Japan is undergoing a transformation in the workplace, but a great deal of the information available about Japan is based on outdated perceptions. These stereotypes are repeated by the media, and skew towards the negative and eccentric, often only painting part of the full picture. While this may disappoint some people, very few tentacled monsters, Godzillas, or geisha remain—although I’m fond of them all.

Here are just a handful of the dozens of stereotypes that must be addressed:

1) “Japan has excessive overtime and a poor working culture”

While there is still a way to go, there has been a lot of progress on this front in some companies. The government has revised and put into effect laws like the Hatarakikata kaikaku houan (working style revision bill), which went into effect in April 2019, that caps monthly working hours.

There are an increasing number of companies in Japan that offer flexible work-life balance arrangements and several companies, such as Microsoft Japan, are experimenting with 4-day work weeks. [1]Freelancing is becoming more popular, and it’s estimated that 17 percent of the Japanese workforce is involved in some freelance work. [2]

2) “Japan is a closed society that is not open to immigration”

The Japanese government recently extended the length of visas for foreign students in Japan to promote more immigration. They have created new, expanded visa categories, like the Designated Activities Visa, to permit people with skills and knowledge of Japan to spend five-plus years in the country more easily. For those who have recently moved to the country, the government is also setting up over 100 ‘one-stop centers’ to provide resources for expats. [3]

3) “Job hunting in Japan is a grueling and arcane, once-a-year process that leaves students stressed and unmotivated”

True, but it’s changing. The Japanese Business Bureau is in the long overdue process of overhauling the system, to make it more suitable for the needs of today’s students.

4) “Most foreigners in Japan are English teachers and it is nearly impossible to find other jobs”

If you spend a significant amount of time perusing the /Japan threads on Reddit, you may come away with the impression that the only work for expats in Japan is teaching English. Most of the people who post on the site are indeed English teachers. In reality, the majority of international folks in Japan are students, and those who work at full-time jobs are employed in a range of sectors, with English teaching just being a sliver of the pie. [4]

5) “Japan has a traditional culture and lacks an environment for startups”

While it is almost never included in the startup capitals of the world, secretly Japan is a great place for entrepreneurs, with a thriving ecosystem. For example, Infostellar is a Japanese born-and-bred startup that functions as an Airbnb for satellites, renting out unused ground station time to satellite providers around the world. Founder and engineer Naomi Kurahara works with a small international team to lower the cost of satellite communications.

Google For Startups has a base in central Tokyo dedicated to incubating high-growth startups, and competes for Japanese talent with startup hubs sponsored by cities like Fukuoka.[5]

Venture capital funding in Japan has increased fourfold in the past 5 years, with billions being poured into Japanese startups. The corporate venture branches of big companies like Toyota are also getting into the game.

That said, if Japan wants to thrive in the 21st century, there is still a lot of work to be done. The government needs to pass legislation to combat workplace harassment and build infrastructure to support the influx of immigrants. The startup culture is growing but still tiny compared to Japan’s GDP. Productivity and labor shortages are issues that will require multi-faceted approaches.



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