Japanese business practices.
Mountains of books and studies have been done about them. Most people in the West know at least in passing of booming postwar "samurai spirit" business styles and most recently of karoshi "death from overwork" which was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002.
Most manuals on the subject for Western business people interacting with Japanese counterparts is about things like how to bow, how to exchange business cards, how to treat superiors. None of the ones I read were, in hindsight, very useful to me, especially when it comes to getting my voice heard and getting my way.
I know that sounds like the worst employee ever, but let me tell you, even the most hard-working go-the-extra-mile American worker that you know falls far short of the Japanese standard, myself included. The reasons, if I tried to condense them into one sentence probably too simply, is that as a culture Americans are getting their religion elsewhere than in the corporate world. This post goes into why Japanese people work this way--long, often unpaid hours.
Not every Japanese company is this sticky and manipulative, and more often than not, foreign employees are given a pass to avoid it all even if it's how Japanese employees are treated. However, these business practices seem to be especially strong in the Kyoto companies I've experienced, and I thought this post might be useful for someone who runs into them.
For someone not educated in Japan and who does not share these values, it can really stink trying to do even "normal" things within your rights like leave work on time every day, take paid vacation days, or get out of pointless weekend events and meetings. Your bosses and co-workers may not be able to prevent you in a legal sense from doing these things, you probably won't get fired either, but they may give you a lot of grief and passive-aggressive drama for it.
The drama is something I really want to avoid. Ain't nobody got time for that, I think I like it even less than outright angry confrontations.
First, let's look at some of the things a well-adjusted adult Japanese employee would never do when making a request to a superior:
1. get openly angry
2. talk about rights, labor laws, contracts
3. offer a reason/excuse that does not sound very serious (e.g. when asking for time off they will ask for "family issues" or "a wedding/funeral I must attend" NOT "going to a concert on Friday")
4. use words that suggest the boss is being unfair, unreasonable, or wrong
5. blab around the office about how they're looking forward to their vacation/weekend/time off
Foreigners often make the mistake of doing these kinds of things, and what they get for it is a lot of unnecessary drama--getting visits from kacho to talk about your work ethic, guilting you into feeling like you're doing something wrong, getting told "no" outright so going ahead with your plan means deliberately defying your superiors, etc. I have seen all these and more things happen to my foreign co-workers, but not to me after I started negotiating in a more Japanese way.
Here's how I do it, the naughty guide:
1. Apologize a lot
In America, this suggests a wishy-washy person with low self-confidence, but in Japan, apologies are power. What happens when you apologize is that it all stops being your fault. A situation has arisen that demands your absence, how very regrettable indeed. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak. "I'm sorry, I can't stay late today" is much better than "No I'm not going to do that because..." The American in me wants to present my case with arguments and reasons sometimes but that will only drag things out unnecessarily. Apologizing, instead of getting defensive about your rights or contract or whatever, will go much farther in helping you stand your ground. It shows that you're definitely not going to change your mind or be convinced of another course of action. Apologies beat logic, protecting your from being pressured into something you don't want to do.
2. Stay humble and lowly
Even if the problem is the manager's fault or perfectly within your rights, make it your mistake and your misunderstanding. Japanese businesses don't care so much about mistakes and human failings as long as your attitude is correct, "Thanks for letting me know, I'll try to do ___ better next time" is something bosses love to hear. If you get told random (often untrue) things like "you can't take days off in conjunction with the national holidays" just make it your fault for misunderstanding the rules and keep applying #1 above.
Also, it'll help reduce frictions if you make a show of meeting your boss halfway. When I said I'd have to miss a company event, I added, "but let me know if there's anything I can do to help with the preparations." This suggests I'm not just being a butthead and actually care. Suggests, haha.
3. Make statements, not questions for permission
If you ask for something, be ready to be told "No" most of the time, or be pressured emotionally into it when a clear "no" is illegal. From a manager's perspective, this is only natural. A young co-worker who's since moved on told me she asked for a week off in conjunction with a long weekend since her dad was planning to come to Japan, but she was told no. She got teary-eyed explaining how she and her dad decided to cancel his trip. I didn't know what to say. Just six months earlier I had successfully gotten two weeks off + a long weekend from these same people to visit home. The difference I could think of was that I stated my actions "I'm not going to be here for two weeks in May..." and apologized for the bother, instead of asking permission. If you just state the facts of what's going on "I can't make it to the meeting on Saturday" "I have to catch the 6:10 train" there's less they can say. It's usually better to apologize than ask permission.
4. Silence is golden
Another thing I have trouble with (and I'm not even a very talkative person) is keeping my mouth shut. But a little silence goes a long way. I've learned it's best not to spread gossip, or air your complaints, because everything you say can be used against you. Even if you really want to add that punchline "because that's what it says in my contract!" "I'm not spending my weekend doing that" "It can't be mandatory if it's unpaid" it's usually better not to. Managers are not dumb, and they already know these things. Bad ones will pretend they don't and see how far they can guilt and manipulate you into "un-knowing" them as well. Either way, pert statements of this sort would never, ever, be said to a Japanese manager by a Japanese subordinate. They will just result in unnecessary enmity on both sides, and open the door for arguments. I don't have a lot of confidence in winning arguments so I like to stop them before they start. Japanese managers also expect and appreciate a show of "subordination," as per #2, and saying these kinds of things, while not untrue or unreasonable in America, will just land you in a lot of drama in the Japanese workplace.
5. Timing is key
Sometimes, it's best to voice your requests right before they're going to happen. Big boss N was scheduling yet another (after hours, unpaid, transportation also unpaid) meeting at during the weekend. As a "senior" teacher she wanted to include, I knew if I said I couldn't go well in advance, she'd probably just do her darndest to reschedule the freaking meeting. So I told her I couldn't go the day before. But in other cases, sometimes it's best to explain where you stand. When I signed the contract this year, I said clearly "this year I'm only able to come in and work on the designated working days that it says in the contract." (thinking with a little wry smile somewhere that such a statement would hardly be necessary in the U.S.) That little explanation of "this is me" becomes your character or brand and then when you have to say "I can't make it..." no one has a right to be surprised at you. My manager knows I prefer to spend my Sundays going to church, so she cannot give me too much grief when I try to get out of work obligations on Sundays. It takes some wisdom to know when to make your voice heard, whether at the last minute or long before, but for one-time events, at the last minute might be best to avoid being asked, "Well when can you do it?"
6. Have a Japanese husband
Half-serious here. No, maybe all serious. The old Japanese expectations that brides have to serve their husband and new family over any other conflicting obligations can sometimes be redirected to work in my favor. It is one reason some companies are loth to hire female full-time workers for certain positions, why two female friends of mine were pressured into quitting after their marriages. I think it's also why my single co-workers and foreign male co-workers get much more flak for taking time off than I do.
The bottom line
The classic cultural dynamics going on are the contrast of 義理 giri (duty) and 人情 ninjo (human feelings/failings that prevent one from fulfilling giri). In Japanese corporate culture, the company owns you and your time. It is your giri to serve as best as you can in return for the company's care of you (allowing you to buy a house, have social status, etc. etc.) The only way to get out of it while ruffling as few feathers as possible is not by asserting your rights (remember, everyone around you is voluntarily forfeiting theirs) but by having a good ninjo reason.
It might feel crushing to apologize for doing something completely within your rights in a business setting, but I do believe it makes things simpler and easier in the end. More flies are caught with honey than vinegar!