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
shain. 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
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
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.