Why Japanese workplaces are not up to global standards

By Tomoko Arima, Kyodo

Posted at May 03 2014 02:00 PM | Updated as of May 03 2014 10:00 PM

Men walk past electronic boards showing in Tokyo. Photo by Toru Hanai, Reuters

TOKYO - In the spring of 2012, a major Japanese information technology company took a young Iranian man onto its payroll, supposedly a worthy example of a new Japan embracing the wave of globalization.

But the man soon discovered in his office that he was in the old Japan, where working long hours, regardless of what the worker is doing, is a badge of honor, quite literally in this case.

"When I left the office on time after finishing my work for the day, I was rebuked for not working hard enough and was told to stay longer," the 26-year-old man said on condition of anonymity. "The people who worked until late at night, not the people who produced results, received employee commendation awards."

Another thing that put him off -- he quit the company a year or so later -- was the sense that Japanese business leaders are not taken to task for failing to deliver.

To cash in on the growth of China, India and other emerging countries, Japanese companies are stepping up efforts to hire people who have inside knowledge of local markets, reaching out for talent across national borders. Technology companies are no exception to the trend of cross-border talent hunting as they try to survive cutthroat international competition.

A lack of holidays is a popular source of grumbling among foreign expatriates working for Japanese companies. Vakkhova Liudmila, a 26-year-old Russian woman at major trading company Marubeni Corp., takes a week off when she returns to her home town, but three days are consumed by travel. "I have only three or four days to enjoy my time back at home. Two weeks off would be better," she says.

Of course, working in a Japanese office can be a pleasant or even delightful experience. Harshad Maral, an Indian engineer who was hired by Sony Corp. in 2010, is a Sony aficionado whose enthusiasm for the company shames even his Japanese colleagues. He has been fascinated by Sony's commitment to innovation since he read a book written by Akio Morita, the company's iconic co-founder, while studying at university.

"I'm happy to be able to work in the company's head office, where creative work and core operations are concentrated," he says.

In 2011, Sony introduced a fast-track training program for entry-level foreign workers at its offices in Asia and the Middle East, aiming to foster management skills quickly. This is an attempt to give foreign workers higher motivation by providing the chance to move up the career ladder without being held back by the traditional Japanese system of promotion.

Marnith Peng, a 28-year-old Taiwanese, joined electronics giant Hitachi Ltd. last November after graduating from the National University of Singapore. Peng says he was surprised by the friendly atmosphere of the company's office. "I have many English-speaking colleagues and they are ready to support me when I need help."

Hitachi started recruiting engineering-degree students on the campuses of top-notch universities in Asia. But the turnover rate among foreign engineers is high, as culture and lifestyle differences seem to make the Japanese workplace a stressful environment, according to the company.

"We have more to do if we are to make the workplace more comfortable for foreign employees," said Naohiko Tamiya, a Hitachi official responsible for overseeing personnel management affairs.

Opening the door widely to foreign workers, as well as giving women more working opportunities, is a national challenge for Japan --- as advocated by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe under its growth strategy -- as the aging society and shrinking population continue to curtail the ranks of working-age Japanese.

According to a survey conducted by Recruit Career Co. on companies employing five or more workers and hiring new workers, around 20 percent hired at least one foreigner as an entry-level worker in 2014. Next year, around 30 percent are planning to do so.

Tamiya acknowledges that to compete successfully in the global market, Hitachi must change its traditional management approach.

"If decision making is left entirely to Japanese male executives, we cannot survive the competition. We want to reflect the voices of foreign people as well as women," Tamiya said.