A couple of thoughts…


As I have been traveling the last few weeks either in the US or then in Switzerland, there were a couple of things that popped up in my mind while being abroad that truly reminded me of the cultural differences in the professional world in regard to Japan.

Meaning of work for young people
While riding on the train in Switzerland I have overheard two young Swiss guys, who must be doing a technical apprenticeship (very common 4 year on the job/school training with final strict exam and certificate, starting around 15 to 16 years old, which allows proper job qualification, more detailed information can be found here). The train was running a few minutes late and they got really concerned that they might show up for work late. “I hate really to be late for my job, because I love my job and I want to learn more about it”. The other replied “I know, me too. It is so important for me to learn as much as possible. Oh, man, I hate to be late.” Honestly I cannot imagine to hear the same on a train in Japan. Most likely it is so quiet on the train for anyone truly having a conversation, because everyone is asleep, plus the motivation level for their job seems much lower in Japan. In Japan I have heard people commenting that they like their job, or they work to make a living, but I very, very seldom here from young people that they love their job and are truly passionate about it.

Different perception of time
One of the big difference is the perception of time at work. I am not talking about being on time for meetings or keeping deadlines (imperative in Japan), but I am talking about the available time to finish a task. From my observation in Switzerland the goal of an employee is to finish the task in time, so they are able to go home after eight hours of work. In the US I believe the “time is money” concept is burned into everyone’s back of their head and being efficiency is a given. Then in contrast in Japan, an employee seem to have so much more time at hand. Of course leaving early from work is culturally not possible, but having the opportunity to show as an employee loyalty to the company “free overtime work” is an option. A sign of a good employee is to show that you are constantly busy so that a supervisor can give the best of the available compliments “いつもとても忙しそうですね!” (You seem always really busy!).

Can a Japanese be that honest?
From time to time I am asked whether I really think that Japanese professionals are actually honest in a business environment. One of the common known aspects is the differences of the Japanese counter part using a vague “no” in a business setting, which has been communicated globally in the meantime. Now as a consequence it seems unthinkable to hear the actual opinion, if a Japanese person is expressing their thoughts directly, consequently the Western side becomes doubtful whether the content is an exaggeration or potentially even the Japanese counter-part could be angry. It seems to me now with the increased global awareness towards Japanese communication style a new hurdle was created, when the Western side has a too soft stance and gets confused by the straight forward approach of the Japanese side.

Language barrier – Translation
Still one of the biggest challenges in international business with Japan is English language capabilities. Compared to several years ago the situation is improving. I see now the main hurdle of Japanese professionals believing that they had understood the question or issue at hand, but then commenting on a topic that has no connection with the actual discussed points. Now the challenge is much more, how many times can you stop a seemingly flowing communication with appropriate translation and getting back to the start where the topic had shifted in two directions… Done too many times the Japanese side feels offended and done too little the Western side has given up that actual direct communication is possible.

I hope the collection of thoughts were amusing enough for you and give you some insights. As always my personal goal is to bring Japan closer to the rest of the world, while bringing the rest of the world closer to Japan.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤)

7 thoughts on “A couple of thoughts…

  1. Those Swiss apprentices are fortunate to have such an interest in vocational training, and to sense the value in learning and doing.

    As for “time is money” and the US ‘can do’ mindset, I like Jason Calacanis’s style.

    http://thisweekinstartups.com/2010/02/twist-40-bonus-interview-with-penn-state/

    A taster:
    For the people who want to be worker bees and drones:

    “…there’s really not very much to tell you. Your life’s going to be very boring. You’re not going to get much accomplished. And you’re going to die and regret not starting a company, and not being your own boss, and not doing something epic. But by that time it will be too late.”

    Of course, not all Americans follow through on this type of thinking but still, it seems to be part of their DNA 😉

    The worker bee and drone is much admired in Japan – though the spin on what these terms mean is different. There is definitely a ‘gaman’ gene in the Japanese make up… and that’s partly a compliment.

    • Dear Mark,

      thank you very much for taking time to visit my blog.
      Potentially it could be “typical” Swiss to focus on continued education. I do remember hearing many times from my godfather (selected guardian by parents for baptism; grew up Roman Catholic not Mafia related!) or other relatives, that learning, increasing knowledge, getting applicable expertise… is the sole tool to make an uncertain future managable. Personally I love learning and I still think that a day without learning anything is such a waste.

      All the best,

      Sibylle Ito

  2. 22% must be interesting. I am not sure who they are. Possibly working for UN or artists. I’ve heard it’s almost impossible to get working permission except those from Italy, France, Germany or Austria. Anyway 90% of the 22% might be super rich 🙂

    • Dear Andante,

      thanks for your comment. On the other hand, I am surprised that you perceive Switzerland as the most difficult country for foreigners to live, especially considering that 22% of the total population comes from abroad (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switzerland). I can only assume they are not all the super rich, or what do you think?

      All the best,

      Sibylle Ito

    • Dear Andante,

      thank you for taking time to have a look at my blog. Yes, you are right and recognised the local train of the area of Grisons (largest and easternmost canton of Switzerland). I was definitely surprised to read on your blog that you wish to live in Switzerland. Have you read the great book about Switzerland from Diccon Bewes “Swiss watching”?

      Wishing you all the best,

      Sibylle Ito

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