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The Challenges of a Foreign Worker in Japan

In my many years of living and working in Japan, you can bet that I have experienced all types of imaginable highs and lows as one of the country’s foreign workers.

There are days when I feel like I’m on top of the world and living my best life. During days like this, everything’s going perfectly: my hair looks awesome, my shirt looks neat, I arrive at the office on time, I finish my tasks ahead of schedule, and I manage to win a couple of games on my computer’s solitaire application. Moments like this make me feel like I’m unstoppable.

There are also times when I just feel like giving up, as nothing’s going my way. I look awful, the weather’s terrible, the train is a tad late, and I can’t seem to get any work done. And to add insult to injury, I go 0 for 10 on solitaire (the last one is what really upsets me). These are the days I seek solitude and prefer to stay in for the rest of the day.

But regardless of what type of day it is, there are recurring obstacles that foreign workers like me will likely face and experience during our employment in the Land of the Rising Sun. In this article, we’ll discuss the challenges of being a foreign worker in Japan.

Long Working Hours

It’s no secret that Japan is known throughout the world as a hardworking country. In the past, the nation’s workforce has had some ridiculous records of working hours. The country’s hardworking culture and mentality have led to hundreds of workers dying due to karoshi or dying from overworking.

Even the current Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, is aware of this whole ordeal. Since being inaugurated in 2012, he has made numerous attempts in demanding companies to reduce overtime and increase compensation for workers.

But despite the government’s efforts, a lot hasn’t changed. Long hours are still the norm in Japan as the decades-old practice is deeply embedded in Japanese culture.

From time to time, I see some foreigners sleeping inside the train out of exhaustion. But the worst thing I normally see is Japanese nationals sleeping on random staircases on their way home, unable to continue, after working their hearts out.

Seniority and Hierarchy

Aside from giving importance to hard work, Japanese companies also value their employees’ loyalty and commitment. Based on experience, seniority and the hierarchy system should always be observed within the company at all times.

I vividly remember an interaction with a fellow foreign co-worker early on in my career. While having drinks at a bar, he shared that the hierarchy system is the most vital part of any company.

He told me that if I work hard enough, impress the higher-ups, and be passionate about my job, I’ll have a great career and earn a promotion in due course. He was hoping to see the fruits of his perseverance and enthusiasm for the company.

Lo and behold, 10 months later, he would get promoted to a higher position. I was so proud of him. His story serves as motivation and reminder for foreign employees like me that we can achieve any goal we set our minds to.

I love how the Japanese are so thoughtful in showing gratitude and respect towards the ones who have paved the way. They have earned the right to be revered by everyone, regardless of skill and ability.

Indirect Communication

Japanese people are known to be some of the most polite and respectful people you will ever work with. A lot of them always think about what’s great for the company, especially in maintaining great relationships in the workplace.

But their principles sometimes present a disadvantage for foreign workers like me. Because they want to keep relationships as smooth and as unblemished as possible, they will sometimes tell you white lies instead of the bitter and much-needed truth.

I remember being unaware of this before, as I was tasked with a department presentation. During the meeting, the seniors were responding to my proposals with “we will look into it” and “we will consider it”. I thought they were being genuine but learned later on that they just didn’t want to disappoint me.

I appreciate them for being thoughtful and considering my feelings, but a simple “no, we want something else” or “we need more” could’ve been better and would’ve saved me some time. Besides, I have tough skin and wouldn’t have been offended by their remarks.

Lack of privacy

You might take a simple office cubicle for granted in your home country but foreign workers here in Japan would undoubtedly do anything just to have a bit of privacy inside the workplace.

Japanese companies usually provide long tables or round office tables for their employees, which means that the only thing that separates you from your neighboring workmate could be a few office supplies.

This issue is correlated with the hierarchy system in Japan. Usually, the seniors are the only ones who get to use the best and most comfortable chairs per table and the executives are the only members of the company who have their own cubicle.

Personally, I would really love to surround my work area with photographs of my family and loved ones but it seems weird since it can be seen by anyone who’ll pass by my side of the table.

Language barrier

Trust me, language barrier issues will more than likely emerge in the life of a foreign worker in Japan. Although my knowledge in the language has improved throughout the years, mainly thanks to the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), I still consider language and communication as huge hurdles for me in my life inside the office.

There are still moments when I would question my abilities to comprehend Japanese, especially when engaging in important conversations with some of my co-workers. My workmates assume that because I have stayed in the country for a long time, it means that I can understand the most intricate words and phrases.

I still don’t know how I managed to survive here in Japan during my first few years, knowing that I had little command of the language back then compared to now.


No matter where you work or which company you work for, challenges and obstacles are always going to be in your way. I used to be bothered by these issues before but it got easier once I accepted that these challenges come with the country’s culture and there was nothing that I could do but embrace it.

Consider these challenges first if ever you want to be one of the thousands of foreign workers here in Japan and evaluate if you can overcome them.

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