For many Germans, or for those who are used to European work culture, the Japanese work culture can be seen as very different and strange.

Differences in work culture between Germany and Japan can lead to barriers and problems, especially in the workplace. If you are unaware of those differences, you may not, in some cases, even be able to find the root cause.

This article will explain some of the difficulties that Germans and Europeans may encounter when working at Japanese companies in Germany, including the problems caused by differences in work culture between Japan and Germany and how to solve them. 

Differences in work culture between Germany and Japan

Research on national differences in work culture began in the late 20th century when the Dutch sociologist Hofstede quantified cultural differences in work by country, and the research then began to focus on multinational corporations.

In Professor Hofstede’s original cross-cultural business model, national differences were scored from six different perspectives, including; “strength of individualism” and “tendency to avoid uncertainty”.

Since Professor Hofstede, there has been a lot of research on cultural differences and the impact of cultural differences on business between developed countries such as Japan, the United States, and Germany.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay


For example, the following table shows the cultural differences that arose when a joint venture was established between Japan and Germany. As you can see, even in Japan and Germany, which are said to have similar work cultures, there are significant differences that are often found to be a hindrance to business.

Japan Germany
Collectivism Individualism
Flexible job rotation Clear job function and job scope
Decision-making by majority vote and consultation Quick decision-making
Focus on the atmosphere of the place rather than the rules Focus on explicit rules.
Protecting lifelong employment Protecting jobs
Tend to mix work and private life Separate work and private life
Annual merit sequence Emphasis on experience
Strict hierarchy within the organization Strict hierarchy within the organization
Avoid uncertainty  Avoid uncertainty 

(Adapted from Brannen and Salk, 2000)

Some of the specific topics that are barriers between German and Japanese cultures will be discussed in detail below.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

The distinction between individualism and collectivism is essential when comparing the work cultures of Japan and Germany.

The Japanese work culture has taken after the team-oriented nature of the Japanese people, who place great importance on group harmony.

As a result, for the past several decades, Japanese companies have developed the ability to share information within the company, through for example team networks, and by fostering tacit knowledge among employees, this ability has encouraged industrial development.

The unique culture of Japanese companies, such as job rotation and lifetime employment, is a work culture in which people work with the same colleagues for many years with the aim of sharing information closely within the company.

On the contrary, if you look at cultures like Germany, where individual expertise and individual work are emphasized, you will not often come across this kind of culture. When this cultural difference is brought into the (German) workplace, the following specific discrepancies are created.

  • Little interaction with other departments
  • Less interference in private life
  • Little reporting, communication, and consultation

These cultural differences are seen on the one hand by the Japanese as “Germans do things on their own”, and on the other hand by the Germans as “Japanese can’t decide everything on their own.”

Focus on rule vs. atmosphere

Image by chenspec from Pixabay

While Japan’s work culture requires a flexible, read-the-room (or what is known as “reading air” in Japanese terminology) approach, Germany’s is a system that enforces strict adherence to rules.

For example, when it comes to using paid holidays, Germans are not afraid to use paid holidays, even in situations where it would be daring to do so in Japan, as a paid holiday is a worker’s right stipulated in the labor contract.

Therefore, Japanese companies with branches in Germany often find that “Germans take paid holidays without caring about colleagues and company” problematic. 

On the other hand, when Japanese people work for German companies, there are many cases where they feel constrained to follow the explicitly stated rules. In general, German companies do not take “special” or “exceptional” measures, and business is conducted in an unobtrusive manner and according to formalities.

Focus on achievements vs. process

Although not as unfriendly as it can be in American society, the personnel evaluation system in Germany and other Western European companies focuses to some extent on the results and performance of the job.

On the other hand, Japanese job evaluations are not simply performance-based, but rather process-oriented with a long-term perspective that also takes employee development into consideration.

These cultural differences are already reflected in the grading system of the countries’ universities. For example, in Japan, attendance is taken into account, while in German universities, grades are basically calculated based on examinations alone.

Therefore, in German workplaces, it is acceptable to think, “I’ve done my job well today, so I’ll go home without working overtime (even if everyone else is still working).” However, according to the Japanese style, attitude, hard work, and motivation are some of the aspects that are influenced by the evaluation of others.

It is difficult to say which is better. Among Germans, there are many who want to be recognized not only for their final results but also for their hard work, and for those people, there is a tendency to prefer the process-oriented evaluation of Japanese companies.

On the other hand, Germans who value efficiency may also feel constrained by the Japanese process-oriented work culture, which can lead to staff turnover.

Mixing work and private life vs. separate work and private life 

Whether it be relationships with business partners or internal relationships, in Japan there are times when interpersonal relationships are more important than written contracts.

Events that blur the line between work and private life, such as after-work drinks with co-workers, or golfing and drinking with business partners, are mainly based on interpersonal relationships.

In Germany, this kind of mixing of work and private life rarely occurs in the workplace, and events such as drinking, eating, and golfing on holidays with colleagues and business partners are rarely held.

From the Japanese perspective, Germans are seen as dry and businesslike because of this difference, while from the German perspective, the Japanese way of doing things, i.e. mixing work and private life, may be seen as strange.

Decision-making by consensus vs. quick decision-making

The major difference between the decision-making process in Japan and Western Europe is the distinction between “bottom-up” and “top-down” decision-making.

Image by chenspec from Pixabay

In the case of Japan, decision-making through internal information sharing, majority voting, and group discussions is preferred. This is a reflection of the group-oriented tendency mentioned above, and when decisions are made by internal consensus, it is said that employees are more likely to stay motivated because their own opinions are reflected.

On the other hand, the decision-making process in Germany is a top-down approach, which involves the lower levels deciding business tactics based on the goals set by the upper levels.

In Japan, this consensus-oriented decision-making is based on risk avoidance and sharing of internal information, but it also takes time to make decisions and requires political communication (behind‐the‐scenes negotiations), which can be difficult for those without a Japanese background to understand.

From a German perspective, it is often difficult to understand why Japanese decision-making takes so much time and effort, while from a Japanese perspective, the linear decision-making process of Germans is risky.

The cultural differences mentioned above are examples of the kind of discrepancies that can frequently occur in a mixed-culture workplace between Japan and Germany. In fact, there are many cases where such cultural discrepancies can be resolved by taking the time to communicate with each other, and it is necessary to make an effort to compromise rather than giving up because of “cultural differences.”

References

  • Brannen, Mary Yoko, and Jane E. Salk. “Partnering across borders: Negotiating organizational culture in a German-Japanese joint venture.” Human relations 53.4 (2000): 451-487
  • Hofstede, Geert, and Culture‘S. Consequences. “International differences in work-related values.” Beverly Hills, CA (1980)