Things No One Ever Tells You About Interning in Japan

by Suzanne Bhagan

Ask anyone who’s worked in the land of the rising sun and they’ll tell you why an internship in Japan can seriously change your life. To make it as an intern in Japan, you better brace yourself for some serious culture shock; office etiquette in Japan is very unique and interning in Japan isn’t always as simple as knowing the difference between sakura and sake. Here are some things no one ever tells you about internships in Japan:

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

Ace the Self-Introduction.

No matter how long you’ve been in the country, you’re still expected to formally introduce yourself to anyone you meet for the first time. Hierarchy is very important in Japanese work culture so if you’re meeting a new boss or someone older, bow slowly, but never lower than 45 degrees. Guys, place your hands at your sides, whereas gals, fold your hands in front of you.

Always remember that business cards, or meishi, are super important in Japan, because they’re considered a part of your professional identity. Accept them with both hands, while bowing slightly, and place them in a card holder rather than stuffing them in your pocket, purse, or wallet.

A Japanese woman in her traditional dress

Bowing at introduction and proper business cards are very important.

Mind Your Manners.

It goes without saying, but it really does pay to be be polite in Japan. Since many Japanese offices are open spaces, please use your inside voice and put your cell phone on silent. If you do have to take a call, excuse yourself. And don’t even think of gabbing on your phone on the train; that’s a definite no-no.

Even if you don’t know much Japanese, pull out this word and you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble. If you mess up with the printer or want to ask someone a favor, be sure to start with Sumimasen (which can be translated as “excuse me”), followed by your request. If your colleagues say weird things like “Wow! You can use chopsticks!” or “Wow! You’ve put on weight,” resist the urge to snap and answer as politely as you can.

Don’t Dress Down.

If you want to work in corporate Japan and make the right impression, you better own at least one well-cut, dark-colored, business suit. Interns in Japan, whether local or international, are expected to dress formally. Sloppy hair, face piercings, dirty shoes, tight clothes, loud prints, and too much cleavage, leg, or shoulder should never be seen in uber-conservative Japanese offices.

And, girls, if you must rock a skirt, make sure it’s below the knee and wrap those pins in a pair of good panty hose because that’s what many Japanese women do, even during sweltering summer days. Also, save the glitter eye shadow, clunky jewelry, perfume, and stilettos for the weekend.

If You’re on Time, You’re Late!

You’ve overslept, but you make it to the office just in time. Bad move, little one! Although that may fly at work back home, Japan is extra strict about when you should be at your desk. If you show up on time, you’re not actually on time, you’re late! Instead, try to get to work at least ten to fifteen minutes early. This gives you enough time to greet your coworkers with a gusty Ohayogozaimasu! and freshen up from your cramped train ride or sweaty bike ride.

Don’t even think about getting out early because you have a really hot date. Unless you’re really, really sick or have some kind of life or death situation, you’re expected to stay in the office until the bell tolls. And don’t forget to say Osakinishitsureishimasu, letting everyone else know that you’re truly sorry that you’re leaving and they’re still stuck at the office.

Japanese man and woman 

Learn about what goes and what doesn’t go dress-wise in the workplace

You Have Tons of Program Options.

An internship in Japan isn’t hard to come by, thanks to the help of organizations like Internship in Japan. From business to religious studies to graphic design, internship-foci are as varied as the sushi you’ll eat off the clock. Be sure to read reviews of programs before you settle on one; diligent research can make the difference between sleeping on a tatami mat or a proper bed!

Say Yes!

While interning in Japan, to show everyone what a great intern you are, if you’re not already, you should seriously consider becoming a “yes” person. Your Japanese co-workers will adore you if you say “hai” or “yes” to everything, and if you’re super genki, or energetic about it. Even if you don’t want to do something, don’t let it show. Go the extra mile. If the popular Japanese proverb is true, you definitely don’t want to be the nail that sticks out or you’ll get hammered down!

Yes Doesn’t Always Mean Yes.

One thing that may frustrate you about Japan is that it’s considered impolite to be too direct. Although in Western cultures, you’re encouraged to say what you mean and mean what you say, Japan’s a totally different kettle of fish. Instead, a Japanese person may use subtle language and body language in order to avoid offending you, instead of instantly shooting down your suggestions, so yes doesn’t always mean yes.

Don’t Forget to Bring Omiyage!

If it’s your first time in the office, you should bring some omiyage or souvenirs from home to share with your new coworkers. Omiyage don’t have to be huge or really expensive, but they really go a long way in helping to break the ice. Small gifts like individually wrapped cookies and sweets from your home country are sure winners. You can leave these treats on everyone’s desk, with a little note if you like. Did anyone say, brownie points?

Omiyage, Japanese figurines

Don’t forget the omiyage

Don’t Skip the Office Party.

Enkais are boozy, after-work parties, and they’re essential if you really want to bond with your Japanese work mates. Although there’s an unspoken rule that whatever happens at the enkai stays at the enkai, don’t miss this opportunity to see the funnier and wilder sides of your otherwise straight-laced colleagues. Even if you don’t drink, you should still go. It shows that you’re willing to develop relationships outside of the office.

Once you’re there, circulate the room, and offer to top up your colleagues’ drinks, but never pour one for yourself! Also, when eating from shared plates, use the opposite end of your chopsticks to pick up food, not the end you’ve been slurping on.

If you’re partial to booze and it’s a nomihodai or all-you-can drink affair, please don’t take that as a challenge. Even if you party hard into the wee hours of the morning, you’re still expected to show up at the office the next day, so you’d better not be hungover! Bad, bad move!

If You Get the Slightest Sniffle, Break Out That Face Mask.

If you’ve got a nasty cough or a runny nose, head to the nearest konbini or convenience store for a face mask. Although wearing a white gauze mask may scream “epidemic” in Western cultures, it’s totally acceptable to wear one anywhere in Japan, even in the office. Japanese people get very squeamish if they see you sneezing, coughing, or wiping your snotty nose every second. And if you do have to blow your nose, don’t do it in the office within earshot of everyone. Excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.

Another insider tip: even if you’re not sick, face masks can help hide a pesky pimple or two.

There you have it! With these essential tips, you’re bound to make a great impression as an intern in Japan, so you can spend less time feeling like a deer in headlights and more time practicing your Japanese, making local contacts, and getting your slippered-foot in the door if you’d like to work there permanently.

Ganbatte kudasai – do your best, please!