How is working in Japan different from working in Germany?


What I can compare..

Disclaimer: I have just experienced 2 employers in Germany, and 2 employers in Japan. Also, not only the location/country you work in is relevant for ‘what work feels like’, but also the company. My first German employer was a big IT service provider, with many customers in Germany, some more spread over Europe and just few in the rest of the world. My second employer in Germany was an American based company with customers all over the world, that felt already different.

So, how is work in .de and .jp different? Starts with the daily routine: in Germany most people come to work, and immediately start to work - or at least try to give the impression of working. In Japan, I saw workers arriving every morning and starting with 30 minutes of newspaper reading.
Try this in Germany, you get fired immediately ;)

In average, Japanese workers are clocking more hours as ‘work hours’, but the German GDP (Gross domestic product) per worker is a bit higher than in Japan, so you could say that in Germany more ‘work per hour’ is done, or ‘work density is higher’.

Commuting

Being in the office is much more important in Japan than in Germany. Entering the Corona time, German companies were really slow to adopt remote work - but Japanese companies were even slower. In classic Japanese companies, also working overtime is very important, and there is an extra word for ‘death due to overworking’, 過労死.
Japanese companies are also supporting commuting, they are paying public transport fees for employees. commuting

Work style

How are work styles different? In Germany, there are hierarchies, but in general employees are asked to openly and clearly communicate their opinion on various matters. Of course, the boss has the last word on all matters. In traditional Japanese companies, saying your own opinion is often not requested. My employers in Japan were either Germany or America based companies, so the work style in their branches in Japan were ‘tilted’ towards German or American style. Still, I saw Japanese superiors making decisions which directly affected me, without asking me for my opinion.

Normal office routine

Quite some things are different. In Japan, you can find shelves with office supplies, and while employees are completely trusted to only use the supplies for company usage, the employees have to write down on paper when a pen or other supplies are taken. If refilling was the goal, then just counting from time to time could also help here.

In Japan, I was working in big office spaces, with desks of probably more than hundred people. When a coworker asked me via email to lookup something from his desk, I was walking over, and accessing papers etc. as if it was my own desk. In Germany, that would definitely have rised some eyebrows, but in Japan there was full trust in me fully being entitled to do this - a very nice feeling.

When 2 people are in Germany in front of a screen and one enters a password, the other person is explicitly looking away from the keyboard - to not rise any doubt to spy out the password. In Japan, I have not seen that among coworkers - you are trusted to a level where people are not looking away explicitly. I also saw fewer people lock their screen when they leave their workplace.

There are also habits of daily office life which can only be observed in either of the 2 countries. In Japan, I was surprised to see and hear colleagues clipping nails, something unthinkable in Germany. I was delighted to learn these were finger nails. :)

After work life

In Germany, employees tend to recruit their friends from sport clubs, the club they are playing instruments in, or such. In Japan, much more is done with coworkers. Going to restaurants and drinking after work is quite common - in classic Japanese companies when you are not asked for your feedback on work related things, giving that feedback at drinking time is important and won’t be used against the employee.

Realations to customers

Huge differences. I work in an engineer/support role, so I basically work together with a customer or partner to solve an issue. In German, we can with 2 different ways of phrasing sentences either explicitly express respect to the other party (German: siezen), or rather that we know the other person, and ‘just want to get things done’ (German: duzen). While I would not be surprised to hear that sales people in German stay on the respect-level, with almost all of my partner and customer contacts I interacted on the daily-interaction-level.

Just to give English-only speakers an impression what this feels like: in English it’s harder to express this, but adressing the other party in each sentence with ‘Sir’, or ‘Misses’ is similar.

Now, how about Japan? Japanese (language) is laughing about the 2 layers of German, adding multiple layers of ‘lifting up the person you are talking to’, and also layers of ‘explicitly lowering your own actions’ with words. For many verbs, like ‘to read’ multiple forms exist, to express on which level one considers the other party. So in Japan, customers and partners are addressed in the most respectable ways, lifting their positions and lowering the own position.

This might feel like ‘you are on the tips of your toes all the time’, and it feels a bit like that indeed. A further aspect is that in Japan, the customer/partner will likely refer no to actions of an individual in your company (‘you said that [..]'), which is direct and accusing, but refer to the company: ‘your company expressed that [..]’.

Interactions with colleagues

One interesting aspect of interaction with colleagues in Japan: last names are used. I do not even know the first name of many colleagues from the top of my head. For me with a foreign name things are a bit different, details are here.

When talking with colleagues, then one addresses them with showing respect, for example using -san. When talking with colleagues in front of a customer, then the colleagues are considered like a family, and one refers to them without -san. Of course, the customer is addressed with the highest respect.

Activities with colleagues, also besides drinking, are much more comming in Japan. For example, before Corona we used to go jogging around the emperors palace in Tokyo after work.

Regarding communication in departments: in Japan, bosses seem to ‘play it safe’ and only communicate down the absolute minimum which you need to work. I even started to call this 秘密主義, the idea of ‘declaring things secret by default’, and rather making it an exception to pass down things. This approach also has good sides though: when sales or other departments escalate things, they are in Japan likely to not go to me directly but first to the boss. Such escalations are in Japan less likely to reach the simple workers, while such pressure/requests would in Europe simply be reached through, in Japan most of this terminates at the boss, leaving the employee ‘room to breathe’ and concentrate on solving the actual problem.

Burocracy/flexibility

There is much paperwork in Japan, more than in Germany. When entering the company, I received a big folder with many paper sheets, and details on which people to contact for certain things. Most of this was outdated after 6 monthes, and can be looked up at the intranet - but it’s Japanese style to hand these out.

On various occasions, coworkers have to deny a request - this is natural. For example, ‘Sorry, our vendor printing business cards does not allow us to print a GPG fingerprint’. In Germany, the colleague is then more likely to question that, ask the vendor if change is possible, and the background of this rule. In Japan, colleagues are also very willing to help with creative workarounds (‘we will print the GPG key in the field for the fax number’), but asking for the background or changing such rules seems more out of question than in Europe. Asking for the background of rules, questioning things, is in many cases not welcome.

Summary

So where is working better? Depends on the kind of work you are doing, on your personality and also the company you are working in. For myself, I could not imagine working in a classical Japanese style company - but a mixture with directness from the American mother company renders things working for me. :)