Employee handbook for foreigners
Spring time is the season of college graduation in Japan, and consequently also the start of the new school year. It is the season for new graduates to start work and sign contracts. Also fort foreigners living here, especially those working in the English teaching business. Here are some tips.
1. The long meeting
Japanese like to have long, long meetings and discuss ridiculous points in even more ridiculous detail. Businessmen do it. Teachers do it. Sports coaches do it. The point is to have a detailed plan and follow it exactly. Or, rather, have a plan that unfolds exactly as planned. Japanese don’t like surprises. I don’t, either. So planning is another cultural difference between Japan and North America, I think. In Japan they have long, slow meetings, but when decisions are made action happens quickly. But I think the opposite prevails in North America. First Canadians and Americans decide what to do, and then they have meetings to plan it out. Consequently, you can wait a year for the city to fix the broken street light outside your apartment. Stuff like that.
The long meeting also lends itself to the myth of harmony or unanimity. If anyone disagrees with the conclusions of a meeting they can just keep quiet about it. I think meetings are less about making decisions than they are about everyone learning what the boss, the manager, or the group leader has already decided.
2. Good human relations
The long meeting is also intended to pander to the idea of good human relations, what is called “ningen kankei,” an extremely important concept in Japan. The forced togetherness of the meeting allows for the delusion of togetherness, or harmony of mind within the group. This notion of forced togetherness is starkly apparent in forced company group outings when employees are pressured into going to office events, drinking or eating, or cherry blossom viewing which also involves a lot of drinking. Drinking is widely used in Asia to grease the social wheels. It’s drag for me because I do not drink at all. Also, sine I work very hard I regard my non-working, or free time as strictly private, and I am firm about not wanting to mix my private time with colleagues from work. Frankly, they are the last people on earth that I want to spend my free time with.
The idea of “ningen kanei” also explains the Japanese fetish for “aisatsu,” or Greetings. Any and every workplace in the country sees it. When you arrive you have to shout a loud and hearty “ohaiyogozaimasu” to everyone, and return other’s greetings as well. Failure to do so indicates that you are not a friendly person in synch with the group harmony. Companies will hire university graduates and their first training will be a one-week in-house course on proper “aisatsu.” No kidding.
The forced togetherness of the meetings allows for the delusion of togetherness, or harmony of mind within the group.
4. The ambush
Another thing about working in Japan is that if there is any problem no one tells you. People pretend that things are great and when it all goes to hell it’s like an ambush. When Japanese have a complaint - and I think they often complain about nothing at all when they do - they don’t just have one complaint. They’ve got a list as long as your arm. It’s like they’ve been keeping a watch on you and keeping a tally of everything all the time they were pretending that things were great. But when things go sour they unload their entire, secret list of complaints on you all at once. It’s like they need sufficient rationale to take the unusual step to complain openly, a thing they are habitually loath to do because it contradicts the myth of harmony. So you can witness quite contrary behaviour from Japanese. You think you and your Japanese boss get along well and friendly and he (it’s almost always a he) is happy with your work. But then comes a time when he’s sucking his teeth and literally whining about the difficulty of “supporting” you. That’s red flag time.
To protect myself from 'employer ambush' I applied for and received a long-term Spouse Visa, and after that a Permanent Resident Visa as soon as I was eligible in the 1990s. My visa status gives me reassuring independence from my employers.
5. Middle aged women
I’ve always found middle aged Japanese women the most difficult students/clients. They are hard to please partly because they don’t know what they want, and if they are unhappy they blame the teacher. At the same time they’ve got financial power, so we’ve got to keep those ladies happy. Women control Japanese finances.
6. The pedagogy experiement
Another thing I hate is when your boss wants to tell you something but instead of telling you straight out he plays some stupid guessing game.
What do you think this meeting is about?
What do you think?
Why do you think that happened?
What do you think should be done?
How do you think it can be done?
How do you think it can be done better?
I’m so fed up with it that I just tell people, impolitely, “Let’s not play a guessing game. If you want to tell me something then just tell me.”
Do people do that in Canada, too? Maybe it’s an attempt to do some clever pedagogy thing: bring a person to enlightenment, or bring them around to management’s thinking by evoking answers from them rather than just dictating an answer. Learning Theory 101. But I figure 99% of any job is to do what you’re told to do, and I prefer to be told what to do. I save my free thinking for my private, free time. No one really cares what I think about stuff anyway, and in any event saying what you really, really think is one of the most dangerous things in social life, especially in Japanese culture.
It’s been a few years now since I had to put up with crap like that. Well, no, there was one occasion last year. But I try to avoid getting myself in a position where I have to listen to that kind of crap, participating in meetings where that kind of crap is floated. And like I said, I don’t hesitate to tell people to cut the crap if they start talking like that.
7. Sorry, no job
Finally, it sometimes happens that a company or a school will offer you a job. You accept the job, but then suddenly the offer is revoked and withdrawn. It’s happened to me several times over the years. What’s going on? The thing is, if you don’t respond quickly enough and, more importantly, positively enough then the Japanese think you are doing what they do - that is, gently declining the offer - declining it in a manner intended to cause least disharmony. You might think you are being cautious about a job offer, but to the Japanese you are saying “No.” It is another reflection of the dynamics of decision making. In Japan people have thoroughly thought out their plan before they take a decision, while in North America the opposite seems often to be the case: people make quick decisions and then think of a plan to enact them. In rescinding a job offer after it’s been made some potential employers are reading into your reactions as a Japanese behavior model. They are paying no attention at all to your words and all the attention in the world to your behavior. So beware.