Language and Communication Skills for the Japanese Workplace

Language and Communication Skills for the Japanese Workplace

Communication barriers can come in more forms than you might think. This time, Seung-hyeop shares advice and anecdotes about workplace communication.

Hello! After finishing university in South Korea, I am now working in Japan’s IT industry. More specifically as server engineer in the web industry.

Seven months into my job in Japan, I’m still getting used to my new life. It’s a process of trial and error. A lot of those errors, I realized, were caused by communication issues in 4 areas.


1. Japanese

I think that mastering the language is the most important communication skill when working or living abroad. Many of us want to know how much Japanese one really needs to study and how well one has to be able to speak the language.

Japanese in Everyday Life

Honestly, even if you do not understand the language at all, you will be perfectly fine in everyday life in Japan. You can get around, go sightseeing, do your shopping, and more, relying on numbers, gestures, and body language. Even if you’re really in a bind, your smartphone is more than capable to take care of the basic translations.

When I studied Japanese as a student, I was aiming for conversational skills. I thought that would be sufficient to not only visit but to live in Japan.

Boy, was I wrong!

Japanese at Work

At work, being able to converse somewhat fluently is simply not enough. Your smartphone won’t be able to keep up with meetings, so you are on your own. From technical terms specific to Business Japanese, suddenly I found myself confronted with a lot of things I hadn’t paid much thought to before.

Regardless, studying them, still wasn’t enough. First, when coworkers didn’t understand me I thought it was because of my Japanese skills. Slowly, I began to realize that the issue wasn’t what I said but how I said it. Even gaining more confidence in my Japanese speaking skills, successfully communicating my thoughts correctly to other people turned out to be a whole different issue.

So I started to practice presenting my opinion logically and how to remain respectful but determined during discussions. There is more to a language than vocabulary and grammar. There are structures like PREP that help you be more concise in any language, other things depend on the language you are using.

To reach mastery, the only way is to watch your Japanese coworkers and imitate the way they communicate with each other.

2. Teamwork

Speaking of coworkers, when I started to work I wasn’t sure what it would be like to collaborate with other people on a daily basis. Working as a team and constantly having to deal with different approaches and the opinions of all members seemed much more inconvenient than just doing things by myself.

University project

I actually did one group project at university for my graduation. Back then, our biggest issue was figuring out how to put the code of multiple people together and make it one.
Eventually, we started to set rules. This process took longer than we expected, but as the rules increased the development itself went smoother and faster.

Work project

Communication about how to reach a goal together and setting rules to do so in an efficient manner was the third skill I noticed in Japan. Before a project starts, all rules are in place, from who does which tasks to how to write the code. I had a lot to remember but my worries about teamwork with endless arguments turned out to be unfounded. Drawing on previous experience, things are decided fast and our meetings are brief and mostly consist of checking whether everyone is on schedule or if someone needs help.

Looking back, I regret not joining my friends from university in doing open source projects online and gaining more experience of working together on bigger projects. I would have learned more about development frameworks and it would surely have been easier to adapt to the system in my company.

3. Research

Coming to Japan the one thing I didn’t expect, was me regretting to not have studied enough English.
While working, I often need to research things online but a lot of information is not available in Korean or Japanese. No matter what I searched for, I keep ending up on English pages.

Language of information?

I noticed that I was missing out, so I analyzed my problem.

Apparently, there are 97.2 billion pages online in English, compared to 15 billion pages in Japanese, 4.9 billion pages in Chinese, and only 1.1 billion pages in Korean. No wonder, I had no luck with my mother tongue.

While it is impressive what the Japanese racked up, if you really want to have access to as much information as possible, English is a must. Despite all those people doing their best with translating news and information, to stay on top of everything and to make sure one gets the correct information reading in the original language is a necessity.

I went on to test my assumption. Since translation technology has developed a lot over the years, I thought maybe it can help me solve my issue.

Translation tools to the rescue?

After translating about 10 sites, I cut my losses, realizing that I only got around 70% of the contents. That’s enough to get the gist of things but with 30% remaining in the dark, a lot of details are getting lost and it is hard to really understand the contents.

If asked for the most important language in programming, many people answer with the most popular ones like JS, Python, and others. But really the most important one is English because the biggest chunk of communication takes place in this language. I realize this every time I run into a programming issue and I get the sense that my Japanese coworkers feel similarly on that matter.


The work you do communicates more about your thoughts and attitude than you might be aware of. “Put more thought into your code” is a frequent advice I get from my superiors when they check my work.

At the surface

When my program did what it was supposed to do and things were moving, the student me was satisfied and left it at that. Rather than getting into the details I much rather spent my time on learning as many programming languages as possible.

It was only a matter of time until my coworkers noticed my lack of attention to the how and why of things.

What your code communicates

One day my mentor pointed out the inconsistencies in my code. I couldn’t argue with him. Without mastery of the details one cannot deliver 100%. Even if I do my best, others can notice when something is lacking. Focusing only on the task, without considering the end-user or the big picture, is a sure-fire way to overlook something important.

Rushing through things in the past, now impacts my work performance. Same as with my Japanese issues, I noticed that at work as well the how matters just as much as the what. Guess that is part of why I put so much effort in my research now.

Effective Communication

Communication extends to much more than the Japanese words one knows, so use all available resources and skills to make things work for you. I’m only a newbie to Japan with my 7 months of working here, but if you also are wondering how to navigate your life abroad why don’t you give it a try!

I hope you will get to know the culture and people, participate in events, and find your place where you belong and realize your goals.

This article is a translation from Japanese.

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Newbie in Japan. When I'm not learning a language, I'm probably out and about traveling or attending one of Japan's many festivals.