Reflections on HR in Japan

HR Lead Teaching Fellow Aaron Taylor previously lived and worked in Japan. Here he tells us of some of his experiences:

As some of you may know, I worked in Japan for 10 years, mainly as a corporate trainer in investment banks and consultancies and also as a lecturer in HR and Management at the University of Tokyo. The following opinions are my own observations of the Japanese business environment – hope you enjoy them!

I have divided this piece into five interesting things I discovered – working hours, etiquette, seniority system, bureaucracy and stress release:

Working hours – these tend to be very long compared to the UK.

I used to work 18 hours a day, 6 days a week and this was considered as average. It is also important not to leave before your boss in order to maintain your image in the organisation (this is called “Honne” and “Tatamae”). It is not uncommon for workers to remain at their desks doing nothing for several hours then leave around 10 minutes after their boss to preserve their reputation.

The Dentsu Study for Human Development employed a large-scale survey asking people how much importance they attached to their work. In the United States 34.5 percent of respondents said that their work was either important or somewhat important to them. In England 44.2 percent answered as such. But in Japan a staggering 90.8 percent answered that their work was either important or somewhat important to them. This importance is reflected in their immense loyalty to their employer and the number of hours they are willing to work for their employer.

In addition, despite receiving 20 paid holidays per year it is unusual for workers to take more than 5 days. Those that do so tend to be looked down upon. For instance, I knew a Senior Manager at a consultancy who refused to take more than 3 paid holidays a year as he thought he would be letting down his colleagues. He told me his children sometimes forgot who he was!

Etiquette – this is very important in Japan.

It is vital to address clients with –sama- after their surname to display respect. Giving and receiving business cards is also very important. For example one of my former clients conducted a business meeting in New York and passed his business card to a potential American client who then proceeded to use his card as a coaster! Needless to say, the potential deal was terminated immediately.

Seniority system.

In Japan, employees are promoted due to their age and not necessarily on their ability. There is also a glass ceiling for women and employees who do not attend the most prestigious universities (such as Tokyo, Keio, Hitotsubashi and Kyoto).

There is also a very interesting system called “madogiwazoku” (translated as sitting next to the window). If you are told to sit near or next to a window and perform basic duties (such as stamping) this means the organisation wants you to leave. However, this strategy does not always work. For example a former colleague told me of a worker in Hitachi who did this for 25 years and due to the seniority system received a wage rise every year!


Japanese offices are generally very hierarchical and bureaucratic. It is not uncommon for a single decision to take several weeks as it has to be passed to each manager in the hierarchy to approve. This is done by “hanko” (stamping your own official signature on a document). Offices also tend to be open plan to increase communication with generalists and not specialists preferred. Firms encourage workers to spend time in different sections (such as HR in Finance and Marketing) to develop a broader understanding of the business.

Stress release.

After a busy and long day at the office, employees (known as “salarymen”) often go to izakayas (bars) to drink alcohol or to karaoke in order to reduce stress. It surprised me that most employees regard their company as more important than their family. Some companies (such as JR – the national railway) actually have their own songs. Workers are required to sing these every morning before they start work so they are properly motivated for the day ahead!

I hope you enjoyed this brief discussion on my own personal experience of working in Japan!

– Aaron Taylor