (herbivore men),” you gotta love the nuance. Don’t go out with women? What are you, some kinda…vegetarian? Next time, just say “faggot” and save everybody the trouble.

      Does this sexlessness represent the actual condition of Japanese society? Without a doubt. It’s all about appearance. Japan looks sexy. The women look sexy. But hey, when you step off the plane, you’ll look like an English teacher.

      The reality’s hard to see, because at first, you’re surrounded by the party. Landing in Tokyo’s like touching down in Fort Lauderdale at Spring Break. Wow, everybody’s awesome! It takes a while to realize what a small subset of the nation that really is.

      So this sexlessness, celibacy, indifference—it’s not just a few guys holed up in their bedrooms. It’s a lot of men, and women, and the economy, and the culture. People aren’t hooking up and starting families because they don’t believe in a bright future. Are there healthier developments just waiting at the end of this tunnel? I don’t think many people see that light right now. And that’s why we’re paying you to come here. You’re what we think of as the light.

      1. “But hey, when you step off the plane, you’ll look like an English teacher.”

        Damnit! Write NSFW or something!

  30. I was holding out hope that the angst, despair, and apocalypticism that is such a staple of anime was merely a means of catharsis. But it makes sense that it’s actually representative of Japanese culture and society, broadly speaking.

    I’ve thought about how Japanese pop culture (anime, manga, etc.) has become so popular internationally within the last twenty years or so and how it seems to be Japan’s attempt to dominate the world once again through soft power since its economy failed. I suppose the strategy worked on me. Anime and manga were how I was introduced to Japan, and now look, I’m heading over there.

    I’m still working out the details of how essentially brainwashing me with colorful, emotive cartoons at an early age, reeling me in with a PR campaign consisting of juxtaposed images of ancient, highly aestheticized, nature-centered traditions and glittering, cutting-edge, futuristic metropolises; and then ultimately convincing me to teach English in Japan helps grow the economy or benefits society in any way. But I guess I’ll be spending money there, so that’s an injection into the economy.

    Even though I’m aware that the reality is much more grim than the ad campaign that hooked me, I still am very excited to go there. The malaise, ennui, sexlessness, & stoic industriousness are just as “exotic” as geisha and giant fighting robots – plus, I think the latter would get boring fast, anyway.

    I don’t mind being the “light” for the Japanese, if that’s the role I must play. I can be the foreigner they open up to. Or the foreigner they play the rule of 7 game with. Or the foreigner they must explain everything to. Hell, even the foreigner they chastise or berate. Basically, I’m ready to be the foreigner. I’m trying to go with a completely open mind; ready to learn and enjoy as much as I can – and what I can’t enjoy will simply be more learning experience.

    1. I seriously love your unbridled optimism. Japanese people will eat that up.

      Although, ahh, I really shouldn’t say it, but…I think you’ll eventually find yourself in a red pill/blue pill situation. As long as you stay the “foreigner”—you think you’re a foreigner, they know you are—Japan will be great. Don’t speak too much of the language, be amazed by and instructed in all sorts of minutia, take a lot of pictures. You’ll be the black shoeshine boy, the woman homemaker, the white English teacher.

      Just remember, everybody here already knows you. They’ve seen a million ALTs and JETs come through, speaking pidgin Japanese, smiling and cheerful, bowing and helpful. You like sushi. Or you’re into karate. Or anime. Or Japanese girls. They’ve already got you pegged, just like when you see that Asian guy and you know he’s good at math.

      As long as you play your role, everything will be harmonious as fuck. But you’ll be insulated from reality, and leave knowing as much of Japan as a Chinese guy who spent his time in Chinatown. But the moment you start acting like every other adult in Japan, and expecting to be treated as such, it all changes.

      Nobody gives you rights. There’s a reason black people marched, and women marched, and gays marched. I mean, I march every day, only I’m the only one and everybody just thinks I’m walking to the station. Probably need to get a sign on a stick. Jeez, one more thing to do.

      Anyway, if you really want to know what Japan’s like—and I’m not necessarily suggesting you should—you’ve got to resist being typecast as “the foreigner.” You won’t have a happier life, but you will know the reality.

      The choice is yours. Red pill or blue.

      1. Perhaps, my comment came out overly effusive and bubbly. I would like, as you say, to swallow the red pill and know what Japan’s really like. I understand that this is something I would have to work hard for myself; that nobody’s going to give it to me. But I also understand that I’m going to be the foreigner. I mean, isn’t that what JET is paying me for? Why else would they need a foreign guy with limited teaching experience to come to a Japanese school and teach English?

        So, I understand that is my role. It doesn’t mean that I don’t actually want to try and fit in as best I can or to transcend that foreigner role at some point. But I have to start somewhere. Like you said, I’m going to step off the plane looking like an English teacher. Unless the flight over magically changes my skin tone and eye shape and grants me fluent Japanese powers, then there’s really no way around that.

        So, that’s what I meant in regards to my optimism and open-mindedness. I’m ready to play the role that I know is expected of me and to learn what I can within that role. But it doesn’t mean I’m necessarily content to stay in that role. It’s merely a starting point.

        So, for now, the red pill is in my pocket, waiting to be gulped down. I even declared it on my yakkan shoumei.

      2. One pathway towards inculturation that I’m hoping to take is through attending a Japanese church. I’m a practicing Catholic, so I’m hoping I’m placed somewhere with a nearby Catholic church and that I can be accepted as a member of the parish. I’m looking forward to experiencing the differences in liturgy and of the possibility of being involved in parish life.

    2. You’re only playing up ignorant stereotypes: especially the ugly manufactured ones designed by the Western press’ cottage industry of ‘weird Japan’.

      Going to Japan ‘because of anime’ is a really bad idea. Anime is just an entertainment medium and not the way of life you imagine it to be. You’ll meet far more people in Japan who were last watching it when they were kidd than still have any interest in adulthood.

      The mistake you’re making is fetishising Japan. Don’t. It’s a place with people. In many ways it’s better than most other places. And for your own sake dump, right away, the crass Orientalist fetishism of ‘exotic’, an ugly way of thinking from colonialist times.

      Nor is Japan the horrible place you’re weirdly expecting.

      Thr best thing you can do is learn about Japan as a normal place. When you say stuff like ‘japan exported anime as soft power because it’s economy is dead’ is recycled from false Internet tropes. Don’t be that white guy who goes to Japan looking down on it and fetishising it in this weird way who then gets bitter.

      Don’t be that guy. Above all learn thr language so.you don’t feel alienated and alone which you will otherwise. Don’t think Japan is some shallow stupid place with robots on every corner and miserable hateful salarymen. A lot of the negatives you read about Japan are from westerners who make the most privileged, worst immigrants ever and demonize it to no end.

      Learn about Tokyo and its history. learn about the March 10 1945 air raid massacre where more were killed than in the atomic bombings in one night. Seek out the few memorials still existing that escaped the brutal occupying forces who banned and burned them. If you go to Hiroshima to pay your respects, stop by nearby Kure as well where tens of thousands of Japanese women and girls were raped by occupation forces (or Sapporo, or especially Okinawa).

      Just don’t be the fetishising Orientalist who will end up with a victim mentality and knows actually nothing about Japan. It’s such a waste, it’s a hella depressing life, and there are far too many people like this in Japan already. Make your life in Japan worthwhile.

      1. I believe you misread my comment. I’m not going to Japan because of anime. Nor am I looking down on it either. I was being quite tongue-in-cheek in regards to the whole “brainwashed by anime” bit, in case you didn’t realize.

        As a child, I liked anime, but I was never obsessed with it. No cosplay for me. It was merely the foot in the door for exploring the rest of Japanese culture. I have read a lot about Japanese society and history (and about the Japanese’s many war-time atrocities, not just the American’s). I didn’t just read manga and eat teppanyaki and say, “I’m going to Japan! I’m going to be a samurai!”

        The whole point of my saying that I’m going with an open mind is precisely that. I recognize that my interest in Japan originated with the PR campaign that Japan sells to the world, which is highly idealized. Meanwhile, this blog has provided me with a window into the offen less than savory daily reality of Japan, which is helpful.

        I know Japan is a normal country. I know there won’t be robots on every corner. I’m not going with a fetishized, Orientalist mindset. I’m going with the excitement of finally experiencing a country that I have been interested in for a long time and with an open mind so that I can hope to weather some of the challenges that this blog has touched on.

        1. I think you have a good mindset going to Japan.
          Everyone has to start somewhere and I remember my own “honeymoon” phase in Japan (the first year in my case) well enough. God, do I wish I could relive that time and feeling 🙂
          The important point is to stay alert, learn and find a life that works for you. I assume that is what Ken has also done.

          Not all “old Japan hands” are cynics. I am certainly not 🙂

          P.S. The robot thing …. I don’t know. It may be reality faster than we assume.

          1. Thanks, Hanayagi. I’m grateful for the cynical tone of this blog. It helps to know more about the less than fabulous reality that I may encounter, even if this is just Ken’s perspective. I now feel like I am more prepared and have more measured expectations for my time in Japan.

            I know there will be things that I like and things that I dislike, and that the things I like may become less enjoyable as time goes on. Of course, I can’t help but be excited and optimistic. I’m simply trying to stay level-headed and open-minded.

            I know some stuff but I also know I am naive to an extent because I have no firsthand experience. Now is finally my time to acquire that experience.

      2. Us an M, where on the internet can I read about the sex crimes you mention committed en masse by post war occupying (US?) forces?

  31. Usman M, Thanks for mentioning the issue of Allied Sex Crimes against Japanese women post war. I was shocked to read what I found online. The Occupying Forces cleverly failed to perform the duty of care that they had to the most vulnerable people, women, in post war Japanese society. Where Justice was not served, perhaps Karma would find the offenders.

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