• Conservative, bureaucratic, old-fashioned, dinosaur are all words that immediately come to mind when I think about Japanese firms. Some other words would be irrational and frustrating. Before I go into a tirade against Japanese firms, however, I should say that working at a Japanese company can actually be a very good and rewarding experience, provided that you go into it knowing the territory, what benefits to be expected and the limitations.

    Japanese firms generally have three types of employees: The first is Seishain. This could be
    translated as “welfare employee,” or in other words your welfare is completely
    provided for. This is what is meant by “life-time” employment. Next is Shokutaku
    . This means “contract employee,” employed directly by the company
    based on a one-year contract. Hakken shain is the final category and perhaps the
    most common. This is a person who is sent to work at the company from an outside placement
    company. Temporary company is another word commonly used and in the case of Japanese these
    work periods generally run three to six months but are often renewed. In the case of
    foreigners, however, it is very common to have one-year contracts to work at Japanese
    firms through these “temporary” companies.

    If you start working at a Japanese company with the idea that you are the same as everyone else and
    maybe will be a manager in a few years if you work hard, you are in for a serious culture
    shock. In fact, let’s get everything out on the table straight away, no beating around the
    bush and no polite fictions. Most Japanese companies systematically and openly
    discriminate against people. In many cases it is explicitly stated in company policies;
    women cannot hold this kind of position; foreigners cannot be hired as seishain; do
    not hire Korean Japanese, etc. Want ads will often read, “Japanese only,”
    “male only,” “must be under 28” (ladies in particular must often be
    under a certain age), “single ladies only,” etc.

    All of this should not really have much effect on you, unless you are a militant feminist or civil
    rights activist who believes it is your mission in life to right all of the wrongs in the
    world. In that case, you may want to bring a large quantity of blood pressure medication
    with you to Japan. You will need it.

    For most people however, I would like to advise you to look at Japan as a glass that is ninety
    percent full as opposed to one that is ten percent empty. At most Japanese companies there
    will be plenty of opportunity for you, and the glass is indeed ninety percent full.

    When you first start working, you will no doubt just be relieved to have a job and be looking
    forward to your first month’s paycheck, which is great. From this point you should look at
    your job as a source of income, good experience and making some friends. You should not
    have any expectations for any substantial training or career advancement. As the old
    saying goes, do not expect much and you shall not be disappointed.

    On the contrary, you should decide where you want to be in two, five, ten years down the road and
    then actively seek out, on your own, the training and knowledge you need to get where you
    want to be. Do not expect the company to do this for you, even though they will be doing
    it for Japanese staff (although the company dictates where the employee will be, much like
    the army). You should use the job to learn whatever you can, and then be ready to move on
    to something else in a few years.

    From the company’s point of view, in most cases they just want to use you for some specific purpose
    and then replace you with someone else when you grow tired of that specific purpose, kind
    of like a disposable razor. Make no mistake about it; the reason nearly every Japanese
    company does not offer career-track jobs to foreigners is because they believe that only
    Japanese can have a career and take up important positions in the company.

    This is by no means the unanimous opinion of everyone in a Japanese company, but it will be the majority
    opinion of the older hierarchy in the company. Even among some of the upper executives who
    might have a different opinion, it would be very unlikely that they would take any risks
    associated with promoting a progressive personnel policy.

    However, do not be discouraged by this. Many foreigners successfully work at Japanese companies,
    gaining valuable experience which they then take to career-track and usually better paying
    jobs at foreign firms. One person I knew had studied Japanese in Japan for two years and
    then returned to the U.S. to complete an M.B.A. degree at the University of Chicago. After
    graduating, he obtained a job with a leading Japanese securities firm. He worked there for
    two years at a less-than-respectable salary for someone with his education, although the
    same as all other Japanese staff his age. He then changed jobs to a U.S. securities firm
    and was soon earning a quarter of a million dollars a year. Before you get too excited,
    please keep in mind this person is what I would refer to as the “cream of the

    It was almost as if the Japanese firm was providing a paid internship, and in fact that is how you
    should look at the situation. After a couple of years, instead of getting bent out of
    shape because of a lack of opportunity and discrimination, just be glad to have had the
    experience and take this important commodity to a firm that recognizes its value. It is
    the Japanese firm’s loss and your gain.

    Furthermore, do not get caught up in any illusion that you will have a future with the Japanese firm,
    particularly when it comes to working overtime. One of the biggest misconceptions I have
    seen in several books that talk about working in a Japanese company is this notion that
    you will be expected to work long hours of overtime just like everyone else. That’s bunk!

    First of all, the majority of foreign employees are under contract from an outside placement company,
    and often the compensation is not that bad (¥2,000 to ¥4,000 per hour). You are paid for
    the hours you work because you write everything down on a time sheet. Anything over eight
    hours is, by law, paid at 125 percent. Moreover, with the exception of 10 paid personal
    holidays a year (provided for by law), all of your compensation will be in the form of
    cash (no bonuses). This is a big plus in regard to overtime work because your overtime
    wages are based on a higher hourly rate.

    Thus, it is generally just the opposite; most managers will not want you hanging around after hours
    because they will be getting the bill for it at the end of the month. You will likely be
    asked to submit a detailed report about exactly what job you are working on each time you
    submit overtime hours, particularly in this cost-conscious post-bubble era.

    Japanese employees on the other hand often do work rather long hours, arriving early and leaving
    usually no less than an hour after the official finishing time; and they are not paid for
    much of this. It is what is commonly referred to as sabisu zangyo or “service
    overtime.” In addition, often 50 percent of a Japanese employee’s compensation will
    come in the form of non-base-salary items. The two semiannual bonuses may consist of 35-40
    percent of the total compensation, and there are generous housing allowances. However, the
    housing allowance only becomes attractive if you are married and have children. Single
    people receive a small allowance or must stay in what is usually an old cramped one-room
    dormitory often with communal facilities.

    Sounds good? Think again. A company that officially finishes at 5:15 p.m. might only allow employees to
    fill out overtime sheets from 6:00 p.m., the official starting time for overtime. There
    may also be a rule that only a maximum of 20 hours overtime a month can be claimed.
    Anything over that is not authorized, but it is very common for people to work until 8:00
    or 9:00 p.m. every day and put in 50 hours of overtime a month or even more. These
    Japanese employees are paid for only 20 hours based on a low base pay (bonuses and housing
    allowance excluded).

    One Japanese manager told me how during the peak of the bubble he had been very busy with several
    projects and had worked 2,000 hours of overtime in one year (in addition to the standard
    1,800 hours of normal work). That meant he was literally working 16 plus hours a day for
    an entire year. I told him he was crazy, and he replied, “Yes, I was crazy… I was
    very crazy.”

    In exchange for trading in their private lives to the company, Japanese seishain are rewarded
    by being paid one-fifth to one-fourth the value of the this extra labor. No wonder
    Japanese companies push their people to work overtime instead of hiring additional staff.

    Would you like to take those personal holidays that are provided for? Maybe go sit on a beach for a
    week in Hawaii? If you were a seishain, you would be expected not to do this. Most
    Japanese companies have special anniversary holidays, for example, one week after ten
    years, two weeks after 20 years, etc. Taking an extended leave would require you to have a
    dying relative (or at least to create one). However, as a foreigner taking one or two
    weeks a year to return to your home country would be considered appropriate and generally
    not be a problem. It might help to get that extra week if your mother were in frail
    condition and in and out of the hospital every so often.

    Again, think about it. Is this a situation that you would like to have a “right” to take part
    in as you pursue some obscure hope that maybe after 20 years of towing the line you may
    have a chance to become a middle-level manager? Trust me! Be happy to be a “special
    guest”; maintain a personal life; make the most out of your experience; develop
    important friendships; do a good job; and move on when the time comes.

    What if you happen to be “lucky” enough to become a shokutaku shain, a direct
    contract hire based on annual renewable contracts? All of the things I just described will
    have more influence on you. Again as long as you know the territory, I believe you can
    still avoid much of the hassle.

    A shokutaku shain often has the same pay package and benefits as regular Japanese seishain.
    If your employment falls under this category, you will likely be allowed to live in
    company housing and even wear the company pin—be sure to mind your manners and your
    speech wherever you go with this pin. However, you will also be expected to follow company
    employment policies, which mean limitations on how much overtime work you can officially

    Thus, the company will have an incentive to have this kind of employee working overtime, and there
    will likely be a corresponding pressure to do so. You as the employee, however, should not
    get into the overtime game through any illusion that this is important for your career.
    This is where much frustration can come from, for example trying very hard to be like all
    of the other Japanese by putting in the long hours at the sacrifice of a life after 5:30.

    Then after two or three years of making these efforts and not seeing much opportunity available to
    you, you will begin to reach high levels of frustration. My advice is to not do
    unreasonable overtime work. Just go home. Take yourself completely out of the frustration
    picture. Your time after 5:30 would be much more productively spent by studying on your
    own for whatever qualifications you will need in your career or participating in career
    training-related activities like computer courses or Toastmastering.

    In discussing overtime, we should look at two types, which I would refer to as reasonable and
    unreasonable. Reasonable would fall under the category of actual important work that needs
    to be done and is not given to you incessantly. If every month you put in three or four
    12- to 14-hour days or even if you have to work through a three-day weekend two or three
    times a year in order to finish an important project, these things would be understandable
    and reasonable in my opinion. However, this should not be the norm.

    As for unreasonable overtime, one type would be just hanging around after hours because everyone
    else does it, doing your work a little more slowly and trying to fit in with the group. Do
    not do this. Just go home at 5:30. What could you possibly be worried about? Is your
    leaving early going to adversely affect your evaluation and subsequent chance for a
    promotion? You already have a zero chance of promotion anyway. Again, most people go into
    their jobs at Japanese firms with a mistaken illusion.

    The Japanese make tremendous efforts to fit in and follow the culture of the office because they have
    the notion of “life-time” employment, meaning this is where they will be for the
    next 30 years or so, and they had better not make any mistakes. However, nearly all
    foreigners will be on a one-year renewable contract, and in 80 percent of cases foreigners
    will not be at the same company after two or three years.

    Another type of unreasonable overtime would be excess volume of work. Given the previously-mentioned
    fact that companies get a substantial break on what they pay for overtime work to seishain
    and shokutaku shain, there is definitely an incentive for them to pile on the
    work. If you find yourself at the receiving end of an excessive workload, you simply do
    not have to do it.

    This is another illusion that many people have, i.e., that you have to work overtime. All workers
    in Japan, both Japanese and foreigners, have an employment contract or guidelines for
    their employment. Nearly without exception, a seven- to eight-hour work day will be
    specified. To “force” people to do anything more is illegal, some professions
    like nursing or fire fighting excepted. Of course, many self-proclaimed “Japan
    experts” will say contracts do not mean anything in Japan, and you should not create
    trouble by referring to them. That is a pertinent point to some extent, but do not ever be
    afraid to pull out your contract and ask to discuss the overtime clause. It is not going
    to affect your chances for promotion.

    Usually there will be some ambiguous phrase like, “The employee will ‘cooperate’ with the Employer
    and ‘reasonably’ carry out overtime work when requested.” In fact,
    “cooperation,” is what 95 percent of employees do as a matter of course.
    However, once the relationship goes beyond “cooperation” and becomes
    “abusive,” this is the point where you simply say, “No, I’m terribly sorry,
    but I’m afraid I have an appointment to go to,” and you leave.

    You will not be fired; you already have a one-year contract; and if you do your job well, the company
    will want you to do another year, even if you are not a workaholic. Particularly once you
    have begun a second one-year contract, most things will be in your favor. You are
    guaranteed a job for a year; your experience, training and knowledge in the job give the
    employer a strong incentive to resign you; and you are moving into the period (after two
    to three years) where most foreign workers begin to change jobs anyway.

    What if you happen to be superlucky and achieve the “coveted” status of full-fledged,
    honest-to-goodness seishain? This would be a somewhat rare case, and if you find
    yourself in a company that is this progressive, all I can say is my hat is off to them.
    This is the way things should be, and in fact many Japanese companies are moving in this
    direction, albeit slowly.

    I think market forces are causing changes, including faster advancement of younger people with new
    ideas, which in turn should accelerate the transformation of the Japanese company into a
    more dynamic organization. This is certainly happening, but again, keep in mind we are
    talking in terms of turtle dynamism, not exactly the speed many Westerners would be used
    to. Probably in 15 to 20 years, foreign employees will be common place in management at
    Japanese firms, and the regimented work routine should be more relaxed.

    In the meantime, ask yourself, “Do you really want to participate in the Japanese work
    rituals?” I believe the answer is a definitive, “No!” So, be happy with
    your special guest status where your glass will indeed be 90 percent full. Do not let
    yourself be overworked, but at the same time, cooperate, do a good job and enjoy this
    valuable experience at a Japanese company.

    I have not bothered to include any listing of Japanese firms because with a few exceptions most
    Japanese firms do not directly hire foreign people.

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