Updated March 17, 2022

The tricky parts of navigating a Japanese workplace


Rob Sherling

Japan Dev contributor

What is it like for a foreigner to work in Japan?

Hi! My name is Rob. I've lived in Japan for about 8 years now, working in Japanese companies the whole time. This should function as a sort of guide concerning things that either tripped me up when I first encountered them or I see regularly causing issues for other devs working in a Japanese setting.

I've had an excellent time in Japan and strongly recommend anyone who is thinking about working here to take the plunge! I wanted to write this to help people have an easier time acclimating to a Japanese workplace. Some of these sections, like the one about dealing with harassment, may not be an issue for most people but I want you to be prepared just in case. Let's begin!

Limiting overtime and setting other boundaries

Happiness in the workplace is about two things.

  1. setting boundaries
  2. "managing expectations" (credit to @Risafj).

Changes are harder to adjust to than initial rules - in order to best manage your company's expectations you should ideally start from day one. Let's start with overtime.


The best thing you can do to manage overtime is to start from the interview! I've said this in other articles, but don't hesitate to be vocal in the interview about how much or little overtime you're willing to do. This is a good time to ask "How much included-overtime (みなし残業, see "contracts" section) do you have?" Japanese law stipulates that companies have to pay for overtime, so many companies will include a certain amount of "prepaid" overtime in your salary. Usually, this number is 20 hours, but I've seen some outrageous numbers like 60. The higher this is, the worse the overtime might be.

An even more solid question to ask is "How much average overtime do people usually do here?" This is usually a good indicator of the company's attitude towards overtime in general. I would consider anything 10 hours or less a month to be a very healthy work environment.

In the interview phase, you can be very blunt. "I usually don't do overtime unless there is an emergency" is totally fine if that's the truth - there is this myth that in Japan everyone does overtime constantly, but plenty of companies have very little or effectively none!

If you find yourself in a situation where you are already working overtime and want to reduce it, you'll need to employ more nuance. This is where indirect wording and "unavoidable obligations" - both staples of Japanese culture - become important.

Ideally, depending on your workplace, you can just stop working overtime and go home. This works surprisingly well - most people in both Japan and America report doing overtime because they feel bad that they leave earlier than their late-working coworkers. That means that the company itself might not notice or care if you leave on time.

If that either doesn't work or doesn't seem practical in your workplace, the next step is to approach the topic with a manager. The type of indirect expression or excuse that you will use depends on the company.

An approach based on honestly expressing your struggles with being overworked is ideal. The key is to phrase it not as "this is too much", but as "I'm having trouble keeping up" or some other self-deprecating phrase. "There is too much overtime" will most likely be met with an explanation of why long hours are happening. "I'm having trouble focusing or being happy at work because I don't have time to relax" is much more likely to get a schedule adjustment, especially if they want to retain you as an employee.

If an honest approach doesn't seem like it would work or would be too awkward, you can also go with an excuse. "I have Japanese lessons every night / I have a strict schedule and can't work this late / I have familial obligations." As long as the excuse is time-based, it should be just fine. A note on using family - in Japan, "girlfriend/boyfriend" does not have nearly as much weight as "wife/husband", so avoid mentioning relationship quality time as a reason unless you're married or have a very relaxed workplace.

Drinking parties and boundaries

In general, people are very understanding and conscious of personal boundaries. Just let them know that you don't like going to drinking parties / you don't drink / you would prefer not to go to lunch one-on-one and they'll be very accommodating. This is an area where you should be direct - if someone is in your space, or you aren't comfortable with something, say so. If they don't respect that (very rare, but it happens), please see the section on harassment below.

Dealing with workplace disputes with coworkers

For trivial disputes or disputes with people that you are close with, usually just talking to the person and trying to find a middle ground is enough.

For substantial disputes or issues, do not go to the person directly. This is something that was frustrating to me at first because it's much easier for me to talk to the person directly, but it can be seen as very confrontational. Instead, go to your boss or their boss (whoever you're closest to) and ask them to help resolve the issue on your behalf. If the issue is something minor but embarrassing (some unhygienic behavior), that should be enough. If the issue is substantial, the boss will either resolve it as best they can, or it goes into the next step.

Third-party mediation. This involves someone with authority in the company sitting down and helping you talk through the issues. I've been really intimidated at the concept of this because it feels like it would be "ganging up" on one of the people participating in the mediation. In reality, I found that it wasn't too hard to reach a group consensus when another person is involved. This might be good luck on my part, or it might be due to a group mentality inherent to the culture. The boss should listen to both sides, take notes, and help you either resolve some misunderstanding or find a middle ground,

Mediation can also be really useful when you are concerned that a language barrier might be an issue because having someone else there, especially a proficient speaker of English and Japanese, can help when you need a nuance you can't convey.

How to invite people out to events

Inviting people to events is pretty straightforward. Three golden rules here.

  1. Go with groups. It is much easier to arrange a work event when you ask people to go in a group. It seems to put people at ease that there are fewer chances for an awkward silence and less pressure for any one person to think of something to say. It's also just more of a normal thing to do group events here in general.
  2. Plan way early. In general, getting your coworkers to come to a drinking party with less than a week's notice is tough. Even as a study abroad student, I found that not giving a week's notice made it very hard to hang out with the Japanese students because of prior obligations. The more notice you give, the better your chance of things working out.
  3. Expect people to be late leaving work. Seriously, the myth of Japanese people starting to wrap up work at clock-out time is real. If your official work-end time is 7 and you have an after-work party scheduled, shoot for 7:30 at the absolute earliest, and expect a lot of people to not show up until 8. It is also a very common thing for people to commit to a party, have work, and not be able to go but pay their part of the bill regardless. (It's very common to get "All you can drink and eat" types of parties, so everyone pays a flat fee when reservations happen).

How to speak up when you have an issue with the company itself or a boss

Handling this is a little different than dealing with a coworker on the same level as you.

If you have an issue with the company, the best thing to do is usually to bring it up! Go to a manager that you like and talk about the problem. People love when you do this if you phrase it right! I.e. "I want a coffee maker because I love coffee, we should totally get one" might actually be really well met. You'll get credit for thinking of it, everyone gets coffee, and the company pays a pittance to get better employee satisfaction. Wins all around.

An issue with a person of authority in the company really has two different resolutions, assuming you couldn't talk it out. If you talk to a different boss, they might be able to hash it out or fix a misunderstanding. They might even be able to switch you to a different team, which usually solves the issue (in bigger companies).

The other way is to change jobs. I recommend this over being unhappy.

Perceived vs. actual language skill

This has been covered pretty well online, so I'm not going to write too much on it. Often people who come to Japan are told that their Japanese is good. The politeness ranges from "You're skilled at Japanese" to "Your Japanese is better than mine!"

You will also hear "何となくわかった" from people you are talking to, which would imply that they understood what you were trying to say. This has a corollary, which is when I hear people describe the level of their own comprehension skill as "I understand 80% of what people are saying."

All of these phrases are misleading. The first set is usually used as encouragement (which is awesome). The second set is usually used as self-deception (which is not so awesome). In my experience, when people genuinely think your Japanese is good, they will say something along the lines of "How long have you lived in Japan? Your Japanese is so good!", "Wow, you sound so native! You have really good pronunciation", or praise some other specific quality of your Japanese. This makes sense - if I say "Your English is so good!", that could mean anything from them honestly thinking your English is good to them wanting to encourage you to keep at it. But if I say "You seriously sound like you're from the states. You've never left Japan? Doubt." - that's pretty unambiguous.

The other point about "I understand x% of what someone says" - this is usually (but not always!) a way to gently lie to yourself and avoid confronting when you don't understand a lot of important things. Consider the following:

I really think that our server is an inappropriate place to host that code.

Here is that same sentence with 80% (by word count or meaning, the result is the came):

I really think that our server is an ?? to host that code.

The sentence has become wildly ambiguous and isn't really effective. I used to describe my Japanese skill as "80%" constantly. I stopped when I realized that in most instances understanding 80% really meant that I missed the most important parts of the message, so it wasn't nearly as good as I thought. There are two solutions to this.

Short term: Ask about the parts that you missed. It is rare that people will find this annoying.

Long-term: Study.

Common social problems

Not being included in serious decisions: this manifests as not feeling like you could be on a track to management, or not feeling included in serious meetings about the direction of the team/product/company. I thought that this might be a racial thing at first but in my personal experience this is usually a combination of status and language ability - how smoothly can you communicate, and how high-ranking are you. Even very flat companies have some form of de facto internal hierarchy, and those at the top have an easier time influencing everyone else.

No one knows how to treat you - this definitely has a national component to it. While everyone takes time to adjust to someone new regardless of their race, in most cases this is usually solved with conversation and time. I've had a boss directly say to me "I don't know how to work with you because you aren't Japanese, and that makes me nervous - I've never worked with someone who isn't Japanese before." We casually talked about it, I assured him that it would not feel substantially different to people he's worked together with in the past, and the issue was mostly resolved. The rest was giving him time to adjust.

Understanding performance reviews and salary

There are two main types of performance reviews. 360 reviews, and 1v1 goal-setting reviews. A 360 review is where the people you work with (and always a manager) review your performance. A 1v1 goal-setting review is where you set goals with your manager every so often and then at review time you review your concrete contributions to the company (I wrote X feature) and your progress towards your goals since your last review.

Bias warning: I cannot stand 360-degree reviews, so this may be unfair.

In my experience, 360-degree reviews have always worked the same. You pick a few people that you are pretty sure are going to give you good reviews because you are friendly and do good work together. They give you good reviews. You also may have other people that are mandatory, but you might not have worked together very closely. In my experience, this results in everyone giving everyone a "B / Good / Nice to work with", because they don't remember anything good or bad about you in the 5 minutes of conversation you've had in the last 3 months. This system is very good at revealing problem employees and very friendly people, and pretty terrible at everything else. After the 360, you'll review the results one-on-one with a manager or HR person, and then discuss salary.

The 1v1 review tends to be easier to understand. If your goals are "S.M.A.R.T", this system will work well for you. Setting smart goals is a bit tough - managers will want to encourage you to be aggressive, you will want to hedge your bets and make your goals as achievable as possible. Try to land in the middle. Then, you'll discuss salary.

Negotiating your pay is a whole article by itself, but essentially - if you think you are worth more to the company, say so. Getting a raise outside of performance review is very hard, but if you feel like your raise doesn't reflect your value or growth then the 1 on 1 is a great time to mention it. You work in tech - salaries are competitive, so enjoy it.

Bonus fun story: At my first 360 review, my manager said "This part here says you are handsome and smart." I thought that was awesome.

He then said "That was the self-feedback section. You wrote that about you."

I regret nothing.

How contracts usually work

Payment types: Salary in Japan is done in two ways - no-bonus flat salary (年俸) and salaried-with-bonus. Bonuses sound sweet, right? Wrong. Japanese bonuses are sometimes not bonuses. Bonuses that are a part of your fixed salary basically mean you get paid in arrears because they're fixed amounts you receive throughout the year. This usually means that you will work from January to June and then be paid a "bonus" based on that salary in something like August. If you change jobs in July? You don't get the bonus. I obviously recommend a flat salary.

Trial periods and giving notice: Most contracts come with a three- or six-month trial. It's usually a formality, but this is the time in which either party can terminate the contract with two week's notice. Outside of that, it's customary to give at least one month's notice. Many companies will say that you need to give 3 month's notice in their contracts or paperwork, but you can ignore this - one month is the standard here.

Contract types: There are a bunch, but they fall into three major categories. Freelance, contract, and salaried.

Freelance (フリーランス、業務委託) is a renewing short-term contract that does not offer health insurance through your job (you would get it through your city at a similar rate). Either party can terminate, usually with only 10 days' notice. The compensation tends to be highest with this form of contract, but the security is the lowest. No bonuses.

Contract worker (契約社員): You get a renewing contract of somewhere between three months and one year. Contract works have some protections in that they are almost never fired before their contract runs out, but there is no guarantee of renewal. They get insurance through their company (usually) and follow the normal salary system (usually).

Salaried (正社員): You are essentially hired for life. It is very, very hard to get fired from this type of employment from a legal perspective. This is the one that you want for maximum stability.

Prepaid overtime (みなし残業): I covered this earlier, but in short: Your salary will include a certain amount of prepaid overtime. This ranges between 20 and 60 hours.

The combination of "bonus" and "prepaid overtime" can make for some interesting math on your salary and work in some unexpected ways sometimes.

For example, let's say that your salary is 300,000 yen. This includes a pre-calculated bonus of two month's salary. That means that your pre-tax monthly pay is actually 3,000,000 / 14, or about 220,000 yen.

This can get even trickier if you have some exceptional circumstances as well. For example, if you tell your work "I'll only be able to work three days a week for a half-year because I have university courses." You would expect your salary to be cut to 3/5 of your regular salary, but that's not always the case. If your 3,000,000 includes 1,000,000 for your prepaid overtime, your company might not grant you that because you cannot actually do any prepaid overtime. This means that your new salary would be: 3,000,000 - 1,000,000 = 2,000,000 * 3/5 = 1,200,000. And if they have a policy that workers under 32 hours a week are not bonus-eligible, it goes down again.

This isn't a common scenario so don't worry too much about it. Just keep in mind to clarify if you want to work less than full-time hours because you may be better off changing contract types.

Dealing with harassment

Very, very rare. I summarized my own experiences in this article, but in short - everyone takes it very seriously. If you report harassment to your company they will almost certainly investigate it for a few reasons, not the least of which is because failure to investigate harassment claims can get them into serious trouble with the Japanese government.

Your company might be able to help you get an apartment

This circumvents the "no non-Japanese allowed" problem, which is very real. In short, in Japan, getting an apartment sucks because it is jam-packed with racism. Your company may be able to help you with this. They get an apartment for you in their name and pay for the apartment directly from your salary. The taxes on this get a bit odd, but the upside is that you get taxed less on your income!

The downside is that if you change your job you might have to change your apartment or get it transferred into your name, which comes with a bunch of fees.

Dealing with being well-known

If you work at a Japanese company and you are not Japanese, the reality is that everyone in the company will remember your face pretty much instantly. This will result in a lot of people meeting you for the first time and knowing your name already, and you not remembering their name for several meetings. Do not be ashamed of this.

I deal with that by being honest. I tell people "Sorry, I struggle with Japanese names." They tend to be very forgiving and just tell me their name again.

Outside of that, this is actually a superpower. It turns out that because everyone knows you if you're good at your job it's very easy to stand out and get recognition. "The engineering team built this cool button because" becomes "Ashley from engineering built this button because we asked. They're so cool." Abuse this.

Wrapping up

One last thing that didn't really fit anywhere else, but I wanted to touch on here: don't be intimidated by working in a Japanese company when you aren't Japanese. The reality is you will be surrounded by working adults with their own things to worry about so after an initial splash everything just kind of reverts to being routine. When it does you won't really be treated differently (assuming no language or specific cultural barriers). Just treat it like any other workplace, modified slightly with the advice from above, and you'll do just fine.

Thanks for reading. If you're interested in really intense Japanese study and learning Japanese the way I did, check out the app I built, Kichi. You can use it to read manga, play games, etc. in Japanese and remember what you learned. If you have any questions, you can follow me over at twitter.


Rob Sherling

Rob Sherling is a software engineer and language learning expert. With over 8 years of work experience at Japanese companies, he's an authority on all things working in Japan. He's also the creator of Kichi, an AI-based app that helps users learn Japanese using materials they enjoy.