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When helping out at work is not helpful in Japan

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When helping out at work is not helpful in Japan

Things not to do out of the goodness of your heart at work.

Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Published on 08 Mar, 12:00

Having grown up and done most of my formal education and work in Canada, I grew up with a certain understanding of what was considered good business practice.

A firm handshake, making regular eye contact, and proactively contributing to discussions are a few things that I was taught to do in the business scene, and to expect the same from others.

However, as I transitioned into the Japanese workplace, I quickly found out that the values that I had been brought up with don't necessarily translate to what is desirable in Japan. Here are a few notable examples of business practice and etiquette that should be exercised with caution, or avoided altogether, in Japan.

Who's the boss here? He'll be leading the discussions.
Who's the boss here? He'll be leading the discussions.

"Leading" the discussion

Meetings in Japan are notoriously - and often unnecessarily - long. As a culture that prides itself on unity and collective decision-making, meetings are often elongated by the fact that:

a) The manager or boss may not want to make a unilateral decision

b) His subordinates will not want to step on his or anyone else' toes in the discussion.

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to teach English at a manufacturing plant: I had a group of 5 (one of whom was the manager of that particular section) and I asked them to come up with an answer to the question "Where in Japan should we relocate our plant?"

Although there was initially some light discussion - "I think Tokyo is best" "Yes, I agree but it's expensive" - and a clear effort was made to use the target language that was taught, as the time elapsed, all eyes turned to the manager, who also was unable to come up with an answer, passing the buck back to the group, who then looked up haplessly at me.

As someone who would look to lead that sort of conversation, even if I was in a lower position, it was frustrating to see this sort of directionless group. However, it's been my experience that that is part of Japanese business culture.

To respect others and to respect the boss, first and foremost, is vitally important to be accepted as a member of the group. If you're ever in the same situation, bite your tongue and learn to be patient, even if it means a bit of overtime.

Remember to make - and break! - eye contact! Balance is everything!
Remember to make - and break! - eye contact! Balance is everything!

Using effective "eye contact"

Personally, I like to make eye contact when I speak to someone. With very few exceptions, I think making eye contact is a form of respect. It has been my experience, however, that many people in Japan do not make eye contact; whether on the street or in the office, the eyes are always turned downwards.

This is slightly annoying (and dangerous!) when I'm a mere pedestrian attempting to pass a group of schoolgirls who are speaking with each other and not looking ahead, but this is very counterproductive in a business situation, as it requires calling on meeting participants by name to command their attention.

A few years ago, I was mentoring a young lady - fresh out of school - who was supposed to take over my responsibilities as I was moving to another position. Upon our first meeting, she was attentive and smiling and demonstrated a good level of English.

After that session, however, everything changed: gradually, she looked down and away and, while responding to my questions and feedback, sat further and further away from me. It was puzzling; I thought we had made great rapport at our first meeting.

It was later revealed to me after I had transferred away, that she had been intimidated by my "intense stare" and that she was trying to get the job down, but it was difficult to focus. I emailed to reach out to her to apologize and we've since gone on to restore our working relationship.

What I considered to be healthy, confident eye contact was too extreme, too personal for a business relationship.

If you're ever in the same situation, try to make eye contact a bit less frequently than you might in your home country, if you're used to speaking while looking at your partner the entire time, as I am. It might make for better working relationships with your coworkers.

To go home or not: a tricky question in Japanese business
To go home or not: a tricky question in Japanese business

"Helping" out with overtime

When the work is finished, you go home, right? Traditionally, in Japan, no, not if your manager is still in the office; you'd be expected to stay on until he leaves, if not later.

These days, thanks to calls for work reform in Japan, things are gradually changing, and companies (particularly those with connections overseas) are encouraging their employees to leave on time, or at least minimize their overtime.

As a result of this split in working philosophy, I've noticed two types of employees that get into trouble. The first are the ones who 'volunteer' to leave the office 'on time'.

By taking advantage of Japan's new feel-good movement towards leaving on time and aligning its work culture with the Western world, they're indirectly maligning the older staff in the office who don't appreciate the new shift, considering it akin to laziness.

On the other hand, there are others who will intentionally stay back to appease their seniors, logging hours upon hours of overtime. Now, this is not an issue if there really is work to be done, but more often than not, it's just for show. While the seniors might appreciate the performance, HR may not approve of these antics, particularly when they're the ones paying for it.

So what to do? It may seem stupidly simple, but just communicate and make sure expectations are understood, whether that means working a bit longer on certain days or making sure that you're clocking out on time.

Keep clear lines of communication to know what to do - and not do!
Keep clear lines of communication to know what to do - and not do!

It's never easy to shift mindsets, and you may feel confused, if not frustrated, at first. My best advice is to keep an open mind, learn from the locals, and figure out which battles are worth fighting, and which are worth giving up, in the name of group cohesiveness.

Some best practices are best left back home where you learned them, and if you keep an open mind, you may pick up a thing or two while working in Japan as well.

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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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