Is culture shock the same for both foreign men and women in Japan?

Nov 26, 2020

Last week, a company hired me to do a training on “Women in Japan”. They asked me to talk about this topic because foreign women in their company had expressed challenges related to culture shock and gender. 

It made me culture shock the same for both foreign men and women who come to Japan? 

If it is the same, then why do some women assume that common cultural frustrations are gender-related? 

And if the experiences are different, what would those specific experiences be?

When I thought back to conversations that I’ve had with both men and women through coaching, I found that the majority of the topics they express frustration about are the same: communication, nuances, meeting styles, process speed, and feeling their Japanese peers lack confidence. 

Oh, and a deep, deep need for feedback. 

But...there are definitely some differences, for sure.

Here are the slight differences that I hear from men and women:

Men: “I wish someone would just give me feedback if I’m making cultural mistakes!”

Women: “I wish I could get some feedback if I’m making cultural mistakes, but the women just turn a blind eye!”

Men: “I worry that I might not get a promotion simply because I’m not Japanese.”

Women: “I worry that I might not get a promotion because I’m a woman.”

Men: “I find it harder to get to know Japanese men over 50, but they’ve been friendly and supportive of my endeavors so far.”

Women: “It’s hard to engage with Japanese men over 50 at all. I feel a passive resistance from them.”

So there are a few observances I’ve pulled out from what I hear:

  1. It’s hard for anyone to connect with Japanese men in senior positions, but opportunities to look like a peer in their eyes seem more dire for women. 
  2. Foreign women feel there’s a lack of this “global girl code” in Japan in which women look out for each other. 
  3. Many foreign women have shifted from working in environments where there are women in leadership positions to a Japanese environment where female role models and leaders are close to nil. 

If you think about it, being a professional foreign woman in Japan is kind of a nerve-racking position to be in. Every day a woman goes to work is another day she will question if working in Japan is best for her career. 

Anyway, let’s fast forward to the training I did.

After we talked about culture shock, I asked the Japanese women to share two things: 

  1. What they felt they were raised to believe about women, and 
  2. What they feel is the general attitude towards the role of being a woman in a company. 

Here’s what Japanese women said that everyone found particularly fascinating:

“I feel like my role as a woman at nomikais (drinking with colleagues) is to listen to male bosses and pour drinks. Kind of like a hostess.”

“Growing up, I was always told that I need to be cute. I was told not to show my teeth when I laugh, and to laugh quietly.”

“When I was going to go to university, my grandfather said I should stay with the family so that my aunt could cook for me. He doesn’t seem to know how much my aunt would have hated that.”

“I was always told that I need to be ladylike. I felt a lot of pressure to focus on polite language and fashion.”

“I feel like I’m a support cushion to male executives when I’m in meetings.”

“I think my managers assume that I’m going to have a child and leave the company. Whether I have one or not, there isn’t a lot of support for my career progression.”

The cultural barrier to gender equality in the workplace in Japan is this: The acceptance of people being assertive

Women want to rise. They want support. They want to say what’s on their minds. But they feel like they can’t. 

Actually, men find it hard to speak up as well, which makes it hard for them to support women. 

There are two concepts that Japanese people are taught from a very young age - women, especially. That that’s enryo and kenson

Enryo is the concept of self-restraint. Avoiding offers that are made as a way of being polite. 

Kenson is the act of humility. Putting on an act of devaluing yourself to show humbleness. 

These two concepts are key reasons why foreigners assume that Japanese people lack confidence. 

But ironically, whether they’re confident on the inside or not, the acts in themselves prevent Japanese people from being assertive. 

I just realized after writing all of this that I don’t have a specific conclusion, ha! But I think there are a lot of interesting elements that you can pull from these points. 

The one thing I know for sure is that leaders have to make an extra effort to send a clear message to their subordinates that they are supportive of career progression and work-life balance, because the requests won’t come from the bottom up. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything that’s come up for you from reading this. Feel free to leave a comment. 


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