The working day starts with the commute to the office. For the majority that means over an hour of standing on trains packed to over 200% capacity, where reading a newspaper is out of the question and each slowing down or speeding up of the train results in a mass of bodies being swung from side to side and back to front. Even with the horrendous crush of this morning ritual leading to a very uncomfortable ride to work, very few people ever complain or cause a fuss and apart from the odd pervert taking a grope, no-one seems to abuse the situation either.
The first event that will happen on a typical day will be the regular morning meeting. This usually takes the form of everyone within a certain division or section standing and facing a group of managers, and will generally start with a selection of company rituals, sometimes in the form of group exercise or the shouting of the company slogans. New directives or procedures will be discussed, as will updates on work in progress or on the horizon, followed by further announcements and the final shouting of slogans and inspiring sayings. The workers will then all troops back to their desks to start another long and arduous day.
In general, most Japanese "salarymen" employed with a Japanese corporate environment work much longer hours than their western counterparts in a western environment, as do their managers and female assistants (commonly known as "office ladies" or "O.L." for short). Although the law states a maximum number of hours per working week and most companies officially work from around 9am to 6pm, in reality the majority of people will be in their office at least 30 minutes earlier and then stay for several hours after closing. A recently enacted law restricting the amount of overtime an individual could work has unfortunately just resulted in employees not reporting the extra hours they do.
Lunch is for an hour and is generally taken between the time of 11:30 - 1:30, and may consist of a bento (lunch box) normally brought from home or at the local convenience store and eaten at the desk, or alternatively the lunch special eaten in a nearby restaurant.
At the end of the day, your average Japanese worker will probably go out with his colleagues from the office and partake in a session of drinking, eating and singing. All will relax and let their feeling show and it is here as much as in the office that the strong bonding that so typifies the Japanese corporate world takes place. Public shows of drunkenness are not frowned upon in Japan as they are in the west, and many displays of over indulgence can be seen, from the crumpled salaryman sleeping on the train or bench to the rather unpleasant piles of regurgitated noodles and beer found around the station.
Most Japanese offices are "open plan" and based on the concept of group work and consensus building as well as on the hierarchical structure of the company. Desks are uniformly alike and arranged by teams, with members sitting in order of authority and responsibility, with the highest-ranking member seated furthest away from the door and closest to the section chief's desk. The section chief is likely to have a desk at the front of the office facing his subordinates, surveying all before him.
With only the very senior managers likely to have their own office, the lack of privacy produces a very real sense of belonging, with a great deal of communication taking place between members of a team, usually without the hindrance of dividers or cubicles. Managers can easily walk around and communicate with all the groups and individuals within the operation and therefore can ensure everyone, including themselves, are fully aware of all aspects of the work at all times.
The typical Japanese worker tends to view the use of time rather differently then a western one. With the western approach, emphasis is placed on completing a task in the most efficient manner and within the shortest time possible. For the Japanese, it is considered more important for the whole team to work together to accomplish a goal. Each individual will know the limit of their responsibilities and what is expected of them, and will work selfishly to complete that task in hand. Many meetings and discussions will take place to ensure everything is going as planned and nothing will be rushed or pushed through. The concept of "thinking out of the box" or looking for a quick result are very rare indeed and are often frowned upon. However the Japanese approach does ensure the end result will be something that is unanimously acceptable to all and is as complete as possible.
Because of this group mentality, individuals feel a need to stay with a task as long as necessary to provide their colleagues who are still working on the assignment with all the help or support they may need. This sense of solidarity often means that even those who have already completed their work, stay late at the office.
For similar reasons, many Japanese workers rarely use their vacation time to the full. They feel it is their responsibility not to abandon others while they are still working, regardless of whether one's work has been completed. Because of this and to ensure that workers get some time with their families, Japanese companies traditionally close down completely for a week in the spring and summer and also over the New Year. Another common practice is the "company trip" with everyone going away for a few days of fun together, either totally or partially funded by the company.
Without doubt, any foreigner first faced with such a different working environment will be somewhat taken aback and even shocked. Having said that, the situation is beginning to change and the long working hours of old and rigid structures are starting to disappear as the younger generation in particular start to expect more leisure time and freedom. Just as western companies and working practices have evolved and changed over the years, expect to see the old ways of Japan slowly take a back seat to the forces of globalization and international business.