Japanese Office Adventures, Part I

I work in a Japanese office, at the Central Education Office under my city’s Board of Education (BOE).

Immediately I begin to notice the differences between my office here in Japan and my previous office in America. I took a few classes at Lewis and Clark where we examined the Japanese office culture, which I am now beginning to experience first-hand! It has only just begun. (I am an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), but I work mainly in the office during the summer while school is not in session.)

First of all, my office is inside a larger office building that hosts other prefectural offices. There is no central air or heating, so the windows are open and floor fans are keeping air circulating. I can tell there will be no taking-off of jackets this winter. There are three rooms, one leading to the next. The copy/office supply room is more like a corridor with one copier, a supply cabinet, and a set of lockers for each employee. It is situated between the big main room and the Big Boss’ office.

The Big Boss is called Shocho | 所長 in Japanese. I don’t see him too often, except when he is leaving or entering, or coming to call someone into his office. Since he is the highest-up, everyone uses their best manners with him. He has a kind face and a nice smile. He made an effort to come talk to me about Hirosaki and The Tale of Genji, since he had heard I had read it. I hope he likes me, because if anything, it would be good to have the shocho like me.

Office view

View from the corner

In the main room, there are no cubicles. There are only rectangular desks lined up lengthwise next to one another. The layout is very Japanese, with the Number Two boss and two managers situated at the head of the staff desks. It’s all about the hierarchy and I am most definitely at the bottom of the food chain.

The main room is divided into the two sections. I am, of course, part of the Education Division. The other group of desks belong to the General Affairs Division. My supervisor tells me that it is the “Paperwork section”, because… you guessed it, they handle the paperwork. How on earth do they not drown in all this paper? My office in the US had the benefit of a storage area but here the records are color-coded, divided, and stored into filing cabinets and onto bookshelves. Heaven only knows how to find something that you are looking for.

Like I said, how the heck do they know where everything is?

Number Two is called the Ji-cho | 次長. He governs the main room, sitting in between the two sections. I have not talked to him much, but I can already see that he works very hard. He must have quite a job. If the Big Boss is the President, then Number Two must be the VP.

A bit about greetings. Greetings (aisatsu | あいさつ) are very important in Japanese language, especially when used in a professional working environment. When I enter the office in the morning, I greet everyone with an ohayou gozaimasu | おはようございます. We do not have designated break times, so when you need to leave for a reason other than going to the bathroom or using your cell phone, you must ask your boss. Cell phone use (texting and calling) is generally not permitted in the office. When you leave for the day, you need to say o-saki ni shitsurei-shimasu | お先に失礼します. By saying this, you are apologizing for leaving earlier than your colleagues (a little rude). (Oh, and the sho-cho does not have to say this when he leaves before anyone else. He is above it, I suppose.) The common response to this is o-tsukare-sama deshita | お疲れ様でした, which is literally saying “You must be tired.” It’s like saying that you worked hard and acknowledging your hard work. Now.. whether or not they think I worked hard is another matter, but that’s at least the canned response.

My point of view

View from my desk. Gmail ahoy!

At my desk’s mirror opposite in the Paperwork Division sit the “do-it-alls.” They are, like me, on the lower end of the totem pole. These women are young, unmarried, 20-somethings. They have their duties for the Paperwork Division, but also have another host of daily and weekly routines. These girls are in charge of turning off and on the lights, accepting deliveries, answering calls, making copies, taking out the trash, doing the dishes, general housekeeping, and whatever their superior asks them to do. I feel kind of bad handing them my tea cup to wash, but… that’s the way things go.

On my first day of work, my supervisor picked me up and gave me a ride. Work starts at 8:15am and ends at 4:15pm for me (Japanese employees work until 5pm). At precisely 9pm, we all gathered into Big Boss’ office, which had been set up into four rows of chairs. The first row was comprised of only two chairs, one of which was my spot. Talk about being put on the spot! Big Boss gave a speech and then I was called to make a speech. My supervisor helped when my Japanese failed me. It suddenly got very warm in that room without air conditioning.  But I survived!

The next day, my first full day of work, was different because there was no one from the Education section present… except for me. And there were three people from the Paperwork section. This is because everyone else was on a day-business-trip-conference-thing. I mostly worked on a couple of my assignments (reports) and used the internet to do some research. I went to Lawson (a convenience store) to grab lunch and then returned to my desk. I didn’t leave the office until about 4:45pm, when I walked back home. I took the long way and meandered a bit, taking an hour to get to my apartment. At least, it seemed like an hour… It always seems longer when you are walking in and breaking in fancy shoes.

My first enkai | 宴会 was on Friday night. Enkai translates to “banquet”, but they’re essentially parties. They are usually more important than simple get-togethers. Office members go to enkais after work to unwind after a stressful day or week. There is no time for me to socialize during the working hours, so I might get to know my co-workers better at enkais. The enkai environment “greases the wheels of social communication in Japanese culture.”

My supervisor picked me up at 6:30pm so we could get there a little early. It was held at SAWAYA, a restaurant downtown. There was a flat fee of 4000 yen, which covered food and drinks for two hours. I was not required to pay, though, probably because I was the guest of honor and it was “my” party. My office reserved a tatami mat room for all of us (there were about 14 men… plus me) and I was given the honorable seat in the center of the table…. next to Big Boss.

The seating was arranged prior to my arrival, complete with name cards at each spot. Also in front of each seat was an agenda of how the evening would go, who would speak when, when we would toast, and when we would socialize. It was a mix between an opening ceremony and a welcome party. Big Boss spoke first to welcome me to the office and Hirosaki, then we all kampai-ed (“cheers”-ed). Then we ate and drank a bit, before I was required to give a speech much like the one I had given on my first day. After that, we were free to eat and talk as much as we liked.

The Agenda

I was really complimented because my supervisor had taken the time to call and ask for a vegetable-adjustment to the normally meat-laden menu. It was definitely noticeable. All of the veggies were delicious! I passed over the pieces of meat that were there, but I did try the scallop sashimi and the baked fish. I didn’t enjoy them, but at least I can say that I’ve tried scallop sashimi. Seafood is a big deal around here in Aomori and Hokkaido. I know it’s a big deal in Japan as a whole, but it seems like even more of a staple than in Tokyo.

The Meal

The conversations my coworkers and I had went surprisingly well! I tried to use as much Japanese as possible. They introduced me to the Japanese teacher’s consultant, who was an expert on The Tale of Genji. Word quickly spread that I had studied the Tale of Genji at Waseda University (in Tokyo), so that gave me instant brownie point with everyone. We also talked about my love for traditional Japanese food and shojin ryouri | 精進料理 (like vegetarian monk’s food). There are two men there with the last name of Narita, so I made a joke that they owned the airport. They laughed, but when I asked where Haneda-san was, that really got them going. (Haneda is the other airport in Tokyo.) My cheeks really started to ache (from laughing/smiling) when I showed them my old cell phone with the picture of Asako and I when we went to Kyoto and dressed up like maiko | 舞妓. (Maiko are young girls training/apprenticing to be geisha, but haven’t “graduated” yet. Maiko wear the most beautiful, elaborate outfits, I feel.) My supervisor looked like he was going to bust his gut from laughing when the others joined in and Narita-san #2 suggested that we all dress up like maiko at the year-end party (bounen-kai | 忘年会). Yes, all the men too.

As my supervisor drove me home, he told me that I was a hit at the party. He felt that even though I was in a room full of men, I looked comfortable and held my own. I even managed to make a few jokes in a language that was not my own. Success!! Your workplace and relationship with your coworkers can make or break your stay here, so I feel like I’m off to a great start.


4 Comments to “Japanese Office Adventures, Part I”

  1. Yikes! No central heating even in Aomori? Be sure to bundle up!
    I would be pretty uncomfortable in a room full of men, but luckily there are a fair share of women on my staff at the kencho, the inside of which looks remarkably similar to your office, by the way. Ha!
    Keep on truckin! *kisses*

  2. Well done, Stacy! I know it’s a lot to deal with all at once, but you appear to be handling it beautifully (and I predict you may even figure out the filing system;-) Well done!

  3. I love getting a sense of your environment and the culture. You are courageous! And extremely competent with the language if you were able to make jokes that even the native speakers enjoyed! Thanks for sharing your first impressions. Kampai!!


  4. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. What experiences! (I think your first purchase, after your bike, should be an electric fan.) KEEP ‘EM COMING!

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