How do Japanese employees work

Mr. Hiromasa Suzuki
Emeritus Professor, Waseda University
Associated researcher at IDHE-ENS-Cachan, France Fellow Researcher


Japanese employees seem to enjoy a reputation of being hard workers but taking little initiative on their own. This stereotype is neither completely false nor true. From my casual experiences in France and in the United States, I would argue that, outside the particular employment practice of long-term employment,  the following  three features characterise the way how Japanese employees work: team work, long working time and a gender-based division of work. Team work has less to do with cultural factors than practical work organization. In Japanese enterprises, tasks to be done are generally allocated to a unit, instead of all tasks already divided into individual posts by the production engineers as practiced in Western countries. Be it in the manufacturing or in the services, tasks are given to a team and the chief of the unit will allocate tasks to individual workers, taking into account each member’s experience and aptitude. The advantage of this fuzzy organization is its possibility of adjustment in the workplace. A speaking example is a regular morning meeting in which the chief of the team discusses the daily target before giving instructions to each member. For the development of a new product, it is usual to form a team of engineers, marketing specialists and experienced production workers in order to discuss in detail the technical possibilities and difficulties. The strength of the teamwork resides in the possibility of sharing knowledge among its members and accumulating an organizational knowledge. The teamwork may well become very efficient when a key person is absent for any reason, since other members know roughly the work to do and may replace him in a short time.


This teamwork is one of the reasons why Japanese employees stay a long time in the working place. In teamwork, all members feel responsible of any delay or backlog. If a member is slow to finish the daily target, other members are likely to stay at work in order to help him. The very fact that work is not allocated on an individual basis is a handicap for the efficient time management of individual employees.


Finally, gender-based division is still alive in Japanese enterprises. While educated female employees have an equal access to career employment, suspicion of their interruption of career is still in the mind of most managers. It is rare, therefore, that female employees are promoted to important management positions. In actual fact, many female employees quit the labour market after the birth of their first child and come back to the labour market as non-regular workers, when their children attain the schooling age. In this sense, the gender division of work remains in Japanese enterprises.  

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