How comfortably does international labour fit into Japanese firms?
Unique cultural adjustment and its difficulties
Volume 19, Issue 1 (Article 2 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 7 May 2019.
How easily does international labour fit into the modern Japanese workplace? It would be expected that international labour would have difficulty in managing cross-cultural adjustment in Japan, as the Japanese culture is clearly unique (Herman and Tetrick 2009). How difficult has the process of cultural adjustment been, since the Japanese labour market opened its doors to international labour in order to solve its domestic labour shortage? In this research, the ways in which international labour has managed cross-cultural adjustment at companies in Japan will be examined through interview data with international works and also Japanese HR, to see how Japanese organisations have supported their adjustment.
Keywords: international labour in Japan, cross-cultural adjustment, work adjustment, Japanese labour market
Acknowledgements: This work was supported by the JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) under KAKENHI (the Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research) Grant Number JP17K13779.
Global resource management is quite important for multinational companies in a global competitive market; global human resources are essential for them to compete overseas (Caligiuri et al. 2001). Yet, the issue is not just employing talented people but developing their skills and encouraging them to stay for extended periods (Suutari et al. 2012). The expatriate turnover rate is significantly higher than the domestic turnover rate (for example Naumann 1993).
A global career has an underlying requirement of not only physical but also psychological mobility (Sullivan and Arthur 2006). The ability to work in a new location is closely related to cross-cultural adjustment, which has been an important theme of research (such as Bhaskar-Shrinivas et al. 2005; Peltokorpi and Froese 2009). Cross-cultural adjustment refers to the ability of an expatriate labour force to work comfortably in host countries without any difficulties or concerns (Peltokorpi and Froese 2009). The focus on cross-cultural adjustment of expatriates is important, as poor cross-cultural adjustment can cause negative effects in the host organisations (ibid). If the foreign labour-force is unsatisfied because poor cross-cultural adjustment, labourers decide to leave and go back to their home countries (for example Naumann 1993).
The Japanese labour market has currently been faced with severe labour shortage problem (such as Jiji Press Ltd. (JijiTsuShin-sha) 2018). For example, Toyota Motor has now planned to change its retirement age from 60 years old to 65 (Kyodo news (Kyodo Tsushin Sha) 2018). The Japanese government has also considered the extension of the retirement age for all of the Japanese public officers (Nikkei Business 2018). Honda Motor and Suntry Holdings have already adopted new retirement systems, under which their staff retire at 65 years old. At the same time, the number of international labourers has rapidly increased in Japan (Asashi newspaper 2017). As of October 2017, the number reached around 1.27 million, equal to 2% of the total labour (The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2017). The number has continuously and rapidly increased since 2012 and the total number of international labourers for the past five years reached 0.6 million (ibid). Its current number has been the highest ever in Japanese history. The Mainichi newspaper (2018) indicated that more Japanese organisations have actively hired workers from overseas because they have suffered from a shortage of workers. Also, the Japanese government has operated industrial training and technical internship programmes for foreigners since 2010. Furthermore, the government has encouraged Japanese universities to accept more foreign students to study and work. It seems that the labour shortage has been covered by an increase in the number of international labourers.
Having said that, Japan is a challenging country for international labourers as its organisations have different cultures from other countries (Peltokorpi and Froese 2009; Herman and Tetrick 2009). It has a reputation that they have difficulties to adjust to Japanese work environment (ibid). The number of international labourers who have decided to leave their organisations and Japan has been increasing as well (Asahi newspaper 2017). While the number of Japanese organisations which have hired international staff has increased, the number of international staff who were fired, lost their jobs and/or had to go back to their home countries has also increased (The Japan institute for labour policy and training 2011). Is there any relationship between difficulties in cultural adjustment and the turnover rate of international labour in Japan? How has the labour force managed to adjust to local Japanese culture in order to work there?
While cultural adjustment has several meanings (Black and Stephens 1989), this research particularly focusses on work adjustment, i.e., how well international labour fits into the workplace in host countries. Froese (2012) indicated that workers need support from their organisations, fluent local language skills, and specific work tasks offered so that they can adjust more easily to the work. Previous literature on international labour and cross-cultural adjustment has lacked focus on workers’ individual and organisational perspectives, as well as on the Japanese context. This research aims to examine how international labour has managed to adjust to local work cultures while also looking more closely at support for their cultural adjustment offered at an organisational level. This examination tries to explore the very initial insight of the Japanese current working environment, where multinational labour has worked together.
The next section will review previous literature on cross-cultural adjustment, and sections on research method, data analysis, discussion and conclusion follow. Given the findings from this research, the managerial implications will be also indicated in order that Japanese organisations could work with international labour for long.
There have been major discussions around this theme in the literature. Cross-cultural adjustment of international labour has been very important in terms of employees’ motivation to work hard, enjoy living in, and continue to work in host countries (Froese 2012). It is one of the main factors that encourages them to work longer in host countries (Peltokorpi and Froese 2009). Black and Stephens (1989) identified that general adjustment (to live in foreign countries), local interaction (to establish relationships with local society), and work adjustment (to fit into the workplace) are all cultural adjustments required of expatriates in host countries. Work adjustment, organisational support, language ability, role clarity, and so on are important factors for them (Froese 2012). Peltokorpi and Froese (2009) define cross-cultural adjustment as the ways in which employees can comfortably work in host countries without any difficulties or concerns. This research will follow that definition.
While there has been much discussion as regards cross-cultural adjustment, it has been commonly assumed that through cross-cultural adjustment, international labour can reduce uncertainty, leading to a more comfortable working and leisure life in host countries (for example Peltokorpi and Froese 2009). The process includes their learning and imitating behaviours from local culture.
The following literature discusses the relationship between expatriates’ achievement locally and cultural adjustment.
Caligiuri (2001) examined how to facilitate successful global assignments for expatriates who have been expatriated by their organisations (referred to as organisational expatriates) based on data from 73 questionnaires. Caligiuri (1997) had already shown that the ability of expatriates to adjust culturally to host countries hugely influences their performance in assignments. Also good cultural adjustment negatively affects their termination of assignments. This led to academics and practitioners focussing more attention on understanding cultural adjustment. Caligiuri et al. (2001) especially focussed on the role of cross-cultural training offered by multinational corporations (MNCs). Realistic expectations about living and working in host countries can be created through cross-cultural training, but how much are expectations really influenced by the training before departure and how do these expectations affect cross-cultural adjustment after arrival? Given the data, Caligiuri et al. argued that expatriates’ expectations through cross-cultural training prior the departure and their language skills both influence their performance.
There has also been discussion around the part which organisations play in the success of labour making cross-cultural adjustments. For example, Cerdin and Pargneux (2009) examined whether the closeness of match when mapping individual careers to international assignments can affect the success of those international assignments. They found that there was a correlation, with the closeness of match positively influencing the success of the international assignments. Also international assignments are more likely to be successful if expatriation is chosen freely by the individual. Cerdin and Pargneux (2009) also indicated that organisations should carefully consider and choose candidates to dispatch to overseas branches in good time; otherwise they are uncertain as to whether the expatriates can fully enjoy and contribute to international assignments both during expatriation and repatriation.
The above discussion covered the angle regarding organisational expatriates. Much literature relating to this angle has called for future research to examine the perspective of self-initiated expatriates (for example Froese 2012).
Froese (2012) analysed self-initiated expatriates in terms of cross-cultural adjustment and their motivations for expatriation. Thirty interviewees, who were self-initiated expatriate academics working at universities in Korea, provided interviews in Korea. The main reasons why they decided to move to Korea were to gain international experience, for family reasons, job conditions such as work environment, salary, teaching load, and the labour market situation. They were adjusting relatively well at work and in general, but struggling a bit with interaction adjustment. Past literature suggests that international experience is the most important factor to motivate expatriates, but this study showed that other factors, relating to work in a specific country, are also import. Another interesting finding is that self-initiated expatriates choose to work overseas because of a poor labour market in their home countries. In this respect they are not very different from migrant labourers who move to foreign countries because of poor economic situations in their home countries.
Froese (2012) also pointed out that the length of stay and the individual’s intention to stay have an important effect on general adjustment. People intending to stay for a short period of time tend to be more satisfied with their work than people intending to stay for a long period. The former initially have lower expectations and fewer detailed plans for the future. He indicated that three motivational factors are well linked to cross-cultural adjustment: interest in the region, the job market, and family considerations. Regional interests and family are more positive influences on their adjustment than the job market. If the job market is the sole motivating factor it can be a negative influence, as those individuals do not have a regional interest, meaning they enjoy partaking in and learning about the country’s culture less, and they do not have local support from family.
Past literature has commonly shown the importance of cultural adjustment in order for international labour to achieve better performance in host countries. Yet, the ways in which international labourers manage cultural adjustment have not yet been examined in detail.
Cross-cultural adjustment in Japan:
While there is much discussion about cross-cultural adjustment, as shown above, there has been relatively little research in the context of Japan (for example Herman and Tetrick 2009; Peltokorpi and Froese 2009).
Herman and Tetrick (2009) argued that Japan is a challenging place to work for international labour as it has a different culture from Western countries. Its culture also influences the ways in which people deal with daily tasks. They suggested that the unique Japanese culture encourages labourers to adopt an emotionally-focussed rather than a problem-focussed approach, thereby causing some difficulties in their work adjustment.
Peltokorpi and Froese (2009) examined cross-cultural adjustment of both organisational expatriates and self-initiated expatriates in the context of Japan. Hofstede (2003), in an international comparison of cultures, suggested that Japan provides a unique workplace based on its levels of collectivism, masculinity, verticality, and uncertainty avoidance. He collected 179 samples to test his hypothesis, showing that self-initiated expatriates were more willing to interact with and adjust to locals, compared to organisational expatriates, as past literature in different contexts suggested (such as Gudykunst and Nishida 2001).
Self-initiated expatriates have higher motivation to interact with local people as they already have experience of and/or knowledge about Japan. In particular, their local networks established during previous stays or visits further help them to develop their local interactions. Organisational expatriates tend to have less preparation to work in Japan. While Hofstede initially supposed that organisational expatriates could be acclimatised to working in Japan through organisational support, his data suggested that they have difficulty in focussing on work because they are less well adjusted to the country.
Yet, cross-cultural adjustment itself is not an easy process for international labourers if they are not familiar with or interested in their host country’s culture. The above discussion has given a generalised picture of international labour’s cultural adjustment in various contexts, but each labourer will have different perspectives, reasons, and processes of adjustment. Therefore we now need further to appreciate individual points of view.
National culture and workplace:
Understanding the national culture of host countries is a very basic step for cultural adjustment (Hofstede 2003). From a cross-cultural management perspective, Hofstede (2003) discussed that the essence of national culture can be learnt over time through living and working in a place. It plays an important role in local cultural understanding and in a worker’s adjustment. He observed five different characteristics of national culture in the world: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, collectivism/individualism, masculinity/femininity, and long/short-term orientation. The content of national culture varies from country to country. In the Japanese case, the main characteristics of national culture are argued to be typically long-term orientation, power distance, collectivism, masculinity, and a strong tendency towards uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede 2001). It is very important to know the underlying culture in order to understand Japanese practices, because the two are closely linked (Ford and Honeycutt 1992). In particular, long-term orientation and collectivism are deeply embedded into the Japanese business model.
Short-term orientation means that organisational methods and cultures are always targeted towards short-term results (Hofstede 2001) and organisational expatriates therefore choose approaches that will contribute to their performance as quickly as possible, rather than considering future outcomes for the organisation as a whole. On the other hand, long-term orientation indicates that organisational strategies and management are based on long-term planning, so that staff can take their time to make contributions (ibid). With long-term orientation, organisations aim for their future prosperity over time, expect their staff to work for the long term, and try to train them over a long period. The Japanese business model in particular takes a long-term view and allows Japanese organisations to adopt a life-time employment system, caring for all of their stakeholders rather than their shareholders only (for example, Gerlach 1992; Aoki 1988; Hassard et al 2009; Witt 2006).
In cultures characterised by high levels of individualism, individuals are expected to achieve their own goals, and individuals’ rights and achievements are regarded as supremely important. On the other hand, in collectivist cultures, group interests prevail over individual interests, and individuals derive their social identities from the groups to which they belong, including family, school class, and work unit (Mead 2004). Mead (2004) also indicates that Japanese collectivism is specifically organisation-based; a premium is placed on loyalty to group members and organisations. According to past studies (such as Mehri 2005; Graham 2003; Jacoby 2005), Japanese staff work not individually but as a team, leading to group contributions (Dore 1973). The payment system in Japanese organisations also reflects this collectivism. A pay system that is not merit-based but rather based on seniority is widely adopted, which is quite suitable to a team-working environment (McCann et al. 2004), since senior staff can train and teach younger staff within a team to lead to overall better team performance, which may happen less in an individualist culture.
There are clear reasons why collectivism and a long-term basis were adopted in Japan over time. Until the 1930s, Japanese public-listed firms had acted for their shareholders and mainly depended on equity finance; shareholder value had been hugely important to them. However, when the national mobilisation law was set up in 1938, the rights of shareholders become restrained, and instead the government took control of banks to finance enterprises in order to allocate more money to the munitions industry, which led to a predominance of the indirect financing system (Noguchi 1995).
The current Japanese national culture has its roots in World War II, under the strong control of the government. ‘The 1940 system’ was created in 1940 to structure Japan’s economy for wartime, under so-called state socialism (Noguchi 1995). This system succeeded even during the US occupation and contributed to the rapid growth of the Japanese economy. We can still see its characteristics in finance, education, organisational behaviour and so on. Strong bureaucracy, a bank-based system, keiretsu networks, and the HR system are examples of the wider Japanese business model (Noguchi 1995; 2010).
The indirect financing system allowed Japanese firms to move away from a short-term business management style. Subcontracted systems based on the keiretsu network were also introduced to increase production. Within the respective keiretsu networks, all the subcontractors cooperated together to produce more products with their parent firms (Noguchi 1995). In other words, this historical background influenced the construction of the collectivist culture in Japan. The government has controlled the Japanese business management system since then, which has led to homogeneous ways of doing business across Japanese firms.
Furthermore, the government started wage control during WWII, giving regular pay rises that became the prototype of the seniority-based pay system (Noguchi 1995). The wage range was the same for employees working in any Japanese firm, thereby giving employees incentives to accept lifetime employment with one firm. This therefore encouraged Japanese firms to train employees for the long-term and to encourage all of them to be loyal to their firms, which brought about the on-the-job training system. Noguchi (2010) indicates that Japan has been left behind in the globalised market due to its historically and culturally based business system.
Looking at this history, it is clear that organisational management is deeply rooted in national culture, but appreciation of other national cultures is very important for organisations that do their businesses overseas (Mead 2004). Whether an organisation can manage local people well is closely related to how much the organisation understands the cultures of the other countries in which it does business (ibid). In the opposite situation, where individual labourers choose to work abroad, rather than being sent by their organisation, those individuals need to understand the national culture in their host countries. In the Japanese context, it is anticipated that labour from outside Japan will have difficulty in understanding Japan’s complex and unique business culture, and at the moment it is not clear how international labour has tried to adjust to the unique workplace situation Japan offers or how well it has succeed. More case studies are needed to interpret what has occurred in the interactions between Japanese organisations and international labour.
Among cultural adjustments like general adjustment to living abroad, local interactions to build networks, and work adjustment to be involved and integrated into the workplace, all of which are suggested by Black and Stephens (1989), this research focusses particularly on work adjustment. How have international staff who currently work in, or previously worked at, Japanese organisations managed the necessary work adjustment?
Initial insight will be articulated through qualitative research methods (Creswell 2014). Qualitative research is useful to understand how and why people do specific actions (Yin 2002), and so this research uses an interview based method. A quantitative research method can show a more generalised picture as it collects larger amounts of data (Yin 2004). However, this research was seeking initial insights regarding difficulties for international staff adjusting to the local culture in Japan, and therefore a more detailed and human-based picture is provided by using a qualitative method.
As mentioned earlier, the amount of international labour in Japan has rapidly increased and reached the highest level ever in Japanese history (The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare 2017). At the same time, the number of organisations which hire international labour has simultaneously increased, by 12.6 % compared to the previous number as of 2017 (ibid). Most of these foreign labourers are from China (29% of the total number of international labour), Vietnam (18.8%), the Philippines (11.5%) (ibid), Brazil (9.2%), and Nepal (5.4%) (ibid). Behind this increase, industrial training and technical internship programmes for foreigners, and international programmes for Japanese universities have been adopted by the Japanese government. International students occupy 20.3% of the total number of international labourers: international labour under the industrial training and technical internship programme occupies 20.2%; high skilled labour occupies 18.6% (Nikkei Newspaper, 2018). 80% of the labourers under the training and internship programme have worked at manufacturing and construction industries, while more than half of international students have worked in the wholesale and retail or service industries (ibid).
In order to cover the overall situation of the current international labour, twenty international labourers who had/have worked at Japanese organisations as staff under the industrial training and technical internship programme, international students, and skilled international labourers, were chosen for interviews. Most of them have worked in Japan for two or three years. Among them are people who have had experience of changing their jobs within the Japanese market. Interviews with the HR departments of three Japanese organisations, all of which are publicly listed, were also carried out, to see how much support they offer international staff in order to help them with cultural adjustment.
Interviews were conducted in Japan, in English, Japanese, or Chinese depending on the interviewees’ mother-tongue and preference. All interviews were face-to-face and they took between one and two hours. The questions were open-ended, which encouraged interviewees to speak fully and freely, leading to honest and open opinions.
The interview data were analysed under important pillars which were discussed widely in the previous literature on cultural adjustment. Then, the meaning of each piece of data, the important findings from those meanings, and what those findings imply to past arguments were analysed. The research questions shown in the literature review section will be addressed based on the findings.
Support from organisations is very important in order for expatriates to settle into their new jobs in a ‘new’ country (Froese 2012). Therefore this research investigated how much Japanese organisations have supported international labour in adjusting to their new situation, through discussions with the staff in the human resource management departments of Japanese organisations. According to an HR manager:
International labour has generally good language skills. They speak Japanese very fluently and so the language is not a big issue. Therefore we do not offer them special language training.
This point was reiterated by an HR staff member in another Japanese organisation, which had started a recruitment drive towards self-initiated expatriates, earlier than most Japanese organisations:
We normally hire international staff who can communicate well with Japanese staff. They usually have enough Japanese language proficiency. We do not have Japanese language training sessions for them. We rarely have international staff who cannot speak very well, but they gradually improve their skills and the issue is eventually no problem.
Most of the international staff graduated from Japanese universities, thereby already having common knowledge about Japan. They have already been involved in Japanese society and become Japanised. Sometimes they know more about Japan than Japanese staff.
It seems that language is not a big concern from the Japanese organisations’ side. As indicated in the above interview, one of the reasons could be that the Japanese labour market has only opened its doors to foreigners very recently, and there have not been many significant recruitment drives carried out overseas, so at the moment only candidates who are already familiar with Japan choose to work there, leading to less support being required from Japanese organisations than might have been expected. The lack of a significant language gap or a need for language training was also suggested by an international employee who was interviewed:
My major is Japanese language in my undergraduate. For my master’s degree, I had studied in Japan. Language is not a very big issue for me. When I was job hunting in Japan, the most important skill for Japanese firms is our Japanese language ability. Most of our colleagues are Japanese, thus we must be skilled in speaking Japanese. Another important factor is communication ability and cross-cultural adaptation ability. They judge through our part-time job experiences and figure out whether we can work with and cooperate with Japanese people. No special treatment, care, or training is offered by my firm.
Froese (2012) indicates that language ability and organisational support are important factors for international labour’s cultural adjustment. This seems true in the Japanese context as only international staff who satisfy the requirement for good language skills are selected by Japanese organisations. Therefore no special training is needed or offered. Indeed, more than 80% of Japanese organisations who employ international staff require international candidates to have a Japanese language level that is required for work, not just for conversation (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare 2011).
Froese (2012) also suggested that the type and level of work given to international staff is important for their work adjustment. According to one of the HR department staff:
The kind of work they deal with and their employment conditions (payment, promotion, training, on the job training and so on) are the same as for the Japanese staff. They gradually grow up with Japanese staff. We have a meeting each year to discuss their expectations and which department they want to work in, which is often accommodated.
In the meantime, some of them really prefer working towards their future career. They say that they want to do what is beneficial for their career. If they feel that their current work is not related to what they want to do, then they easily leave and move to another firm. We always feel that they overestimate themselves. It is much better for them to remain here, learning a lot from us.
Which department the employee is allocated to work in is not necessarily related to the employee’s expectation, as the HR departments of Japanese organisations decide where staff are placed and control staff under the existing system (Vogel 2006; Jacoby 2005). Yet, it seems that in this organisation the desire of staff to work in a specific department is considered and attempts are made to satisfy this, which is more advanced than the traditional Japanese HR approach. However, some international staff choose to leave as their work is not linked to the direction they see their future career moving in. There are differences in the working styles and expectations of international staff, but organisations seem not to offer them any special support.
This point is also indicated in the interviews with two international staff who have worked at different Japanese organisations:
I have worked at my current Japanese firm for one-and-a-half years. I have been transferred to one of the factories. I was not given any reason why the firm has moved me. I do not know why I have been allocated my current tasks here. I have still not seen my future prospects and guidelines from them. Maybe I will see a clearer picture if I continue to work at the current factory, but that cannot be guaranteed. That is why I have decided to leave here. I want to develop my skills faster and be promoted faster.
Foreigners have a high turnover rate. It is normal to work for two or three years and then find another company or go back to one’s home country. The main reason is that we can’t fully integrate into the atmosphere of a Japanese firm and we feel like outsiders. In addition, the working environment in Japan is less active than that in my home country. There are less opportunities (to get promotion, increase salary and learn new things), which does not fit with my way of thinking.
It seems that work roles are not as clear as international staff expect. The traditional Japanese employment system is based on long-term thinking (Matanle 2002; McCann et al 2006). That comes from long-term orientation (Hofstede 2003). The HR departments do not consider the future career of the individual but rather see the staff working for the future prosperity of the organisation. That typical Japanese method of people management, based on Japanese national culture, seems to make it difficult for international staff to adjust to the work environment.
Local language ability, training offered by organisations, and work role clarity have often been indicated in the literature as critical factors for work adjustment, but more complicated cultural dimensions exist in Japanese organisations. The following interviewees indicate several difficulties at work:
I need to work on weekends because I am in the service industry, which makes me feel unsatisfied. In addition, I always need to work overtime without payment, which is also a feature of Japanese enterprises.
I need to adapt to Japanese collective consciousness. Japanese firms do not like personal heroism and want everyone to cooperate with each other. They don’t like outstanding employees and prefer everyone to be the same. Therefore, the evaluation system is relatively rigid; it is not flexible enough.
Overtime-working habits, collective work style, and the evaluation system are also difficult factors for international staff to adjust to in Japan. Japanese organisations and their staff have long-term contracts within a long-term employment system, under which organisations give their staff long-term safety while their staff respond with strong loyalty towards the organisation (Dore 2000). Loyalty encourages staff to work for the collective good of the organisation rather than for their own achievements. This is related to the collectivism indicated by Hofstede (2003). Also individual performance is downplayed and working as part of a team is fundamental to the organisational culture in Japan (Dore 2000). Japanese staff already expect these aspects at work, since they have been (presumably) brought up in the national culture and therefore see these things as normal. It would just be taken for granted by them. On the other hand, both interviewees eventually chose to leave their organisations.
As Herman and Tetrick (2009) and Peltokorpi and Froese (2009) indicate, it seems that it is difficult for international staff to adjust themselves to the unique working culture of the Japanese workplace. Ways of working are deeply rooted in the national culture, which may be difficult for international staff to understand. It seems that Japanese organisations do not provide enough support to help such international staff adjust to the Japanese ways of working. Also, the ways in which international staff try to adjust to the local culture at work are based more on their individual perspectives, such as how adjustment to local culture will help them in their individual career or future, which is less controllable by the organisation, and also not the focus of the HR department.
Previous literature points out the negative influences of a lack of cross-cultural adjustment on the work performance and turnover rate of international staff. This study examined whether or not the same phenomenon occurs in the context of Japan. As Vance (2005) indicated that the past studies have lacked discussion around individual perspectives, this research also examined how individual international labourers have tried to adjust to local culture to help them settle into their work.
Previous studies have commonly assumed a positive relationship between cultural adjustment and achievement (such as Peltokorpi and Froese 2009). It is not certain in this context that less cultural adjustment leads to lower performance and achievement, but the findings of this study do show that less cultural adjustment leads to higher turnover rates. Peltokorpi and Froese (2009) indicate that good cultural adjustment is one of the main factors that encourage expatriates to work longer in host countries. In this context, poor cultural adjustment at work seems to discourage them from staying longer, and they either change companies or return to their home countries.
The findings of this research agree with previous literature (Herman and Tetrick 2009; Peltokorpi and Froese 2009) in that adjusting to the Japanese working environment seems quite tough for international staff. International staff commonly believe that Japanese organisations have too different, unique, and difficult a culture to accept easily. In other words, the Japanese workplace is still challenging for them, as past studies have indicated.
One of the factors for work cultural adjustment widely discussed in the literature is the influence of language skills on expatriates’ performance (for example Caligiuri et al. 2001; Froese 2012). This study also supports that a good level of local language is an essential factor for cultural adjustment. In particular, it shows that in Japan a good local language skill is a requirement for international labour to obtain an offer of work from a Japanese organisation. In other words, language skill might be a highly prioritised factor in order to integrate comfortably into the Japanese work environment. This could be because Japanese staff work not individually but as a team, which comes from the collectivism of the national culture, borrowing terminology from Hofstede (2002). To work as a fully integrated part of a team, it is essential to be able to communicate fully in the language of that team.
This study also shows that the national culture seems to be embedded in the Japanese organisational management system, which has added further complications for international staff in their attempts at cultural adjustment.
Japanese organisations have adopted a life-time employment system with a seniority-based pay system, which is based on long-term orientation and collectivism (Hofstede 2003). Staff are guaranteed work until retirement age, giving them a strong sense of safety, while they are expected to show strong loyalty towards their organisations in return (for example Whittaker and Deakin 2009). This picture can also be seen in this research. The national culture is strongly reflected in the unpaid overtime expected by organisations, working well with other colleagues, and a slower evaluation system based on the age of employees under a long-term employment contract, which they are expected to accept. Froese (2012) suggests that organisations’ support for international staff, work role clarity, and language abilities are important factors for expatriates’ cultural work adjustment. While this suggestion seems to be right in this context, it appears that there are other factors and intricate cultural processes and dimensions that international staff have to overcome in the context of Japan. The national culture could make it harder for expatriates to adjust to the Japanese work environment. Thus the support that organisations need to offer to international staff in Japan might not be as simple as past discussions have assumed. This is because cultural adjustment in the Japanese context is deeply related to the national culture, which is furthermore embedded into the Japanese organisational management system. A system-level change would be required for organisational support, leading to improving expatriates’ abilities to manage their cultural adjustment. As Suutari et al. (2012) suggest, not only hiring talented staff but also developing their capabilities, as well as getting them to stay longer, are becoming important elements of organisational support.
The complexity of cross-cultural adjustment is furthermore revealed by this study. Through focussing on each international employee’s perspective, this research suggests that the process of adjustment is based on their personal perspectives with regard to their own future careers, rather than the perspective of how such an adjustment could help their team collectively support the organisation. This point is related to the argument by Cerdin and Pargneux (2009), who found that individuals’ performance was linked to how well their current job fitted their future career plans. If they consider their current work is beneficial to their future career, they are likely to try to understand cultural differences more. On the other hand, if they feel their work is not beneficial to their own future plans, they are unlikely to strive for cultural understanding and they eventually choose to leave and return to their home countries. Rather than cultural adjustment itself being a fundamental factor leading to better performance, it may be that how much their work and tasks are related to their desires and future plans might be a more critical factor, as this will encourage the employees to aim for a better cultural understanding. Cultural adjustment might be less difficult to manage if the organisations’ processes really support an individual’s career aspirations.
In this research, data were collected through twenty-three interviews, and of course this limited number shows only a part of the whole picture. More data, collected through both qualitative and quantitative research methods, is required in order to articulate the overall situation with regard to expatriates working in Japan. Having said that, the Japanese labour market has only recently opened up to international labour. The total number of international labourers in Japan has hugely increased, and in October 2016 it reached 1.08 million, which is a record level; the number of Japanese organisations that depended on international labour in 2016 had nearly doubled since 2009 (Asahi newspaper 2017). It is expected that the number of international staff will increase further in the future, to compensate for the Japanese labour shortage. In this sense, this research has given an important initial insight into the current situation around international labour in Japanese organisations. It is hoped that this will lead to further studies in this specific field in the future, as such research would help Japanese organisations to support their international staff.
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Article copyright Chie Yorozu .