The Meaning of Work in Japan

This posting was written by Roger Hoffmann

It is part of the ongoing series on the Meaning of Work in Different Cultures

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In most Western cultures, the maxim “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is understood to mean that one is motivated to act upon one’s individual needs, e.g. if I need to accomplish something I must actively speak up, make my request known and persevere until I obtain the resources I need to be successful, even if that means confronting other colleagues.

In Japan, a common maxim is “the nail that sticks out will be hammered down”.  In Japanese culture and many other Asian cultures, the group is far more important than the individual.  If you stand out in terms of your opinions or desires, you will be ostracised by the group (family, or work colleagues).  Maintaining an atmosphere of harmony and cooperation is more important than any one individual’s success.  Uniformity of appearance and thought for the greater good of the group is far more important than the needs or desires of any one member.

The Japanese term “wa” 和 is often translated as harmony, or peace, with a connotation of a continuous flow, having no disruptions or breaks.  Within the martial arts, wa is evidenced as the requirement of physical harmony of one’s body and posture and with one’s opponent in order to effectively execute a technique.

In business, wa has come to mean the cohesiveness of the team unit.  Decisions to be made are discussed among the team members one on one, ideas are circulated, feedback solicited informally to ensure no feelings will be hurt, no egos offended.  Only once a unanimous and unified front has been established, will a meeting be called to rubber stamp the decision.  All attendees will already know the issue and be in agreement.  A meeting is not a place for disagreement, argument or debate since that would endanger the wa of the group.

As important as it is to obtain consensus and a solution, this must not come at the expense of disturbing the peace.  For impatient Westerners, the process can appear to be a waste of time, however when decisions are made with wa in mind, they tend to stick and all stakeholders become true supporters instead of simply paying lip service to the decision.

Meaning of Work in Japan:  For the group: In harmony.

Roger Hoffmann lived and worked in Osaka, Japan from 1994 to 2000.  Teaching business English at Berlitz provided him with many opportunities to discuss business and culture with Japanese businessmen and women.  He also taught at a public senior high school for 5 years, giving him insight into how the educational system in Japan operates.  Roger is a student of the Japanese martial art of Aikido, currently holding a rank of first degree black belt.  He is also an avid student of the ancient board game of Go, which has many strategic principles that are applicable to business and life in general.  Roger currently resides in the Los Angeles area where he works in the technology industry.

What is the meaning of work in your culture?


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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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3 Responses to The Meaning of Work in Japan

  1. Jacqueline says:

    Love this blog. Please say more regarding work ethic in education compared with Japan.

    • Roger says:

      Hi Jacqueline. There’s a lot that could be said on this subject, however I think it’s safe to say that the Japanese people in general outwork the U.S. by a huge margin. More days at school, longer school days, more dedication to extra-curricular activities that go late into the night, e.g. “juku” (homework / study clubs) and other activities that are cultural or sporting. I met some incredibly dedicated and hard working teachers, and a few that were a little closer to lazy on the work ethic continuum.

  2. Sultan says:

    After greeting, please say more information about the term Work in Japan
    I mean what is meaning work in Japan

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