Working at a Japanese company: Expectation vs. Reality

***Disclaimer: This is my own experiences working in a Japanese company and it might not be true for others.***

While I was in college in Japan, I heard a lot of things about working in Japan. Mostly, the ugly sides. As you may have heard – something like, “They work so hard; they don’t have a life!” or “It’s so stressful!” and so on. Well, I totally thought so and I kind of swore to myself I would not work in Japan after I graduate.

Guess what? I decided to stay and give it a try. 🙂 I won’t go into details why I changed my mind but let say I finally thought I should not have wasted my 4 years studying Japanese and then just poof…

I’m currently working in a “traditional” Japanese company. I’m only saying traditional because that’s how all of my colleagues describe our company. It has a hierarchy structure and all the work has to be passed around to a lot of people to check before it goes to places it is supposed to go. I hope you get the picture. For example, let say I would like to make a payment for a new order my teammate agreed to purchase from an Indonesian company; I then need to contact at least 7 people just to do a payment process.

1.I need to contact the Indonesian company for Invoice, B/L  and other document as well as forwarding it to a chartering broker.

2.I need to ask my teammate who’s in charge of purchasing that order if he already has currency exchanged ready or I need to get it for him.

3.I need to contact our company’s financial team and let them know the amount of money and we both decide an appropriate date of payment.

4.I need to issue a payment slip and have at least 3 supervisors checked by stamping (similar to signing) their name on it.

5.I need to bring the payment slip to the financial team and once they pay the amount. They will give me another bank slip and I need to e-mail it to the Indonesian company as a prove.

Please note that the process above means everything is smooth as silk. No troubles at all. However, it is not usually like that. Sometimes the document is wrong/the ship is delayed/ or goods is broken, which means I have more work to do and must contact more people to smoothen the whole mess.

Anyway, let’s get back to the topic – Expectation vs. Reality!

As I stated in the beginning, I have had a very bad impression about working in a Japanese company. I think salary-men and O/L (Office Lady) work way too much. During rush-hour in the morning, I see these people in suits tried to get in a packed train. During night time, I see salary-men go for a nomikai after work. Get wasted, go back home, and the cycle repeats. I seriously didn’t know how they could do that on weekdays. I also thought the atmosphere in Japanese companies would be pretty stressful – everyone does their job and no chitchatting/joking if not necessary. It also must be difficult to interact with bosses/supervisors since they care so much about hierarchy system. And oh..where do women stay in a hierarchy structure? Do I just serve tea/coffee to male colleagues? Will there be an opportunity for women to deal with challenging tasks like male workers? I couldn’t stop thinking. I honestly had a lot of doubts and worries before entering a company which is why I decided to go for a one-year contract. I wanted to see how well I can adapt to a somewhat threatening, life-changing decision.

Reality is…I would say a lot better than I expected, but still some stigma holds true. I consider myself very lucky because all of my colleagues are so nice. They are very patient with my broken-ish Japanese. I can obviously survive in Japan and have a long conversation with people, but in a business’s a whole new language. I have to memorize honorific forms/humble forms and a lot of certain phrases when I talk to clients on the phone. It has always been the most difficult task for me but I think I’m getting better. We do joke/chitchat in our team which I noticed is quite different from other teams. They are quiet most of the time while my team have a good laugh now and then.

Hierarchy system is noticeable. Age is not as important as how many years you have been working. People who have had more working experiences get more respect. No one tries to act like they are the boss. They are very good at teamwork and do listen to other perspectives but decision-making is, no doubt, mainly for the high-ranking person.

Nomikai is not a big thing here. We have nomikai on big events like New Year, welcoming newcomers, and so on. It rarely happens and I’m very happy about that. (I prefer going out on weekends.)  My colleagues also don’t work too hard like I had imagined. Many people go home right after the bell rang, even the bosses. They also use their holiday allowance. There is no difficult feelings about taking a day off when they feel like it either. I think it’s very healthy to be able to balance their work and private life time appropriately. I can’t express how happy I was to learn I had been wrong about “Japanese people only work, work, work” idea.

Now I want to tell you about my not-so-good expectation that holds true. What’s it like to be an O/L in a Japanese company? Hmmm…

It’s sad to say that it is very hard for female workers to acquire the same opportunity as male workers. Of course, we do have to serve tea/coffee sometimes. No big deal. However, I know only one female colleague who once had an opportunity to go to a business trip abroad (very far from Japan..South Korea!). She has been working for the company for 20 years and that’s the only time she had a chance to go meet clients abroad. My male colleagues, on the other hand, go abroad every other week. Asia, Europe, South America – you name it. One of my male colleagues who entered the company several months after me also got to go out to meet clients and attend meetings while us, female colleagues, cannot. We only stay in the office… 😦

Nonetheless, everyone seems to be satisfied with the way things are. I understand that because most of them have kids and too much work responsibilities can interfere with their “mama’s” or “housewife’s” time. But what about women who are looking for something more challenging? Maybe some women do not have those ties and are still capable of doing the same tasks as their male colleagues, right?

I think it’s an endless debate and it would be hard to change because it’s Japan. Men and women are expected to have certain roles. It’s hard for me to follow this path. I think I have potentials and can do so much more. I’m grateful I get to experience working in a Japanese company. I have learned a lot and I think it will be helpful in my future career. A couple more months to go before my contract ends – I will do my best and try to figure out what I want to do next.

Good night! xx



3 thoughts on “Working at a Japanese company: Expectation vs. Reality

  1. You share an interesting aspect of working life in Japan. While I work neither in Japan nor for a Japanese company, some aspects you describe (payment process for example) also happen in MNCs. The aspect of female employees being confined to the office, is strange indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

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