Our guide to be on good terms with you Japanese boss

The Boss Survival Guide: The Do’s and Don’ts of the Japanese Workplace

Working for someone comes with a whole mess or unspoken assumptions and rules (or business etiquette, if you’re trying to phrase it nicely), especially in a Japanese workplace, and the consequences for missing those rules aren’t generally something you want to deal with.

Working for someone comes with a whole mess or unspoken assumptions and rules (or business etiquette, if you’re trying to phrase it nicely), especially in a Japanese workplace, and the consequences for missing those rules aren’t generally something you want to deal with. Throwing those rules out is a little outside the scope of what I can do as a writer, so instead, I’m going to try to make them into spoken assumptions. Speaking of assumptions, all of this is written on the premise of a Japanese superior — for many reasons, this will rarely be wrong.

None of these are really rules I endorse, but they are what they are, so you might as well know about them. Without further ado, here are some tips on how to work with a Japanese boss.

1 — Humility

This isn’t “don’t let things go to your head” so much as an almost ritual humility. You’re absolutely, definitely right? Doesn’t matter, try to be as meek and polite about it as possible anyway. Respect for both anyone above you and for the general concept of systems and how things are done is very important. If you question any of the above, even in places that make a big deal out of ’kaizen’ (that is, making improvements), be ready for trouble, and be as gentle and polite about this as you can. Alternatively, don’t risk it. Another part of this show of respect means coming in on time or a bit early any time you can help it. Like I said, it’s a ritual sort of humility.

2 — Keigo

This one’s both simple, and a bit longer in the details than this article has room for, so instead I’ll say: Read up on keigo. There is an entire branch of the Japanese language arranged around talking to people of a different social class, different levels of showing deference, and so on. You’re going to need it. The more polite work emails you get maybe a useful reference.

3 — Ho-ren-so

No, not spinach. It’s just meant to sound like that. It’s short for ’Hokoku-Renraku-Sodan’, or translated, Report-Communicate-Consult. In practice, it boils down to keeping everyone on the same page and never deciding anything yourself. Specifically, it boils down to this: Report everything that happens exactly to your higher-ups, as soon as possible. Mistakes and other issues need to be reported especially.

’Renraku’ is a bit redundant, but basically, tell everyone around you and in your team any information they need to know. Keep everyone posted. Like going to your higher-ups, collectivising information like this makes sure it’s not just about you. Finally, discussion: What this actually means is to go to your boss and/or other higher-ups, and ask them for advice on everything, even if this is just to make sure both that it’s not officially your decision, and that you’ve made everyone in charge feel very important by asking their opinion.

4 — Body language

Bow at least somewhat (proper windows for this — besides meeting and leaving — are beyond this article but err on the side of caution and excess if you have to), don’t move your hands too much, don’t make direct eye contact if you can help it. Things like seating rules, how to enter rooms and so on are a bit deeper in, and can be researched in your own time, but fortunately, almost nobody will expect a foreigner to follow those particular rules.

5 — Listen carefully

Once again, we’re back to ritual humility and respect. Is someone talking? Listen quietly. Are they wrong? Listen quietly. Are they scolding you, possibly for something that’s outright wrong, not your fault, or can otherwise be explained? Resist the temptation to explain, the point is that you listen and look like you feel bad about whatever they’re annoyed about. Really, this one’s bad even by the standards of this list, but it’s just how things are, and I can’t offer a lot of alternatives.

6 — Nomikai

Or translated, drinking parties. This is part of a long-standing Japanese tradition of leaving work and then stopping by a bar or two with your coworkers and boss, with all the workplace rules out of the way (they aren’t), on a completely voluntary detour before going home (but just you try saying no). And yes, you’re paying for your own drinks.
The good news is that you can usually get out of this by claiming exemption on the basis of your health, allergies, doctor’s orders, religious reasons, or something like that; it might be a small mark against you, but not as much as telling them that you just don’t want to go. If you do want to go, then that’s very convenient and you can ignore most of this paragraph, because it’s going to do a lot for your place in work if you handle it right. The excuses above might not be very fair or honest, but on the other hand, you shouldn’t have to rely on it in the first place, so don’t worry about it.

On the ’bright’ side, at the time of writing, nobody is going out to drink anywhere (I hope), or really, going out much in general, so this is more something to remember for the future. If anybody insists on drinking together over Zoom, I can no longer help you.

Just to offer a bit of silver lining after all that: The tech sphere in Japan is slightly more modern and cosmopolitan in its workplace ideas in many ways, so this is probably going to be less strict if you ever end up in such a line of work, and of course, you can at least cut down on a lot of this if you happen to be a freelancer (and I’m personally lucky as far as my editors not being like this at all). Otherwise, though, now you have the rules and you can do what you like with them.

Owen Kinnersly