Rare is the expat who has never tried ramen, never ridden in a Honda, and never heard of Hello Kitty. Many know the Japanese are painstakingly polite and expect a bow in greeting them. And yet this basic awareness is hardly enough: Unspoken rules, expectations, and ways of doing things can present unanticipated challenges.
In this Bristol country profile, we highlight essential aspects of Japanese culture, and offer tips for assignment success.
The official language is Japanese – and assignees should not expect locals to speak English. Although they study it in school, courses prioritize grammar over communication. Additionally, many feel self-conscious about making mistakes and avoid using the language to save face. Unfortunately, Japanese can be a very difficult language for outsiders to learn. Therefore, Bristol advises that assignees receive pre-departure language training, as well as ongoing language support throughout their assignment.
The good news is that it is not necessary to achieve complete mastery to begin communicating. Omniglot and Linguanaut offer some basic phrases to help expats get started:
- Hello: Konnichiwa
- How are you? O genki desu ka
- Goodbye: Sayonara
- Thank you: Arigato
- Excuse me: Sumimasen
- Do you speak English? Eigo wa dekimasu ka?
- I don’t understand: Wakarimasen
- Cheers! Kanpai
As with every country, it is important for expats to start with realistic expectations, both of their host country and themselves. Japan is an exceptionally homogenous nation at 98.5% Japanese. For expats, this can be appealing or alienating. While it can feel exhilarating to live in a country that retains so much of its distinctive culture, the pervasiveness can become suffocating. Moreover, being one of the only foreign faces can get old, particularly in a country where differences are not always appreciated.
One way to adjust to life in Japan is to understand its cultural values – the ideals that drive people’s motivations, thought processes, behaviors, and relationships. While individual Japanese have their own personalities and preferences, the Hofstede Centredescribes them as generally being:
- Interdependent (as opposed to individualistic)
- Competitive and achievement-oriented (especially as a group)
- Risk-averse and orderly
- Meritocratic but respectful of hierarchies in the workplace
- Restrained and concerned with preserving harmony
- Focused on the long-term
- Indirect communicators
In Japan, people build their sense of self through group membership. Each group they belong to (family, classmates, colleagues) helps individuals know who they are through the roles they provide, the interactions and relationships they foster, and the practice of mutual obligation. Rather than individualism and self-determination, conformity and self-sacrifice are seen as upstanding character traits here. Add to this their long-term perspective and risk-aversion, and the Japanese will often sublimate what they want in the moment for the wa (harmony) and big-picture benefit of their groups.
These values have led to an indirect communication style. To avoid giving offence, the Japanese “beat around the bush,” drop hints, and deliberately leave messages open to interpretation. Expats who speak directly may come across as lacking grace, refinement and maturity – or worse, intentionally insulting someone. Similar faux pas are revealing impatience or losing one’s temper. At the same time, it is important to exude the right kind of energy, one that combines genki and gambatte. Transitions Abroad explainsgenki-ness as a kind of “happy, healthy, energetic manner of being,” whilegambatte (“do your best” or “don’t give up”) is a kind of industrious spirit, passion, and determination to succeed.
It can be a delicate dance to simultaneously demonstrate enthusiasm and reserve, or to be both competitive and respectful of the group’s harmony. Interpersonal conflicts will also inevitably arise, and it can be difficult to know how to proceed in a way that respects the local culture and preserves valued relationships while also addressing one’s needs. Moreover, it can be psychologically and even physically taxing to be in an environment where appropriate public behaviors may feel scripted or unnatural.
To promote assignment success, Bristol offers expert pre-departure training as well as ongoing cultural coaching. Assignees should also make a point to identify potential cultural insiders – people on the ground who can explain the finer points of Japanese culture (in a way they can understand) as new situations arise. Finally, they should utilize cross-cultural transition books, such as Andy Molinsky’s Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process.
When moving to Japan on an assignment, one of the most important spheres is obviously the workplace. Remembering that it is important to fit in, assignees should anticipate dressing like everyone else. In most companies, this means dressing formally and conservatively, in a business suit for men and either a suit or skirt and blouse for women. The Essential Japan Guide cautions that it is best to avoid “too much flash” but rather stick to tried and true classics like black, dark gray, or navy blue.
Beyond dressing alike, it is also important for assignees to exhibit a team spirit in the way they behave. In keeping with the concepts of genki and gambatte mentioned above, expats should expect to work long hours (including arriving before one’s shift and staying until the boss or at least all of one’s coworkers depart). As Transitions Abroad explains, “to display lackluster attitude or behavior is to insult your coworkers and to insult the group” – which you certainly wouldn’t want to do in a culture where harmonious relationships are deeply important, and where one is either seen as beingin or out. Making things more complicated, the reality in practice may diverge from the expectations laid out on paper, as This Japanese Life notes. Therefore, it is critical to pay attention to the way things are actually done and behave accordingly.
Even when the day is done, it is not really done: In many companies, evening events such as karaoke beckon. These should not be viewed in the casual “come or don’t come” way that employees in the U.S. see happy hour; here they are elemental to the workplace experience. After-hours socializing not only lets employees bond over alcohol and singing but it also showcases the boss’s hospitality. Therefore, turning down an invitation can “create a silent rift from that point onward.” And remember, it’s not enough just to go. As in the office, employees must also exude the right energy and engagement.
Assignees from more individually-oriented countries may see all of this team spirit building as a waste of time or distraction from the “real work.” However, it is important to recognize that in Japan, employees are not evaluated on their novel ideas or praised for the way they steer a project to completion. Rather, they are judged based on their participation – which in many organizations may be 100% or nothing.
This can be overwhelming for foreigners who are not used to this approach, but there are strategies available to help them cope. Some expats focus on the positives by seeing these differences as an opportunity to experience another way of life on a personal level and a chance to cultivate global business skills on a professional one. Others remind themselves that while the Japanese office environment might not really suit them – as outsiders, it’s not really meant to. Another approach is to keep in mind that most assignments are, by their very nature, temporary. It’s not necessary to embrace the style of working; it is only necessary to find a way to productively and effectively navigate it.
While work will occupy a large part of their time, assignees will feel more integrated if they can also find ways to socialize off the job. Unfortunately, because they will be viewed asgaijin, or foreigners, it may be difficult to break into local circles. Therefore, the best starting place may be the expat community. Although it is increasingly common to deride those who live in “an expat bubble,” the truth is that one’s fellow expats are an invaluable source of information, support, and camaraderie – especially during the first few months of a transition.
For those who want to get a richer taste of local life, one option is to look for hobby and recreation groups. Not only can these provide some much-needed creative or athletic time but they can also provide an opportunity to learn a new skill or have a new experience. For example, expats might look into ikebana (flower arrangement) courses, or they might join a hiking group and ascend Mount Fuji. Some find kindred spirits who appreciate classical music or enjoy playing soccer/football. Still others connect by hosting English language conversations. The important thing is not the activity itself, but that it affords the assignee a chance to kick back, have fun, and interact with others.
Still, in keeping with the principle of reasonable expectations, it is also a good idea for expats to make their own plans individually or with family. Considering that work will likely be more than a full-time job, (complete with obligatory socializing,) they may simply crave time on their own to explore the country. One way to get the most out of being in Japan is to keep a list of experiences they want to have before they leave, such as trying sushi, watching kabuki, visiting temples, or wandering Kyoto’s heritage sites. After all, the assignment will eventually end, but the memories will last a lifetime.
Many assignees find it helpful to work with a cultural coach – someone who is focused less on telling them about the culture and more on helping them adapt to it. It is also beneficial to stay in close contact with the home office throughout the assignment. Not only can they offer guidance so challenges do not escalate, but they can help expats make sure that they are preparing in advance to integrate the skills they acquire in Japan into their post-assignment career development plan.
Japan is a highly developed, modernized country – but that doesn’t mean its rules are the same as those from assignees’ home countries. In particular, it is very important to research customs requirements, because many common “over the counter” medications that are legal in places like the U.S. may be considered illegal in Japan, andcarry stiff penalties including imprisonment. Also, although Japan has a low crime rate, be aware of scams targeting foreigners, especially in nightlife areas that attract expats.
In addition, there are certain cultural symbols like tattoos that can easily get lost in translation. While these are an increasingly accepted statement of individuality in many Western countries, in Japan they may be perceived as being antisocial at best or signifying affiliation with the criminal underworld at worst. Assignees should be aware that body markings may be misinterpreted, with consequences ranging from expulsion from onsen (hot springs and spas) to disrupted business and social relationships.
For the latest advice on these matters, please see your State Department or Foreign Ministry.
U.S. State Department
UK Foreign Travel Advice
The Essential Japan Guide offers these tips:
- Exchange business cards with two hands and a slight bow
- Never put business cards in your wallet or pocket!
- Learn appropriate forms of business address, such as –san
- Bring a gift from your home country
- It is impolite to stare and even to make eye contact
- Don’t blow your nose in public
- Refrain from boasting (best to practice false modesty)
Japan is an appealing if sometimes perplexing destination. It is exceedingly polite, but has a tendency to keep outsiders at arm’s length. It is on the cutting edge of modern technology, but retains many cultural mores from centuries past. And while it offers a treasure chest of experiences, it also demands that expats adopt socially-appropriatebehavior, particularly in the workplace. Because Japan is certainly very different from employees’ home countries, cultural training is highly advised. With the right guidance and preparation, an assignment here can not only be a success, but a profound life experience.