Foreigners working for Japanese companies (in Japan)

Nihongo hansemasu ka? Can you speak Japanese?


Many foreigners who work in Japanese companies can answer that question in the affirmative with a resounding “Hai!” Morgan Shimizu, an American working for Aero Asahi Corporation told Majirox News that working for a Japanese corporation “has taught me how and when to say things as well as when not to say things.”


Timothy Marshall, a New Zealander working in the semi-conductor industry for Samco, Inc. confirmed this. He said, “I learned the word anisotropic in Japanese before I learned it in English!”


Will the need to speak Japanese continue or will English become the lingua franca for Japanese corporations? Japan news reports have been awash lately with talk of Japanese  companies globalizing operations, hiring more foreigners, holding meetings in English, and requiring Japanese staff who hope to be promoted to management positions to undergo English language training. One such company is Rakuten, operator of Japan’s largest Internet mall, which has reported it will make English its official in-house language by the end of 2012 as part of its efforts to go global. However, one non-Japanese Rakuten employee, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid work repercussions told Majirox that while Rakuten may be requiring Japanese managers to learn English working there has actually helped him learn more Japanese because as he stated, “The business language is 98% Japanese.”


However, not everyone finds working in a Japanese company beneficial to learning the language. 29 year old Dane, Steffen Johnstad-Moeller, who until very recently worked for a Japanese shipping company says, “Actually I learn more from taking [Japanese language] classes. When people speak internally they speak way too fast for me to understand, so I didn’t learn more Japanese than if I would have been working for a foreign company.”


Regardless of the language used when working for a Japanese company one may wonder if discrimination ever rears its ugly head. The situation varies from company to company, but in most cases there is surprisingly little discrimination against foreign workers. When asked if he ran into any discrimination issues Samco’s Marshall stated, “Quite the opposite. Being a foreigner I am able to speak my mind without being judged, unlike my Japanese colleagues.”


Patty Nameishi, Business Consultant and Principal at US-Japan Connect is an American female who has also worked for Kenzo, Tange, and Associates told us that when it came to discrimination it was actually just the opposite;  “They were too nice to me because I was a foreign woman.” 


As Shimizu emphasizes, “Japanese do not intend to [discriminate]. It seems that they are unaware when they do such things (such as the simple question ‘Why are white people so fat?’).”

There are, of course, pluses and minuses to working for a Japanese company. Professionalism and loyalty to employees are often cited as one of the more positive aspects. “Not worrying about whether or not I’ll have a job next week” is one of the pluses pointed out by Shimizu. On the other hand he says the atmosphere can sometimes be a downer for someone who enjoys a bit of joviality; “There are no real big laughs in the office. People are very impersonal.” 

Marshall really likes the close friendships, relations and support that you build with your new ‘family’ but he would like to see less risk adversity and resistance to change from his Japanese colleagues.

Still, that loyalty and stability can also lead to a lack of basic rights. As one Osaka based foreign designer, who asked to remain anonymous told us, “In a Japanese company the employee is generally entitled only to the basic right of having stable employment. Other than that, it seems as if you are at the complete disposal of the company. They are entitled to ask anything of you, and it will always be culturally difficult to refuse. Workers accept this, and thus are required to make family, health and personal sacrifices in order to meet the demands placed on them.”

The how’s and why’s to a job in a Japanese company are as varied as the foreigners who work in them. As a Japanese speaking American, Andy Kato, who works in the medical devices industry joined his company through a recruiter who had a specific mandate to find Japanese speaking American with extensive business development experience. Kato hopes that working for a Japanese company will help him with his goal of someday owning his own company. He says that working for a Japanese company will help him “learn what makes successful Japanese companies tick while understanding why they cannot deliver outside of Japan.”


Marshall, who was introduced to his company through his university professor chose a 150 person Japanese venture business over a famous big 4 consultancy firm because he wanted to be involved in international business from the start of his career. According to him, “It’s been a blast!  In three years I’ve taken over leadership of our European area, signed on new distributors and agents, and visited customers in America, Russia, Australia, Germany and Italy.”


So, what advice do these foreigners have for others who hope to work for a Japanese company now or in the future?


Kato says, “You must always be flexible and prepare yourself for anything uncustomary. Make sure you understand the balance of power in the company before you sign the contract.”


Shimizu advises that, ”You surrender your independent  thoughts. You might join as a web designer but if you are asked to go to sales you really don't have a choice. Once you become part of the family you act as part of the family.”


Nameishi, with her 20 years of Japan experience sums it up by saying, “Embrace the culture; enjoy the journey, do not be afraid to ask questions when you do not understand, and do not be afraid to share your opinions - just do so very gently and respectfully.”






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