Japan cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
While talking about families is a common conversational topic for North Americans even during a first encounter, Japanese people bring it up only after they get to know each other well. Similarly, it is not common to talk about political subjects, even if they appear safe. Note that Japanese people may feel uncomfortable if asked their personal opinion on practically any subject. To break the ice, Japanese people prefer talking about what they have discovered and experienced. Here are some recommended conversation topics for meeting a Japanese person for the first time:
- Places you enjoyed visiting
- Food and restaurants that impressed you
- Sports games that you watched or played - such as baseball, soccer and tennis
- Modern hi-tech, and associated efficiencies that you have noticed - for example, in transport systems
Introduce yourself by telling them about your background: place of birth, where you got your education, extra-curricular activities, work experience, etc. You can talk about your occupation, future vision and your culture. Ask about Japanese culture. Japan is very homogenous so Japanese people are very interested in foreign culture. They also like teaching foreign people about Japanese culture.
Japanese people tend to avoid confrontation with others, and as a result they often do not explicitly express a negative response. For instance, when they receive a proposal, they say “Kento-shimasu” which means, “I/we will consider it.” However, that may just be a polite response, used even if they are not planning to positively consider the proposal. It is therefore important for non-Japanese people to pay close attention to any subtle remarks or slightly negative phrases, and be aware that they may have a stronger meaning than it would appear. Non-Japanese people also need to become sensitive to the non-verbal cues of their Japanese counterparts – these may also indicate discomfort or disagreement. In replying to any of these indirect disagreements, an appropriate response would be to say that you would welcome receiving further considerations and recommended adjustments. Any obstacles to solve, or further negotiating points would be raised by the Japanese, at a subsequent time - not immediately.
Non verbal communication - silence
The Japanese consider it impolite to interrupt others while they are talking. Silence can also be considered a time to allow everyone to think about what is being discussed. While in North America, people may consider that being silent implies a lack of interest toward a topic, be aware that the Japanese do not view this in the same way. Be patient and allow the Japanese to react when they are ready.
Don't shake hands in casual scenarios. Only business people shake hands here for greetings. Bow instead. Indirect communication is very common. "It's OK" doesn't always mean "It's OK". People will say 40% of what they mean and expect you to pick up the other 60%. This is something I struggle with even after 4 years here.
Display of emotion
Although people are becoming more accepting of displays of affection in public places among younger generations, it is not as open in society as a whole, in comparison with North America.
The acceptance of expressions of anger in Japan depends on one’s social status - especially at work and school. It seems that among Japanese with a higher status, it is more acceptable to freely express anger towards people with a lower status. Sometimes people with a higher status display anger as a way to exert their authority and leadership over others.
It is frowned upon but people still do it. I would advise not to.
Dress, punctuality & formality
At the workplace, deadlines are strictly respected most of the time. Some employers still expect their employees to meet a deadline by working overtime. However, society is now trying to change this tradition, by reducing long work hours and accepting more part-time, short-time work arrangements to deal with labour shortages. Lately, more organizations are introducing work-life balance for their employees. Some organizations have introduced” no-overtime” days.
At the workplace in Japan, people are expected to dress formally, although its extent depends on the industry. For men, business suits in dark colours, such as black or dark blue, are common. For women, it is recommended to dress conservatively by selecting colours such as white, beige, dark blue, and black, and by avoiding revealing clothes. Japanese workers used to wear business suits even during the hot and humid summers. However this tradition has been changed since the Cool Biz campaign was initiated by the Japanese government in 2005 to help reduce electricity consumption. People have become used to wearing more appropriate clothes for hot summer temperatures such as no ties, and short-sleeved shirts.
Most business people in Japan are required to wear suits. Follow the company dress code and always ask for advice if you are not sure about the dress code for occasions.
Arrive 5 minutes before any business appointments. Too early is not good, late is unacceptable.
Preferred managerial qualities
In Japan, staff expect their manager to create an environment in which teams can achieve their goals and increase their efficiency. To achieve and maintain this, the manager is expected to have close communication with his/her teams, and to share knowledge and information. As a manager, it is important to pay attention to communication coming from team members and to express a commitment to team work. Ongoing frequent and appropriate feedback with team members is also a way to maintain good relationships.
You may have to manage local staff members who have been working in an organization for many years. Most employees in Japan are proud of their accomplishments and the way they have worked and progressed to date. A manager should show his/her appreciation for their contribution. Pay special attention to including such recognition when giving feedback so that your staff will stay motivated.
It is also important to be knowledgeable about your area of business. Even if it is a new area for you, your willingness to learn and openness to new ideas will motivate your staff. Your team would also be open to, and appreciate, the introduction of new ideas to increase the efficiency of their work.
In maintaining good relationships, expressing solidarity with your team is important. This can be achieved by expressing a commitment to the organization's goals of efficiency, quality, and so on.
Being approachable is very important. Seniority is very strict here and many workers fear their superiors. Because of that, many people in high positions tend to abuse their power. Be approachable and considerate towards employees and make sure you create an open line of communication.
Japanese people like organization. They prefer things to be planned and rehearsed ahead of time. People here do not handle spontaneity well.
Hierarchy and decision-making
In Japanese society, it is common for groups of people, organizations, corporations, and schools to be organized in a hierarchical structure. This arrangement clearly defines the role of each person and their relationships. People respect each other’s position, understand how each role should interrelate, and strive to achieve organizational goals as a group. The flow of information and decision-making also occur in accordance with this well-structured system. Note, however, that this does not mean that decisions are only made by superiors. A manager is expected to involve her/his team in the information-sharing and decision-making processes and incorporate their ideas. In line with the Japanese culture’s focus on "team work" and "harmony", the goal of a manager is to achieve consensus within his/her team.
A non-Japanese person will need to work on fitting into this nuanced process, and seek group consensus for his/her decisions. For simple decisions, a manager may also ask an immediate supervisor for support; depending on the type of the question, he/she may direct you to an appropriate person who is responsible for the matter.
Following are some common steps used in decision-making in Japan:
Firstly, gather and analyze all related data, examine pros and cons thoroughly while exploring the business case and feasibility of each.
Secondly, communicate a new strategy with immediate authorities and solicit their feedback.
Sometimes the first two steps are repeated several times while a strategy is further refined and widely communicated within an organization. This process is called “Nemawashi” - and consists of an informal way to gain consensus. Once everyone is well informed and approves the strategy, it reaches the final stage of the decision-making process. During a final formal meeting, the decision is signed-off.
Although the Japanese decision-making process takes a long time, it does have advantages. One benefit is that once a decision has been made, it can be implemented relatively easily. This is because it has been already approved by the majority of stakeholders, and its feasibility has been well examined, assuring proper execution of the strategy.
In the workplace, decisions must be made by ‘the person in charge’. Very often, this person will also have to confirm with someone else. For example, I have had experience trying to submit bank forms, and it bounced back 4 times because of minor errors. In most cases, the form was approved by 1 or 2 people (stamped) but disapproved by 1 person, making the form invalid. This type of hierarchical decision making slows down business decisions dramatically.
It is acceptable to go to your immediate supervisor for answers or feedback, but I prefer to go straight to the source, skipping as many middle-men/middle-women as possible.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Compared to other countries, Japan does not have a large population of people who believe in a certain religion. However this might change in future if the government starts accepting more immigrants from various countries.
As a homogeneous society, Japan consists of people with similar backgrounds - different classes are hardly noticeable. While class is seldom considered at the societal level, people are concerned about their rank within social groups such as organizations, corporations, and schools. These groups are structured hierarchically, and individuals have responsibilities based on their position. Those in higher positions are treated differently and hold privileges; as a result, people strive to advance within their social group. Non-Japanese people should take care to give recognition to the position people have attained within organizations.
While it is still a fact that the majority of the country is made up of Japanese people, the government has seriously considered introducing "foreign workers" to the nation to deal with labour shortages caused by demographic change. In some areas of Japan, there is an increase in the immigrant population temporarily working in Japan. It is anticipated that this trend will continue, and Japan will become a more diverse country.
Japan has been known for its male-dominated society for many years. This tradition is now changing since the country has started facing a serious shortage of labour due to a decrease in population – this decrease has resulted from a low birth rate and an increase in the retired population. Gender equality is one of the major current political goals, and has been strongly supported by the Japanese government since 2012. The government is seeking to draw more women into the labour force –by 2020, it aims to increase the representation of women to about 10 percent of management positions across all industries.
In reality, while many corporations try to follow the government policies, their employees - both men and women - are still struggling to accommodate this new change.
Religion is rarely spoken about in Japan. Most people visit shrines and temples but there is very little dedication or attachment to religion.
Japan is very homogenous so foreign people stand out easily. Some foreign people like this attention while others hate it. Racism is not an issue but Japanese people are often surprised to see a foreign person and some are very nervous to interact with one. If you are not Japanese, you are a "gaijin", which means "outside person". It is not used in a derogatory manner but some foreign people take offence to the term.
Throughout history, Japan has been a male dominant culture and it remains so to a certain extent. Though women are slowly gaining power, men continue to dominate the workforce. The majority of women here become housewives. Few have career goals or hobbies. A man cheating on a woman is much more socially acceptable than a woman cheating on a man.
There are strong gay communities here. They are socially accepted and very open about their sexual orientation. Lesbians on the other hand are very rare. I have never met or even heard of one here. Transexuals and crossdressers are also socially accepted and often make appearances on TV.
I can't speak for everybody but I don't see the attitude to all these differences causing serious issue in the workplace. If there are any issues, it would be a personal issue, not a cultural one.
It is important to establish relationships with colleagues, and especially with clients outside of your organization, before getting to business. Here are some recommendations to help build good relationships and trust.
- Be sincere and show your personal interest towards the relationship.
- Be positive (but not light-hearted or, playful), as a means of building a relaxed relationship. Jokes and self-parody are not recommended as part of the approach.
- Be punctual and arrive on time for meetings.
- Be prepared for what your clients may look for during meetings. Bring all related information and anything that might help your clients. Make sure to bring a sufficient number of copies.
- Respond quickly to inquiries and deliver excellent service to the best of your ability.
In general, building solid relationships in Japan takes time. However once established, they endure; Japanese people normally prefer long-term business relationships.
Very important. "Business drinking" is typical here. People will go for dinner and drinks in order to build rapport before signing any papers. It is the preferred way of building trust and maintaining a healthy relationship. Golf is very common too.
Privileges and favouritism
At most workplaces in Japan it is very rare for employees to expect special privileges or favouritism from each other based on personal relationships. This is because Japanese employees consider the workplace a professional and formal environment, and they rarely mix work with personal relationships. Giving special treatment to one person or group is considered unfair, and is not an acceptable practice.
No. "Business drinking" is actually business. It doesn't win you favours. It is essentially a prerequisite for starting business with someone.
Conflicts in the workplace
When discussing a work-related problem with your co-worker, it is important to consider his/her cultural background, to maintain a good working relationship. Japanese culture values highly the concept of “Face (mentsu)” - this refers to one’s social standing and reputation.“Losing face” implies the circumstance where someone gets embarrassed in front of others; people try to avoid this situation as much as possible. Therefore, when discussing a sensitive matter with your co-worker, it is important to talk to the person privately. Try to focus on the issue, not the person. Discuss the issue in a constructive manner to fix any problems. If a problem still persists and does not seem to improve, seek advice from your immediate supervisor.
Japanese people hate confrontation. Avoid it if possible. Try to suggest solutions to a problem instead of getting into arguments. Don't point fingers and blame people for faults. The preferred method of handling a problem is indirect communication. You should consult a superior and let the management handle the situation.
Motivating local colleagues
Japanese employees expect that a good manager will work closely with his/her subordinates, monitor their performance, and offer guidance and advice when required. Your staff would also appreciate when their performance is recognized by their manager. Therefore, it is important to provide positive feedback when a staff member demonstrates good performance. It is most effective to provide feedback directly afterwards, and to clearly communicate how their performance contributed to the team and the organization. It is also important to help them recognize the importance of their role within an organization. There are several ways to do this – e.g. taking them to important client meetings, assigning them more challenging work, and involving them in decision-making processes. Japanese employees would appreciate such recognition, as well as efforts towards improving their work and career development.
In no particular order:
- Interest in the field
- Company reputation/pride
- Fear of failing
- Fear of letting down others
- Fear of embarrassing themselves
Recommended books, films & foods
Lately the works of several popular Japanese writers have been recognized internationally, and translations of their books have become readily available in Canada:
- Haruki Murakami
- Banana Yoshimoto
- Mitsuyo Kakuta
- Natsuo Kirino
Animation and Manga Series
Some comic book series are available at local libraries in Canada:
- Maison Ikkoku
Popular films that provide insight into Japanese culture include:
- Ramen Girl (2008)
- Last Samurai (2003)
- Lost in Translation (2003)
- Seven Samurai (1954)
- Departures (2009)
- Shall We Dance (1996)
- Like Father
- Like Son (2013)
- Spirited Away (2001)
TV Japan (Japanese broadcasting channel available through cable networks in Canada)
Programs on TV Japan include news, documentaries, dramas, movies, children's programs, and entertainment shows. Some movies and dramas are subtitled in English. An entertainment show “Cool Japan” (NHK World) introduces culture as well as unique aspects of Japan and how they are perceived by local immigrants.
Live concerts of traditional Japanese music are organized by the Japanese Embassy in Canada from time to time. Check out their website on cultural events (http://www.ca.emb-japan.go.jp/canada_e/Cultural_Events/infocenter.html).
Here is a list of some unique types of Japanese music:
- Taiko music (Japanese drums)
- Shamisen music (three-stringed Japanese musical instrument)
- JPOP (Japanese pop)
Popular Japanese foods include:
- teriyaki chicken
- Ramen (Japanese noodle soup) is famous for its regional variations across Japan.
- Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake), Takoyaki (a ball-shaped Japanese pancake filled with dice of octopus)
Bushido by Inazou Nitobe
Outrage by Takeshi Kitano
- One Piece
- Hanzawa Naoki
- Shabekuri 007
- Yoshida Brothers
- AKB 48
- Kyari Pamyu Pamyu
One way to get to know local people and expand your network is to participate in local activities, such as joining sports teams, or taking Japanese cooking classes or tea ceremony lessons. As you get to know more people through local activities, you can further develop your network through people whom you have already known.
Visiting various places such as local markets, sightseeing spots and cultural festivals would help further your understanding about local culture, and give you good conversation topics for communicating with local people.
- Eat as many varieties of food as possible.
- Travel by train
- Visit local restaurants and bars, not only the famous ones.
Performances to watch
- Baseball Games
- New-Half Shows
- Universal Studios Japan
- Disney Land
- Disney Sea
- Shibuya Scramble Intersection
- Tobita Shinchi
Throughout its long history, Japan has had several National Heroes who are recognized by people worldwide. Here is a list of just a few of the great persons in Japanese history:
- Nobunaga Oda – a Japanese warrior in the 16th century
- Hideyoshi Toyotomi – a Japanese leader in the 16th century
- Ryoma Sakamoto – a Japanese imperial loyalist in the 19th century
- Yukichi Fukuzawa – a Japanese author, educator, and publisher in the 19th century
- Isoroku Yamamoto, a naval officer during the Second World War, is considered to be another national hero in Japan. His excellent diplomatic tactics are well known by many people.
In considering modern heroes, several great Japanese athletes can be mentioned, such as Kei Nishikori (tennis player), Keisuke Honda (soccer player), Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skater), and Homare Sawa (soccer player.)
- Ichiro Suzuki - Arguably the greatest Japanese baseball player of all time. One of the few Japanese athletes who have received multiple awards in the MLB. As a baseball player, he was my hero.
- Keisuke Honda - Japanese soccer star currently playing overseas. He has spearheaded the national team for the past few years and continues to impress. He is one of the athletes responsible for the recent rise in popularity of soccer in Japan.
- Kei Nishikori - Tennis star who got as high as world rank 4 last year. As a young athlete, he has an extremely bright future. He has brought popularity to mens tennis in Japan.
- Yuzuru Hanyuu - Olympic figure skater. At his young age he is already one of the best in the world. Definitely a prospect in the next olympic games.
- Konosuke Matsushita - Founder of Panasonic. One of the most respected businessmen in Japan. Although he has passed, his books continue to be top sellers in business sections of book stores. His story, business strategies, and words still move people in Japanese society today.
Shared historical events with Canada
Looking back over history, both Canada and Japan were involved in the Second World War. However the younger generation now considers the main relation between the two countries to be an economic, political, and diplomatic partnership.
As a recent case, the Emperor and Empress of Japan visited Canada in July 2009 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Japan-Canada diplomatic relations – this was a significant historical event between the two countries. Their 12-day stay included visits to several cities across the country, such as Ottawa, Toronto, Victoria, and Vancouver. The Imperial visit helped reconfirm a solid and strong tie between Canada and Japan.
Not that I can think of. Japan has a very good impression of Canada.
A stereotype often held by non-Japanese is that everyone is always well-mannered in Japan, respects each other immensely, and that they all want to please non-Japanese people.
The Japanese people do welcome visitors from overseas, and strive to host them to the best of their ability. As a matter of fact, the government has been focusing on growing tourism in Japan and investing a significant effort in it. The tourism industry is aiming to provide first-class service and to succeed in satisfying the needs of the diversity of visitors.
However, life is more varied than that. Japanese kindness is a strong characteristic, but should not be taken for granted. Non-Japanese people living in Japan are in a position to move beyond the stereotype of being hosted as a visitor, and explore many attractive aspects of the living in this country. It is important to recognize the difference between being hosted as a visitor and actually living and working with the Japanese people.
Asians can't drink - Asians can drink and love drinking.
Asians are good at math - some people are not good at math.
Nobody here understands English - many do, so be careful of gossiping in front of people under the assumption that they can't understand you.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Tokyo, Japan. She completed her undergraduate degree majoring in Sociology from Keio University. After five years of employment in Japan, she relocated to Canada to join a Canadian exporter in Charlottetown, PEI. As a liaison between Canada and Japan, she greatly contributed to the development of business relationships with the Japanese clients. She later moved to Ottawa to join another Canadian exporter and has been involved in several international projects including Japan, England and the United States. Since 2010 she has been providing Japan’s intercultural business effectiveness briefing to public service personnel and workshops on “Doing Business in Japan” for private corporations. She is currently living and working in Ottawa, Ontario.
Your cultural interpreter is born in Japan and raised in Vancouver. Attended Canadian schools from grade 1 to completion of university. Been living in Osaka for the past 4 years. Currently working as an English teacher, teaching English to business professionals and students of all ages.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
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