Living in Tokyo - Notes

Working and doing business in Japan


So you decided to make the decision and move to Japan. Or perhaps you live abroad and will be visiting Japan on business. In either case you are now most likely wondering about working and doing business in Japan. These are natural concerns anyone would have when moving to a new country or visiting on business. I would like to shed some light on this based on my 25 years experience living, working and doing business here in Japan.

Office Buildings

There are a couple of observations that I noticed that seem to be the standard in many Japanese companies and among employees here. One big difference is the fact that here in Japan, the company takes care of the employee and in return the employee is loyal to the company. Meaning hard work and lots of overtime. This is totally opposite in America where I’m from. Basically many US companies don’t care so much about their employees. And many employees will quit the moment they find a better job or opportunity.

To go into more detail let me give you an example. Let’s say a Japanese company experiences tough financial times, it will cut corners and do all that it can to not lay off it’s employees. After they do that they will offer existing employees early retirement. And after doing that when there is no other choice available, they will lay off employees. This is in total contrast to American companies. During an economic downturn one of the first thing a company does is lay off employees.

This is one of the biggest differences that I have noticed between America (western countries) and Japan. Now let’s get into more detail what it’s like working and doing business in Japan.

Office Layout

The traditional layout for a typical office here is OPEN PLAN. Basically it is a room that does not contain many or any enclosed rooms or private offices. The tables or desks are set up in a way whereby your coworkers sit to the right, left and in front of you. There are no partitions meaning no privacy. The section or department head will usually have his or her own desk at one end of the room separate from everyone else. As it might be easier for you to visualize, click here for a photo.

There is a reason why this is the preferred type of office layout here in Japan. Japanese like to work together as a team so this type of layout makes it easy for employees to communicate with each other when needed.

Morning Ritual

In many companies, even at large conglomerates, before starting work the employees must do a few minutes of exercise every day! This to me was a bit of a culture shock. I remember the first company I worked at. Every morning at 9:30 AM everyone would gather and do some light calisthenics. I felt it was kind of strange for a company to make it’s staff do some exercises before starting work. This is part of working and doing business in Japan. But now that I think about it, it’s probably not such a bad idea. Here are some photos so that you can see what I’m talking about. 

What You Majored In At University Doesn’t Really Matter

I remember when I first came to Japan and got into a conversation with someone. At one point I asked him what his major was. If I recall correctly, he said it was law. So I then followed up and asked him if he was a lawyer. He said no. I then asked if he was a paralegal. He said no again. I then asked if his work was related to law. He said no. Although I forgot what he said his job was, it wasn’t related to law in the least bit.

University Graduation Achievement Cap

I was quite surprised at this since in the United States where I’m from, if someone majors in law, they go on to become a lawyer. If someone majors in politics they get a job as a politician, etc… However, after asking a number of Japanese about this, I now know the answer why this is. Basically, a typical Japanese company doesn’t really care about what you major in as long as you have a university degree. Once you are hired after graduating from university you usually go through new recruit training which usually lasts around three months. So if you come to Japan, attend a university here and graduate with a degree in world history but have always wanted to work as a journalist, well go there’s nothing stopping you. Go and apply for that job!! This is what it’s like working and doing business in Japan.


When I first came to Tokyo and was hired by a local company, I was told that my working hours would be from 8:30 AM until 5:30 PM Monday thru Friday. I vividly remember my first week of work there. Whenever 5:30 came around I would say in Japanese “Osaki Ni Shitsurei Shimasu” which literally translates as “Excuse me for leaving early” This is a polite phrase to say if you leave work before others. Anyhow, Whenever I said this I noticed that my coworkers would look at me in a strange way. I didn’t know the reason for this until a week later when the manager took me aside and spoke to me.

He asked me if I could work longer hours. It was then I realized that even if you are told your work hours are from 8:30 AM until 5:30 PM, nobody really ever goes home at 5:30 PM. You see, there is an unwritten rule about working overtime here in Japan. Also, many new employees that start working for a company will seldom ever leave work before their manager does. As far as how many hours the average businessperson works here depends on their industry, type of work and position in the company. Working late into the night is not uncommon here.

A few years ago a woman who worked for a well know advertising company here died from overwork. I think she did something like 160 hours of overtime. If the average person works 8 hour a day, 5 days a week, 20 days per month, that equals 160 hours. So basically this woman was working 16 hours a day! Now this is an extreme example and most employees don’t work so many hour a day. And to avoid negative publicity in the media, many companies are now asking their employees to not work as many hours. Some companies have even introduced a “No Overtime Day” where employees are discouraged from working overtime.


Exchanging Business Cards

In Japan the business card, or Meishi as it’s called in Japanese, is an integral tool used in business. Great importance is placed on business cards compared to other western countries. It is a kind of introduction used when meeting someone. Where I am from a business card is given to someone when follow up communication is desired. So we wouldn’t really give someone our business card if we don’t plan to follow up with our do business with that person or company.

In contrast, here in Japan, when meeting someone for the first time in a business situation, it is customary to exchange business cards right at the start. There are certain formalities you need to go through and abide by when exchanging business cards with someone. If you forget to do any of these then it can be considered rude to the person you’re giving your business card to. Let’s go over some do’s and don’ts when giving and receiving business cards.

Business Card


Stand up when presenting your business card to someone.

Present it face up and facing your contact so that he/she can read it.

Use both hands when presenting your business card.

Bow your head when presenting your business card.

Receive your contact’s business card with both hands.

After receiving a business card, look at it and note the person’s name and title

In a meeting room, after sitting down be sure to place the business card of the person face up on the table. This is useful in case you forget the person’s name, you can quickly glance at their business card.


Give or receive a business card using one hand.

Put a business card you receive in your rear pants pocket.

Write on or make notes on your contact’s business card in front of them.

Take out a stack of business cards and ask your contact to take one.

For more information and additional tips please refer to 

Drinking With Coworkers

If you are working and doing business in Japan then most likely you will be invited to go out drinking with your coworkers and/or boss from time to time. Before moving to Japan I never used to drink. That is until I started working for a Japanese company.

In America where I’m from, most people would cringe at the thought of drinking together with his or her boss. But here in Japan managers use this as an opportunity to get to know you personally outside of the office. In addition, you will get to know more about your coworkers on a personal level as well. This is known as “Nomunication” This is a recently created word here. It is a combination of the Japanese word “Nomu which means to drink” and the English word “Communication”

Cheers! (Kanpai in Japanese)

Now let’s say that you don’t drink, well that’s fine as well since you don’t necessarily need to order an alcoholic drink. You can order a non alcoholic drink as well. Now you are probably wondering if attending these drinking parties are mandatory. The answer is no. However, with that said, it would probably be a good idea to attend these events from time to time. If an employee never attends these events, then their coworkers and boss will wonder why. In the worst situation you might be looked at as not being a “team player”.

You don’t need to attend all of these event’s but should attend from time to time. Oh, and one more thing. If your boss invites you and your coworkers out, that usually means that he/she or the company will pay the bill! Personally I attended every chance I got. Drinking and eating for free is a major perk for me!

Seating Arrangements

In A Meeting

If you work for a Japanese company and attend a meeting, the seating arrangement will differ depending on the position of the person in the company. This is called sekiji (席次). People with a higher position within the company such as upper management or top executives will sit in on Kamiza (上座). In Addition, visiting guests will also sit on Kamiza. People with a lower position in the company will sit on the Shimoza (下座). This includes younger employees or new recruits. These seats are located near the entrance of the room.

So in a meeting with 5 people seat position 1 is for the most senior person going down in rank to number 5 which is the lowest ranking person. For a better visual image of what I’m talking about click here. 

Meeting Room

In An Elevator

Even when riding an elevator those of higher stature stand in different positions than those of lower positions. Higher level managers and executives will stand in the back of the elevator. The person with the lowest position will stand in front of the floor buttons panel. This person in in charge of pressing the destination floor. After the elevator reaches the destination floor, this person will hold the elevator door open for everyone to get off. After everyone has gotten off, he/she will be the last person to exit the elevator. Click here for an image. 

In A Taxi

When riding in a car or taxi, the person holding the highest position will sit right behind the driver. Statistically speaking this position right behind the driver is considered the safest in case of an accident. The lowest level person will sit in the front next to the driver. He/She is in charge of give the driver directions and paying the fare.

Changing Departments

Every few years it is common for employees to change departments. For example someone in sales will be transferred to accounting and vice versa. This is quite different compared to western countries where a person will tend to stay in the same position that he was hired for. I asked a number of Japanese people about why this is. They all gave the same answer which seems very logical.

Changing Departments

The main reason for this is so that an employee can experience working in a variety of departments. By doing so, he/she will have a better understanding of how the company is run. So in essence, the employee will become kind of like a jack of all trades.

I hope you enjoyed today’s post on working and doing business in Japan. If you haven’t read the last post on “What’s it like living in Tokyo? Part Two, click here.

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