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How To Survive At a Japanese Company

Recently I started working in the 800-person IT department of a large Japanese financial firm.  Being the only white boy and only native English speaker in my 30-person section, I stand out quite a bit.  I've only been here a month; however, the piquant Japanese-ness of the office permeates my very essence.  Thus, I've compiled a short list of survival tips for other Westerners finding themselves imbued with overwhelmingly Japanese coworkers.

Lie Your Ass Off
You will be asked many many times how old you are, if you have a significant other, where you're from--and in extreme examples--if you can use chopsticks.  They'll also compliment your Japanese ability even if you have none.  Any foreigner who has lived here for a time knows the questions and protocol of which I speak.  Refuse outright to answer these questions, or better yet, lie your ass off.  It will add greatly to the mystery surrounding you, and drive them freakin' crazy in a good way.  Japanese love comic book fantasy.  Fulfill that for them.

Eat Lunch Alone
If you're a non-smoker, then you'd better eat lunch alone.  If your coworkers are mostly Japanese guys, and you eat with them; you're officially a chain smoker.  If they persist, then take them to a non-smoking restaurant (good luck finding one).  You'll never be asked to lunch again.  If you're a smoker, then eat lunch with your Japanese coworkers everyday.  Free cigs!

Ask a Woman
If you have a question or need help, ask a Japanese woman.  She does all the work and knows absolutely everything.  Don't waste your time with the dudes (esp. the older ones).  They won't have a clue and will inevitably refer you to the hardworking, underpaid, under-appreciated Japanese woman.  The entire weight of the company rests on her shoulders.  If you're a woman, then welcome to Japan!

Leave On Time
Leave on time from day one.  This is very important, and you have to set this up from the outset.  For me this is at 6:00pm and 00 seconds exactly.  All of your Japanese coworkers will look at you strangely--as if you're dressed like a rodeo clown.  Resist the pressure to sit back down and work until 10:00pm everyday like they do.  Work to live, don't live to work.

The Japanese company will try to make you feel like they are your new family and they come first.  This is their culture--not mine, I say.  This is a job, and that's all it is.  Personally, my real family and friends (Japanese included) are a lot more fun to be with, and I structure my schedule accordingly.  I'm cautiously optimistic and hoping my leaving-on-time ethic will rub off on my Japanese coworkers; but realistically I'm probably dreaming.  So far they just give me dirty looks; and needless to say, I haven't made any friends.

Take Acting Lessons
Japanese are terrible actors on TV, but Oscar award-winning in the office.  I stand dumbfounded at how some coworkers can do absolutely nothing all day, yet appear busier than NYSE trader soccer moms attending medical school in the evenings.  As such skills are invaluable in life, I advise studying this.  Observe them closely and watch how they pretend to work.  Mimic their movements and eccentricities.  Sign up for acting lessons after work (or during work) with an emphasis on "the workplace."  Mad drama skills like these will take you very far.

Be Aloof and Weird
Nice guys finish last, and this is 200% true at a Japanese company.  Research has found that women in general are nicer than guys, and this is why Japanese women end up doing all the work.  Nobody likes work, so do everything in your power to avoid it.  The ideal working equation should be pretending to work, while avoiding real work and collecting an undeserved paycheck.  Nothing accomplishes this better than being aloof, weird, and a bit of an asshole.

Since they consider you family, Japanese managers do everything they can to avoid confrontation (something about harmony or whatever).  So playing the part of the abused autistic middle child will endow you with sympathy, tolerance, and a whole lot of free time.  When you sense the tolerance threshold wavering into the red, then play the reverse discrimination angle and dismiss their frustrations with "It's because I'm a foreigner!"  This will remind them that you're not Japanese and thus have "special needs."  In time they will learn to be proud of their backward, retarded child, and you will enjoy a relaxing, stress-free workweek devoid of work.

So dear fellow foreigner--I wish you the best of luck at your Japanese company and pray these tips prove advantageous.  Now, get back to work...just kidding!

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  • Guest - heyhey

    It's hilarious and ridiculous that every single word you said is true!!!! Even worse!!! But that's exactly how to survive Japanese dudes are complete jerks ( without exception ), extremely narrow-minded ignorant and the most unhealthy people I have to meet all my life. On the technology, at work, they are 20 years behind in comparison to the US. It's UGLY!!!!!! If you have the option not to work here please avoid it at any cost. The best companies in the world when they open an office in Japan it became the worst place to work. Horrible really ugly people. To travel is ok since you don't see it but work is horrible. Avoid it at any cost!!!

  • Guest - Shasha

    This is hiralious. Are u still there!? This is my first week at a Japanese company. I have so many questions.

  • Guest - Incredible...

    One month? Try writing this again after working in a Japanese corporation for a few more years. I've been working in a Japanese administrative office for over seven years and couldn't disagree with you more about almost every point you make.

    I'll be blunt: you sound like a lazy a**hole and come across as completely ignorant of the culture you are in. You're dreaming if you think leaving work on time is going to rub off on anybody. The only thing it will do is show your coworkers (and, more importantly, your boss) that you you don't care that much about your job and are making ZERO effort to assimilate to the customs of your work environment. There's new Westerner in my office the office that does the same thing. He just comes off as lazy and ignorant of the work culture. He also wonders why he eats lunch alone every day.

  • Guest - Leave on time

    Guest - Incredible...

    Who wan't to eat lunch with smelly smokers anyway! Don't care if it will rub off or not, show them that things can be done differently they are ignorant and need some eye-openers!

  • Guest - geegee

    it's nice to know they treat you well because you're white. i believe in the japanese proverb that a 'gaikokujin' should only work with the japanese for 1 year the most, or else, they'll drive you crazy, especially if you're from southeast asian like me.

  • Guest - G P

    So true, and applies to american companies too.. nice guys finish last.. theme to the end!

  • Guest - Mike Rudolfolundonhead

    Nailed the hard truth like a stake going into a vampire! Awesome article!