Japanese middle managers bemoan 'stress' of dealing with foreign employees

More than one in three Japanese middle managers report feeling "intense stress" from supervising foreign employees, with almost one in five saying the experience has traumatised them so much that they would resign from their jobs immediately if they could, according to a new report.

The timely study, given the increase in foreigners seeking employment in Japan in recent years, surveyed 872 mid-level managers at firms across Japan and was conducted by employment agency Persol Group.

It found that 34.3 per cent of managers reported high levels of stress from the "challenges" involved in working with foreign staff - all of which can be blamed, at least in part, on vastly different work cultures.

The most common complaint was that foreign employees are "very assertive", the report found, with respondents also grumbling about a lack of common sense - by Japanese standards - among workers from overseas.

Managers also complained that foreigners "make aggressive demands for salary increases", have low levels of loyalty towards their employers and are often unskilled at the jobs they were hired to do, meaning that it takes a long time to train them.

Ken Kato, who owns a Tokyo-based company that sells urns, memorial stones and other items for funerals - and has business associates with first-hand experience of employing foreign staff - said the study's findings come as no surprise.

"From talking to other business owners, it is clear that there are some very big differences between working for a Japanese company and at firms elsewhere in the world," he said.

"And for Japanese managers in their 40s or 50s, who have been in the same company for decades and have 'grown up' in a certain [work culture], it is extremely frustrating."

Kato made a comparison to the fierce loyalty demanded of clan members during Japan's feudal period, which ended almost 150 years ago, when warlords vied with each other for control of the country.

"When Japan was divided into feudal states, a person joined a clan and swore allegiance to his leader," he said.

Read Also
Why do Singapore, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur work so hard?
Why do Singapore, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur work so hard?

"You were loyal to that clan and you worked hard for the collective good. It's the same today, except that clans have been replaced by companies and, to us, loyalty to the company above all else is just common sense."

Older Japanese, in particular, struggle to understand the job-hopping mindset, Kato said, and can view trying to "get rich quick" with disdain.

Such middle-aged middle managers are also unlikely to want employees to speak their mind or question the way that things are done, as Westerners tend to do, he added.

The survey results also sparked spirited debate online, with one commenter bemoaning Japan's general lack of a decent work-life balance, recounting how a former boss "could never understand why I wanted to have dinner with my wife and kids" and chastised him for refusing to go out for work drinks "so that I could have an anniversary dinner with my wife".

"Japanese managers are stressed because foreigners will not stand for power harassment and [there are] too many micro-managers out there," he said.

Another message - apparently posted by a foreign employee of a Japanese firm - described the managers' complaints as "absurd".

"Why be loyal to a company that doesn't show loyalty or respect towards the worker? Loyalty works both ways. We have different contracts, are not promoted equally, don't receive the same bonuses and so much more. Yet they want our loyalty," the message said.

Read Also
Death by overwork: Japan's 100-hour overtime cap sparks anger
Death by overwork: Japan's 100-hour overtime cap sparks anger

Others suggested that the Japanese system of promoting workers based on seniority was to blame, as people with limited skills were all too frequently put into management positions without the ability to handle the responsibilities that go with the job.

There are currently about 1.5 million foreign workers in Japan, more than double the figure of just five years ago.

Earlier this year, the government introduced a new visa system for skilled and semi-skilled workers in an attempt to encourage greater immigration and combat the country's well-publicised labour shortages, falling birth rate and shrinking workforce. 

This article was first published in South China Morning Post