Learning Japanese Business Culture the Hard Way

On its surface, Japanese business culture is easy to understand. You do the work assigned to you, and then you try to help out your team. Whatever you do must be directed toward the good of the ecosystem, the greater organism that you’re a part of.

Up until recently, the consequences of living and working within such a system were only positive. When I was sick, my bosses took me to the hospital — where I embarrassed myself by placing a thermometer in my mouth, instead of in my armpit, as is the local way of doing things. They filled my refrigerator with electrolyte drinks, rice gruel, and easy to prepare noodle dishes.

Likewise, when coworkers were sick or buried in work, I offered vitamin-rich snacks and offered to help shoulder some of the load. The result? This is the only job I’ve ever had that makes me feel like I’m not just part of some corporate entity. To offer a tired cliché, we feel like a cohesive family unit. A recent blunder, though, is showing me the –well, darker side is a bit melodramatic — less desirable side of working within a more symbiotic, less individual body. 

Scuttlebutt, water cooler gossip, the “word:” whatever you want to call it, people within companies talk about their companies. Sometimes that talk is about the annoying tech guy who likes to stand by your cubicle and shout to another coworker right next to him. Sometimes you dissect management’s decisions to give your rival a promotion. Sometimes you talk about the positives. Nobody back home — neither management, your coworkers, the eavesdropping bartender with the pink mohawk from your favorite dive — expects you to report a word of your venting, be it good or bad, to the higher ups.

Expectations are a little different here. For fear of repeating my mistake, I won’t go into too much detail, but if your coworker mentions they’re unhappy with your company or they want to apply to a new in-house position, you’d better not play stupid about it.  Since both of those feelings could help or harm the business that everyone relies on to live, you have to speak up.  When word does make it back to the higher-ups, your failure to say anything will look more like willful sedition than healthy banter.

I should have known better, I think. A collectivist culture that only places value on the good of the group during good situations isn’t really collectivist, after all. Still, I felt pretty angry when I was first grilled about things said and specific replies given. It felt like being interrogated by family members.

It’s not like I’m going to be kicked out of my school tomorrow. I’m not viewed as some kind of troublemaker. At worst, I upset the harmony of the school and risked — however slightly — it being at the top of its game. At best, I’m the silly foreigner who either shouldn’t have opened his mouth or should’ve been open about it when I did.

Lesson learned.

Have you ever “stuck your foot in it” while interacting with another culture in a business situation? Share your folly in the comments below.



  1. I noticed there was potential drama here and was eager to read! I don’t think I’ve ever encountered much — I think German culture is somewhere in the middle of American and German culture.

    I think the one time I maybe caused a mild stir was when I tried to prevent my 6 year old from bringing a knife to school. When you’re from America and kids can get arrested for holding a chicken nugget in a gun-like way, you’re cautious by default. In Germany, they thought I misunderstood WHOSE knife it was. Like if it’s Victor’s knife then of course he can bring it to school!

    Different expectations regarding school/home there, for sure.


    1. Haha, the bit about the chicken nugget. So true.

      Hopefully the misunderstanding at least let you be like, “Well, America kinda goes crazy about that kinda thing, so sorry?” Interesting cultural exchange convo, anyway.


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