How working from home is different in Japan

If you’ve researched living in Japan you’ve probably heard about how tiny apartments are here, and if you already live here you probably have experience living in said tiny apartments. You might even be reading this in one! I know that I’m writing this from one. Under normal circumstances, I’m mostly fine with my small space. It’s tight, but it’s my space and feels like my home. 

As of the posting of this article, we are slowly starting to transition out of full remote work to going to the office a few times a month. Even after working from home 100% for two full months though, it’s hard to say I ever fully got used to it and I’m not sure I will be able to ever, at least while my current living situation continues.

When remote work started, I think a lot of us were looking at articles with titles like “5 tips to make remote work better!” or “The SECRET to being productive while working from home.” One of the top tips on basically any article I saw was to create a specific space for work. That way, you can flip the switch in your brain that says “I am working now.” Being that I’m American, I obviously was mostly reading articles from other Americans. And boy, could I tell that these people were writing as Americans!

Even in my college apartment in the States I probably would have had space to create a specific work area. I could’ve gone into the dining room and worked from that table, or lounged around in the living room.

My home office in Japan and why it’s hard to “switch off”

In my current tiny Japanese apartment, well, I only have enough space to fit a single desk. That desk, of course, is mainly used for my own personal computer and barely fits more than that. So, my routine every morning has been to push my normal monitor to the back of the table, slide my keyboard over to the side, and plop my work laptop in the middle of it all.

My awkward work space in all its glory. Please ignore the screen smudges… Photo: Nathan Reinholz

After I check out, I chuck my laptop back into my work backpack, which now just functions as storage for all my work stuff. Then, I have to move my main computer and keyboard back into its regular position, and set up my iPad to use as a second monitor. It’s become a ritual at this point, but the fact that I spend almost all of my awake time in the exact same chair make its hard to switch on and off. 

For lots of people with space in their apartments, you have a dedicated work space, and then the rest of your house is your house. For me, I really have no way to do that. Once I check out of work, it’s really hard to flip off the work switch. On the other hand, depending on my mood on a given day I can also have the exact opposite problem. With my normal computer right behind my work laptop and my gaming mouse right next to me, it can sometimes be hard to focus. 

The dreaded hanko

Focusing more on work itself, the most annoying thing has definitely been the need for physical paper and stamps. When I lived in the US it was very rare that you HAD to send real physical papers or go somewhere in person for anything. These days as long as you’re on top of things, you can do almost everything online. 

Example of a hanko (seal) used to stamp official documents. Image: Stock photo

In Japan, that luxury does not exist… a lot of the issues stem from Japan just being in love with paper and the FAX machine, but the hanko (seal) is a truly unique system that I hate. Let me describe how we have to deal with lease contracts now that we are all working remote and how hanko 

First, the nature of our job basically requires someone to go to the office a few times a week to work on paperwork. We just cannot get around that, because most Japanese companies do not understand the world “digital.” After we check the contract and translate it into English, we have to PHYSICALLY MAIL it to another staff member working from home, who has our hanko. Then he has to stamp a bunch of arbitrary areas so the paperwork becomes “official.” Finally, that staff member can send it back to the property management company. 

While I get that there are a lot of things that can only be done in person, the hanko system that Japan has is particularly archaic, especially in the age of remote work. What could be handled with someone’s signature instead has to be done with a seal. A seal which only one person is allowed to use, and only one copy of exists! I know that there are a lot of normal Japanese workers who have had to trek to the office and risk getting coronavirus just for a seal. A SEAL!

I honestly have thought many times that if I’m going to have to work remotely anyway, I’d rather be in America. It’s probably a classic case of “grass is greener,” but at the very least I hope reading this explain at least a few ways how remote work in Japan is different from what you might have experienced.

By Nathan Reinholz

Nathan works for the GaijinPot Housing Service, helping foreigners find their home in Japan. He’s American and has lived in Japan for about three years. Read Nathan’s self-intro to find out what brought him here!

Lead photo: Nakagin Capsule Tower, Ginza, Tokyo, iStock stock photo