Nov 7 2017 How to differentiate work culture between big companies in Japan and startups?

Startups and ventures in Japan are on the rise, but how different is it to work in an upcoming startup compared to big and established companies? Find out what to expect here!

  • Fixed structures vs fluid organization?
  • Bigger projects vs. more autonomy?
  • Traditional work culture vs progressive systems?


Unlike other countries, graduates from Japanese Universities have more job opportunities than any other country in the world due to the labor shortage. As a result of this, students are being exposed to multiple options that are not confined to former conventions of aspiring to work for large companies. Startups and ventures are offering more competitive packages for students and professionals. That said, the preference for larger companies given their prestige, stability and traditional social or familial pressure is still prevalent.

On average, people spend 90,000hrs of their lives spent at work. Given rising preference for fulfilment vs wealth at work, finding a good corporate culture fit that aligns with your values, personality and career goals is important, now more than ever before. In this article, we hone in on three distinct differences between working for big companies and startups to help you gain more context.

Do you like fixed systems vs fluid organization?

Do you thrive in situations that allow for agile-decision making and constant change? Or are you most comfortable in clearly organized, rule-based environments?

In big established companies, many of the rules are clearly set and well established – in Japan every rule is generally followed to a tee, no exemptions made. There are dedicated departments within HR and others which monitor employees` compliance to company rules. These rules are fully institutionalized from day-one of any employees’ time. During employees’ induction period, one is familiarized with corporate office rules and other details around employees’ benefits such as the promotion/bonus packages; holiday systems: corporate structures etc. If not written, these terms and conditions are verbally shared and carefully followed. That said, work rules unique to Japanese culture are assumed as common knowledge and not always shared in enough detail to international employees which can have unintended consequences.

On the contrary, when working for startups, you have to be ready for the fact that many of the rules and systems are yet to be set. The company does fix basic rules that are legal for the company to exist (e.g. annual leave) but other than that, many of the detailed rules that dictate the day-to-day operations of a company are constantly in flux based on the input and performance of the team. As the company grows, rules are constantly being suggested, tested and implemented based on how it optimizes the efficiency of a company. As a result of this, startup companies may have unconventional standards of how bonus systems or promotions are decided or even given as it is not legally required to do so. Startups thrive through a kind of organized chaos; staff members are oftentimes managing multiple tasks that might belie their singular position title. That said, they relatively higher chances of directly shaping company rules in the work place than bigger companies.

Are you happiest in constant change? Or do you prefer stability of a large company? Or do you get excited to be a part of making decision making for the corporate rules? Or do you feel more comfortable at more established environment? When it comes to management styles and corporate culture, these are questions worth asking yourself to distinguish between what companies would work best for you.

How do you does work differ in big companies vs. startups in Japan?

For big established companies, you will be likely be a part of very large-scale projects, products and services. For example, the product you worked for months or years can be featured in top page of national newspaper. Companies have more funding and they usually target bigger scale market. As a result, you have a higher chance of contributing to large-scale work at larger companies.

Startups usually try to approach “niche” markets which are oftentimes overlooked by big companies which focus on markets that can generate larger profit. Another telling indicator of startups is that they can oftentimes try to create an entirely new market. Over time, startups will inevitably aim for big market shares. However, if you are joining a startup the pay-off and impact of your work will take a relatively longer time than bigger companies that run million-dollar projects.

The trade-off for limited resources and impact that startups initially start off with however is the access to greater autonomy and the ability to see the immediate impact of your decisions and work. Start-ups often give employees more decision-making power which allow you to see your direct contributions.

So here is the point you should consider: Do you want to be a part of big project? Or would you prefer to have greater autonomy?

From dress code to the office decor, what style works best for you?

Traditional business attire (black and white suit, tie and jackets) in Japan is a steadfast part of Japanese corporate culture. That said, in startup companies particularly those in creative or tech industries, this is less common. People who prefer to have a distinction in their clothes between work and leisure will most likely prefer larger companies that have strict guidelines on work wear. In larger companies, the uniform dress code permeates into the office settings which oftentimes have monochromatic decor; sectioned department blocs in large offices that operate in silence. Geographically, larger companies are more than often situated also within a business district that have amenities conducive to a large work force like restaurants and close transport lines in the vicinity.

In startups, except for certain positions (such as Sales), dress code tends to be very casual. It is normal for people to wear jeans and sneakers at the office. Although they may not oppose to suits and ties if you really insist, you will find yourself bit out of place at the most of the startups in formal attire. Office environments tends to be more casual with background music or permit use of headphones while working and employees are able to work in their individual style where they have the most comfort. Startups also often operate within apartments or old buildings as resources are centered on product development.

With 5-6 day work-weeks, it is worth asking which office environment you could picture yourself being happier in.

These are without doubt, many more differences between big companies and startups and even more variance within big companies and startups. These pointers simply provide a few general guidelines to help you critically assess your choices beyond the paycheck.

When actually choosing “the” company to work for, do try to do research about the company’s corporate culture. Oftentimes we meet job-seekers pressured by what they feel society tells them is ‘right’. One fundamental rule that we can believe in is to follow your intuition and your passion. Where you work and what you do for a living is a personal choice and one that you will live out, not others. Whether it’s a large company or small, our hope is to help you find a company that has the right corporate ‘fit’ where you can thrive fully.

More than 9000 people have registered with Active Connector to get special access to job recommendations.
Be the next one to get a dream job through us!