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A guide to a better understanding of the cross-cultural workplace

By Vicki L Beyer

We’ve all been there.

We’re fully committed to our job. Maybe we even chose this company in Japan for its cross-cultural work environment. We prepare diligently for a project, using every tool we have. The execution goes well…or so we think.

Then, we learn that the boss, who is from a different culture, wasn’t satisfied. But the feedback doesn’t really help us to see what’s gone wrong. It consists of phrases like “be more results-oriented” or “be more proactive”… What does that even mean?

Cultural Differences In Japan: The Workplace Edition

This kind of frustration on the job isn’t unusual among people who work in international or cross-culture environments. Our manager asks for something we believe we’re already delivering, and we just can’t see what to do differently to satisfy him. There’s some kind of disconnect and we can’t figure out where or what it is.

In this situation, some people just keep plugging along doing as they’ve always done, hoping it will all work out. Others give up and change jobs, hoping to find a better environment elsewhere.

The Case of Japanese Business

Author Leland Gaskins suggests there’s another way to overcome these problems when it comes to cultural differences in Japan.

In his book, “Step Up: Overcoming Cross-Cultural Differences Between Japanese and Western Businesspeople,” Gaskins provides a roadmap for understanding when and why these disconnects arise and for figuring out how to work effectively in diverse environments, in spite of different values and different communication styles.

Overcoming Cultural Differences In Japan Through Fiction

One feature of Gaskins’s book that makes it appealing is that it is presented as a story, making it “real”, more palpable, rather than just theoretical.

Hiroshi, a young family man with plans and ambition, took the chance of a job with a foreign company and is floored when his American boss tells him his work is disappointing and his future prospects are limited. With the help of Sheri, an American colleague who offers him informal coaching, Hiroshi slowly unravels the situation and figures out what he can do differently at work to turn his career fortunes around.

Of course, the real message of the book lies in the way Hiroshi and Sheri break down the feedback from the boss. Together, they figure out how to overcome the differences in their cultural values so that Hiroshi’s work can meet his boss’s expectations.

Click here to read more.

© Savvy Tokyo

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

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First time working at a Japanese company after working for a foreign (European) company in japan for 15 years - a complete shock to the system. After 3 years, I still cannot believe how slow everybody is to perform simple tasks, and the lack of urgency to do anything. Also, the inability of anyone to make a decision without several meetings means tasks that should take 2-3 days take 2-3 weeks. Add all of this to the unwillingness of anybody to challenge decisions when they think they are wrong, makes me wonder how companies that operate like this are competitive at all.

11 ( +11 / -0 )

What I find frustrating is having to deal with Japanese nationals working at the US Embassy in Tokyo. The bureaucratic mess they make of everything is extremely frustrating. As an American I want to deal with Americans. They have changed the embassy to appear and act like you are going to the ward office in Tokyo or to renew your license.

i accept their inefficient cultural ways on the outside of course, but I find it unacceptable on American soil, the US Embassy.

4 ( +6 / -2 )


I remember a British staff member at the British Embassy complaining about the Japanese staff because they kept asking EVERYONE (including British nationals and the British staff at the Embassy) for proof of ID. This was because the British staff asked them to check FOREIGNERS' to see why they were visiting the embassy (in order to give priority to British nationals and their affairs).

I have met American army officers in the US who complained about the Japanese staff on the bases in Japan for similar reasons of their inability to use common sense and solve problems with critical thinking skills.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

makes me wonder how companies that operate like this are competitive at all

When everybody is bad, nobody is bad... all service-related companies I have to deal with in Japan screw something up somehow.

My driving school just casually forgot to tell me I hadn't made myself available for a key theory lesson and just stopped sending emails about the schedule... no phone call or anything, I had to go in today and they didn't apologise about not telling me about it.

DHL were supposed to deliver a package on Tuesday, then on Monday suddenly sent an email saying I hadn't been in so I would have to reschedule... but I actually happened to be in at the time they supposedly came, and nobody knocked, rang the doorbell or put a note through the letterbox.

When I emailed DHL asking if that was normal, they said the driver tried the intercom and knocked.... but I don't have an intercom? I sent pictures with red marker on explaining how to walk through an open door and press the doorbell....

DHL replied that they were sorry but the driver said he'd knocked... but why didn't he ring the doorbell too then?

Don't get me started on the phone companies...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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