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How to deal with difficult Japanese colleagues

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Working in Japan can be a new and exciting experience. But adjusting to a different country’s work style can also be a challenge! You may face difficulties you have never encountered in your previous country. Why does my co-worker never talk to me? Did I do something wrong? Why are my ideas being ignored?

Here we discuss some common issues you may face with Japanese co-workers and how you can resolve them!

Common problems with foreign workers

You may have noticed that some of your bosses or co-workers seem to resent working with international people. A recent study by employment agency, Persol Group, highlighted the top complaints Japanese mangers have with foreign workers:

  • Foreign workers are too assertive
  • They demand salary raises
  • They have little loyalty to the company
  • The learning curve for their position is long and slow

Communication barriers

If you came to Japan to improve your language skill, you may be keen to practice with your co-workers. But bear in mind even if you are an advanced learner, things may still be lost in translation.

If your co-workers are English speakers, try double-checking in both Japanese and English to ensure understanding. If you are doubtful that the message is coming across, take the time to be very, very clear. Mistakes are forgiven in Japanese companies, but it will take a while before they fully trust you again.

However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to talk in Japanese! Many Japanese people are nervous about speaking in English. They are afraid of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves. But, if you demonstrate that you are willing to make errors in Japanese, they will be more comfortable talking to you in English. Even if you are not an advanced speaker, your Japanese coworkers will appreciate your effort.

Cultural miscommunication

Japanese workers prefer to avoid conflict. That’s why Japanese people are usually very indirect when trying to communicate problems. Sometimes a criticism may be cleverly disguised.

For example, one scorching summer day, I wore a light shirt to cope with the heat. My Japanese co-worker and fellow teacher mentioned “Oh! That shirt you are wearing… It has a very *light* texture… a very *interesting* material…”. I was pretty pleased with her compliment until I realized her true meaning. The shirt material was ever-so-slightly transparent and therefore inappropriate for school.

Other workers may mention “You must take so much time to do your make up!”. This actually means “You are wearing too much make up”. So, it is important to understand the inference when communicating with Japanese workers. A casual comment may have a subtle double-meaning.

Attitude is Everything

You probably already know the importance of a ‘genki’ attitude in the workplace. Part of your role is to help maintain a positive atmosphere at work. Of course, everyone has their bad days, but your Japanese co-workers will be upset if you continually bring the down the mood every day.

Although this may sound like ‘toxic positivity’, it is important to understand that being genki is part of the group mentality of Japanese culture. An upbeat, enthusiastic attitude helps support the whole team. So, try your best to help in any way and keep the complaining to a minimum. Ganbare!

Socialize

Traditionally, drinking parties (nomikai, かい) were common in Japanese working culture. Nomikai can be a casual drink after work, or a formal event. The atmosphere is more relaxed because the environment is away from the office (and alcohol is involved!). drinking parties are a good opportunity to get to know your bosses and coworkers better.

Due to the current Covid restrictions, nomikai are less common. Also, many younger companies in Japan are unenthusiastic about drinking parties, as younger generations are drinking less alcohol.

So how can you bond with your Japanese colleagues? Look out for other social events at work. Lots of companies hold barbeques, golf trips or sight seeing excursions for employees. These events are a great opportunity to build relationships with your coworkers. You can also get some healthy fresh air at the same time!

We hope this gives you some hints for smooth social interaction and how to avoid tension in the office. If you are interested in knowing more about working in Japan, please browse our helpful articles at Jobs in Japan.

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