The Truth About Working at Japanese Companies (Part II)

The Truth About Working at Japanese Companies (Part II)

Is a career in Japanese companies for you? Are the stories you hear, true? Well, we interviewed a few friends on the inside to find out! If you haven’t already, check out the first part of this series here and join us as we explore the Japanese working world!

Our friendly interviewees: (Read more about them in Part 1!)

Tomomi at downtown Singapore for a lunch with the Japanese team.


Katheryn with her colleagues, celebrating a birthday over dinner.


Nicodemus at a Nomikai with his colleagues. Read what he says about Nomikais in Part One of this series.


Myth or fact? Let’s see what they say…

Qn: Is constant unpaid overtime work the norm, with employees not even daring to take their paid or sick leave? Do employees work at a snail’s pace so that they can spend more time in the office?

(nods) When I resigned from my company in Japan, I had so much annual leave unused. Bosses do not welcome their employees to take their leave; we try to understand how they feel and avoid it unless we can justify it well. Our attitude towards our entitled leave is that it’s not necessary to use it, and it should be given up.

This is why there are more holidays in Japan, because the government understands that taking any leave is not a happy thing, so they use holidays to force workers to take time off.

I do use my leave here, though. I’m so happy about that! When I told my parents that I was coming back to Japan for two weeks, they were so worried because they thought I was having problems at work! (laughs)

About spending more time in the office – many people in Japan believe that working for long hours means that they are working hard. In Japan, if I were to leave the office at 6.30pm, the boss would think I have not enough work to do. It is normal in Japan to be working late, leaving the office as late as 10pm. We also often come back to work on weekends.

By comparison, the people in Singapore seem to have a good work-life balance, usually leaving the office on time, and doing whatever they like on the weekends. I feel like I can’t go back to Japan to work anymore!

In my company, we have no reason to work slowly because overtime isn’t expected – we can even surf the internet once we finish our tasks for the day. There are times when I finish my work early and I do some online shopping at the office instead. It’s perfectly fine!

My boss is also totally fine with me leaving the office earlier than him. He even scolds me if I work late sometimes!

I’ve had no issues with taking leave, either. At least for Japanese companies based in Singapore like mine, everyone agrees that sickness will hamper your productivity, so taking time off to rest when you are unwell is encouraged.

I do have colleagues who are workaholics, but I also have colleagues who are nothing like that. Some don’t care about leaving the office before the boss do – which I do, too! I don’t really feel any peer pressure to stay, unless there’s really work to do.

As for taking leave, my company takes illnesses very seriously, and are afraid of contracting illnesses from people who are sick – that’s why you see the Japanese wearing face masks. I once fell sick, and was ordered to stay home for a few days so that I can work more efficiently when I’m completely recovered, rather than suffering for a few weeks and spreading illness among colleagues.
And even when they’re not sick, my Japanese colleagues often take leave…

About the pace of work – I personally think Singaporeans work too fast. The Japanese work at a steady pace… it’s not in their culture to rush. Maybe that’s why they do more OT, and when compared to Singaporeans, they may seem to work slower. But they pace themselves very well, are meticulous with their work, do not procrastinate; and at the end of the day, they get the job done.

Qn: Are career opportunities non-meritocratic, with age prized over talent? Are women, non-Japanese and younger people discriminated against with lower salaries and fewer career advancement opportunities?

All of this is still true in Japan. People think that working longer in the same company means that they are good workers.

It is normal to join a company as a fresh graduate, then stay in it until you retire. It used to be that nobody would think of changing companies. Now people are starting to think about changing jobs, using their skillsets to get better positions or opportunities. But there are many people in the older generation, say 40s and above, who will still have the old mindset that values long service over skillsets.

Glass ceilings are still there, and women have a hard time getting better opportunities compared to men. It’s also because in Japan, it’s not easy if you have children. Singapore is small, so your family is living close to you, or maybe you have maids. In Japan, a lot of women have to take a long leave from work to take care of their babies after giving birth, sometimes up to years – it’s difficult to come back to the same position after that.

My CEO and COO are both Japanese, but I don’t feel any discrimination even though I’m much more outspoken and daring compared to my female Japanese colleagues.

My bosses want to hear what their staff thinks and are always ready listen to my views and opinions. They are even okay with me opposing their decisions, as long as I have valid reasons for doing so.

I feel that productivity is more highly valued these days. Even people with long service records may still be fired if they’re not productive enough! But maybe in certain industries there’s a preference for men who may be better suited for the job because of their more outgoing nature.

These issues are deeply-rooted in culture and not easy to change. I am aware of an expectation for women to be more submissive. Feminine traits are bred into girls since their schooldays, so the habits may be seen at the workplace still, where they would often be serving the tea or flattering the boss. But these opinions stem from their society’s expectations, rather than being just about career equality. Some companies like mine don’t really have gender discrimination, but gender-based expectations still persist, especially in more rural parts of Japan.

For companies in Japan, discrimination is probably a bigger issue because they don’t really have certain HR practices, such as meritocratic systems with performance reviews. They’re trying to change it, but I do think that this is a current problem in Japan. They still take hierarchy and seniority very seriously, and value age in their culture. In some Japanese companies, those in higher positions are always Japanese, even in Singapore.

That’s not an issue in my company though, because it has a flat hierarchy. Most of my colleagues are female, and my boss pours his own tea. Despite my youth and not being a Japanese, I don’t feel discriminated against when it comes to career opportunities either.

I think the ‘discrimination’ against foreigners is often more of a communication gap, or a fear of the unknown, which you can overcome if you manage to blend in. After all, we Asians do look alike… it comes down to how you present yourself. In addition, the newer generations are getting more relaxed and less rigid about traditions.

Here’s food for thought – I’ve encountered discrimination against the Japanese within Singapore… As I work in HR, I’ve interviewed Singaporeans, and many expect people who come to Singapore to speak English well, and dismiss the Japanese as useless because they can’t speak English as well as they do.

My Japanese colleagues really appreciate it when you as a foreigner try to speak their language. Even if you speak Japanese badly, they wouldn’t really judge you. In Singapore, they probably realise that they are also speaking English in a strange way too…

Perhaps the older generations in Japan are more biased against people who can’t communicate in Japanese, simply because they can’t communicate in any other language.

Qn: Do you enjoy the job security that Japanese companies are rumoured to offer, or do you just feel ‘stuck’? Is it a commitment trap to work in a Japanese company?

Yes, exactly, once you join a company, it becomes your family. If anyone asks why you left your company, you cannot say that you’ve been fired, or you would not be able to get a job anymore! In Japan, we do not have referral checks, so hiring decisions are based solely on what the candidate says.

Japanese companies do tend to train their employees and build up their career over the long-term, so there is job security. I did choose to leave my previous company though, and I’m glad I did because it was too stressful there.

I think it’s true that losing your job is only likely to happen if you commit a grave mistake. But job security isn’t guaranteed because external factors will play a part – When Panasonic Singapore had a business downturn, all contract staff like myself had to leave.

Being expected to stay for life in the same company may still be the case in Japan, but not in Singapore. If you feel stagnant at a company, nobody would fault you for ‘jumping’. Beyond the first few years, I don’t think there’s any pressure to stay at a company based in Singapore anymore, even if it’s Japanese.

The mentality of Japanese companies seems to be one that expects you to stay, but I look forward to staying! There is a concept known as 上下関係 in Japanese companies. Superficially, this refers to the relationship between superiors and their subordinates, but on a deeper level, it describes how seniors take care of their juniors, and how juniors respect their seniors in return. This has been very useful for me! I made quite a lot of mistakes when I first started, and every time my superior was there to save me. Even if he is micromanaging me at times, he’s really just covering my ass!

So yes, there is a certain expectancy for you to stay in your job, but there are many positive benefits to this culture. Their culture creates a family-like environment, so you wouldn’t want to leave or betray your ‘family’. People stay because they’re willing to.

However, I’ve encountered many cases where people just leave. I think it’s pretty open. I personally know Japanese colleagues whom, after working for one or two years in the company, leave for better opportunities in another company.

I guess Japanese companies are adapting to the American style of doing things, but they still retain the culture of expecting employees to remain with them. This can be seen in their contract practices – in most other companies you have a one to five-year contract which requires regular renewal, while in Japanese companies, you only sign one contract for life! Although of course, if you screw up really badly (like make your company lose millions of dollars) then you might not be able to stay even if you want to!



Would you like some friendly advice for a career with Japanese companies? Then look out for the last instalment in this series – Part III of The Truth About Working at Japanese Companies – Coming Soon!