Work Culture in Japan: Why Is It So Different?

  • Overtime, few benefits, no days off: what is it really like working in Japan? If you work in an office environment, be prepared to wear formal clothes and learn how to exchange business cards in the polite Japanese way. You might need to learn formal Japanese (‘keigo’ 敬語) too, which is a whole different ballgame compared to ‘regular’ daily Japanese.
    But how about the work culture? No guide or advice will be able to fully prepare you, but it might be helpful to find out more before you are thrown in at the deep end.


    It is often pointed out, that in western countries, teamwork has a slightly different definition than in Japan. Having a closer look at the topic, one might find it surprising to think that abroad, where individuality is praised and encouraged, people have to work suddenly in teams and find compromises. In Japan, teamwork can be seen as a much smoother way to get things done.


    Responsibility has a slightly different meaning in Japan, too. Generally speaking, mistakes are taken and burdened by the whole group, instead of naming and shaming one individual. Still, you should be careful of making mistakes, as your team might also bear your burden!

    The origins of work ethics and culture go way back to early ancestors. One theory states that in European countries and the Western world, cultures were formed based on a “hunter-gatherer” ancestry where only the strongest survive. Each individual’s survival was the strongest motivation. In addition, the theory says the base for Japanese culture, on the other hand, is in a so-called “rice culture”. Without cooperation and harmony survival was not guaranteed and individual behaviour was counter-productive to the whole community.

    If you are planning to work at an office in Japan, be prepared to be a follower and listen to your supervisor for a long time, before you take the position of leader.

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