Adjusting to Work Life in Japan

As an America coming to live and work in Japan, I’ve noticed quite a few things that are similar and different in each country’s workforces. No, I’m not just talking about what languages are spoken in the office. I’m talking about aspects of work life that are important to myself and others and how they play a huge role in the way we feel about our jobs in general. I’ve found that living and working in a foreign country means a lot of changes and adjustments, and would like to share some of the more noticeable differences between both countries that I’ve experienced or heard about from coworkers.

If you want to read about how I came to live and work in Japan, you can find that blog here.

If you’re currently working in a foreign country, be sure to comment below with your own experiences!

Work Demeanor

In America, I found that many work atmospheres were relaxed and casual for the most part. Even when I began working at a small business and eventually climbed the ladder as close to the top as I could, I still felt comfortable and friendly around coworkers throughout the working day. That being said, I kept my own close group of friends outside of work that I enjoyed spending time with. We had a few office parties, of course, but never would we all go out to the same bar after a long shift and get wasted together.

In Japan, it’s common to go out drinking with coworkers – and even your boss! – after work events or when important deadlines are met. It’s not taboo to get completely drunk in front of your boss in the land of the rising sun. In fact, your boss might get just as drunk as you do, if not more! The work environment itself within the office is both hectic and relaxed, as people are always rushing to do things, yet an hour later they’ll be asleep at their desk. It’s controlled chaos at its finest. In the end, it’s not alright for employees and coworkers to act as unprofessionally as they do at drinking parties when they are at work in the office. Fun times can be had, but there is a time and a place to do so (which is generally not at work).

Assigned vs. Actual Work Hours

In American, if your work contract says 40 hours a week, you work 40 hours a week. Unless your boss is paying overtime, no one in their right mind would stay any longer than they had to at a clock-in/clock-out, ‘paid by the hour’ job. Many workplaces will actually get angry when employees don’t clock-out on time, as they either have to let the employee come in late another day to balance their time or pay them extra. Both options usually end with a stern warning never to clock out late again.

In Japan, employees are more than willing to stay overtime without pay. The work ethic dictates that loyal, hardworking employees stay in the office until after the boss has left. Sometimes the boss doesn’t leave until hours after the work day is done, meaning that workers might have several 10 hour work days per week. It’s because of the long, unpaid overtime hours that bosses don’t freak out when they see an employee asleep at their desk – they realize that their employee has worked themselves so hard that their body had to literally shut down to repair itself. It’s not uncommon for salarymen and women to spend more time at work than they do at home.

Coworker Relations

In America, I was friendly with coworkers at the office, but usually didn’t hang out with them outside of work. As I moved to higher positions within the same company, it felt strange for me to interact with employees under me in our free time. The power difference was hard to shake, and I didn’t want to get too chummy with people I had authority over. In much the same way, my boss did not invite all of his employees to personal events, but did take the entire upper management team to Vegas on several occasions for a fun weekend away. This is also sort of an exception, as no other company I worked for would ever think to do such a thing.

In Japan, coworkers can become your closest friends rather easily. That being said, the majority of my Japanese coworkers like to engage with one another during working hours, but usually go home to their families after a long, hard day. Most of us will not go out together until it’s for a company event or drinking party. We all have our own lives to live, and unless two people in the office are dating (which is generally frowned upon), they don’t hang out much outside of work. Although it’s only fair to add, the majority of my expat coworkers hang out with one another in almost every spare moment of their days. You can read more about why I’m not too keen on being involved in expat communities here.

Promotions and Position Changes

In America, I worked directly under the President and CEO of a company after several years of moving up the company ladder. As such, if ever I chose to (or had to) move to a different company, I would more than likely start in a higher position than entry level employees due to my prior experience. It’s not common for employees to experience perfectly horizontal movements from one company to another (i.e. a VP at one company becoming a VP at another company), but generally if a person has prior experience in a higher position they can skip the process of starting all over again at the bottom in a new company.

In Japan, you start at the bottom of the ladder no matter what your prior experiences are. If a CEO of a company loses his job, he can’t just move into another company and expect a higher position and better wages. Such things are not done in Japan. This is one of the reasons why losing your job is such a serious concern in the land of the rising sun. The prospect of trying to start over after losing everything you’ve worked for over the years is as upsetting as it is difficult.


There have been a few adjustments I’ve had to make while living and working in Japan (like learning how to drive on the other side of the road!), but the majority of them have been relatively simple and straightforward. In the end, all I can do is realize that no country has perfect working conditions, but at least Japan’s work life suits my personal needs.

Would you prefer work life in Japan to your own country? What aspects of your job now do you like or not like? Let us know in the comments below! Let’s get a discussion going, yeah?

Happy reading, writing, working, and living!

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