Working in... Tokyo

Tokyo is the place to go for unusual technology and excellent cuisine. Hannah Langworth shares her experience of working as a lawyer there

When I experienced my first Tokyo earthquake, it took longer than it should have done to realise what was happening, perhaps because there was absolutely no reaction from anyone else in the office, despite the furniture rattling! During the following months, I got used to the tremors, which apparently happen daily although were only significant enough for me to notice them every week or so. There were other shocks during my first few weeks in Japan. Some were pleasant, like having my own office which I'd never had in London. Others were harder to get used to, like realising that to get anything done the right form had to be completely filled in and the relevant procedure followed to the letter.

This increased level of formality was probably the biggest difference between working in Japan and the UK. The Japanese people in the office would usually refer to everyone by using their surnames and the honorific suffix -san, or, for lawyers and other professionals, the even more formal -sensei. And meeting somebody new in a business context in Japan is is a carefully structured procedure on which I was given detailed briefings by the other expats with whom I worked. The keys are when, how and for how long to bow your head, and the exchange of meishi (business cards) - make sure you have some of your own to offer, take theirs, look at it for as long as you can bear before you start feeling stupid, never write on it or put it anywhere disrespectful such as a pocket or worse, forget to take it away with you at the end of the meeting.

My average working day started earlier than at my law firm's London office, where people would drift in between 9.45am and 10am or later. At 9am in Tokyo, most people would be in the office and working diligently - punctuality is extremely important in Japan and because the Tokyo metro was always efficient too, I was never able to use transport problems as an excuse for lateness (the standard get-out-of-jail-free card in London). People were also scrupulous, however, about taking a full hour for lunch, which could be a bento box from the one of the mini-supermarkets found on every Tokyo street corner to eat at their desk, or a lunch set (usually fish or meat, rice, soup, vegetables and pickles) in a restaurant. My own two favourite lunch spots were a place which did noodles in broth with a poached egg on top and a stall, which, like many Japanese eating places made one dish only - in this case roasted eel over rice (surprisingly tasty).

Most of the people in the office were quiet and very diligent. I was impressed by the lengths support staff such as secretaries and mail room people went to when asked to do something, and was touched by the kind gestures that are an everyday part of office life in Japan - after even a short trip away, people would bring in sweets for all their colleagues and leave them on their desks with individual notes, and lunches out or taxis to office events were carefully arranged with scrupulous politeness to include everyone and to suit their needs and preferences.

There wasn't much office socialising beyond lunches and formal office parties for clients or at the end of the year. There was a tendency for expats to cluster together as language barriers and the family-orientated nature of Japanese life can make it hard to get to know Japanese people well. I did make some good Japanese friends, but as Tokyo apartments tend to be very small - mine was about the size of a large London bedroom - it's rare to meet Japanese people where they live, which goes some way towards explaining the plethora of bars and restaurants in the city. It's not easy to find the best eating and drinking locations in Tokyo though; many of them are not at street level but tucked away in anonymous looking office blocks or shopping malls - which meant nights out could be a bit of an adventure!

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