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Work Experience In Japan

31st July 2023

Working in Japan started out as a personal adventure for our IT Recruiter, Colin McKay. He gained a broader perspective on life, developed new skills (including cross-cultural communication techniques), and thrived on new challenges. 

Japan and its culture hold a fascination for many of us. It is a land where the modern seems to sit comfortably alongside the traditional. We see images of elegant tea ceremonies and the spectacle of sumo wrestling juxtaposed with a country which produces high-tech electronic goods, cars and animé. But what is it really like to work there?  

In 2010, at a crossroads in his career, Colin took the opportunity to join the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme. He moved to the Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, a rural area of south-west Japan and began working as an assistant language teacher (ALT) for two years. Colin shares his thoughts on the lessons we could learn from their work culture.

Work Ethic

One of the first things to become apparent when I moved to Japan is that the Japanese work ethic is phenomenal. As a rule, they are a very hard-working society. Not only that, they place a lot of emphasis on respect and this crosses over into how people’s jobs are viewed.

A person's job is not just what they do, it is also part of their identity.

It quickly became clear to me that in Japan, a person’s job is not just what they do, it is also part of their identity. But unlike in the West, all jobs command a level of respect. Whether you’re a doctor or a cleaner, your contribution is seen as being valuable because you are doing your bit and contributing to society.


The Western view of a Japanese ‘salaryman’ is typically of a white-collar worker who works long hours and while I certainly saw this for myself, what I also witnessed was presenteeism, a need to be seen to be at work. Now, this is not a Japanese phenomenon. There is no doubt that it happens the world over, but I did see a different take on it in Japan.

The area I worked in was quite rural and one of the schools only had three pupils but was staffed as if there were perhaps two or three classes of pupils, with the associated number of teachers, including a full time PE teacher, and support staff. Staff remained on site even when not teaching or engaging with the three children. 

This approach is considered normal and is taken so that everyone is treated equally and has access to the same opportunities.

They needed to be seen to be at work, even when not really working. To an outsider such as myself, this seemed very unusual. Reflecting on the UK, it is more likely that in such a situation the school would be closed, and the pupils would have to go to a different school. However, in Japan, this approach is considered normal and is taken so that everyone is treated equally and has access to the same opportunities.

Work Family

The Japanese work ethic contributes to my next point. The Japanese spend so much time at work, for many of them, their colleagues become a second family. I very much saw that people who worked together viewed their colleagues as their work family. You could see that they enjoyed spending time together, outside of work, and would also help each other out. This transcended the ‘work friends’ culture that I have seen and been part of in the West.

Resistance To Change

Something I found particularly unusual was an acceptance that because something had always been done in a particular way that it should remain that way. For example, even though I could drive, and had access to a car, I was not allowed to drive myself to work. If the school I was working at was some distance away, one of the teachers from the school would have to drive to pick me up and take me to and from work.

This didn’t make sense to me, but when my fellow ALTs and I asked whether this could be changed, we were surprised by the response. Although our request was politely considered, it was turned down, and we were left with the feeling that we had, albeit inadvertently, caused offence.

For many .......... colleagues become a second family.

I later learned that there is a Japanese phrase which means ‘we’ve always done it this way, so it will always be done this way’ which is perhaps applicable in this situation. This resistance to change is one of the things that struck me as being at odds with the view I had of Japan as being quite progressive.

In fact, more than once, I was struck by inflexibility in Japan. There is also a formality to the work structure and in some cases, it felt as if rules were applied without necessarily considering whether there could be a better way of doing things. People tended to be very stoic, and just get on with things. The onus was very much on the individual to fit in. This is illustrated by the Japanese proverb which is used to describe conforming - ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.’

Since returning to live and work in the UK, I have noticed that there is, in general, a willingness to change. Workplaces throughout the UK, where practicable, are becoming increasingly flexible. And while some of these changes will have been accelerated because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have no doubt that they would have occurred in time because of a desire in the West to look for better ways of working and a willingness to embrace change.

Soft Skills

My two years in Japan were amazing. I got to experience a completely different way of living and working. Not only that, I made friends for life - this summer I am taking my family to upstate New York to go to the wedding of a friend I met while working in Japan.

Before going to Japan, the only full-time roles I had had were in recruitment. Working as an ALT gave me a chance to try a very different job, all while learning about Japanese culture. The experience gave me time and perspective to figure out what I wanted to focus on career wise and reinforced my desire to focus on a career in recruitment when I moved back to the UK. I have no doubt that the experiences I had while in Japan, and the skills I gained, have been put to good use in my career. I would also recommend the experience to anyone who has finished their undergraduate degree but not yet decided on a career route.

I have no doubt that the experiences I had while in Japan, and the skills I gained, have been put to good use in my career.

My advice to anyone interested in living and working in Japan would be to try it. It is not solely the preserve of those on a gap year or taking a sabbatical, there are many reasons this type of experience can be beneficial. These range from the overall experience of living and working somewhere so different and being truly immersed in the country’s culture, to the development of soft skills which I found came from taking the time to understand such a different culture.

When we inadvertently challenged the system, we were treated respectfully and with kindness.

My main recommendations would be to fully embrace the experience. To do this you need to go with an open mind and to be aware of any significant differences in customs and approaches. You do not want to cause offence, but in my experience, even when we inadvertently challenged the system, we were treated respectfully and with kindness. Everyone I encountered was extremely supportive and could not have done more to help, and to make the experience a positive one.

The Japan Exchange and Teaching Progamme (JET) is aimed at promoting grassroots international exchange between Japan and other nations. It is administered through the collaboration of Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations. It began in 1987 and has become one of the largest cultural exchange programmes in the world.

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