What I Wish My Japanese Colleagues Knew about Working as a Foreigner in Japan
I've lived most of my life in the majority. As a white male growing up in Switzerland, being a minority was just not part of my lived experience.
All of that changed four years ago, when I moved to Japan. I am exactly zero percent Japanese, and came here with only the most rudimentary understanding of the local language and culture.
My adventure started with two years of language school, after which I realized that I was only marginally closer to understanding this country. I wanted more: a truly immersive experience into a culture so fundamentally different from my own. What I didn't realize was that I wouldn't just learn about Japan, but also about what it means to be in the minority.
After about two and a half years in Japan, I was hired by leading Japanese groupware developer Cybozu. I'm in charge of foreign brand communication, running our English media website Kintopia, and contributing to facilitating global communication between Tokyo headquarters and our foreign offices.
Right now, there are over 500 people employed at the Tokyo office of Cybozu. Fewer than twenty are foreigners. Less than four percent. Which is still more than most Japanese offices.
Overall, I'm lucky to work for a company that's open to diversity. If you include the hundred or so people working at our overseas offices, you'll find a variety of cultures and backgrounds. That being said, there are several things I wish I'd known about being a hyper-minority. Several things that I wish my Japanese colleagues could understand and acknowledge.
I can't go over everything, since a comprehensive list would fill several books. I'm also limited to my own narrow perspective. Nevertheless, here are some things I wish my Japanese colleagues knew about working as a foreigner in Japan.
Nothing is simple
My first predicament is perhaps the most expected: the language barrier. My Japanese is, I think, better than the average Westerner living in Japan. I've passed the country's most advanced language examination, known as the N1 Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). I can read rather well, and can usually get my point across when writing or speaking.
However, what I didn't realize is that when working in a foreign language, everything takes more time.
Reading messages. Posting answers. Filling out forms. Figuring out which information applies to me. Every instance takes just a few seconds more than it would for a Japanese person, and those seconds quickly add up.
In addition, I need to use a lot more mental energy than I would when working in my mother tongue. With so few linguistic tools at my disposal, it takes more time to think of how to say what I want to say. Every message requires extensive proofreading. I'm constantly checking the dictionary to make sure I used the right word in the right context (and I still fail surprisingly often). It's like having had my high-end Swiss army knife replaced with a rusty old can opener: Every task is more exhausting, and I'm far more prone to mistakes.
Then there are also small specific things that locals can do with ease, but at which I'm downright atrocious. For example, I can't read Japanese handwriting—it's not something we covered in language school. Which means any team building exercise that requires Post-it notes is out of the question.
Video conferencing has also taught me that I'm exceedingly sensitive to sound quality in a foreign language. If somebody's microphone gets choppy when they're speaking English, I can usually still piece together what they're saying. In Japanese, the slightest slump in recording quality has a tremendous impact on how much I can understand. A little bit of static and my interlocutor might as well be a visitor from Alpha Centauri.
Also, pretty much any idiom, expression, or even slang that isn't standard Japanese can leave me perplexed. A lot of my colleagues like using dialect from the Kansai region (known in Japanese as Kansai-ben) for comedic effect. Even when I can understand the gist of what they're saying, deciphering their message takes as much brain power as solving a quadratic equation. By the time I succeed, everybody's already been laughing for several seconds. At that point, it would be awkward to join in. Which leads me to my second predicament.
I may not be who you think I am
I've come to realize that even the simplest social interactions become unsparingly complicated in a foreign culture. I don't understand the jokes. I don't get the pop culture references. I'm anxious about saying the wrong thing, or not being able to get my point across.
As a result, I'm more likely to stay quiet in large gatherings. I have less confidence when speaking, whether to a small group or in front of many people.
To avoid awkwardness and hardship, I'd rather stay away from complicated social situations. I don't feel comfortable joining one of the many clubs within my company. I only go to lunch with the few people I'm closest to, because new relationships take formidable effort to build.
There are also direct effects on my work. Since I worry I may have missed important parts of the conversation, I'm less likely to give my opinion in meetings. Unless it's specifically about a project I'm in charge of, I usually won't speak unless spoken to.
When I summon my courage and participate, I feel like I'm more likely to be beside the point. What I'm saying either isn't directly relevant, or would have been five minutes ago, but the conversation has since moved on. The relevant ideas may be more out-of-the-box, or require context that I don't know how to properly convey.
As a result, my ideas are now more likely to get lip service. A light nod, a polite acknowledgment, and we move on to an idea that's closer to home, easier to grasp.
My colleagues may think these are individual quirks—elements of my personality. Maybe I don't "get" things the way other people do. Maybe I'm not as good at coming up with good ideas. Maybe I'm socially awkward, a bit weird, or hard to talk to.
I don't have the right words to explain that who they see isn't the real me. That I would behave differently around colleagues with whom I share a similar language and culture. That I can in fact be a much more competent, much more effective employee, but this lingering social and linguistic miasma is distorting everything I say and do.
While coming to Japan has been a wonderful life lesson, working in such a foreign context has come at the cost of being my true self.
Navigating without a compass
I've also learned that being a hyper-minority casts a fog of doubt upon my career prospects.
Most people create their workplace persona by modeling their behavior upon more experienced colleagues. To develop the tools they need to ascend within their company, they talk to and emulate their managers and leaders.
In my case, every rung above me on the corporate ladder is occupied by a Japanese person. The only non-Japanese employees at manager level or above work at our overseas offices.
I have nobody to serve as my role model. Acting more Japanese would be counterproductive, since I could never out-Japanese a Japanese person. My added value is in my difference; a new way of thinking that can help question established processes, generate creative ideas, and grant access to new clients.
Since there is nobody in my company who has had a career path similar to mine, I don't know what to expect. Will working to the best of my ability get me promoted, or have I already hit a glass ceiling? Will my company someday start putting foreigners in managerial spots in Japan? Will I have to go overseas to advance my career?
I've come to believe that a truly diverse company shows its diversity at every level, from the employees to the executive board. A company with branches around the world but wherein all major decisions are made by Japanese executives isn't a global company—it's a Japanese company with a global footprint.
So who needs foreigners, anyway?
At this point you may be wondering if there's any point at all for foreigners to work in Japanese companies. If everything takes me more time, I won't be able to carry out my tasks as efficiently as my Japanese counterparts. Cultural misunderstandings may take a toll on my morale, further impacting productivity.
Despite all that, I think it's worth it. From the company's perspective, research demonstrates that diversity is good for business. Diverse groups are more likely on average to come up with a wider range of better ideas, leading to more profit.
From my perspective, working with colleagues from an entirely different culture has taught me a lot about the world, while also granting me a new perspective on my own culture and values. I've become better at divergent thinking, working autonomously and taking responsibility.
That being said, foreign cultures add a hefty layer of complexity to which companies must be prepared. In other words, before hiring a foreigner, Japanese companies need to ask themselves if they are ready to deal with a more complicated work environment.
In jobs that require any measure of creativity, there is no benefit for a Japanese company to hire a non-Japanese worker to do the exact same job as a native Japanese worker. They will inevitably be less effective, which can leave them feeling slow and stupid. They'll also become a burden on their colleagues, which can result in further isolation.
On the other hand, it's also disappointing that so many Japanese companies only see foreigners' value as translators and localizers. If given the opportunity to participate in decision-making, we would be able to do so much more. We could put forward disruptive ideas, push teams to think outside the box, and find flaws and inefficiencies that would otherwise go unnoticed.
We come to Japan bearing the gifts of creativity, divergent thinking and global outreach. To harness these benefits, all companies need to do is make a few changes.
Better evaluation criteria
Since there is little point in hiring foreigners to do the same work as locals, there is also little point in evaluating us along the same criteria.
I obviously can't work as productively for a Japanese company as I could for a foreign company. There are many more barriers to my efficiency in Japan. That means if I'm to be evaluated based on individual output alone, I'll inevitably be seen as less valuable than if I were doing equivalent work for a foreign company. Which also means I'll be paid less, less likely to get promoted, and so on.
Instead, my contribution should be evaluated based on how my team is performing. Do I help foster divergent thinking? Has my team had new ideas, changed its processes, or figured out new ways to solve problems? Has my company gained access to new business?
If the answer to these questions is "yes," that should be reflected not just in my evaluation, but in those of my teammates. After all, my new way of thinking is only valuable if I work in an environment that is willing to consider my ideas.
Unfortunately, looking at the big picture and measuring team innovation is much harder than the individualistic criteria most companies use for their evaluations. As a result, foreigners in Japan will often find it more lucrative to take their skills to a foreign-run company. Systemically, this results in very few foreigners sticking around long enough to end up in managerial positions, perpetuating the lack of role models.
Unless Japanese managers proactively decide to revisit the evaluation criteria for their foreign staff, this vicious cycle is unlikely to end any time soon.
To unleash the full potential of diversity, companies need to incorporate it into the decision-making process. After all, diversity without empowerment is merely tokenism.
It takes several steps to reach empowerment. The first is creating an environment in which foreigners feel comfortable to speak. Since everything takes longer for us, we need time. For instance, if important decisions are taken during a meeting, chances are foreign employees won't have had time to fully process that information, which makes it impossible for us to give an informed opinion.
Then, companies need to show consideration for foreign ideas. What we say may be uncomfortable, or new, or different. That doesn't mean it's bad. Showing interest, asking for clarification and engaging in true dialogue can go a long way.
Foreigners tend to submit ideas that may not make perfect sense, or seem convoluted to the Japanese ear. In Japan, since the cultural norm is to avoid debate rather than solicit an explanation, the standard reaction is lip service: a quick thank you, and the usual, "But we've chosen to go in a different direction." However, it may be worth digging further. With the aid of context and conversation, that misshapen thought could turn out to be a diamond in the rough.
The final step is execution. Even if we're listened to, unless some of our ideas are acted upon, we'll quickly begin to feel useless.
Here, the trap many Japanese companies seem to fall into is completely separating the issues foreigners work on from those dealt with by locals. The whole point of diversity is to foster creativity and divergent thinking by exchanging ideas. Diversity isn't about lining up diverse silos of conformity. It's having a mix of opinions on every issue.
This matter is very close to my heart, since I run the English branding website for my company. It would be very easy for me to take instructions from the top and go off to do my own thing. However, unless I give feedback and participate in crafting the overall brand strategy of the company, I feel like a big part of my value is wasted. Conversely, unless I receive feedback from my Japanese colleagues on my projects, I feel like I'm losing valuable opportunities for improvement.
The future is diverse
Diversity matters for global companies especially, because foreign competitors themselves are diverse. To compete, Japanese companies need to take risks. One of those risks is revisiting their internal structure to allow for the promotion of minorities. Not just foreigners, but also women, LGBTQ employees, persons with disabilities, and so on.
Companies are less likely to be successful in a diverse global market if all of their decisions are taken by people with similar backgrounds. Japanese companies are less likely to succeed internationally when they're driven exclusively by middle-aged straight Japanese men.
Hiring a bunch of translators and localizers, or opening a "diversity office," aren't solutions. Simply adapting Japanese ideas for a global audience doesn't make those ideas international—it makes them sub-optimal copies of the original.
In the past, Japanese companies could be extremely successful despite being exclusively Japanese because they were mostly competing against other monoliths. To this day, executive boards in Europe and America are still primarily occupied by straight white men.
However, as other countries embrace diversity, the goalposts are shifting. Japan is at risk of falling behind. In the future, I strongly believe that making companies more foreigner-friendly will be key to Japan being a leading player in the global market. Doing so will require integrating foreigners not as tokens, not as executors or localizers, but as innovators and decision-makers.
I'm grateful that my company has proven open enough to engage in this dialogue. In fact, it's only because I was able to broadly share and discuss my concerns with my boss and colleagues first that this article became possible. At Cybozu, foreigners like myself—and indeed all minorities—are provided with an open platform to raise our voices and be heard throughout the company. While all is far from perfect, I believe we have taken an important step forward.
I can only hope many more companies will do the same.
Article by Alex Steullet. Edited by Ade Lee and Mina Samejima. Illustration by yummi.
The Japanese version is available at the link below:
Alex is the editor in chief of Kintopia and part of the corporate branding department at Cybozu. He holds an LLM in Human Rights Law from the University of Nottingham and previously worked for the Swiss government.
After gratuating from the Nihon University College of Art, yummi began working as a freelance artist. In 2015, she received an honorable mention at the 2nd The Gate competition for her work "Sanpei-sensei No Jikan" (In Her Class), as well as an excellence award at the 69th Tetsuya Chiba competition for “Himitsu No Hanazono-san” (“The Secret Girl”).
Mina is a content editor and part of the corporate branding department at Cybozu. She is in charge of brand promotion and content creation, including for Kintopia and its Japanese twin website CybozuShiki.