To be miserable working in Japan, you need three things: Critical thinking, desire to fit in and impatience.
Let me explain the recipe for misery.
In many countries, especially in the western culture, critical thinking has been recognized as a good trait. It’s usually a sign of someone smart and confident. Throughout your childhood and young adulthood, you receive a series of social encouragements to think for yourself.
On the other hand, in Japan, we rarely get celebrated for being a critical thinker. It is often seen as a sign of arrogance and immaturity. People may think critically inside their mind, but most of them are not willing to take the risk of sharing those thoughts openly.
If you are a critical thinker in Japan, you are likely to be different from people around you (or at least appear to be so on the outside). The question is: are you fine with being different?
A tricky combination to handle will be when you are a critical thinker AND wants to fit in. Typically then, you start hanging out with friends who tend to agree with what you notice as a critical thinker. This fulfills the urge of yours to feel that you are “one of them”, the critical thinkers who belong to the majority.
Japanese = patient people.
Critical thinking allows you to identify opportunities for improvement. You are surrounded by an army of like-minded people who agree that you are correct and people are wrong. Then, the next question is: are you patient enough to wait until a change happens?
Many Japanese people are extremely patient in this regard. Personally, I struggle to understand why they can be so patient with sucky situations. But then I remember, growing up in public schools in Japan, how many times I have been in a horribly disadvantageous position because I decided not to conform but to change or leave. Patience, no matter what the situations are, is very often a good-enough option in Japanese society.
Because Japan is full of patient people who are trained to be able to put up with anything, change happens either slowly or radically only on the verge of a crisis. To the eyes of Japanese people, foreigners seem impatient, always rushing into a conclusion or action.
My miserable days for no obvious reason.
I felt miserable and frustrated while working for a Japanese company in Tokyo. Looking back, there was nothing obviously wrong about the company or the environment.
I was blessed with opportunities to make the changes that I wanted to make in a well-known vibrant company. People there respected and valued me for who I was and what I was doing for the team.
Yet, I was deeply stressed because I was all of the three things that I’ve mentioned: (1) a critical thinker (2) with a strong need to fit in (3) who are anxious to see the results fast.
These three traits of mine worked perfectly in other environments. A good example is when I worked for a US-based global company in Australia afterwards. I belonged to the majority who thought critically and sought for the fastest way to make necessary changes happen.
At the end of the day, all the stress or happiness arises, at least as long as I know from my own experiences, as the result of chemistry between your personal trait/mindset and environment.
Three possible strategies for you.
Let’s say, you stop being a critical thinker. This is the strategy that most of my friends chose, through their professional journey over a decade, to be less miserable. They intentionally became blind about the issues.
Another common way to avoid misery is to start being patient. You see the problems and may talk about them with your colleagues. Yet, it is not necessary for you to solve the problems or make a change anytime soon.
Neither of these approaches would create much conflict with your managers or peers. Being less critical and more patient is considered to be the path to maturity in Japan.
Here’s the truth: the moment you choose either of these two strategies, you lose the possibility of making your work into a source of adventure and joy for your life. If you have a ton of adventure and joy going on outside of work, go ahead and choose these ones.
There is the third option. The two thriving intrapreneurs/change makers that I met recently had chosen this strategy. That is to release the desire to fit in and fully embrace their uniqueness.
They are different. + They don't care.
One of those change makers inside the company is my friend from college. She is Japanese and studied overseas for a year when she was in high school. As college student she loved traveling, and worried that taking a vacation as a corporate worker in Japan might be a tough negotiation. She also wanted to be a part of global projects and work abroad in the company she was joining.
Her friend who was a year older gave her a valuable piece of advice right before her college graduation. “If you know what you want to do in the company, the most important thing is to intentionally establish your unique character from the very beginning.”
That’s why, her focus was always on being uniquely authentic. She openly shared her professional aspirations and love for traveling with her peers and seniors, submitted a market research report after her short vacation in Asia (without being requested at all) and kept raising her hand for new global projects. While other new grads just tried to fit in, her character stood out and people thought she was different.
Being different and sending clear message about what she wanted opened many doors for her. She was assigned to an international position, where she noticed a crack in their global marketing activity and initiated a project on her own. Having spent 2 years on an overseas assignment, now she is well-recognized as a global sales/marketing dynamo who gets things done differently.
How to be the person who sticks out.
Another example was a speaker at a seminar event that I participated. He is building a seriously cool startup support ecosystem as intrapreneur working for a global IT giant. He grew up in the US and came to Japan a couple of decades ago. Since then, he has navigated through Japanese corporate world with his thinking differently, being differently and taking actions relentlessly.
When an audience member asked him about his reaction to resistance in the company, he attributed “Ignorance” and “Persistence” to his success as a change agent. He makes a promise (short-term, mid-term and long-term), ignores the noise while he is persistently working on the promise and keeps the promise.
Learn Japanese culture, not practice it.
More and more Japanese companies are hiring foreigners in Japan. There are so many cross-cultural trainings available for foreign professionals, which all aim to make your adaptation process a smooth one.
They may tell you that you need to be a team player. Japanese culture is all about harmony and not sticking out. While it is largely true, as the result of this cultural tendency, Japanese companies have fallen into a desperate need of innovation.
If you are a naturally harmonious patient team player, please feel free to embrace that about you. If not, then you will appreciate what you have learned from this article.
My sincere hope is that you learn Japanese business protocols with a sense of curiosity and have the option to follow their way when appropriate. Having multiple options is a power in communication. Then, if you know what you want, just like my friend or the guy that I just mentioned about did, deliberately choose your battle and act differently.
The only barrier to this process is phycological. You need to release the desire to fit in. Build your unique character and make/keep your promise. You will have more fun at work that way.
I wish you the best luck!