What I learnt living and working in Japan. Lessons, insights and tips
Japan’s economy with an annual gross domestic product of US $5.405 trillion (2017 est.), a population of 126,451,398 (July 2017 est.) and a GDP per head of US $42,700 (2017 est.) according to the CIA Fact Book.
As a kid growing up in Australia, watching Japanese anime cartoons on television after school was a daily ritual along with eating a slice of bread spread with Vegemite and jumping on the couch. Drawn by the mystique, we acted out the stories after school. These experiences created an interest in Japan that lead to an opportunity to live and work in Japan for a Japanese company.
My key responsibilities were customer satisfaction and business development, for a privately owned company in Kyoto. The company which began in 1972 had its own publishing division, travel agency and an annual turnover estimated at 75 billion yen.
The interview process consisted of three interviews with three interviewers. It was customary for two interviewers at a time to ask questions while a third would observe and take notes. This was real psychological interviewing, where every word was recorded, questions were repeated and your answers checked for accuracy. It felt like you were being totally dissected.
Your ability, mood, qualifications, experience, personality and character were all thoroughly analyzed over and over again. Interviews lasted an average of 40 minutes at a time. In between interviews you were asked to perform a range of practical tasks. Tasks were written on a piece of paper and once issued had to be performed with no preparation. You had a few seconds to read the scenario, collect the materials you required to perform it and then start the task. For example: "?"
At the end of each day, attendees were given a phone number which had to be called at a certain time that evening. It felt like a 007 movie. This was to ascertain if you had passed the days training. If you were invited the next day your interview continued, if you were not it ended abruptly on the phone, a phone call which you paid for. After three eight-hour days of interviews, impromptu activities and secret phone calls, five out of three hundred and fifty were selected to enter Japan Inc.
On arrival in Japan at 10 pm on a Sunday night, we were met at the airport by the head of the region and individually escorted to our hotel. After checking in we went to dinner at a local restaurant where we met the staff and managers of our section. Next day, the manager met us at the hotel and escorted us to the office where we were allocated a workspace, work schedule and seventy-five clients. I started work immediately.
Japanese companies are known for their long-term plans, scheduling months in advance and planning minute details. My impression was that Japanese companies aim to improve their operations by continuously fine-tuning their approach as they better understand the market and their customers. For example, the sales process at my company was as smooth as a well-oiled machine.
How did it work? Simple advertising with a clear message and a genuine money saving offer, exceptional customer service (phone or drop in enquiries) and benefits presented in a casual but convincing way. Sales interviews took up to six hours, at which time the manager would call out for lunch and the presentation would continue. The result of the system was that 95% of new business was signed.
Punctuality is everything in Japan and is a skill you learn very quickly if you want to get ahead. Being early isn’t rude but lateness is inexcusable. In my company, if you were late more than three times you were not eligible for a promotion that year.
Timecards were the norm and head office analyzed each imprint on your card. In Japan, you can't say the train was late as it is a rare occurrence and if they are, your manager will call the station and check. If a train is late, an employee must get a statement from the station staff that explains the situation officially. A This note must be given to your manager and will account for your lateness on your work record.
Time is accounted for like money, very carefully.
As an employee of a Japanese company, you put in extra hours each day as a sign of respect and loyalty to your employer. My job started at 12 noon but I was expected to be in by 11 am and use the hour before to prepare, making sure I was 100% ready for the start of business. The same applied at the end of the workday.
We officially finished at nine but stayed on until 10 pm doing our individual paperwork and after that helping other staff. We all took turns cleaning the office, reporting information to head office and undertaking management requests. On top of this, we all had our only daily routines for setting up and packing away business materials.
In return, the company paid for our transport to and from work, subsidized our rent, paid for our health insurance and annual health check-up. A health check-up consisted of a visit to a local hospital where you had a number of tests done all during the one visit. These consisted of a blood test, ECG, chest Xray, urine test, height, weight, BMI, blood pressure, etc.
Results were sent out to the following week and you had a summary on a one-page sheet that could be easily compared to the last year's check. This system allows the doctor to quickly identify any changes and to send you for more tests. In my opinion, this is probably one of the reasons why Japanese have one of the longest life expectancies.
In Japan, you really learn the value of money. Money in Japan is sacred. As there is no welfare system as we know it in the West, you work to survive. No middle ground. Money is your key to life in Japan and is taken very seriously. Contracts you write are checked by three or four people for errors before being approved, refunds are tripled checked before being issued and your change is repeatedly counted in front of you in stores.
When you eat at a restaurant, it is custom for everyone to pay for what he or she ate, this is known as
In terms of sales performance, every yen must be accounted for. During a normal workday, head office would telephone constantly asking for our sales figures. Long faxes would stream throughout the day motivating us to sell more and meet our targets. They would be pinned up around the office, so all employees could see them.
The management style of the company could be best described as close. All staff worked together to ensure customer needs were met. Every day I would report seven or eight times to my manager and at least once a day with the branch office regarding sales, customer preferences and my progress in relation to targets.
A typical day would start with a meeting in Japanese, to ascertain the goals and schedule for each person for that day. Every member of staff would report what they planned to do that day, for example, which customers they would speak to regarding re-signing their business, targets set and amount of sales they hoped to make. This was recorded and questioned by management and by the other employees.
A large part of my job was to manage seventy-five clients and to ensure that they re-signed their business with the company. This included using a range of techniques including phone calls, postcards, entertaining them, visits to their office or home, anything innovative that kept them satisfied and happy to renew their business. My manager of our branch knew all the four hundred plus customers and had all their details memorized including: their likes, dislikes, children’s names, etc and knew exactly when their contract would expire and the value of their business. As a team, we worked to maximize customer satisfaction and to ensure high retention.
Customer service started with how the phone was answered, how walk-in customers were greeted and made to feel comfortable with a fresh cup of green tea and it continued when you called clients at their home if they were running late or missed an appointment. We lent customers an umbrella if it started to rain outside or walked them to the station with an umbrella so they would not get wet.
Customer service in Japan means 150% focus on anticipating and meeting customer requirements, even if they are unrelated to the business at hand. Any chance to make a favourable, lasting impression is sought after.
The Japanese have a skill that allows them to focus on something so well that they can block everything else out. For example, the pressure you are put under in Japan is enormous, for example: you must all ways be on time, be polite, be well presented, remember the company rules, think of others first, work with others in harmony, work long hours without complaint and get things right, (what you say, what you do and your paperwork with no mistakes). To do this every day, six days a week is a powerful skill and they do it very well.
Japanese people are often described as being unemotional. My experience is that they have the same emotions as you and I; the difference is how and when they show their emotion. Work takes up a lot of your time in Japan and because you’re expected to perform at your best at all times, to show your emotions at work would detract from the skills required to do your job, so it is understood that you don’t show your emotions at work. After work, it is common to go out with work colleagues for dinner, karaoke or drinking. At these times you get a chance to talk more openly and build relationships.
In Japan, my daily life consisted of working, eating, bathing and sleeping. Visiting a bathhouse on the way home from work is a customary way to relax and to relieve stress before going home. I had no computer in my office, no lunchtime rush to pay bills, no lines at the bank and no problems with poorly trained staff. Using my mobile phone I could order a pizza in English, change my mobile phone plan, surf the Internet and send emails in 1999.
Vacation time in Japan is precious. The amount you get per year is based on your rank and years of service with the company. Annual leave in my first year was 10 paid days plus national holidays. To take a paid vacation day you have to put in a formal written request. To start the whole process I had to check the dates and times of my vacation with the other staff in the office.
As a new employee, I had to respect the plans of older more senior staff whose vacation requests superseded mine. This took over a week as we had a mix of full and part-time staff. After checking and confirming the dates I could then submit my request to the manager for consideration. Once approved it would be sent to head office. All requests had to be submitted 30 days prior to the date requested. Rules required that no more than four days at a time could be taken at once for my level. As part of the process, I had to be aware that next time I applied for leave I couldn't take the same day of the week off. For example: If I took Wednesday to Saturday off this time, I had to take off Sunday, Monday or Tuesday in my next request.
It is easy to see why a Japanese honeymoon couple only travels abroad for four days at a time, as it is very difficult to organize time off.
Japan is an amazing place and will show you a range of new experiences that will change how you view the world.