Working in Japan

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem: Insights into Looking Busy at Work in Japan

Explore Japan’s bustling work culture, where looking busy signals dedication. Understand the cultural nuances and core values of the Japanese workplace to overcome challenges like work-life balance struggles. And, learn how to embrace Japanese culture and overcome cultural differences to form meaningful connections and enjoy your professional journey in Japan.

In the Japanese workplace, looking busy means working hard, and working hard means being a team player. It doesn’t matter whether you are in the office or in a high school in the countryside, looking busy opens the doors for connections and promotions as well as makes for a generally smoother experience. It’s not all bad, though! Team work makes the dream work, right? So, to learn more about the intricate balance of looking busy at work and actually getting work done, read on to dive into the complexities of looking busy at work in Japan.

The Illusion of Productivity

With so many people bustling about in a Japanese workplace, it’s easy to think there is a crisis. But after your first week, you’ll notice that this is the norm: from disorganized desks to furiously typing away, to rushing about and even spending extra time at the printer, looking busy means working hard. And it can even take precedence over actual output.

For example, when I worked at a high school near Kobe, I was busy working on some curriculum for the next semester when another teacher began scolding me for not working hard. When I explained what I was doing, she asked me, “You’re drinking coffee and relaxing!” I realized that all the other teachers were drinking the communal green tea, and that coffee was for break time.

Here are some other common ways people look busy:

  • Staying late
  • Rushing about (see: running)
  • Busily typing while looking concerned
  • Talking hurriedly
  • Printing emails or just generally being busy at the printer
  • Taking a shorter lunch and no breaks
  • Having meetings to talk about when to plan other meetings
  • Running down hallways and making others’ papers fly off desks

Many of these were a culture shock for me because back home, many of them would be seen as either dangerous or simply a waste of time. But when you step into the office, It’s easy to see how perceptions of productivity in Japan are so positive. Unfortunately, all this busyness doesn’t necessarily mean results.

Overtime Ritual

Time also means commitment, so punctuality means arriving at least ten minutes before the scheduled time. This kind of commitment shows not only respect but team spirit and dedication. But, it’s not just showing up early that matters–workloads are often overwhelming and impossible to finish within regular nine-to-five work hours, so overtime is a natural consequence. And with a strong hierarchical culture, if the boss hasn’t gone home yet, junior employees are expected to stay late, even if it’s unpaid. And it’s not just for specific projects–it’s a weekly ritual, in some cases even daily, that while slowly changing, isn’t going away anytime soon.

Meetings as performance

The theatrical nature of meetings, where the focus is on consensus-building is another example of looking busy. Often, multiple meetings will be scheduled with the intent to make a group decision on when to have the next meeting. This happened frequently at the high school I worked at, and a foreign colleague had to explain so that I wouldn’t bring it up in the meeting. As well, presentations during meetings can be long and full of irrelevant data that is meticulously explained. Most of this is unnecessary, but it is a display of how much work has been done, and, like in high school math class, you need to show your work.

Work-Life Balance Dilemma

In Japanese business, it’s generally rude to not look like you’re not hard at work while the rest of the team is trying so hard. Which means a lot of stress to deal with for Japanese and foreign colleagues. With the expectation that the employee is committed to the cause, the balance between work commitments and personal life can be difficult to find. Whether paid or unpaid, overtime is rarely refused, meaning many people leave work around 9 or 10 PM only to start again the next day. Many are too tired from work and just stay at home on the weekends to recover before the next week. Or, in the case of my high school, teachers were expected to “volunteer” to lead a club or sports team which meant working on the weekends as well.

Strategies for Integration

So, how can you blend into this culture? Relationships are key, and communicating with empathy and respect will go a long way. In the case of an ALT, while there is less expectation to work overtime, this can lead to resentment from the Japanese teachers who do not have as much free time. Part of integrating into this culture is communicating well with your coworkers and building strong relationships. Finding the right way to show empathy and support your team while maintaining a good work-life balance for yourself is the goal. Respect, accept, and adapt to the pace of office dynamics by showing up a bit early or looking for ways to do a little extra work.

Another option is to advocate for you and your team if you feel overwhelmed. Due to the hierarchical nature of the culture, most of your coworkers will not speak up, even if they feel the same way. Conversations with your managers about how to better balance the workload are a great opportunity for cultural exchange and to improve the working environment for everyone. And, if you want to keep it culturally relevant, you can bring up kaizen, (making things a little better one step at a time).


By now you should have an idea of what to expect regarding Japanese workplace values and the importance of looking busy at work. I know that these tips would have helped me at the high school and after working there, I had so much empathy and appreciation for my co-teachers.

As you come to understand cultural values, you have the opportunity to learn more about yourself and what cultural values you were brought up in, and when these cultural values clash, it’s an opportunity to grow. If you can manage to look busy while still advocating and understanding the complex interplay of tradition, professionalism, and societal expectations, you can enjoy a better experience in the Japanese working environment. This is all worth a lot more than just the salary.

Find a better job in Japan through Jobs in Japan.

Contact Us

Tokyo Office
C/O Global Village Media
1-7-20-B2 Yaesu, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
[email protected]