4 Depressing Truths of Working at a Japanese Company:


I’ve been working at a Japanese company for a little over a year now, and I thought I’d share some of the slightly depressing realizations I have come across this past year!

1. The amount of overtime Japanese work is not an exaggeration. Unlike the American standard 9AM-5PM job where most people are out the door by 5:30, most Japanese jobs entail a 9-hour work day, which wouldn’t be that bad if it wasn’t for the zangyou or overtime. I have friends whose official working hours are 10-7, 9-6, 8-5 etc; however, they rarely ever end on time. On average, my coworkers and I put in anywhere from 2-3 hours per day during off season, and anywhere up to 4-5 hours during busy season (including working on weekends and holidays). The harsh part is, I wouldn’t say it’s all merited overtime.

The whole Japanese concept of ganbare or  “do your best”, while rooted in a positive image, can result in an unproductive work culture. This value leads companies to believe working overtime equals effort, and effort equals being a good “productive” worker. Unfortunately, I find this is rarely the case. I have many coworkers who work countless hours of overtime and produce absolutely no results, which doesn’t seem to matter. In Japan it’s all about image. How one looks to others and whether or not it seems like they’re working hard enough. The number of hours punched on our time cards. Leaving on-time every day can signal a red flag to others. Others will think you aren’t working hard enough, or you don’t have enough work to begin with.

Furthermore, depending on the company, many Japanese companies actually factor in overtime pay into your salary. For example, I know of two companies: one pays 20,000 yen (about $200USD) per month for up to 40 hours of overtime, and the other pays 20,000 yen for up to 20 hours of overtime, which means until you hit that limit of 20 or 40 hours you won’t get paid any overtime. It’s only after you work 40 hours that you will be paid for any extra work. On the plus side, you will receive the adjusted overtime pay of $200 regardless of whether or not you work all those hours.

★Please note that all companies are different though, and every department within these companies have different values and work-life balances. Most of my friends with the best work-life balances actually work for foreign companies in Japan. I have one friend who works for a major global accounting firm, and he ends at 5/5:30 everyday (aside from a couple months during his busy season) and gets paid any overtime he works. I had another friend who works till 11:00 with overtime pay, and another who only receives overtime starting 30 minutes after his ending time at 6:00… so all conditions can be drastically different!

2.The company comes first. As many of you may already know, Japanese society strongly upholds the value of community and idea of belonging to a particular group or community. These ideologies are indoctrinated into children at an early age. In primary school, teachers stress the importance to students that they should all take care of one another, resulting in little teacher intervention between student conflicts or affairs. Starting from middle school, students are expected to join clubs and commit hours of their time after school and on the weekend to their club activities. This eventually continues on in high and in university, finally cultivating in the work force.

Most Japanese college graduates are expected to enter companies in the first week of April after their graduation from college in early March. They are grouped together as shinsotsu or fresh graduates in their companies. Shinsotsu all receive company training together and spend the first 1-6 months as a group in their companies. Some companies have 100s of shinsotsu per year as spot recruiting isn’t as common in Japan. Many companies have a set time frame for shinsotsu or inexperienced workers to apply (although they do usually accept mid-career applicants all year round). Therefore, it’s no surprise shinsotsu form strong relationships through the nomikai or drinking parties and other company hosted events. The first few years of company life somewhat resemble an extension of college, and new graduates are able to bond and create a sense of unity and communion.

That being said, the company is a top priority for Japanese people. The culture of job-transfers is still relatively new to Japan. After WWII, Japanese corporate life became centered around life-time employment, guaranteed raises, and job stability due to the growing bubble economy. The company would take care of its workers and in exchange the workers would give their all to the company. Many companies in Japan would provide perks such as subsidize housing or dormitories, and shell out excellent pensions and family-related benefits for their employees. Therefore, there was no reason for employees to leave the company. Especially with guaranteed promotions for males based on seniority. Of course, while it may not be as strong as it was 40 years ago, the emphasis on the group is still alive and thriving in Japanese corporate culture.

3.Seniority is key. If you’ve ever watched any sort of show or movie about school life, you probably have heard the word sempai before. Sempai means upperclassmen in Japanese. Underclassmen are expected to listen and respect their sempai, whether it be in school or in extracurricular clubs. Interestingly enough this concept of sempai carries over and is very prevalent in corporate culture. Those who enter a company later are expected to follow and respect those who have been in the company for a longer period of time. Most times younger company hires are expected to use “keigo” or polite language with their sempais, regardless of whether they are equivalent to them on the corporate letter. Unlike the US, where if your title is the same, you treat each other as equals regardless of who entered the company first.

Furthermore, the only way to move up the corporate ladder is to stay in the company long enough. While your performance does factor into your career track, there is less emphasis as there is in the West. I have heard companies flat out say, “after 5 years you become an associate” or “after 10 years you become a general chief” or “after 35 years you become principal” etc. depending on the industry. Especially in larger companies, they have set career paths based on the amount of time you have worked at the company. It’s only after you hit that required target time, that you are considered for promotion. Unlike in fast-paced tech industries in the West where promotional rewards are a direct results of your performance, Japan strongly factors in the amount of time you have spent in the company.

4.Everyone in upper management are all middle-age men. Because seniority is so highly regarded in Japan, it only makes sense that those in upper-management are in their 40s-50s. However, I would say 95% of upper management is comprised of men. The harsh reality is that men are still favored in most management track positions. Bosses are hesitant to promote women to managerial roles because they believe female workers are prone to leaving the company after 3-5 years, when they get married and start a family. Frankly, bosses have a right to be worried, because most women do end up leaving the work force to become full-time housewives and mothers.

This is the way the cycle works. Women tend to not get promoted in the work force because management feels they will quit within a few years. Their salaries remain low. Then they get married and start a family. Their husbands earn more than them and have potential to move up the corporate ladder in the future. Men also devotes their life to working and have little down time at home. Therefore, couples make a mutual decision based on financial reasons that the wife should stay home to take care of the child, since the husband earns more and has less time. Thus women leave the work force perpetuating the stereotype. ★Please note that I see nothing wrong with housewives and househusbands. I think it’s one of the most stressful yet rewarding jobs out there!★

Of course, there has been an increase in female labor participation within recent years, but it will still be a long way before we see any results in upper management. The current generation in upper management started their careers around 30 years ago, and it’s only within the past 10 years that the Japanese government has shown initiative in increasing women in the work force in order to stimulate the economy. Therefore, while women may have more opportunities in recent years, it will still be a good 10-15 years before we will significantly see a change in the workforce and see women work their way up the corporate ladder.

Furthermore, housewives are very much a cultural aspect ingrained in Japan that cannot just be deconstructed overnight. Many young girls see their moms as role models and would aspire to be in that same position one day. The same goes for boys, who would rather be like their dads and become the bread winners of the family. While their are young women aspiring to progress and go far in their careers, there will always be others who would prefer to protect and take the traditional route of motherhood and housewifery (that’s not a real word). I am still torn on the issue to be quite honest myself!


❤Anyway these are just some of things I have come to realize not just through my own working experiences, but through listening to my friends and acquaintances as well. That being said, don’t be discouraged by anything I wrote! There are great opportunities and experiences here and it’s not all depressing (I’ll write about the perks later)! I’m sure there are others out there with similar or drastically different experiences and I would love to hear them as well. Everyday is a learning process and so far I have experienced and gained great knowledge from my past year here, and I’m excited to challenge myself and keep going!