5 Things That I Have Learned from Working in a Japanese Startup

A view captured during my lunch break from a pedestrian bridge in Omotesando near my company, which actually reminds me of my home Chengdu, China.

After finishing my first-year study at Minerva Schools at KGI in San Francisco, I chose to spend my summer interning for a Japanese start-up company matched by Mistletoe Co founded by Taizo Son. Before actually coming to Japan, I had already heard of many myths about Japanese working culture, ranging from the “lifetime employment system” to “karojisatsu” (suicide from overwork) and “Karoshi” (death from overwork). I was nervous yet super excited at the same time for this challenge, as I wanted to contribute the most of what I’m able to do to the company.

Till now, I have already got used to the working environment and finally remembered the names of all my colleagues after the first month. It does not seem as easy as I expected though, It started with slight frustrations and moments of lostness. Despite that the working culture is relatively more laid back and flexible compared to other traditional Japanese companies, I can sense that there are aspects that still connect with the overall Japanese business culture.

I came to understand that working in Japan involves quite a lot of voluntary spirits, as my boss told me on the first day that I should never ask them what I should do during my stay here. However, it is still enlightening to witness how a Japanese company is struggling to promote their business in international markets, trying to find a balance between its own culture and fitting other societies.

Below, I would like to introduce five interesting things that I have learned interacting with my Japanese colleagues and working here in Tokyo.

1. Honorifics are important to remember but can be confusing for foreigners.

The concept of honorifics is simple: adding a suffix to the end of Japanese people’s family names, which shows respect and politeness. The most common one is adding -san to address other people in formal office settings even for close friends.

But for me as a foreigner, the concept can be confusing, as I already get used to being addressed by my first name (in U.S) or by my full name (in China). Sometimes I feel that by adding -san when I call the others, there is an invisible wall between us as it somehow suggests that we are using different identities to communicate under this scenario.

I understand that the omission of -san or directly call people’s first names are rude for Japanese people as this is part of their culture, but I still told my colleagues that I chose to go by my first name as I wanted them to feel casual when talking to me. Then I realized that this decision led me to a trick situation: as all the other colleagues are addressing each other by their family name with -san politely, I am addressed by my first name. In some cases, it makes me feel that I am “unique” in the company, or on some business occasions, it may even lead other Japanese people to think that this is due to I am in a low position in the organization.

Fortunately, there are also other foreigners working in my company, so I am not the only “weird” person here. In all, I do think it is necessary to voice our concerns if we find it confusing or uncomfortable. The Japanese people will also understand that we are probably not used to the way how they address other people.

2. Overwork culture is a thing in Japan, even in startups.

“About 22% of Japanese work more than 49 hours a week, compared with 16% of US workers and 11% in France and Germany, according to data compiled by the Japanese government.” (McCurry, 2015) I have always known that, for many Japanese employees, it is considered as disloyalty if they leave the office early or probably even “on time”. Even though in my job description, it states that I am supposed to work for 8hrs/day and 40hrs/week, I found it challenging to leave on time even on the first day of my internship.

I remembered on that day, the time has already passed 7 p.m, and I was putting my laptop back to my bag, preparing to leave the office. Then I realized that all my colleagues were still working concentratedly and I couldn’t even sense that they were probably leaving anytime soon.

It was so weird!

I thought that I had done the most important work for the day, and whatever was left could just wait until next day, but apparently, my colleagues did not think in this way. I was facing the dilemma between choosing to go back home and risk receiving “criticism” for leaving earlier than the others who were still working so hard at the office. In the end, I paused clearing away my desk and continued doing my work, as I did not want to leave a “bad” impression on the first day.

After a week of struggling to leave early after work, I asked my friends for advice, and he told me that: “You shouldn’t feel bad leaving early. Remember that you are an intern, so normally the people in your company would not expect you to work as hard as the other employees.” I finally started to have the courage to leave “on time” and then said “お先に失礼します” (pardon me for leaving first, usually used when leaving a workplace while others are still working), trying not to feel guilty internally. Now, when I became more familiar and casual with my colleagues, I chatted with them about some of my actual feelings for the first month. After hearing about my concerns about “overwork” on the first week, my boss laughed and told me that he once left the office at 5 a.m on the next day in his previous investment bank company.

Even though I do not think it makes much sense to just stay up late for work, I came to gradually realize that this is inevitable as it’s already part of the culture where the process of work is valued by Japanese people.

Just a regular working day in the company

3. The ways of communication are uniquely different compared to the western viewpoint.

One of the most difficult things that I have experienced was actually how to communicate with my colleagues and how to deliver the information most clearly to them. Of course, I am not referring to the language barriers, but the overall communication style and efficiency in the Japanese working environment.

After a few times of proposing new ideas to my colleagues in meetings, yet only realizing that they were always just sitting there listening without really discussing the details in-depth. It make me feel that the meeting rooms are only for reporting progress or conclusions rather than a place for discussion. What’s a little more frustrating is that oftentimes when I tried to ask for suggestions and expected that they would give me feedbacks, I started to understand that few people are inclined to give me their “honest” feelings.

To be honest, I can probably understand that Japanese people get used to reporting to their boss, or the boss gets used to assigning tasks to his employees, which result in that there isn’t much opinion exchange in the process. From my point of view, this style of conduct is considered as a higher efficiency if all different parties have contacted each other to reach a conclusion, which isn’t the case for many companies.

On the note of communication, I also noticed that the nature of the Japanese language, especially if we take the honorifics into consideration, can be a reason why the speed and efficiency of communication are low. Sometimes I wrote my requests or plans in English very concisely usually in 1–2 sentences on Slack to my colleague, and I am so surprised to see that my colleague would redraft a very long paragraph in Japanese if he needed to forward the message to the other colleagues. It can even be more difficult for different departments and teams to communicate each other’s needs to keep projects going. However, I do realize that this is more of a constraint than a problem that they can immediately solve in the working culture, as I can’t just let them write Japanese less “politely”.

The founder of my company, who used to be a chef in a Michelin star restaurant in Japan, prepared the meal on my first day of the internship.

4. Japanese companies focus more on the overall goals instead of individual progress.

Before I came to the company, the way I think of internship is composed of both my contribution to the company and my learnings from the company members. As friends told me that what matters the most in the internship is what you get out of the experience which can benefit your future career paths.

Contrary to many western companies that also focus on the mentorship to new employees and interns, the Japanese companies put more emphasis on the overall growth and goals of the company. Mostly, at here I am more recognized as a member of the marketing team rather than an individual that may have talents in different areas. The way my company views me may also largely depend on how my entire team is performing. My colleagues are also “defined” under the team or department that they belong to. This is also reflected from the national mind set, I heard from one friend working in Tokyo that many Japanese people also try to find a company that they can best adapt to, and they are willing to devote themselves to help the company achieve the goals.

The way that I have been trying to do is not limit myself to one team and not accept whatever task they assign to me without evaluating the tasks critically, so gradually my boss will recognize that I can also contribute to the developing team regarding design, or data analysis. For foreigners, I think it’s especially important to keep self-motivated, as sometimes the people in the company may also have no idea how to “deal” with you.

5. You are more likely to get to know your Japanese colleagues better in nomikai (a drinking party phenomenon particular to Japanese culture).

My colleagues prepared a welcome party for a few us who recently joined. This is a view of the kitchen in the company.
They prepared the cakes for us too! So sweet!

It took me almost one week to finally remember everyone’s name, but only knowing my colleagues’ names did not bring us that closer, as in the working hours, we are not talking about non-work related things. From a western perspective, grabbing lunch with your colleagues can’t be more natural. It is a good way to chat more and get to know each other. However, in my company, the thing that I see is that during lunch time everyone just goes out to buy his/her lunch box and then take it back to eat quietly. It’s almost impossible for me to proactively approach to them since they often tend to work late too.

Only until the time we had a nomikai after work on one weekday, that for the first time I felt more familiar with my colleagues. Maybe with the little help of alcohol, Japanese people are more likely to open themselves to other people to talk more freely about themselves. During that event, my colleagues asked me a lot of questions like what’s the most surprising thing about Japan for me and so on, and I could feel that they were probably equally curious to know more about me as I was to them. I could never have imagined that there’s time that we were dancing and drinking together like close friends.

Every night when I finish work and walk back to Shibuya station, I can see many Japanese salarymen sit in Izakaya or other restaurants talking and drinking beer together. People say that drinking with colleagues is sometimes considered as work as well here. I do not think it’s so true for my company’s case, but I am towards positive that this is true for many cases.

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In general, It’s less challenging for me in the aspect that I have some knowledge of Japanese language and culture, so I could adapt better to the company compared to many other foreigners who barely speak any Japanese. Besides this, I was lucky enough to work for a young startup with less strict organization structure. I enjoy the time practicing my Japanese listening skills every day and contributing to the company in some ways.

Admittedly not all the five things that I wrote can be applied to every Japanese company, not even to mention many Japanese young people are trying hard to change some of the business traits, like the so-called “lifetime employment” system.

On the final note of the reflection, I can feel that this article seems slightly negative for foreigners who keen to work in Japan. I think it is crucial to have the mindsets before you start your internship or job:

1) understand the reason why the company is hiring you is that there’s something on you that can help the company grow,

2) you do not necessarily have to change yourself completely to fit in the Japanese working environment, maybe they also want foreigners like you to change the current dynamic or bring new styles of interactions within the members of the company.

3) Be self-motivated for your work and be proactive in reaching out to your colleagues!

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