Diversity and the future of the Japanese workplace

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Sep. 29, 2020

Is Japan open enough? Japanese CEO asks foreign workers about the best and worst of working in Japan


(Clockwise from left) Yoshihisa Aono, founder and CEO of Cybozu, moderates an online discussion with Julia Behrends, customer support at online travel agency Voyagin; Aaron Fowles, assistant manager of global communications at Toyota Motor Corp.; and Shin Ki-young, a professor of political science and gender studies at Ochanomizu University.

As part of our joint project “Diversity and the future of the Japanese workplace,” Japanese software development firm Cybozu and The Japan Times recently sat down with three international residents for an online roundtable.

Chiho Iuchi
Contributing writer

American Aaron Fowles, assistant manager of global communications at Toyota Motor Corp.; German Julia Behrends, customer support at online travel agency Voyagin; and South Korean Shin Ki-young, a professor of political science and gender studies at Ochanomizu University have roughly 14 years between them working in Japan. While their experiences navigating the local working culture may vary, they all have valuable insight into surviving and thriving as a non-Japanese worker in Japan. They graciously shared advice with the ever-curious Yoshihisa Aono, founder and CEO of the Japanese software firm Cybozu.
* Opinions do not reflect the view of their companies

Yoshihisa Aono is the CEO of Cybozu. After graduating from Osaka University, he joined Matsushita Denkou (currently Panasonic). In August 1997 he co-founded Cybozu, and in April 2005 he was appointed CEO. Yoshihisa spearheaded the company's workstyle reform, as well as its transition toward its cloud-based product Kintone in 2011. He is the author of several books on teamwork and happiness at work.

Aono: Thank you for coming. As my company expands into the global market, I’m interested in learning how to make our work environment more friendly to international staff. Based on your experiences, what difficulties have you faced working in Japan?

Fowles: It’s difficult to accept the Japanese idea of work-life balance. American people work to enjoy our lives. We treasure time with our families.

Of course, Japanese people cherish their families, too, but they’re more willing to sacrifice family for work. This creates pressure within the office to work longer hours. As a result, I sometimes feel guilty for leaving the office on time, even though I’ve finished my work.

Shin Ki-young from South Korea is a professor of political science and gender studies at Ochanomizu University and the co-founder of the Academy for Gender Parity, an organization to nurture female political leaders. While studying at the University of Washington in Seattle, she first came to Japan in 2002 for her comparative research on Japan and South Korea to write her doctoral thesis. Since 2008, she has worked in the Institute for Gender Studies and the Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences at Ochanomizu University.

Behrends: German people also cherish their families and would rather go home when they finish their work.

Shin: South Korea is more similar to Japan in that regard. Societies that put excessive value on staying at work are usually dominated by male culture, where men work outside and women stay home. The idea that men should be the main breadwinners and work as hard as possible while women stay at home remains strong in male-dominated workplaces. In contrast, Ochanomizu is a women’s university, where half of the professors and many of the staff members are women. We have achieved a better work-life balance that allows us to go home when we wish.

Structure and promotion

Aono: What do you think of the pyramidal structure and seniority system at many Japanese institutions?

Julia Behrends from Germany works in customer support for online travel agency Voyagin. She studied Japanese in university and spent a year in Kumamoto Prefecture as a student. After three years working for a travel company in Germany, she returned to Japan and joined Voyagin. Voyagin was merged into Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten Inc. in July.

Shin: Strict hierarchy generates a culture where junior members are encouraged to toe the line and accept seniority-based promotion while not causing trouble. That can harm the openness of the entire organization.

Behrends: Startup companies such as mine, Voyagin, are not that pyramidal. They are small and the presidents are young, which encourages more horizontal relationships. That may however change when they grow larger. Our company was bought by Rakuten, and I’m looking forward to seeing how things work at a larger company.

Aaron Fowles from the U.S. works as an assistant manager of global communications for Toyota Motor Corp. Prior to studying Japanese in university, he first came to Japan as a missionary in 1998. Then, after returning to and finishing his studies in the U.S., he started his career in 2005 and has worked for Japanese companies, including the former Sanyo Electric Co., Konami Digital Entertainment Inc. and Toyota, both in the U.S. and Japan.

Fowles: It takes time to earn the trust of your boss and new colleagues in Japan. Until you earn that trust, you may not be assigned jobs that match your professional ability. I worry that foreign staff may end up feeling frustrated if Japanese companies don't make full use of their abilities.

Additionally, Japanese bosses tend to develop relations among team members through unofficial social interactions. A good example is after-work drinking parties, known as nomikai. While attendance is rarely mandatory, it’s a practical necessity to build trust and good relations with your team.

Key for building trust

Aono: It’s interesting you brought up nomikai. I remember 25 years ago, when I was at Panasonic Corp., part of the boss’ job was to take subordinates for drinks. I felt obligated to go drinking several times a week. What do you think about nomikai culture?

Fowles: I don’t drink. Instead, I enjoy having dinner with colleagues as a way of building our relationship. I won’t accept every time, nor will I stay late, since I want to get home to my family.

Behrends: Nomikai culture is not so prominent at Rakuten. When I’m invited, I’ll go if I feel like it.

Shin: At our university, we only have parties once or twice a year. It’s a little lonely because we seldom have private conversations among colleagues. People don’t speak openly at official faculty meetings, and while I sometimes conduct one-on-one meetings with my staff, they don’t speak frankly, either.

Aono: What do you need to maintain good relationships with your Japanese superiors and colleagues?

Shin: It’s difficult. I think the key is the leader’s communication style. If the leader listens to team members and gives appropriate feedback, that can lead to a positive atmosphere within the group.

Behrends: For me it’s about respect on an equal footing.

Fowles: I’ve found that Japanese superiors provide generous support, even to those who are not their direct subordinates. They serve as mentors, taking time to answer general questions from junior members. Perhaps this is the byproduct of Japan’s notoriously long working hours, but that kind of unofficial support is one of the good aspects of Japanese work culture.

Shin: I agree on the importance of mentors. I remember only being able to progress as a scholar thanks to the mentorship of a senior professor working in the office next door. She would always be available to listen to my problems and we discussed various things other than work.

Fowles: To build trust, it’s important to talk about things other than work. That’s why I think, especially as a foreigner, it’s important to make time for casual lunches with colleagues.

Chiho Iuchi is a writer, editor and translator in Japanese and English. This series is jointly edited by Kintopia.