Are they any advantages of being a foreigner working in Japan? Most foreigners I know who are working in Japan complain about their workplace. In this article I would argue that we have it easy compared to our Japanese colleagues, who are under more pressure. I would rather be a foreigner than a Japanese person working in Japan. Let’s be honest, there are many advantages to being a foreigner working in Japan, especially if you’re a westerner.
Here are 5 Advantages of Being a Foreigner Working in Japan:
1) Bypassing hierarchy
As foreigners we can ignore the hierarchy to some extent, especially if we don’t speak Japanese. Somehow, if you don’t speak the language, you don’t play by the same rules. One very concrete example of that a Japanese colleague, maybe higher in hierarchy, may introduce themselves to a foreigner using their first name.
Usually in a typical Japanese work place, people call their colleagues by their last name and add the suffix “san”. If someone is in much higher position, such as professor or director, people might use “sama” or “sensei” as sign of respect. On the other hand, people in higher position might use the suffix “kun” for a male in a lower position. For females they might just call them by their first name without any suffix. I will come back to the special treatment of Japanese women in a separate article.
Therefore, the way you are called or the way you call people might define the expected behaviour. I have written a more comprehensive article about hierarchy in the Japanese workplace here.
So, when you don’t use the conventional way of calling people and of being called, your Japanese colleagues are constantly reminded that hierarchical rules cannot be strictly applied to you.
Of course, you cannot completely avoid hierarchy, but the interaction is softer and somehow you can speak more freely than your Japanese colleagues.
2) Shorter Working Hours
I have discovered that in a Japanese workplace people compete to stay longer in order to appear to be a hard worker. However, in some places, you don’t have a choice because you are not allowed to leave before your boss, who usually leaves quite late, sometimes as late as 10 or 11 pm.
It doesn’t mean people are doing more work, in fact sometimes workers sleep during work hours. In Japan, it’s totally acceptable, and the person sleeping is considered to be hard working. The general understanding is that “they work so hard and so long that they fall asleep from exhaustion”.
In my opinion, this is very counterproductive. In my small sphere, I have observed that Japanese institutes don’t necessarily produce more than the institutes I have worked for in Europe, where people usually work far fewer hours. Actually, it’s quite the opposite…
As foreigner working in Japan, we are expected to fail to reach the Japanese standard of ‘working hard’. Somehow, when we leave earlier (if we have a choice) there is less peer pressure than for Japanese colleagues.
Some of my Japanese colleagues give me the impression that they attribute my lack of stamina to the fact that I was not born Japanese. That is totally fine with me, as long as I can get away with it. I prefer to work efficiently during work hours and preserve my personal time, even if it risks the appearance of laziness.
3) Longer Vacation Time
Another sign of indulgence towards a foreigner working in Japan is longer vacation time. Most people understand that foreigners have a long journey home and cannot afford to leave for a vacation shorter than a week. This is a luxury that my Japanese colleagues don’t have.
One of my Japanese colleagues told me that he once took 3 days vacation. After he came back to work, his boss complained that he had taken too much vacation… 3 DAYS!!! I really didn’t envy him for being Japanese.
I was really happy with my situation. Even if I take less vacation time than I used to, I still can take longer vacations than my Japanese colleagues.
4) Fewer Management Related Tasks
Another advantage of being a foreigner working in Japan is having fewer management tasks, which mainly include tasks that require proficiency in Japanese language.
In science, these tasks may include: hotel reservation for colleagues coming for an experiment, negotiation with a transport company to move equipment, and attending meetings that are held in Japanese, among other things.
In addition, some companies, universities and institutes may offer to help foreigners for life management tasks like renting a house, opening a bank account or family care.
Our Japanese colleagues usually manage their private life and work life by themselves. Management tasks for foreigners are usually delegated to secretaries or Japanese colleagues who have also their life and work to manage.
Sure, the reason for such heavy load is due to the fact that all these services are provided only in Japanese. I would rather be independent in managing my work and my life. But we cannot deny the fact that this gives us as foreigner more time to dedicate to our work without the headache of management.
5) Less Work Assigned
As foreigners, we are not trusted especially at first because we seem chaotic to our Japanese colleagues. I wasn’t aware of it but Japanese workplace is full of “unspoken” rules. It takes a long time to figure out what these rules are since nobody teaches them to you.
With time I discovered that there are very good rules and ridiculous ones but most people follow them regardless. For everything, there is always a template or procedure that should be followed, which appears to be common knowledge that I was lacking.
I found it a rather good system, especially when it comes to booking a restaurant or a doctor’s appointment etc. However, I found it too rigid when applied to scientific research, where usually creative problem solving is much more valuable than following rules and procedures.
My point is that since we have ways of doing things that might differ from a particular Japanese workplace, we are not assigned important work. We might get promoted later when we show we figure out the rules and the ‘proper way’ of doing things.
So, the next time you want complain about your workplace in Japan remember your Japanese colleagues and reflect on the advantages you have as a foreigner working in Japan.