Surviving Japan(as a foreigner): The Office, Part 1


“If you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.”

– Greg McKeown

This is my fifth year living and working in Japan. For the first four I worked for an American company which pimps out English teachers to schools all across Japan. Although the people that I reported to were American (or British), the people that I worked directly with were Japanese teachers and school administrators. Strange as it may seem, seeing these people everyday, didn’t mean that I had to work with them if I chose not to. In fact many of my meetings with the Japanese teachers to plan out classes, and discuss lesson schedules were against our company’s policy. Nevertheless I wanted to plant myself into my environment and make a good relationship with the people that I worked with on a day-to-day basis.

That ‘rebellion’ (along with a few other things) lead to me eventually leaving that company and working directly for the Board of Education in the city that I was stationed at.  I’ve spent the last year working as a Japanese government employee, civil servant type guy.  I work in schools, and also in the city hall office of the “Teachers Management Division.”

During my time here I’ve learned a lot about surviving as a foreigner in the Japanese workplace; what the expectations are, what the limitations are, and how to make the best positive impact on the workplace and your coworkers. Being on the fringe has also given me a great window into what it’s like to work as a (Japanese) teacher, or office worker in Japan. Both of which I’m glad that I will never have to do.

Keep in mind that the views expressed here are from the view point of a non-Japanese-looking foreigner working in a traditional Japanese office (not a trendy tech startup).


Official time vs ‘real’ time – keeping the time cards equal

The time written on my contract says I start at 8:30 am, the morning meeting starts at 8:20.  This is common. Of course I don’t have to attend the meeting. It’s not mandatory. But everyone else is attending, so I should too, right?

In my office everyone has two time cards. One card is for salary purposes, it’s a kind of “what days did you show up” sort of measure. Regardless of what time I arrive or leave work, I write my contract time on this card. Simple and easy. I can even write this form ahead of time since it’s due at the beginning of the last week of the month. This form goes to payroll and determines my salary. I work 40 hours a week, 8:30 am – 5:00 pm.

The other time card is my “real” time card what I write in everyday. My coworkers and I write in the time arrived at work and the time we leave the office. My “real” time card matches my official time card pretty closely, and I like to keep it that way.

That’s not the case for my coworkers, however. Their two time cards are vastly different. Although they have the same contracted time, it’s not uncommon for them to get in at 8:00 am and stay at work until 9:00 or 10:00 pm. And by not uncommon, I mean basically everyday.

Again, all of this goes on the “real” time card, but not the payroll one. In other words overtime does NOT exist here. It is very rare to receive time and a half and when faced with the situation the office usually offers a time off as compensation which no one turns down as they are all so overworked.

So I have coworkers who “work 40 hours a week” but are actually in the office for 60 or more. Then they tack on some “extracurricular activities” like company dinners (drinking parties) or special events at the weekends.

Why are people at work so long? That’s a whole new post on Japanese work philosophy, but the index card version is that the longer you are at the office, the more dedicated you are, therefor you are a better employee.

This is one of the biggest pieces of advice I give to expats going to work for a Japanese company. Keep your time cards as close together as possible, because if you don’t and you start playing the Japanese time card dance game, it’s a slippery slope.

People start to feel guilty about leaving behind their robotic counterparts to click and clack on their keyboards and an endless stream of phone calls. After all, the phrase “おさきにしつれいします” (osakini shitsureishimasu) translates literally to “sorry for leaving before you.”

But don’t get sucked into this trap. You are not Japanese, you’re a foreigner. That’s how your coworkers view you (racist as it may be). The expectation is that you are different, separate from everyone else. There’s a hidden secret pact when they agreed to hire a non-Japanese-looking-person that you’ll work like a Westerner and that means, among other things, going home on time.

If you want to live at the office and pretend that you’re building the next Apple then go for it, but if not, my first piece of advice to surviving the Japanese office is to establish early on that you go home when your contract says you do. You don’t have to stand up in the office and declare this, just go home on time. You’ll thank me a few months down the road.


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