working for a Japanese company


In the past three decades, Japanese investment overseas has mushroomed, bringing with it a new source of career opportunities.  At some point in your career, you are likely to find yourself entertaining the thought of working for a Japanese company.


Positive or Negative?


Joining a Japanese company can either be a career plus or a career disaster.  The distinctive features of the Japanese business environment can be positive or negative depending on how you and the company approach them.  Communication with Japanese colleagues and headquarters can be complicated due to language and cultural differences.  This can be a source of frustration or an interesting exercise in cross-cultural communication.  Job descriptions may be extremely vague or nonexistent.  This ambiguity can leave you wondering what to do, or it can empower you to explore new areas and take on new tasks.  The pace of promotions may be less rapid than at comparable American or European firms, but the flip side of the coin may be greater job security, increased responsibilities, and the opportunity for cross-functional rotation.


How the special features of the Japanese company environment impact you depends on two things:  the attitude of the company and your personality.  It’s important to research the company thoroughly, and also understand your own working style.


Doing Your Homework


A useful first step if you are going to interview with a Japanese firm is to do an extensive search, including local publications and industry trade journals. Not only will learning more about a company prepare you for the interview, the media coverage may give you insight into the company’s personality and its utilization of locally-hired employees, including any past pattern of discrimination lawsuits. Sometimes, however, you may need to take media accounts with a grain of salt, since some journalists approach Japanese companies with a negative or sensationalist attitude. Look for patterns rather than a single critical article. 


In your background research, don’t ignore information about the parent company in Japan. You should find out how Japan’s lingering recession has affected a firm’s parent company, as well as any plans for restructuring its Japanese operations. Is it taking the painful steps necessary to cut overhead and change inefficient practices, or is it dragging its feet?


If the position you are seeking reports to a Japanese manager, try to find an opportunity to speak with him or her at leisure. If possible, have lunch or dinner together so that you can talk in a more relaxed setting. This is the best way to get a feel for them as a person. Their personality and outlook will be the most important factor influencing your job satisfaction, so it is important to evaluate how you feel about him. Although a superior’s poor English skills can make your life quite difficult, try to get beyond English ability and get a feel for character and attitude. Don’t assume that someone is “Americanized” or “thinks like an American” just because their English is smooth. An international, open-minded attitude may lurk behind awkward English, while someone who speaks fluently may not necessarily have an affinity for non-Japanese.


Also, if possible, try to get some time alone with one or more non-Japanese employees of the firm, particularly those who would be your colleagues or are at a comparable level. Ask them about their opinions and experiences. If you are lucky, they will share some candid observations.  If not, try to read between the lines. 


Evaluating the Company


Japanese firms are often stereotyped as being alike, a monolithic “Japan Inc.”.  Yet there are great differences among Japanese firms in terms of corporate culture and their ability to provide attractive career paths to non-Japanese employees. There can be wide variations even within the same industry – or even within the same company if it is a large one.  The following are some of the factors to consider when evaluating a particular Japanese firm:


·   What is the makeup of the management team (proportion of expatriates vs. proportion of locally-hired employees)?  Are the locally-hired managers in line positions, or only in staff positions?


·   Are the locally-hired managers perceived to have power and authority comparable to that of the expatriate managers?


·   How far from the top is the highest-ranking non-Japanese? Who is that person and how long has he or she been in that post?


·   What is the management style of the manager of the office or department that you will be joining?


·   How much interaction is there between locally-hired employees and Japanese management (both expatriate managers and managers at the head office)


·   What training opportunities are provided to locally-hired employees?


Are you the right type?


The traits that can make one successful in an American firm – shoot-from-the-hip aggressiveness and directness – can be a recipe for disaster in a Japanese firm. Some types of people seem to adapt more readily to doing business with the Japanese.  The following are some of their common characteristics.


Flexible – Willing to try new ways of doing things, willing to work on tasks outside of one’s job description


Forward-thinking – Anticipates needs and issues


Organized – Stays on top of information and details


Detail-oriented – Maintains high standards and avoids errors


Even-tempered – Able to deal with stress and communication difficulties


Patient – Prepared to work toward goals one step at a time rather than in giant leaps


Persistent – Doesn’t give up when things take longer than expected


Collaborative – Able to work closely with others to meet project objectives


Friendly – Able to develop positive working relationships


Good listener – Pays careful attention to others


Modest – Willing to share the glory rather than toot one’s own horn


Curious – Interested in learning about Japanese culture and business practices


Diplomatic – Diffuses potential misunderstandings before they escalate


Subtle – Can get a point across without hitting someone over the head with it


Self-motivated – Has an enthusiastic approach to the job and the ability to work with a minimum of supervision


Working for a Japanese firm can be a an excellent opportunity to experience an international environment and push your abilities in new directions.  It may also be a particularly good choice if you are looking for different corporate culture.



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