The obvious cultural differences like bowing instead of shaking hands are no doubt interesting, but it’s the subtle, unspoken, underlying values and norms that we each take for granted that, once suddenly swept from under our feet, lead to culture shock.
Even in our own countries, when we start working as professionals for the first time, we may go through a kind of “workplace culture shock.” You might be thinking you’ll just get to know the culture as you work, but the more you understand now the easier things will be for you later on.
Working as a Professional in Japan: Norms and Expectations
Most countries prohibit non-resident foreigners from becoming civil servants, especially public teachers; therefore, the JET Program is somewhat unique in that its participants are considered Japanese civil servants. However, with privilege comes responsibility. Like most countries, Japan is no different in holding higher standards for its civil servants and you should anticipate those standards being applied to you. As professionals, your appearance and behavior will be under higher scrutiny.
When you play the game, you have to look the part. Depending on your workplace, dress codes range from business formal to casual, so please check with your contracting organization or predecessor. Everyone will need at least one formal suit which you will wear at staff introductions, professional development conferences, school events, etc.
In academic high schools male teachers usually wear suits or blazers and neckties, and female teachers wear skirts or trousers, blouses/tops, and sweaters. (Blouses/tops should cover the shoulders, and the neckline should be fairly high. That may seem restrictive, but that’s the expectation in Japan.) In non-academic high schools, junior high schools and elementary schools, the dress code can vary from formal to polo-shirts to athletic clothing. Please ask your contracting organization for guidance.
Fitting in at the Japanese Workplace
Now that you’ve got the uniform, you need to play the game. Every culture has its own concept of what is considered polite behavior. Even though you will be granted some leeway as foreigners, that understanding may wear thin if you don’t make an effort to join “polite society” over time. Addressing people respectfully, being a team player, and making an effort to be “sociable” will go a long way in making your work life easier. In addition, although your work hours may be different from your co-workers, your punctuality and work-ethic will directly affect their perception of and relationship to you. (Note: While “being punctual” might be considered being “right on time” in the West, In the East it’s probably more accurate to think of it as being early).
Understanding Cultural Differences
Taking note of some cultural differences will also save you a lot of frustration. Japanese culture isn’t going to change for us, and our frustrations won’t disappear overnight, but understanding the underlying causes will help us cope with our feelings.
Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner’s model of culture can be a useful tool for understanding cultural differences. Each of the 7 dimensions can be thought of as a spectrum. A culture’s values may vary in each dimension depending on the situation (i.e. work vs. home).
- What is more important: rules or relationships?
Just because the JET in 何々市 got to do something, doesn’t mean you may be able to because each situation is treated differently.
- Do we function in a group or as individuals?
Your supervisor must consult with her colleagues and supervisors before making a decision.
- Do we display our emotions?
Remaining calm and detached may be valued more than expressing one’s true feelings publicly.
- How separate do we keep our private and working lives?
There may be no boundary between personal and work life.
- Do we have to prove ourselves to receive status or is it given to us?
Status might be granted based on age rather than how innovative or driven we are.
- Do we do things one at a time or several things at once?
Does it feel like you’re being constantly interrupted and going around in circles without finishing anything? Perhaps it’s just your cultural perspective.
- Do we control our environment or are we controlled by it?
Should we fight for change or just accept that some things are “just the way they are” (shouganai しょうがない)?
There’s nothing wrong with feeling one way or the other for each of these dimensions, but remember that there’s also nothing wrong with another culture having different values. The more objective we can be about these differences, the easier it will be to work through our “shock.”
Given these differences, being pro-active in communicating with your supervisor and colleagues becomes more important than ever. This means you must make an effort to:
- Approach and talk to your supervisor.
- Coordinate schedules (Don’t plan your next vacation without double-checking).
- Collaborate on projects/lesson planning (rather than just doing it your “own way”).
- Attempt to achieve your goals harmoniously rather than aggressively charging forward.