My first job out of college was teaching English in Japan (2001-2002) and it was absolutely the best thing I could have done with that time. Out of all the jobs I’ve had, other than self-employment, teaching English in Japan is the one job that I would most strongly recommend to others.
Living in Japan was a yearlong, fully immersive learning experience on every possible level. More than a job, it was an adventure. Even though it’s been 10 years, I still think back on my time in Japan very often, and a lot of the lessons from that time still resonate with me.
One of the most memorable experiences I had in Japan was seeing the way that small businesses operated there. This gave me a lot of insights into Japanese business culture, and taught me a lot about America as well.
Here were some of the things that really impressed me about small businesses in Japan:
- Diligent, earnest work ethic: In Japan, people are expected to go the extra mile, every day, in their jobs and businesses. You see people mopping floors late at night, sweeping the office after work, showing up early and staying late. People might not love every minute of their jobs, but they don’t skulk or shirk or complain. Keeping up a positive attitude and maintaining appearances is a big part of succeeding in small business in Japan.
- Pride, dignity and purpose in work: People in Japan tend to identify strongly with their jobs and their businesses. Even if you run a small ramen noodle shop or a six-seat sushi restaurant, even if your business is never going to “grow,” that’s OK. In Japan, your small business, however humble, is your craft and your livelihood. You don’t see any ambivalence in Japan. Whether people are running a restaurant or a store or a mechanic’s shop, they’re doing it 110%.
- Social aspects of work and business: People in Japan tend to work long hours, so they often socialize with colleagues from work. Neighborhood restaurants and taverns are major gathering places; most people don’t entertain much at home because houses in Japan are small, so instead of hosting a dinner party they get together for dinner and drinks after work. There’s not as much separation between “work” and “life” in Japanese business culture. And of course, sometimes this is not healthy – but in Japan there is a lot of integration between people’s work lives and personal lives. Many small business owners in the U.S. live like this as well. As an entrepreneur, you’re always thinking about work, you almost always do something work-related every day (of course, sometimes you need to get away and go off the grid, but for the most part, this is OK as long as you’re getting energy from the work).
- Teamwork: Japan is a collectivist culture that highly values teamwork, so most success stories and “shining examples” are about great teams, instead of great individuals. For example, when I lived in Japan there was a show on TV called “Project X” that spotlighted some great success stories from Japanese companies that had created new inventions or achieved new engineering innovations. In America, that kind of show would typically focus on some individual breakthrough or sole “creative genius.” A lot of U.S. companies of all sizes could learn from Japan in how to do a better job of creating real, genuine teamwork. In America we talk a lot about teamwork but it’s not always a reality.
Of course, there are certain things that are particular to Japan and Japanese culture that would not work as well in the U.S. (and vice versa). But overall, I really learned a lot from my time in Japan and there were many things about Japan that I greatly admired. As small business owners, I hope we can all think differently about our own business challenges by considering the context and perspectives of a different culture and place.
Have you traveled or lived in other countries? What did you learn from those experiences, and how have those experiences helped you as an entrepreneur?
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