Japan’s workplace culture is at a crossroads

In a society where being part of a group has traditionally mattered above all else, Japanese people are coming to demand more choices about the way they live their lives. The needs of the individual and the pursuit of personal happiness have come to matter more.

This profound shift in society is also being felt in the boardrooms of Japan where the conversation has turned to understanding inclusion and empowerment as the keys to the next wave of people power.

‘People power’ itself is not a new concept in Japan. The army of corporate warriors or ‘salarymen’ hitting the streets and trains each morning, ready for yet another day in their lifelong service to the company are the enduring symbol of one of Japan’s not-so-secret weapons.

It’s a model which made Japan into the economic powerhouse it is today. But it’s also a model whose time has been and gone.


Cracks started to appear in the life-long employment system after the “Lost Decade” of the 1990s, with the introduction of an increasingly bigger class of ‘non-permanent employees’.

The ripple effect a decade later of an increasingly large gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ across society in general is noticeable and most likely permanent.

Meanwhile, corporations which needed to repair their balance sheets are now sitting on a lot of cash as a result. That cash needs to be put to work.

So with a rapidly declining population, the Japanese government and corporations alike have realised the key to driving productivity lies once more in their most important asset: the Japanese people.

Today though it’s all of them including women, the disabled, the aged and other minority groups previously marginalised or relegated to the sidelines.

For the average Japanese salaryman, too, the realisation is slowly dawning he probably won’t be able to rely on either the government (with its massive public debt and dwindling taxpayer base) or his employer to look after his interests and those of his family as in days gone by.

Japan’s workplace monoculture has reached a crossroads where it is grappling with new concepts and policies. One size fits all no longer works but patterns of acceptable behaviour have been ingrained for so long most people, particularly in senior positions, find it hard to imagine alternatives.

For a country which has suffered from seriously high death rates due to over work in years gone by (in 2015 there were 1456 claims for compensation, a record high), the buzz around ‘diversity’ and ‘work life balance’ is overdue. Moreover, those demanding more “balance” from their employees are the corporations themselves.

But the subtle force behind a lot of this change is in a labour market where skills are at a premium, people are increasingly exercising more personal choice in their selection of workplace.

Corporations need to attract and retain women before and after pregnancy; now they are required by law to publish information on all of the support measures they have in place, including the possibility for teleworking.


In a work culture which has relied very much on face-to-face communication, the relatively recent introduction of teleworking in Japan is already proving a challenge to the long-established bastions of office politics and power.

Moreover, as the baby boomer generation gets set to retire, one of the biggest corporate risks for many large companies in Japan is ‘eldercare’.

Unable to juggle their professional responsibilities with a need to care for ailing parents, more and more senior managers are suddenly submitting their resignations, unable to imagine a scenario where they might work less than 14 hours a day.

I recently conducted a seminar on work culture transformation for a major Japanese supermarket chain where the average age of employees is 48. Top management are acutely aware of the need for a mindset shift which will result in them retaining staff at risk with eldercare, whilst helping them to deal with their personal circumstances, and encouraging them to realise they can still offer value at work in a different way.

At the other end of the spectrum, the challenge is to bridge the communication gap with the Millennial Generation. Tech savvy and linguistically skilled, they share values and aspirations which are increasingly at odds with those who have gone before them.

PwC survey of Millennials across 75 countries in 2011 noted 52 per cent of these professionals in Japan expected to change jobs within two years. No longer interested in lifetime employment, they are firmly taking control of and responsibility for their own career development.

In Japan responsibility will always feature front and centre. But hopes, dreams and families matter the world over; and Japanese people are slowly coming to embrace the Power of Personal Choice.


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In an effort to inspire a new take on ‘the way things have always been done’ in Japan, I launched the 30 Minute Challenge, a practical tool for reconsidering subconscious bias both in the workplace and at home.

It can be difficult to recognise the Power of the Personal Choices we’ve made they can be so ingrained in our thinking we don’t even know we’re making them.

The 30 Minute Challenge offers a fresh perspective on the tasks others do for us day in, day out, so we no longer take their choices for granted. It provides us with a chance to consider whether we are really exercising the power of our own Personal Choice.

Try 30 minutes where you ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’. Do their job, or whatever else they are supposed to be doing.  It doesn’t matter who. Your wife, your partner, your neighbour, your child, or your colleague.

Anyone who’s ever tried this will know it can be pretty confronting. After all, if even for 30 minutes, it comes with a whole new set of responsibilities.

The person whose shoes you’ve just “stepped into” gets to exercise, without any reservation or judgment, some form of personal choice. For 30 Minutes.

So while you might suddenly find yourself doing the ironing or giving the children a bath, your wife or partner might be doing anything from going shopping, to reading a book, to studying or even doing nothing at all.

As long as they are exercising the power of personal choice. Whilst this might be more difficult it the workplace, and requires buy-in from management, it’s certainly not impossible.

Bosses can gain rare insight into real issues by doing the job of one their staff for just 30 minutes - or use the 30 Minute Challenge as a way to get a reluctant team member to try something new.

Culture is dictated by how we think and feel. A small but constant exposure to the challenges others around us face, combined with the chance to exercise personal freedom to choose, is all we need to change our mindset.

So take the 30 Minute Challenge.

Elizabeth Masamune is a former Senior Trade Commissioner for Austrade in North Asia. She is currently Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan Inc, specialising in building capability in cultural intelligence and supporting women in Asian business.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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