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BusinessIamA I’m Rochelle Kopp, a business culture consultant specializing in Japan. Ask me anything about working with Japan, and how Japanese companies tick. AMA!

Oct 20th 2016 by RochelleKopp • 16 Questions • 2798 Points

My short bio:

Living in Japan and working in a Japanese company gave me first-hand experience of cultural issues when Japanese and non-Japanese work together, and the challenges that Japanese companies face in globalizing. In 1994 I established Japan Intercultural Consulting, where I help Japanese companies be more successful in their global operations, supporting effective human resource management practices, organization development, and cross-cultural training and teambuilding. I also work frequently with American firms that have Japanese customers, joint venture partners, and suppliers. My firm’s clients include Astellas, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, Bridgestone, DeNA, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Honda, Omron, Recruit, Ricoh, Softbank, Sony, Sumitomo Chemical, Toray, and Toyota.

I am the author of The Rice-Paper Ceiling: Breaking Through Japanese Corporate Culture, The Lowdown: Business Etiquette Japan, the upcoming Creating Engaged Employees in Japan, and over twenty-five books in Japanese. I also write frequently for Japanese publications including regular columns in The Asahi Shimbun’s GLOBE section and the Newsweek Japan website.

Here are some videos where I talk with Japan-based vlogger Hikosaemon about Japanese business and cross-cultural topics, to give you a taste of the kind of topics you can ask me about: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLIFKAGoXm024JAkZwDd_itS3LHK6zHbbl https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pHiTX5NDoU&list=PLIFKAGoXm027JCeIg1LWu0es0hMbD8P47 https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=joy+of+japanese+business

My Proof: https://twitter.com/JapanIntercult/status/788872313588428800 https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10205600181283012&set=a.1869091586174.75629.1807642456&type=3&theater

Q:

A lot of what we learn in the West about Japanese business culture related to white-collar work - for example, long hours, long meetings, and obligatory boozing at karaoke. Do these conventions (or cliches) apply to blue-collar labor as well? What about the service sector (e.g. retail)?

A:

Service sector (restaurants and retail) tend to have very long hours and a lot of the reports of "black" (abusive) companies come from this sector. Blue collar workers often do unpaid overtime (e.g. for quality circles) and do a lot of after hours socializing t oo.


Q:

Can you explain some typical cultural differences, and then some surprising ones?

What kinds of perks/benefits are typical to Japanese employees?

Japanese kids are expected to clean their own schools. Is this carried into the adult workplace as well?

A:

Perks and benefits. The usual insurance stuff, commuting expenses, at bigger companies access to holiday facilities.


Q:

Can you explain some typical cultural differences, and then some surprising ones?

What kinds of perks/benefits are typical to Japanese employees?

Japanese kids are expected to clean their own schools. Is this carried into the adult workplace as well?

A:

Typical cultural differences include: Japanese tend to be fairly indirect. They are very risk-averse. They are rather hierarchical. They are very process-oriented. They tend to be less wordy / more non-verbal than most other cultures. Hmm, surprising ones. My mind is drawing a blank. Almost nothing surprises me at this point!


Q:

Japan has an ageing and declining population, and immigration is often suggested as a solution to patching the hole in the productive workforce. How do you think Japanese society, which is currently very homogenous, would cope with a significant increase in foreign residents? Have you any opinions on how increases in immigration might best be achieved and managed?

A:

I believe that the Japanese authorities are indeed very wary of what would happen if more immigrants were brought in. Also many Japanese citizens are not particularly open to the idea. However as you point out, it's probably inevitable. In order to make it work, there would need to be more programs designed at helping immigrants learn Japanese and the Japanese culture, and helping Japanese be more comfortable with different people among them.


Q:

Hypothetically speaking, since it is very difficult to judge ones own japanese ability, If a foreigner has a long history in Japan, and have near flawless japanese, JLPT N1, basically the most integrated foreigner in japanese society, for these kind of people do you still feel that there is a Glass ceiling in Japanese companies. As a foreigner taking japanese courses in a university with other japanese students, I seem to have run into a fork of two different reactions. I dont expect to be treated as a normal japanese person, but is there a chance at being taken seriously in the japanese workforce?

A:

It really depends on the company. There are a lot of non-Japanese who have built excellent careers and risen to higher posts in Japanese firms. So it is not impossible at all. And I see more and more of these people all the time.


Q:

To be fair, both locals and foreigners get treated pretty badly by some companies.

Without good Japanese and an in demand skill, odds are likely that you will be working for one of the "black" companies.

Warning signs include time slips that only state 29.5 hours a week, despite you work far more than that. Being offered a "Gyomu Itaku" contract and being told it is part time. It is not, it is a sub-contractor, and makes you legally liable for things like insurance and taxes.

No staff getting a 3rd contract renewal, without a several month gap between contracts. This is important as you move to a permanent employee after your 3rd contract renewal, with much better rights, and in theory, working conditions.

A:

As for over the years, I think that the keiretsu are less strong than they used to be. Now companies are more cost-conscious and are more willing to look outside their keiretsu to get better costs.


Q:

Hi Rochelle. I'm an Australian law student. I was thinking of taking a one year break to do the JET programme, and then come back to law school. My question is, maybe instead of the JET programme, are there any other opportunities (ie types of internships) that involve law and Japanese, maybe in Japan? I have around N2 level Japanese.

A:

I know that there are a lot of positions at Japanese law firms for newly graduated non-Japanese attorneys. I think basically all the major Japanese law firms have these. I am not sure if they would take someone still in law school. Would be worth looking into though.


Q:

Thanks for the answer Hiko! I have one more. Generally, what industries would you advice someone to ignore entering? For example, ive heard that the advertising industry in Japan is a nightmare to work in. Do you have any other advice such as that? Furthermore, Japanese people seem to have this obsession with entering big companies here. But would you recommend trying to enter a bigger company, semi big, small? Thank you!

A:

Bigger companies tend to have better salaries but I would still look at smaller ones as they can be very interesting. In that sense I think it's similar to what you would find in the U.S. As for industries, I don't have one I would say across the board to avoid.


Q:

What do Japanese investors and executives think about Silicon Valley culture?

A:

On one hand, they are fascinated by it. Japanese companies are always visiting Silicon Valley to learn about it (sometimes I speak to those groups when they visit Silicon Valley). And on the other hand, when it comes to the actual adoption of Silicon Valley style ways of working (agile software programming, etc.) they find it difficult to do so.


Q:

I'm a programmer and recently switched from working 5 days a week to working only 4 at my company. How easy would it be to get a permanent contract while still keeping a short workweek in Japan?

I've heard some things about part-timers getting the short end of the stick pay and benefits wise.

A:

I have never heard of a Japanese company doing this kind of compressed workweek. Also Japanese firms do not have the concept of professional part-timers. It's really just the regular full time positions that they would have (that are more than full time of course)


Q:

How long is a workweek on average would you say? Officially and unofficially, because I've heard all the horror stories, but I have no idea what I could realistically expect.

A:

Basic would be 9 to 5 or 6 but a lot of people work till 7 or much later.


Q:

A thought just occurred, are those extra hours paid? Or is it so expected that you put in the extra time that it's hard to get pay for them.

A:

Depends on how much the company is following the rules. You are supposed to get paid for them but in many cases companies expect you to do "sabisu zangyo" (unpaid overtime). More on that phenomenon here: http://www.japanintercultural.com/en/news/default.aspx?newsid=203


Q:

What's the Japanese viewpoint on inter-office dating? Do they do after work happy hour? What are some HR policies that they have that Americans would find very strange?

A:

Vlogger Hikosaemon and I did a video on this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHaQl1sUUEU

There is a lot of inter-office dating and in fact traditionally Japanese firms would encourage it. As for HR policy that would seem strange to Americans, some Japanese firms either informally or formally expect that one of the two employees would quit if they got married to each other.


Q:

Hey Rochelle, I have one. I always thought that Karoshi (working to death) was something associated with the bad old days of the Bubble and 90s, but there has been a recent surge of stories involving Dentsu, a Filipino in a small factory, and a civil servant within recent years. What is your take - is this still a current and serious issue in Japan?

A:

I think it's still a current and serious issue, and indeed I believe that the problem has been getting worse in the past several years. Due to economic pressures, companies are trying to do more with the same number of or fewer people. Also there has been the emergence of the "black" abusive companies.


Q:

I highly doubt it's more common than in the past. Companies are increasing compliance and csr activities, and I think the prevalence of the stories in the news shows that the government, media, and society in general view it as a problem in a way they didn't used to

A:

Some women take "sogoshoku" jobs which are career-track positions that are the same track that men are on. There is not a wage gap in these positions. Some women however choose the "jimushoku" or "ippanshoku track" which is administrative work. Almost everyone who chooses this track is female and the wages are lower and also often there is a requirement to wear a uniform.


Q:

How realistic would be, whether you're native Japanese or a foreigner, to work in a company, live the salary man life style, but NOT work the salary man hours?

One of my biggest goals when I go to Japan is to work for a big company, work in a Japanese office setting, but do my best to avoid the hour strain that it comes with.

A:

Ah interesting question. I think it's theoretically possible but practically speaking I think it would be very uncomfortable to curtail your hours. You would likely get a lot of flak for it and also you will likely get invited out to dinner etc. a lot. Japanese moms who want to work reasonable hours have a lot of trouble with these issues.