Another concept of time in Japan is also related to the famous Japanese tendency for putting in long hours at the office. It is expected to put in as much time as necessary to get something right. The tendency to work late has a lot to do with the Japanese concept of group solidarity.
While working in Japan, I remember watching a Japanese TV show that asked the question: “How does an employee in Spain respond when asked to do some extra work after five?” When the answer was revealed that he would call his wife to ask her permission, the result was big laughter from the audience...
In Japanese society, it is most important to display a commitment to one’s group, which for an employee is his company. Displaying less than perfect loyalty to the group by blatantly putting the wishes of one’s spouse first goes so deeply against an important Japanese cultural value, that it seemed surprising and humorous to the Japanese audience.
As a western manager at a Japanese company puts it, “They are married to the company. That’s the only way I can describe it, and they need to prove their loyalty, their love.” In fact, the Japanese term for company loyalty, ‘aisha seishin’ 愛社精神, uses the written ideograph for ‘love’ 愛.
Putting in long hours at work is viewed as an expression of one’s commitment to the company. It also can be viewed as a display of personal commitment to members of one’s immediate workgroup. Many Japanese will not leave until their coworkers, superiors, or subordinates are finished for the day, even if this means sitting around and twiddling their thumbs.
This practice is so widespread that there is even a word for it, tsukiai nokori 付き合い残り (staying late to keep someone company). Those who do leave before their coworkers make a ritual apology of osaki ni shitsurei shimasu お先に失礼します (literally, “Excuse me for leaving before you”).
The tradition of long office hours is so deeply embedded in Japanese business psychology and business culture that entire volumes have been written on the subject by Japanese scholars.
Furthermore, at Japanese companies in the United States, there is additional pressure to work late because the evening corresponds to the start of the business day in Japan. Being in the office after hours makes one available for consultations with headquarters.
Given these expectations, the western tendency to wrap things up quickly and leave in time to have dinner with the family or pursue other personal activities may be perceived by the Japanese as evidence of selfishness, laziness, or lack of commitment to one’s job. A senior employee at a Japanese institution comments that: “Americans who leave at 6 p.m. are considered ‘slackers’. A Japanese asked me how one of my subordinates was doing. I replied that he’s doing a good job. The response was ’Oh, but he leaves so early.”
In companies where the Westerners go home promptly and the Japanese stay late, the difference in work time serves to reinforce the stereotype that the Japanese are the ones who are really doing the work and are more committed to the company. When western employees are willing to stay late, it enables them to break down that stereotype and develop a better rapport with their Japanese colleagues. As another employee puts it, “If you are willing to stay later it may make you seem more part of the team... When you leave at five o’clock every day, that subtly plays into their minds. No one who doesn’t like to work should join a Japanese company. I rarely leave at five o’clock. I stay late while the other western staff goes home. This makes me closer to the Japanese.”
You do not need to do constant overtime to be successful in Japan, but you need to know how to work smart.
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Erich Ahorner helps people enter the Japanese market and grow their businesses. He is an expert at helping people with market entry using online and offline methods and trying to break down necessary steps to make things simple to understand.
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