Working in an office in Japan – Part 1

I’ve lived in Japan for over 12 years, and all of that has been spent working. As such, I thought I’d spend the next few posts talking about what it’s like working here.

NOTE: Please keep in mind, this is just from my experience. I in no way aim to say that this applies to every single office environment here. This is only what I have learned from my own experiences.

The Golden Rule

If you learn nothing else, learn this: Just because your work is done for the day does not, by any means, mean you get to leave early. If you get your work done by 2 p.m. and stand up, announce “I’ve finished my work for today so good-bye to you all,” you will swiftly become the most hated person in the office.

Even leaving on time is usually a sign you’re just not dedicated enough to your work. I usually flagrantly ignore the pointed stares of people and leave on time, though, because I have a family to get home to.

What you’re supposed to do, however, is if you somehow manage to finish all of your work, you must then ask co-workers if you can help them with their work. Your mission is to not go home until at least the head of your department goes home.

Japan still seems to adore people who overwork, even though so many people here literally die from working too much. I think it’s a toxic mentality that really needs to change.

The hierarchy

Personally, I think Japan wasn’t ready to say good-bye to feudal lords. Much like some dinosaurs evolving into birds, feudal lords and samurai simply evolved into office workers.

Sitting at the top of this feudal system is the president of the company. This man (unfortunately usually a man – Japan has a long way to go) is usually so revered in the company that I get the feeling I shouldn’t even look them in the eye if I were to ever meet them.

The hierarchy is filtered down through the various departments.

Within a department you usually have:

  1. The head of the department (bucho)
  2. The second-in-command (fuku-bucho)
  3. A few other people who are like supervisors
  4. People who have been there a while
  5. People who have been there kind of a while
  6. People who are part-time or dispatch
  7. People who just started out

The people who have been there longer than you are called your sempai (superiors) while you are their kouhai (subordinate). While your job is to listen to what your sempais tell you to do, their job is to nurture you and make you a better employee. Of course, this isn’t how it always pans out. Lots of sempai enjoy reenacting The Devil Wears Prada on their kouhai. Lots of kouhai expect their sempai to take responsibility for everything. It happens, and it can be miserable.

Many kouhai put up with getting ordered around a lot because they are holding onto the dream that new hires will arrive the next fiscal year (new hires usually come into a department at the beginning of April). Then, the once-kouhai employees will have someone to whom they will be known as a sempai. The people who have worked there longer, naturally, will forever be your sempai. I haven’t seen much meritocracy in action in the offices here.

Something I find both amusing and frustrating is that a lot of employees nearing retirement are basically allowed to do whatever they want at the office. I’ve seen people just sit in the back of the office and take a daily nap whenever the mood strikes. I think the other employees just allow this, even the head of the department, because that employee probably sweated blood and tears for the past 50 years.

Office shuffle

Something both odd and intriguing that I’ve noticed here is that most companies have various departments within their office, and will shuffle people through the various departments throughout that person’s career there. This means I’ve had bosses who are there for three years before being moved to another department. Co-workers come and go as well. Only the one-year contract people, dispatch workers and part-timers stick around in one department for a little while.

I think this shuffle is odd in that I believe it makes sense to create a team of experts in any given department to ensure work is being done well. I also think it’s intriguing because it can get quite boring doing the same work day in and day out, so moving to a different department every few years makes work a little bit less boring.

Dealing with conflict

I have noticed that direct confrontation here is usually avoided at all cost in the office. If you’re going to start yelling at someone, you had better either be their boss or severely drunk at the time and near a pub.

If you have an issue with one of your co-workers, the common course of action is actually not to just walk up to them and say, “Hey, I’d love to talk to you about this problem I have with something you did.” Instead, you are generally encouraged to take it directly to either the head of the department (bucho) or the second-in-command in the department (fuku-bucho). That person then either expresses that complaint to the offending person or tells you it’s not worth pursuing.

As such, you might never know if people in the office have a problem with you until the head of the department saunters over to your desk to discuss it with you.

That is not to say gossip and commiserating with your co-workers about other co-workers isn’t rampant. I’ve found many co-workers will be absolutely civil to people who have offended them in the office, only to rant about them for the full hour-long lunch break.

All of this to say that just because no one says anything to you about something doesn’t mean they’re all just fine with it. For example, the dress code says no heavy perfume, but you decide to wear it and think it’s ok because no one is saying anything. On the contrary, everyone in the office is waiting for someone else to be brave enough to talk to the head of the department about you.

This all raises the question of: But what if your head of the department is horrible?

Most people in the offices where I have worked just suck it up when their boss is a nightmare.