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How to Express Your Individuality and Maintain Harmony in a Japanese Company

Foreign professionals in Japan often struggle to communicate new, diverse ideas and opinions to Japanese colleagues in a corporate world that prioritizes harmony and consensus. Modern Japanese companies that operate globally recognize the importance of employing a diverse workforce. However, according to a survey featured in the Nikkei Asian Review, few companies have been able to create an environment that fosters diversity in culture and thought. Therefore, it’s important to remember that for the foreseeable future, the onus is on you to figure out how to add value to your employer while maintaining a harmonious work environment.

The best advice I’ve encountered for navigating this delicate situation comes from an interview I conducted several years ago. In my conversation with Yoko Kuroda, outside director for the Global Human Resource Career Support Association (GHCA), I asked how non-Japanese employees can express their individuality to their Japanese colleagues. Her concise answer has been my guiding light when it comes to working with a variety of Japanese companies as a communications consultant.

According to Kuroda, “Once you’ve got the basics down, you can start to differentiate your behavior on a case-by-case basis, using your judgment. But I have to reiterate, that understanding Japanese work and cultural norms is a critical first step.”

Kuroda points out that learning and living according to Japanese cultural norms will generate appreciation from your colleagues, which will make them more receptive to hearing your unique ideas and opinions. But first, you must demonstrate your ability to adapt to a Japanese workplace. “A good way to think of all of this is with the famous quote commonly associated with Charles Darwin: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.’”

When joining a Japanese company, it can be difficult to refrain from immediately sharing your unique perspectives on company procedures, products, and services. However, Kuroda’s advice applies to almost any big career move, whether you work in Japan or your home country. Every company, regardless of nationality, has a unique corporate culture that employees have to learn. Wherever you decide to work, it’s a good idea to adapt to your new company’s corporate culture before shaking things up. How should new ideas be presented? How strict is the hierarchy and who can you bring your ideas to? This is just a sampling of the questions that you should consider.

When it comes to working for a Japanese company, expect this process to go deeper and take longer. After all, you not only have to adapt to a corporate culture but also a national one. Listen, observe, and demonstrate that you understand your new environment. Gain appreciation from your colleagues. Then, voice your opinions and ideas in an environment that has been primed to truly consider what you have to say.

Originally from California, I've been living and working in Japan, now my second home, since 2009. My work as a communications consultant lends a unique perspective to my writing, and I often explore the business behind Japan’s beauty. When I’m not working, you can find me hunched over a screen reviewing kanji flashcards in my never-ending quest to master the Japanese language.