Foreign woman working in Japan

Today I was quoted in the Financial Times in an article on foreign women’s experience working in Japan, my first time being quoted in a newspaper ever. It unfortunately is not on the FT site so I will include a scan of it here.

Somehow I have also made it onto the Tokyo speaking circuit on this topic. I recently spoke at the Career Seminar organized by FEW (Foreign Executive Women), next week I will speak at the Tokyo American Club, and later in the month for JET participants.
For those of you who don’t know I work for a German bank in Tokyo. I now work part time from home, but was full time onsite my first year here. I certainly had my ups and downs, but I believe that most of the challenges I faced had more to do with being foreign / cultural barriers than with being a woman. I get the impression that foreign women can succeed in the workplace in Japan because they are viewed as foreign instead of as women. (The point I am quoted on in the FT).

If I may, I impart the following advice from very hard-learned lessons working in Japan. I wish someone had told me this:

  • Read between the lines: when someone says, “it’s difficult” it means, “it’s impossible.” Yes also usually mean no.
  • It’s a waste of time to ask people to brainstorm new ideas.
  • Lying is okay if it is done for the purpose of saving face.
  • Watch your back, ratting someone out is perfectly acceptable.
  • Make sure you have tons of business cards. Treat other peoples business cards as delicately as a newborn baby.
  • Don’t expect anyone to take ownership, just tell the exactly what you want them to do and you will be far more pleased with the results.
  • People don’t like to make decisions. Try asking which option is better and you might get an answer.
  • Say your sorry all the time even if your not. Say thank you and excuse me even more often, it will make your life easier.
  • If you are willing to lead others will willingly follow. Be warned if one of them then f#cks something up it is your fault.
  • As a foreigner the same rules don’t apply to you. As long as you are polite about it you can get away with lots.


Here’s a picture of me at work. I had a cute little stuffed animal on my computer. My co-worked in the back had one too. All the girls did, even women in their 30’s!

6 thoughts on “Foreign woman working in Japan

  1. i have heard that most japanese businessmen are so sexist that they make mike tyson look normal… the porno comics convinced me. i get so turned off thinking about their men that it makes me not want to go there.

  2. catgrrl – not all Japanese men are sexist – even in Japanese companies. Although my former boss was a complete loser – I worked with some really great older Jpanese guys – the systems manager would often explain programming bits and pieces with me, and he and one of the other guys and I would often brainstorm ideas and discuss things together.
    My beer drinking buddy in the company was a Japanese guy in his 40’s – when I was having problems in the company they supported me. Interestingly enough we all quit the company at about the same time…
    A company I frequently do contract work for now dotes on me and my opinions are always valued.
    It really depends on the people you are working with.
    On a more personal level – th J-boys I know are in no way sexist or into porno comics.
    While I’m not denying there are those typical sexist salarymen out there – not all men here are like that. (^^)

  3. gomichild – thanks for that quick reply of just about exactly the same thing I have to say.
    catgrrl – I hope my posts have not been implying that I think Japanese men are sexist. I dont. As a western woman I was either idolized or feared by most of the Japanese businessmen, but never treated in a sexist way. Occasionally I became friends with them. One ultra conservative Japanese man liked me so much I he asked me to call him by his first name, a really big deal in Japan. For work related issue this guy took my word as gospel.
    I am sure that Japanese women have a different experience, but my observations were that I dont think Japanese women are looked down on in the workplace, or at least no more so than in any western country. I get the impression that no job is looked down on in Japan. The Office Ladies have their role/place and everyone takes their work fairly seriously. At my company we also had a number of female Japanese equity analysts. In this professional level job, I dont believe they were treated differently than their male peers.

  4. I’ve been living and working in Japan for 12 years and I say your advice is so on the mark!
    One more thing I’d add– Always dress the part. (but that’s the part I hate so I’m moving back to NH!)

  5. I agree. I was only in Japan for 3 months, but I found that men in general (most, not all) were very sexist, expecting to be waited on hand and foot by women.

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