I am writing this because I have gained what I believe to be good insights into corporate life in Japan, the corporate culture and corporate mentality in Japan through having lived in Japan for nearly 8 years, 4 of which I spent studying contemporary Japanese culture and history in school, and the remaining four at my current job working in Japan as a recruiter filling bilingual jobs in Japan where I have had the unique chance to interact with hundreds of Japanese candidates who have shared their professional goals and the pains of working in their current Japanese company.
Before you read this piece I should disclose that I am not an expert on domestic Japanese work culture; I am half-Japanese, I grew up overseas and returned to Japan at age 18 to start university, and upon graduation, I joined a British recruitment firm in Tokyo where I have been working now for the past 3 and a half years. I have never worked in a Japanese company (nor have I worked full-time in another country for that matter), and so, clearly, I am not the best person to make comments on Japanese work culture or even to make comparisons between corporate life in Japan and other countries.
Working in Japan
A major pain point of corporate life in Japan: Long hours and low pay
Low Pay in Japan
One of the most shocking things about corporate life in Japan is how much time people put into work for how little they are paid, compared to other economically developed nations. This is true for most corporate sectors, but especially true for technology (I am a tech recruiter) where the average salary for a software developer across all seniority levels is 5 million JPY (USD 47,000) in Japan, where the US boasts an average of USD 85,000; 80% higher than that of Japan.
For an overwhelming majority of the foreign talent that comes to Japan to work in tech, the motivation is almost always a love of Japan and Japanese culture—manga, anime, history, traditional culture, or having a spouse or family member in Japan—and not salary (of course, this is not true for talent coming from less economically developed nations such as India, Eastern European nations, the Philippines and other southeast Asian nations).
For these foreign talents, if the allure of Japanese culture and living in Japan fades away (or in many cases, when tech talent quickly realise that tech in Japan is old, contrary to their prior conceptions), the reality of the everyday grind of working in Japan sets in.
When I am on the phone with senior candidates in Tokyo (senior both in terms of their age as well as position in the company, e.g. senior managers/directors, or buchō in Japanese), I am both shocked and amazed to find that they are able to financially support a family of 4 (kids who are at university age, and usually a wife who is not working) on merely 7 million JPY (USD$65,849) a year or even less.
Conversely, the software engineers I speak to in San Francisco (who are, admittedly, the highest paid in the world) would be making USD$120,000+ as fresh graduates. The shockingly low purchasing power that the average corporate worker has in the corporate life in Japan has given rise to the culture of “1 coin” (500 yen) lunch places and cheap bars and izakayas available to tired workers everywhere.
Long working hours in Japan
Unfortunately, one of the most common pain points we hear about the working culture in Japan is long working hours, and the consequences to physical and mental health because of it (Japan is the only country I know of that has a term for death from overwork, karoōshi in Japanese).
One of my closest friends, another half-Japanese girl I met in university, joined a domestic Japanese real estate giant upon graduation and would often work 12+ hour days. I would be well into my 4th pint of beer after work when she would still be on the clock, before she had even started her 2-hour commute back to her family home in Saitama.
Paid holidays in Japan
Paid holidays (yūkyū in Japanese) is another pain point with the working culture in Japan. My friend I mentioned previously was entitled to the statutory minimum of 10 paid holidays per year (this includes sick leave) while I was fortunate enough to have 20 paid holidays plus 5 days sick leave, which is highly uncommon in Japan.
What paid leave she did have remaining after sick days and mental health days recovering from the grind of her everyday work life, she felt guilty using for holidays and would often forfeit her paid leaves at the end of the year. For her, there were very few merits in working there—she did not enjoy the work or the people she worked with, and was paid an abysmal 2.8 million JPY (USD$26,336) a year before tax, which is highly unproportionate to the hours she put in.
When she had finally had enough, I pulled her into a role at my current company where her pay nearly doubled and her hours were reduced by 40%. Unfortunately, her ability to realise her misery and switch to a company with better conditions is a luxury that not everybody in Japan has (she is a trilingual, most importantly English-speaking, talent).
Overtime work in Japan
According to a government survey in 2016, a quarter of Japanese companies asked their employees to work an average of 80 hours of overtime work a month in Japan, hours which are often unpaid. Why then, do people in Japan work such long hours when it almost never translates to extra pay?
One could argue that employees have other non-financial motivators to work (e.g. doing what they love, having deep and meaningful relationships with their colleagues and bosses, working for a company whose purpose they believe in and are passionate about), but this has certainly not been the experience for most of the hundreds of people I have consulted regarding job hunting.
One could also argue that Japanese company employees put up with long hours and low pay to enjoy the benefits of lifetime employment and job security, where Japanese labour law protects the employee instead of the employer, making it legally very difficult for companies to dismiss their employees.
I would, however, argue that labour law does not protect employees from harassment by their employer (something that is another pain point in corporate culture in Japan, which I will omit discussing here in the interest of keeping this piece concise), and that companies find other ways to let go of their staff (bullying their employees into quitting or demoting them to a role doing low level, menial and repetitive tasks are common methods).
Others could argue that workers in corporate life in Japan simply do not have a choice in the matter, as this is the job market and culture here. I disagree to some extent, since I have seen both the types of candidates who know their value in the market and switch to companies that pay a fairer salary, and those who stay in their current companies for decades, waiting in vain for the hike in salary that they long so much for.
The reality of Japanese working culture
For so many Japanese workers, the reality is that everybody works long hours for low pay, and even those who realise that they are unhappy because of work simply accept that they cannot do anything about it (the word shōganai springs to mind).
Group mentality is so deeply rooted in Japanese culture that voicing your opinion and challenging the status quo is not accepted (“the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” or deru kugi wa utareru in Japanese), and so the cycle of not trying to change the system or your current unhappy situation continues.
Oftentimes, in my state of privilege (as far as the norm in Japan goes), I would catch myself wondering why people in Japan live to work, instead of work to live. The societal expectation to study hard in school to get into a good university, to join a well-established company upon graduating and to work hard and climb the rungs of the corporate ladder is not unique to Japan, and of course prevails in so many of our modern societies globally.
There are however uniquely Japanese elements of this, such as joining a large company immediately upon graduating in March and becoming shakai-jin (“society person”) in April instead of taking a gap-year for example, and then of course life-long loyalty and commitment to one company (this is changing in contemporary Japan).
What is particularly heartbreaking to me is the high rates of suicide in Japan caused by the tedious and unsatisfying work environment; the nuclear family consisting of a wife and kids who rarely see their husband/father, who gets home from work after the family has gone to sleep and who gets up to leave for work before the family has woken; and the depressed overworked worker who barely has the time, energy or even money to invest into other parts of their life such as friendship, family, leisure, travel and other hobbies.
So what can be done?
As far as salary and the job market goes, one of the key things I think should be changed is companies (and therefore recruiters) being allowed to ask candidates what their current or previous salaries were.
I have been called rude and insensitive once when speaking with a candidate overseas in the UK for a job in Japan when I asked what their current compensation was, and had to quickly apologise and explain that in Japan, it is not only legal but also common practice for our clients to ask for our candidates’ current compensation. This means that if you are already being underpaid as far as market standards go, you are likely to fall into an endless trap of being underpaid for your next role and roles to come, since compensation is based on your current or previous salary rather than what the company’s budget is for that particular role.
I am actually amazed at how asking a person’s current compensation has managed to become common practice in a country where privacy and personal information protection laws are so strict. Yes, people do come with different skills and experience levels even for the same role (which can merit different pay scales), but that shouldn’t matter; a job description should have a clear scope of role and responsibilities, and the expected delivery and performance in a role clearly understood and agreed upon by both employer and employee. This means paying a consistent salary for the same job, or at least narrowing the very large gap between salaries for a particular job.
But even if Japanese companies are asked to stop asking candidates about their current compensation, the problem of low pay and long hours still persists, as there are a myriad of other factors involved that perpetuates this. As someone who is not an expert on the matter, I cannot pretend to understand the complexities of the socio-cultural, economic and political factors that come into play here. My limitations only allow me to highlight, share, and comment on the experiences of those around me.