We’ve seen before that Japan isn’t at the top of the list when it comes to great countries to work in. Companies here are infamous for long hours, enforced uniformity, and mandatory drinking parties that – in theory – are supposed to create a sense of family between coworkers, but in reality just makes them break down in tears or literally die at their desks.
But today we’re going to ignore that dark side of Japanese office life, and instead focus on the more bizarre parts of it. We’ll be counting down the top five strangest Japanese office occurrences — or at least the strangest ones that I’ve personally experienced — that add a little dash of absurdity to the Japanese workplace.
So let’s get to it. Starting off with…
Honorable mention: The work area itself
This one is not really an occurrence, but it still bears mentioning since it can be quite shocking to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.
What makes the long hours at a Japanese office even more unbearable? The fact that you pretty much can never do anything unrelated to work. In Japan, most offices don’t have cubicles or other private spaces for employees for work, instead opting for everyone’s desks pushed together in little islands to work together at.
Again, in theory this is supposed to encourage employee bonding and teamwork, but the reality is that it just ends up making people hate their job even more. Constantly feeling like you’re being watched by your bosses, coworkers, and anyone else who comes in just makes you paranoid. In fact, it can even lower productivity since people feel like they need to be seen as constantly working, so they take longer to complete assignments.
But there is one advantage to no walls/cubicles. It means you’ll always be able to hear the announcement for the…
#5. Yakult Ladies visiting
When I worked in Shibuya, Tokyo, there was a woman in the office whose only job was, as far as I could tell, to walk around the entire office and announce to everyone that “The Yakult Lady is here!” before lunch every day.
Who is the Yakult Lady? They’re women employed by the dairy company Yakult to go around to offices and sell Yakult milk drinks and other products. Everyone I worked with always got really excited when the Yakult Lady showed up, so it’s basically the Japanese adult equivalent of the ice cream truck. They can be old or young and and they ride around in mean machines loaded down with every imaginable Yakult product.
I originally thought the Yakult Ladies were a Tokyo-only thing, but we had a Yakult Lady visit us every day at my office in Okinawa too. They’re a country-wide phenomenon, bringing a daily dose of dairy to thirsty Japanese workers all over. Now if only we could get them to play some ice cream truck music when they rode around.
#4. The yearly shuffle
I’m not sure how it works in the rest of the world, but in the U.S., people tend to be hired for one job and – barring a promotion or quitting – are expected to only ever perform that one job.
In Japan, however, at the end of the fiscal year in April, they have what’s called "jinji ido" (“moving people around”). Basically it’s musical chairs within the company, where the bosses shift some employees around from department to department. Were you working in human resources for four years? Congratulations, now you’re in sales! Weren’t popular as a secretary? Well now you’re working in finance.
No one is safe from the "jinji ido" – some number of bosses, fresh employees, and veterans are all shuffled around every year. On the one hand, this makes working for the same company your entire life not a completely soul-crushing prospect, since you always have the hope that you’ll be moved somewhere else next year if you don’t like your current boss or department, but on the other hand, it helps justify Japanese people feeling chained to their jobs.
Either way though, it was always fun watching the results of the yearly Japanese office Hunger Games.
#3. Announcing everything you do
This one’s another byproduct of having everyone’s desks crammed together: announcing every time you’re going to or coming from somewhere. It would be a little awkward in any country to just get up and leave a group of people without saying a word, and even more so in Japan. When you arrive in the morning, everyone yells "ohayo gozaimsu! (“good morning”) to each other, and when you or anyone else leaves you’d better be sure to say "otsukaresama desu" (“thanks for your hard work”).
This may not sound so bad, but it gets a little weird when you’re ready to go home and everyone around you is still hard at work (or just pretending to be hard at work, see #5). That’s when you have to make the announcement of shame: "Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu" (“I’m sorry for leaving ahead of you all”).
And that’s where we arrive at a horrible Catch-22: making the special announcement will make you seem lazy and undedicated to your coworkers, but failing to make the announcement will make you seem like a cocky jerk.
Part of the reason many Japanese people work so long is because nobody wants to get caught in that loop of shame, so they all just end up staying way too late. Thankfully, being an American, I had no scruples when working in Japan, and happily announced I was leaving ahead of everyone as soon as my shift was over every day. Needless to say, that never made me very popular, but it did give me a lot of extra hours to go home and not be at work, so it balanced out.
#2. Lunchtime nap
Working long hours has consequences, one of them being lack of sleep. Many Japanese people sleep during whatever downtime they can, sometimes on the train commuting to and from work, and just as often, taking a nap during lunch. It’s not an uncommon sight to walk around a Japanese office during lunchtime and see a bunch of workers with their heads on their desks, getting in a quick nap. Sometimes employees even bring small pillows to the office exclusively for this purpose.
When I worked in Okinawa, my office even took it to another level: during lunch, they dimmed all the lights. They didn’t shut them all off, but enough so that the people who wanted to take a nap could drift off to sleep more easily. It was kind of surreal, watching an entire office turn into kindergarten naptime for that one hour. I would’ve gladly joined them, but hey, all those YouTube videos weren’t going to watch themselves.
And the #1 bizarre Japanese office occurrence is…
1. Morning speeches/songs/exercise
This one still haunts me to this day. When I worked in Shibuya, every morning would start with office-wide speeches that everyone had to stand up and listen to. After that, music played over the loudspeaker, and we all sang the company song together. And then you may think it was over, but no, then there were speeches within every department too.
Keep in mind that these were rarely to convey information; they were just supposed to be inspirational. Every morning a different employee in the department gave a speech which was supposed to fire us up for the rest of the day, but in actuality was just the worst thing imaginable at 7 a.m.
I asked my coworkers if this kind of morning routine was common in the Japanese business world, and they all said yes. I never personally experienced morning exercises, but they said that some companies used that to get employees pumped up to work hard in the morning too.
But you know, there’s one other way I can imagine that might get employees excited in the morning: letting them sleep in an extra half an hour and skip all the silly speeches and singing. Again, I was not a very popular employee.
So there you have it, the top five strange Japanese office occurrences! Have you experienced something not on this list? Let us know in the comments, so that we can find what kinds of weird things happen at offices all over the world.
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