I was in a unique position in Japanese offices. I worked in offices at three different Japanese companies, but not for them. I was a business skills instructor for several years, and I spent all day in the offices where I taught. I attended meetings, had my own desk and computer, and sat next to the full-time employees when I wasn’t teaching. But my bosses were in another office, and thus I was not in the direct line of authority. I was able, then, to observe the interactions around me without being subject to the exact same rules
I learned a lot about what goes on, and I’d like to share some fundamental lessons about what to do/not to do, and principles that can guide you in those interactions.
Please note: Every office is different, and many of the tech-oriented companies in larger cities take a much more international view of working style, so these are by no means universal trends.
Hierarchy in the Japanese Office
Japanese companies take a view of hierarchy that I found very different from what I saw when I worked in the USA. On paper, Japanese offices often have a clear chain of command, like in the USA, where employees (一般社員 ippanshain) answer to their team leader (チームリーダーchi-mu ri-da-) or section leader (課長 kachou) and so on. However, the reality is that the hierarchy is as much social as it is policy-based. The levels of kohai/senpai relationship and overall seniority mean that often lower rank employees answer more to other team members as much as to actual management. In addition, recent efforts at “flat hierarchy” in Japan have resulted in a situation where teams and departments are mixed, further muddying the situation. And there is, of course, the open-office situation, where everyone is in one room and every manager has physical access to every employee. It can be really confusing!
Thus, I would recommend always making sure you know who to report to and who to listen to in any given project. Ask who is in charge, and keep that in mine.
責任 /Sekinin is All
Sekinin is a word similar to responsibility, in the sense of the burden of answering for a given task. The person with sekinin is called the 責任者 sekininsha. Naturally, this is a position of both authority, and risk. The sekininsha must make sure that a task stays on course and schedule, and most importantly, take responsibility for any failures. This last point often means a number of employees do anything they can to avoid the sekininsha position for any task with a high risk of failure. At the same time, willingness to accept sekinin for high-visibility projects is also a good way of making a name for yourself and solidifying your position in a company.
Accepting responsibility in Japan is often avoided, but can be a very rewarding thing, just as in any other country. Think about that when offers to handle large tasks come your way in your own work.
Meetings are Performance Art
I once worked at a silicon wafer factory owned by a German conglomerate. The Germans kept the Japanese staff on, but added higher-level management from their own organization. The greatest problem they had with their Japanese staff was how unnecessary most meetings were. I saw a Japanese CFO literally just walk out of a meeting when he realized that all that was happening was that a staff member was reading his report out loud.
The role of internal meetings in Japan has, I must confess, always mystified me. I have been to many, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, they are like that. Someone hands out printouts of a report that they then proceed to read off of PowerPoint slides. There is little to no discussion or decision making, it is simply listening to someone read a report that you are holding in your hands.
I asked about this many times, and essentially these kinds of information sharing meetings are ways to connect with a team or group, including executives, that you might not otherwise be in the same room with. They are not geared toward any specific goal, since the information shared is easily shared by email. Decision making meetings are similar, in that the decision has almost always already been made through the process of nemawashi, a term I discussed in another article. Essentially, it is the act of building consensus on a decision in private with concerned parties before public discussion even begins.
My advice is to just live with it. If your company is one of those that uses meetings as a chance to build that essential company wa (harmony), then sit and use the time to think about your own projects, or perhaps work on your Japanese. You can always read the reports later.
The main takeaway from this all is, I think, to observe your own office and think critically about how it works. Try not to let expectations from past work influence your work experience today, and fit yourself to the workplace instead of trying to fit the workplace to your expectations.