One of the unique rituals of working for a Japanese company, especially a smaller founder/owner company, is that of the company trip. Often when a company has been doing well, and if the owner is in good spirits, he/she will spring for a trip for a division or the whole firm to go to an onsen (hot spring), or sometimes further afield (Hawaii and Hong Kong are also popular foreign destinations). Typically the company will pay all travel, accommodation, meals, drink, and scheduled entertainment – including any rounds of golf or visits to local attractions.
As you can imagine, jaunting off with 20-30 people for a couple of days is no small undertaking and can set the company back quite a bit of cash. To the Western mind, it may seem more sensible to simply give staff an extra bonus and let them spend the money as they please. But these trips have an important purpose, in that they help consolidate relationships and reinforce the social hierarchy in the team. To the Japanese mind, they also show that the company cares about its employees, and thus fulfills its social responsibility of looking after the staff – even though an equivalent bonus would be more beneficial.
Company trips are anything but relaxing. Usually meticulously planned, they involve lots of singing, drinking, some speeches, and possibly some time soaking in an onsen – but are most likely spent chatting with your boss.
On trips that I have been on, admittedly none recently, the team will have a bus arranged and want to get away early before the traffic starts. Leaving home at 06:00 in the morning is not unusual. There may or may not be drinking on the bus, but already the banter between the senior and junior staff members will have started. Things are likely to continue in the same vein throughout the day, with things getting more raucous as it gets later and people get used to being with each other – and of course the effects of the alcohol start to kick in.
Once you arrive at your destination, you’re assigned to a room, often with 3-4 other same-sex staff members, and you’re expected to hang out together at the onsen for a quick soak before the night’s entertainment.
Dinner will probably be in a large private room, with everyone in their yukata, and in my case, it had Japanese colleagues joshing me about being so tall that everyone could see my ankles. For female employees, there may be other comments. This teasing is just the start of a high-pressure trip emotionally – so it is very important that you depart for the trip reminding yourself that it isn’t really a break, but rather, unpaid work.
Most likely dinner will be punctuated with some of the senior males in the group getting a little louder and happier, and with the junior female members of staff (even though it’s supposed to be a break for them as well) hovering around and pouring drinks for their senpai (senior staff members). You’ll find this an interesting lesson in Japanese group dynamics, and whether people want to or not, they inevitably fall into their respective stereotypes. I don’t say this as a negative thing, it’s just interesting for the dispassionate observer.
As I said, you need to be prepared emotionally for a lot of teasing. The converse of this is that to earn your humble place in the social hierarchy, you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself. On the more tame company trips, you’ll only have to endure 2-3 hours of karaoke, and teasing about how well you sing “Yesterday” – when in fact you’re tone deaf. I find that the worse the singing (and I’m pretty bad) the more likely it is that the other team members want you to keep singing – so that there is always someone worse than them to enjoy watching. On one hand this may be difficult to accept, on the other hand it is vital for your relationship building.
If you have a company trip coming up and want to get mentally prepared, I have made a short checklist of things you can do to ensure success:
1) Learn the songs “Yesterday” and “Imagine” by heart – off key but not so bad that you feel humiliated.
2) Get plenty of sleep the day before you leave – you’re going to need it.
3) Pack some vitamin B12 to help the hangover the next day.
4) Remember to leave your ego at the front door – because it’s going to take some bruising on the trip.
5) Try to find a fellow staff member to hang out with, so that you’ve got an excuse to avoid having to accompany the more boisterous single males once they start letting loose. This is especially so for foreign female staffers.
6) Stay objective and keep reminding yourself that it is work...! Do your best to make the right impression and reinforce the fact that you are one of the team.