Things you want to observe and learn as a foreign new grad in a Japanese company

One of my dear friends in Japan is graduating this April, and is seeking some advice on what to do and what to learn after entering the company he’ll work for after his graduation.

My general advice is to observe, engage, and learn. We can separate the learning process into two categories; tangibles and non-tangibles. Hence, what this article is about. (with a couple of extra advices in the end)

1. Tangibles
Almost anything that can be seen and can be evaluated based on pure logic. Mostly technical skills. For example: writing cost estimates, writing meeting minutes, executing projects, making financial projections, reporting …etc

These tangibles are mostly specific to each company and industry. There are general outlines, they differ based on the needs of each company and each industry, but they are very tangible and can be evaluated based on logic, not emotions or the relationship with others.

This is specially helpful if you are going to run your own business in Japan at a later stage. As in how to draft a cost estimate, what documents to expect from clients, what is the actual process of things. It is also helpful In the long run anyways if you are gonna deal with Japanese companies after you go back home.

2. Intangibles
This is basically all the unwritten rules regarding communication and business etiquette and what not. Starting on learning how to deal with seniors/juniors, how to stable a paper batch and what impression does that give to the receiving end, how to properly write an email, all the way to how to express your opinion toward anything. It’s all about the thinking process and how to behave. This is the part where “Japanese Culture” takes place, and we have to sit and observe, overstep and get scolded, and experiment with crossing the lines to learn where the lines are.

There are some books -in Japanese- that explain these rules and etiquettes, but they don’t explain everything of course, and they are not directed toward non-Japanese so there is a big blank. This blank can only be filled by experience and advice from the experienced.

It is very important to understand that there are unwritten rules for virtually everything in Japanese business, and as a Japanese speaker, and a person working in a Japanese firm, you are expected to understand and adhere to those rules. The thing is, nobody knows what you understand and you don’t. Also most of the people don’t knows how to teach. You have teach yourself by asking the right questions all the time.

My advice is to do a couple of things
1- Let people know
That you are NOT Japanese, and even if you speak like you are born in Japan, this does not qualify you to be one. This is extremely important, specially if your Japanese is good, and your behavior reflects your understanding for Japanese culture. After a while people around you tend to forget that you are a foreigner, then they start getting mad for mistakes you didn’t mean or didn’t recognize as mistakes at all. It doesn’t have to be aggressive, and you don’t have to walk around shouting “I am foreigner!” or anything (god forbid. haha). It could be as subtle as asking really basic questions from time to time, or as direct as “this doesn’t make sense, why do we have to do it this way?”.

Asking basic questions is a very good and subtle tactic, because it usually surprises people -internally at least- that you don’t know/understand such basic facts, hence they try hardly to explain it to you and engage in a meaningful conversation with you. It also develops a subtle caring attitude from the people around you, so when they ask you to do something, they be more careful to explain the meaning behind it which is what you need the most.

One thing, for example, that I used to do all the time is to let others check my emails, specially complicated ones, before I sent them to clients. My Japanese writing is actually below average, and when I try to explain something by writing, it gets really messy. So before I get any email out, I let my boss check it. After a while I got used to basic email structures, so that either my boss doesn’t have to check, or he/she just have to take a quick look. This saved my ass many times, and is still helpful to me until today.

2- Implement a learning system
One that fits your learning process. A very effective way to learn in a busy place like a company is to literally experiment & assess what you do, and also ask for help to assess that too. Assessment from different Japanese colleagues will help you understand the parameters of things and understand the thinking process behind things. They did taught us to always look for previous examples and recreate it so that we learn, which is a good advice, but is not enough, especially in our case as foreigners.

As for me, my system was simple. Whenever someone asks me to do something, I always reply back by asking a confirmation questions that conveys what I understood of the original ask. This allows me to see what that person meant, and what I actually understood. The more I do that, the more the gap lessens and the more effective I become in doing things.

The other thing I did is I randomly ask people to explain things to me about work. For example if I had to write a cost estimate, after seeing other cost estimates and drafting my own, I ask the person who gave me the task about why is the cost estimate in that specific format, and why are punching these words and numbers, and what does the other person care for that. That way I get to understand the thinking process behind doing things, so that later if I had to draft something totally new, I already know what are the expectations from both sides.

As a final thought, there is an example that I always use to demonstrate how subtle cultural differences can effect our daily life. Say there is a Japanese boss who has 2 employees, one is Japanese and one is Arab. This boss ordered each one to make fried eggs. The result for both will be fried eggs. But the Arab employee will put salt and pepper, but the Japanese employee will put soy sauce on it! The core result is the same, but the delivery method is way different, because that is what is common for both sides.

In the end, just enjoy the experience and be grateful to everyone around ya!

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