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Standing out in Japan: For better or worse?

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Standing out in Japan: For better or worse?

Standing out could make or break your career in Japan!

Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Published on 27 Mar, 12:00

There's an idiom about living in Japan that goes, "出る釘は打たれる" (Deru kugi wa utareru) which means "The nail that sticks out gets hammered".

It doesn't leave much to the imagination about what happens to those who stand out, for whatever reason, at the workplace - but fear not!

There are ways to stand out for the right reasons at your place of work, and also ways to avoid getting hammered.

1. Take notes

It's almost silly how simple this sounds but in your excitement of getting the job offer and planning your move, have you spent the time to look into what it means to live in Japan?

I first moved to Japan for work and, in all honesty, I did not know very much about the country.

In retrospect, if I had a chance to do it over, I'd probably learn a bit of the language. I'd study up on some of the basic laws and understand a bit more about how society works - whether drinking is allowed in certain places, or if it's appropriate to speak with a member of the opposite gender.

Simple things like this would have helped my transition into Japan.

Standing out in Japan: For better or worse?

Thanks in part to this lack of knowledge, I probably did come across as a pretty ignorant foreigner.

I still recall Japanese coworkers being angry at me for reasons that I'll never recall, because I didn't speak the language at the time and can't remember the circumstances surrounding the incident.

You could argue that "Well, there should be allowances made for people from other countries".

You might be right, but winning the fight is not the same as winning the hearts of your coworkers. Endearing yourself to others is not always the way to go, but it can help win allies and friends when you're the newcomer.

I'd recommend checking out Youtube videos of people living in Japan, or Facebook groups of ex-pats who are currently living here.

That'll give you a starting point from which to build your experience and understanding, and it'll mean you'll avoid a lot of cultural faux pas here in Japan.

2. Dress to suppress

When it comes to fashion and appearance in Japan, less is definitely more. Anything that stands out or could be considered unusual must go.

For women

Speaking to a female colleague regarding advice for the ladies, she says, "We're lucky. Usually, you guys need to wear suits but we can get away with a 'fancy blouse' or something that's a bit more casual".

Standing out in Japan: For better or worse?

It's true but bear in mind that I've never seen her in anything that's not black, grey, or white.

She always doesn't wear any ostentatious jewellery, so if you have a passion for metal, leave it at home for your day off. That's a great way to attract attention the wrong way.

My colleague also mentions that investing in make-up is a good idea for women. "You never want to have an awkward conversation with a manager about not having make-up on."

At the same time, she recalls a time when one employee applied bright red lipstick before work, was called into the manager's office and proceeded straight to the lady's room to have it removed.

The best rule of thumb: ask around, she says.

The managers have rules to follow surrounding what to say and what not to say, but your coworkers should have your back and let you know when you've stepped out of line, fashion-wise.

For men

For the men, in my experience, keep it simple. I keep my hair short, but if you like yours long, make sure it's well-kempt.

For companies that allow facial hair, they'll insist you do the same; a tight goatee might not be a big problem, but if you look like you just arrived after a 3-night camping trip in the mountains, it might raise a few eyebrows.

I always wear white shirts and have a basic business suit, and it's served me well. I remember working with a gentleman who had literally just gotten off the plane and was ready and rearing to go-- fully decked out in his Armani suit.

The managers had a few good laughs and were generally positive to his face, but told me in private to ask him to find something more toned-down.

Standing out in Japan: For better or worse?

And if it isn't said out loud (as many things are not), assume that tattoos are not allowed.

Even the most liberal corporate outfit in Japan will at least look twice your way if you walk into a meeting exposing your ink. There's a long story behind why corporate Japan does not like ink, but we'll save that for another article.

3. Own it

While I've spent the bulk of my wordcount talking about how not to be too special, I think this last little bit is the most important thing to remember: you are special.

You are (probably) not Japanese, and you will stick out, no matter how hard you try to act like the locals or speak like them. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but that is simply how it will be - and that's okay!

Own your status as a non-Japanese.

Allow it to be a freedom that you have to be learning about Japan, respecting the local culture, but at the same time not have the burden of having to understand the social sensitivities that local adults would be expected to know.

Standing out in Japan: For better or worse?

Communicate to your boss that "I'm new at this, so please tell me what I need to know".

It may not change anything, but at least he'll know that you are trying, and I cannot overstate how important trying is in Japan.

Sometimes, your non-Japaneseness will even be an asset to your company, if you allow yourself to shine through the sameness that is corporate Japan.

Good luck in your corporate life - figure out where the hammers are and try to avoid getting hit!

But if it's coming for you and you can see it coming, step into it, and don't shy away. If you stand out for the right reasons, your coworkers will appreciate it, and even thank you for it.

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Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Kevin is a professional writer with experience in music, education, news media and entertainment. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in English before moving to Japan for work. He's lived all over Japan, spending time in Kanto, Chubu, Kinki and Okinawa.

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