Expats might find that the degree of culture shock in Japan can be extreme. In addition to the language barrier, which increases the further from Tokyo one goes, Japanese society has developed a very fixed code of acceptable conduct, especially in the realm of business. Foreigners, or gaijin, very seldom fit into this code without making a considerable effort.
But the Japanese are also very hospitable and friendly towards foreigners, whom they regard as honoured visitors to their country. If wanting to fit in and become part of Japanese society, the onus will be on expats to learn the language, customs and traditions.
Language barrier in Japan
Learning Japanese can be extremely challenging if expats want to go beyond the basics of conversation. Besides the difficulty of learning to read and write Japanese characters, there are highly intricate systems of formal language which even native Japanese speakers find complex and difficult to master.
In general, the Japanese are quite forgiving of language mistakes made by foreigners, but it's advisable to be overly polite, humble and cautious, particularly within the context of business interactions.
Non-verbal communication in Japan
As the Japanese value maintaining harmony, they are not the most vocal of people. Facial expression, tone of voice and posture are often used to demonstrate one's feelings on an issue. Frowning while someone is speaking can be interpreted as a sign of disagreement. Expats may find that the Japanese maintain an impassive expression when speaking.
While making eye contact is important, one should avoid staring into another person's eyes for an extended amount of time. This is particularly important when in the presence of someone senior in terms of either age or status.
Work ethic in Japan
The Japanese work ethic is something that foreigners often struggle to get to grips with. The workplace in Japan is competitive and people are willing to go the extra mile to stand out from the competition.
A workweek of 70 to 80 hours isn't unheard of and the Japanese are very reluctant to take sick days. Overtime is seen as standard and it's normal to stay late at the office, even if there isn't any work to be done.
Punctuality is highly valued and the Japanese rarely arrive at meetings or appointments even a minute late. It's considered rude and disrespectful to arrive late or unprepared.
Saving face in Japan
The concept of saving face is crucial in Japanese society. The Japanese try to avoid confrontation or causing a person any form of embarrassment by putting them on the spot. In the case that expats encounter a personal problem with someone, they should address the issue with the individual privately.
Similarly, it's considered rude to reject an invite or request in Japan. Instead of directly saying no, one should instead say they will consider the invitation or propose an alternative.
►To learn more about work culture, see Doing Business in Japan
"Everything about daily life is different in some way from the UK. The focus on being exactly wrong rather than inexactly right, the meaning of ‘yes’, the universal lack of English, the desire to stay late in the office irrespective of whether any work is actually being performed. And yet people helped me even if they couldn’t speak to me, sometimes walking 15 minutes to show me where a station was." Read more of Jonathan's expat interview about living in Tokyo.
Are you an expat living in Japan?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Japan. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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