Underemployment Blues:
A Challenge for Foreigners in Japanese Companies


"Whenever [foreigners in a Japanese company] are employed for 'ideological' reasons -- to promote company internationalization, to stimulate Japanese staff -- and not for their specific skills or for a specific situation, they are likely to be underemployed." --Robert March

The following is a "slice of life" portrayal of how, as an American woman recently graduated from a Masters Degree program, I tried to make an ideological shift in my Japanese department. I don't recommend my approach for everyone, nor do I suggest that it is the best strategy if you want to remain on good terms with Japanese colleagues. However, I managed to find the balance point within myself between being pushy and being patient. For many foreigners working in Japan, this is one of the most delicate decisions you make.

Important background information: if you're working with a relatively conservative company, expect to spend a considerable amount of time up front without any guidance, feedback or difficult projects. A guiding principle I experienced was the "absorb the atmosphere" approach. This is a good time to observe and learn some of the ropes, but don't expect to be assigned to any projects. I used the time to learn computer skills for producing Japanese and English Language documents, network with the women in the office, and come up with projects for myself that fit my job description. I think the Japanese use this time to observe you as much as you're supposed to observe the office. After a year, they begin to have a plan for where you fit in and how you can benefit the organization. If you're willing to invest a considerable amount of time in this process, go for it. If you're not -- think twice before you go.

* * *

I had been hired to put together an investor relations program for a staid, prestigious Japanese company. In my mind, part of my responsibility included a solid grasp of the current corporate situation so I could explain it to visiting foreign and Japanese securities analysts and investors. As often happens in cross-cultural situations, my expectations did not match my Japanese boss' concept.

Three weeks after I joined the firm I noticed that all the men in my department were gathering around the open conference table. No one had said anything to me, so I did not join them. An hour and a half later the group broke up and the men returned to their desks.

After several discrete questions to the women who prepared the meeting materials, I discovered that every month our department reviewed the current month's performance, addressed questions and described departmental goals. These meetings were summaries of all departmental activities. It seemed to me that participating in these meetings would be crucial to my performance at my job.

The next month the meeting came and went again, without an invitation to come along. When my sempai (mentor) returned to the seat next to mine I asked him if I join them next time. He looked at me blankly and said, "You'd be bored, you don't want to come." And he turned to his paperwork. I pressed ahead, saying that actually, I was interested and would he speak to our section leader about my participating in the next month's meeting. He mumbled that he would.

When the next month came around, and the men started collecting at the conference table and my sempai left without comment to join them, I decided it was time for some multi-cultural learning on all sides. I approached the table uninvited and sat down. The youngest guy, responsible for arranging seating and providing the appropriate number of photocopies, burst into frenetic motion as he scurried off to make more copies and re-arranged the seats. Glances passed between everyone, but noone said a word. I sat, pretending not to notice the discomfort, and leafed through the still-warm photocopies in my hands.

When the senior managers arrived the meeting began. I had my first clear look at departmental workings. I learned we would be issuing a bond in December. Our foreign exchange strategy was outlined. For once I had a sense of the overall structure between the three sections in our department. Many details escaped me, but I learned more about the finance department in that hour than I had during two and a half months of sitting at my desk. When the meeting was over our department leader asked me, "Did you understand any of that?" I replied I'd understood the greater part of it, and found it very helpful. No one else said anything.

Another month went by. At that time I was taking Japanese lessons on Tuesday and Thursday mornings that ran late, so I usually did not make it into the office until after 10 am. I arrived one Thursday morning after my class and discovered the department's monthly meeting was just winding down. Prior to this the meetings had regularly taken place on Wednesday afternoons.

I decided it was time to take a vacation.

* * *

I did go on vacation, and decided it was perhaps best not to push too much. Perhaps by not waiting for an invitation I had stepped on people's feelings and created an untenable disturbance. I returned with renewed good intentions to learn, to observe and to accept the cultural differences.

After a few months, though, my sense of isolation became oppressive, and I again began pressing not just to to go meetings, but also for more responsible work. I circulated project proposals that got lost in the shuffle between desks, or came back with comments like, "Why do we need this?" Months drifted by, and it became increasingly clear to me that there was no on-the-job training waiting for me, nor was there any attempt to include me in projects beyond being an English spell-checker, writing speeches and responding to the President's personal English correspondence. For a while I thought it was just me -- but when I talked to other Western foreigners in the company, male and female alike shared similar feelings of frustration. I discovered that I was fortunate enough to have escaped having to entertain foreign visitors with the President of the Company. Dancing with strangers at a hostess club didn't sound like my idea of a great time.

Then I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. A man who had been on my hiring committee had been out of the office for the past six months due to a liver problem. Near death, he had survived surgery and was back to work on a light schedule until he regained full health. I decided it was time to use the system to my advantage. I knew that as a member of my hiring committee and past manager of my division he was in some way responsible for me. I desperately wanted an ally.

I approached him, greeted him, asked about his health, and sat down. We chatted a bit, then he asked if I wanted to talk. I said yes, and he directed me towards a private office. He sat across from me and was quiet, waiting.

I pressed my damp palms together, and began. "I know you spent time living in America, and I suspect there were times you became quite frustrated and disappointed. I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to handle my situation living in Japan based on your experience."

He smiled, paused a moment, reflecting, then turned and faced me without looking directly into my eyes. "I imagine you have three points of difficulty. One is you don't have enough work to do." He knew! He knew and understood! I felt a wave of relief.

"Second, you have a language barrier. It is difficult still, because you can't read the newspapers quickly or communicate as well as you want to. And finally, living in Tokyo, it is very draining."

I nodded, momentarily unable to speak. We were silent a long time. Then he asked a few questions. Did my section leader include me in meetings? Did my mentor give me work? Had I worked on the issuing of the bonds we had done several months earlier? No, no, no. He reflected some more.

"It is difficult," he stated. "You cannot expect much for awhile, but I will talk to some people, and we will see what happens. The most important thing is for you to be able to look forward to coming to work. Money is not so important, but enjoying work is important."

His words resonated with my thoughts. "Enjoy your weekend, and forget all of this," he directed me, "and we will see what happens."

The next Monday I watched as he entered the Managing Director's office. Ten minutes later my bucho was summoned, and another ten minutes later my boss was called. All four were ensconced for some time, behind a closed door.

After lunch, my boss came to me, and asked if I had a few moments. We spent the next 45 minutes privately discussing the aspects of work I was not happy with, and what we thought could be done to make it better. I explained I didn't understand why I was in the finance section as I still had no work related to finance, and he noted that the work load needed to be switched and spread more evenly between my mentor, another colleague and myself. I explained how helpful the monthly meetings had been and why I wanted to participate in them. He nodded. There was a long silence.

Then he looked at me, and shoved a file of papers in my direction. "This is an English summary of an evaluation of a Korean oil company we are thinking of buying a shareholding in. Please translate it into Japanese. We might need it."

He was looking at me intently, waiting for some sign of resentment, refusal, or bad attitude. I said nothing. He continued, "As for the rest of it, we'll do things on a case-by--case basis."

My approach had fallen far short of what I wanted. I was still caught in the translation treadmill.

* * * *

Robert March notes in his book, Working for a Japanese Company: Insights into the Multicultural Workforce, that "The inertial and conservative character of Japanese organizations . . . is formidable. Junior and middle managers may possess little power to initiate change, but their power to resist the changes required to integrate foreigners is great. Their genius for bureacratic-type punitive behavior . . . warns us that the path ahead for foreign employees in Japanese companies is hazardous."

This can be true. After a year I determined that the effort to survive (not thrive) in this working environment was taking too high a toll. I found many people who, individually, were very supportive and understanding. I discovered each person harbored very individual thoughts, but rarely expressed them in larger gatherings. I learned a tremendous amount about getting along with and understanding Japanese people in the workforce. But the larger context of Japanese firms interested in hiring foreigners only for "kokusaika" or internationalization left no room for a real developmental path. There are, of course, many exceptions to this experience. Obviously many foreigners work in Japanese companies and are highly successful. I would only caution those considering a job in a Japanese company in Japan to be sure that you possess specific skills, and be prepared to invest a significant amount of time there, otherwise you could find yourself in some culturally fascinating, but emotionally disconcerting quicksand.

Copyright 1995, Debra Carlson, WorldWeave Publications.