Working for a Japanese Company: The Challenges

If you’re thinking about working for a Japanese company, here are some of the challenges you'll encounter.

In my previous article, we explored the Top Reasons to Work for a Japanese Company. Here, we’ll explore the challenges that you’ll face if you decide to work for one.
Working for a Japanese company can be the best career decision you make. There are many monetary and non-monetary benefits, and a real sense of family and belonging. Yet as with any culture, there are things which can drive foreigners crazy. If you are considering working for a Japanese company, these are the six main disadvantages you’ll need to ask yourself: can I live with it?

1) Low pay, even after bonuses

High pay is not a major drawing point of Japanese companies. To generalise, Japanese companies pay is relatively low when compared to their Western competitors, even if it is a subsidiary outside Japan.

People often cite large bonuses as a benefit for working for the Japanese. While bonuses of the two to six-month range do exist, remember that bonuses are calculated from base salary. With a low base salary, the total compensation package can still be lower than what foreign companies are paying, even with bonuses factored in.

In comparison with other OECD countries, Japan is relatively low on the annual wage scale (adjusted for purchasing power parity): above Israel and Mexico, but below the US, UK and Korea.

Source: OECD

2) Face time and long hours are still the norm

Face time, or where the boss sees you working, is still important. Leaving before the boss is frowned upon, and may even decrease your competitiveness among your peers. Overtime is normal. Staying late demonstrates your commitment to the team and company, and can be culturally traced back to the days that Samurai were required to show unwavering loyalty to their Lords.

Work life balance is not widely understood. You will spend most of your day working, and what’s left of your evening "team building" by eating and drinking with your colleagues or customers at nomikai sessions. While doing so is optional, the reality is that it's expected if you want to advance your career.

3) Nomikai (after work drinks) is expensive

If you're one of the more senior people in your team, you'll be expected to subsidise every session and pay a large share of the bill, out of your own pocket. It's a sliding scale - the more senior you are, the more you pay. The "American" concept of splitting the bill, is not part of the culture. Corporate credit cards are also rare in Japan, and so is access to an internal entertainment budget.

Given their frequency, this can easily become a large burden on your limited salary.

4) Seniority and rigid hierarchy is still key

Regardless of how skilled you are, seniority still plays a large role in determining who is promoted. Promotions are often determined based on whether it is “your time” in relation to your age, peer group and the number of years you’ve spent at the company.

It makes sense if you’re planning to be with the company for the rest of your life (lifetime employment still exists), but if you’re ambitious and want to make it to the top quickly, a Japanese company may not be the right place to do it.

5) Developing maturity on gender and racial diversity

Most Japanese companies are headed up by Japanese men. Compared to their Western counterparts, Japanese companies are still in the process of integrating the benefits of gender equality and racial diversity. If working in Japan, you will often see Office Ladies (or 'OLs', a dead-end clerical job for women), who never progress far from serving tea and performing general admin duties, as they are expected to quickly marry before the age of 30 and leave the company.

More enterprising women also have to choose between career and having a family: people are expected to dedicate their working lives solely towards their company, and those who do take maternity leave, or need to leave early to take care of their children, are disadvantaged in their career. To illustrate the point, there are almost no female leaders in top corporate positions.

A report from the World Economic Forum indicated that Japan's gender equality ranking had slipped from 110 in 2018, to 121 in 2019, showing there is still much to be done.

For men, the concept of paternity leave is not understood and men who take it are likely to be disadvantaged upon returning to the company.

In terms of diversity, Japanese companies are still keen on the expat model: jet setting Japanese managers and executives to lead most, if not all divisions in their foreign subsidiaries. It can be a challenge to reach the top without a strong Japanese upbringing.

To be fair, gender and racial equality are issues which many countries still struggle with in varying degrees, Japan being one of them.

6) Lack of privacy at work

Stepping in a normal Japanese office, you will see rows upon rows of long tables. Everyone sits together in a standard, classroom-like arrangement: manager in front, and his junior staff in front of him. There are no cubicles and no privacy. Only the most senior executives have offices.

In a physical sense, the office layout enforces the strict hierarchy at work. Bosses sit at the head of tables, while only the biggest boss gets a private office.

* * *

When working for a Japanese company, you are virtually married to it. There is an expectation you are committed to them and like a marriage, put in the time, effort and go beyond, 24/7. Is it for you?

While we’ve focussed on the disadvantages of working for a Japanese company, there are also quite a number of key advantages and benefits. Before you make a decision, also check out the Top 7 Reasons to Work for a Japanese Company.

Photo credits: Jordon Cheung, Toni Lucatorto, MONUSCO Photos, Mario Karou Mevy, Amir Jina
Originally published 18 May 2016. Updated in 20 January 2020.



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K Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: Working for a Japanese Company: The Challenges
Working for a Japanese Company: The Challenges
If you’re thinking about working for a Japanese company, here are some of the challenges you'll encounter.
K Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead
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