Work in Japan Advice Board
Japanese language is not easy for non-Japanese to learn. Indeed, even after many years of learning, jumping into a real business environment can bring untold horrors, and thus the Japanese language learning continues.
My take on learning is that it is primarily trial and error and that skills are gained by trying and then correcting mistakes. It therefore stands to reason that many mistakes have to be made before a skill as vast as Japanese can be acquired.
When a person not native in Japanese enters a Japanese business environment without previous experience, there are a lot of mistakes to be made!
While there are many articles that give you a few useful phrases to try to help you survive, the point of this article is to offer more practical advice to keep contributing to the company even when your language level simply isn’t good enough.
I have written below about the two situations in which I found my Japanese language ability to be most exposed: Japanese meetings and disagreements.
Being foreign you would expect Japanese to go a little easy on you when you attend meetings conducted fully in Japanese right? Wrong! Even the President of my company who hails from Kansai speaks to me completely in Kansai-ben, regardless of my ability to comprehend anything. Hontouni wakarahen.
With everyone talking at each other so quickly and then sporadically asking for your opinion, those not used to such an environment will find meetings in Japanese extremely testing.
So what worked for me?
1) Prepare beforehand. Knowing the context of a meeting will help improve coherency.
2) Constantly take notes. Take that notebook everywhere, even just for small work related chats.
3) If you develop an idea, feel free to offer it up and have confidence in yourself. Nobody cares if you find it difficult to express something!
4) Ask for clarification. My colleagues have always been willing to re-explain something if I didn’t quite catch it the first time.
Conflicts of interest and opinion occur between people regardless of culture, but being in Japan you do have the disadvantage of having to argue your point in Japanese.
Your brain only has so much RAM to process more than one operation, but as your Japanese level improves the less energy you have to expend thinking about how to say something, and the more energy you have to expend thinking about the right thing to say. To begin with, I would recommend the following:
- Keep a clear head. Take time to consider their argument and your response.
- Take a logical approach. If you don’t agree with their argument, give the logical reasons behind your argument.
- If your argument makes logical sense but is rejected because it “isn’t done that way in Japan”, wave arms around wildly in anger.
- Keep emotions separate. Showing emotions within a Japanese company is seen as a huge negative and can affect how your logical argument is viewed.
- Don’t be afraid to change your mind. If the other party offers an argument superior to your own, why valiantly but moronically argue your point? In my experience in a Japanese company, only one person has ever been too stubborn to never accept my opinion.
Clarifying a situation through a process of preparation, recording, analysis, proposing and confirmation will not only help you to understand your colleagues, but also contribute greatly to your Japanese learning.
Harvey studied Spanish and Japanese at University before working as a freelance translator and English teacher. In 2013, he decided to join a Japanese company.