A postcard from... Japan

Our 'postcard from' series keeps you updated on key HR areas in different countries

Economic briefing

The land of the rising sun has the third largest economy in the world. Between the end of WW2 and the end of the Cold War the country saw a record period of growth, and Japan is now the world’s third largest automobile manufacturer and has the largest electronic goods industry.


It’s no secret that Japan has an ageing society. Around a third (33%) of the Japanese population is aged 60 or older, a result of a low birth rate and high life expectancies.


Men who work for large corporations are nicknamed ‘salarymen’. Typically a salaryman joins one company after leaving education and remains there for his entire career.

Pernille Rudlin spent nearly a decade at Mitsubishi Corporation, including in its international HR development office, and held a global senior role at Fujitsu. Now she works as an EMEA representative for Japan Intercultural Consulting.

“Blue chip companies in Japan still operate on the post-war HR system introduced to deal with a labour shortage, with its three key features of lifetime employment, company unions and seniority-based pay. But the strain is beginning to show,” she says.

The idea of working yourself to death is so prevalent there’s a word for it – Karoshi. Japanese government stats show that 1,456 legal cases were filed over Karoshi in the 12-month period up to March 2015.

Pat Moseley is a UK-based HR manager with Allen & Overy, and was recently seconded to the firm’s Tokyo office. “The Japanese workplace is much more strictly regulated than in the UK, which also contributes to the formality of the workplace,” she says. “Japanese employees know the regulations, expect them to be followed, and tend not to question them. There’s therefore much less leeway for HR to apply flexibility around policy such as leave and sickness.”

Rudlin explains that times are changing though. “[There’s] pressure from the government to cut overtime, and companies such as Hitachi are abolishing seniority-based pay at management level,” she says.

Performance feedback

Moseley says that an appreciation of “the Japanese way” is key when it comes to performance reviews. Giving development feedback is seen as criticising colleagues and very impolite. So when it comes to performance reviews it seems everyone is ‘a hard worker’ and ‘nice person’. “I have learnt to read between the lines,” says Moseley. “Compared with the UK, I spend much more time ‘digging’ and to-ing and fro-ing with staff to bring issues out into the open.

“Also, confiding in HR is not the norm in Japan. I have had to tread carefully and slowly to build relationships of trust.”