My first priority after college was to get a job. I was fresh out of school and it was not very difficult to keep my resume to a page in length. At times, I felt ANY job would be great so long as there was a paycheck and I could keep up with my student loan payments. I held fast and waited for the opportunity to achieve my goal of working within my field of Japanese Studies. Now that I had been hired by the Embassy of Japan, I was feeling really good. Unfortunately, that feeling of relief only lasts for so long because I had to actually do the job in a workplace that operated within an entirely different culture.
Point Number One: Patience is a virtue you have to embrace.
The most valuable lesson I learned in the beginning of my career as a Diplomatic Assistant was patience. I can`t stress enough how incredibly important patience is. When I got to work, my computer was not set up, there was no work set aside for me to do and I was expected to sit at my desk. I sat there with my excellent posture, fancy business attire, and attentive expression. They left me to sit there for a week with no guidance, no computer, and no work. At the time, I was more than a little frustrated. I spent my days memorizing faces, the layout of the Embassy and figuring out how to work my phone. I also took every opportunity I could to get to know the people around me. But, seriously, I was so bored and annoyed that it took every ounce of my extensive reserves of patience to get through this week.
I found out later that this is actually a stage that new employees usually go through and it is not at all uncommon in a Japanese workplace. It is the phase in which you are supposed to soak up your surroundings. They want you to sit there and get accustomed to your environment. I recommend that this is what you do if you find that you are given nothing to do right away. How you handle yourself during this time is taken into account. Again, do not be pushy. They know you are there. You will be asked several times if you are getting used to things yet. Your initial reaction may be “What is there to get used to?? I haven`t done anything yet!!” The reaction they are looking for is, “Yes I am beginning to feel comfortable here.” This stage varies in length for everyone.
Point Number Two: Trust is something that is earned not given.
This may be true in most situations but it is very important to remember always. At the Embassy, they began by giving me little things to do. It would take me all of two seconds to make a certain phone call or write a certain email but I took everything they gave me very seriously no matter what I thought of its individual importance. It took me about three months to build up enough trust to actually work on important documents and be the sole person responsible for arranging the itinerary for delegations. I had to prove that first I could make a reservation at a restaurant and I could request a quiet corner booth. Then, I was reliable enough to pass on information to the maître`d about the specific concerns and needs of the delegates. You get the picture. Step by step, I built up trust and I learned that if you do make a mistake, this is a major set-back. The trick to gaining back the good graces of your Japanese employer is to face your mistakes head-on and to be genuinely apologetic. They will not respect excuses or complaining from you even if you have legitimate reasons.
Point Number Three: Learn and Respect the Hierarchy.
You do not have to agree with it, but there is a definite hierarchy within Japanese workplaces that is far more defined and emphasized than American work places. Your Japanese co-workers will know where they stand within this hierarchy which has multiple levels. The most significant determinants of rank are age, position, and prestige. Generally the younger people have lower positions than the older people so this isn`t a problem but occasionally someone younger will ascend to a higher position. This is where it becomes tricky and the level of importance depends on the situation. Position or rank is the easiest way to determine who is in charge. The highest ranking person will always be given the priority. Finally, there is prestige. Even if two people have the same rank and are the same age there are certain fields that have more prestige than others. In that case, the more prestigious person becomes the higher ranking. If your field is more challenging or more sought after, you have more prestige.
Point Number Four: Learn to work with the Bureaucracy.
Efficiency has no place in a Japanese work environment. There are layers upon layers of built in steps one must go through first in order to complete the simplest of tasks, for example, ordering paper for business cards. Your boss is running low on business cards. What do you do? First, you tell him. Then he thinks about it and authorizes you to begin the process. You print the form which may or may not be entirely in Japanese. Then you fill out the form and this will require a few more trips to your boss because he has to tell you how many sheets of paper he needs, what kind of paper he needs and why he needs it. Then he can sign off on it. After he signs off on it, the paper has to be taken to another assistant who will have the head of the section sign off on it. This is then sent to another section that is in control of ordering supplies. They have to sign off on it and take it to their section head to sign off on it. Then the paper can be ordered. When the business paper arrives it is taken back to me. I can get it after signing another paper. Efficient right? Nothing can be done without going through a series of checks. This is a phenomenon that comes from the group oriented side of the culture. If twenty people do not sign off on it, then it is not legitimate. Very frustrating, and yet pointing out the inefficiency helps no one, least of all you. You are arguing against centuries of habit.
These are just a few of the differences you may encounter in a Japanese work environment. There are many significant differences but there are also many similarities. If you are a hardworking, sincere and honest person, you will be fine. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen and everyone is human. You may find that after a while, the similarities outweigh the differences. Effective communication can be achieved if you have an understanding of the four points I have listed. Have a great deal of patience so that you can build up trust while you learn where everyone stands in the hierarchy so you can operate effectively within it. Respect the differences between your culture and theirs while maintaining your own cultural identity. Keep these things in mind and you are at an excellent starting place for your new experiences working for the Japanese!
Rachel Reed graduated from Gettysburg College in 2008 with a BA in Japanese Studies. She worked as an Administrative Assistant in the Political Section at the Embassy of Japan in Washington DC for two years (2008-2010) and later worked as an Assistant Language Teacher with the JET program, in Gojome, a small, rural town in Akita Prefecture.
photo 1 by jackdoc101
photo 2 by SlipStreamJC