I lived in Japan for 20 years and saw business there change in 7 big ways that we'd be remiss to ignore

tokyo japan shibuya


Business is booming in Japan.

  • Adrian Shepherd is a British productivity consultant who's lived and worked in Japan for the past 24 years.
  • Over that time he's had a front row seat to how business has changed over time - and says other countries should learn from it.
  • For instance, more and more Japanese people are putting their family first - and it's something companies are still struggling to adapt to.

I first stepped off the plane into Japan back in 1994 into Osaka airport, back when Kansai International Airport was still being built. I had no idea what to expect. I didn't speak the language and while I'd lived in other Asian countries before, this was the first one I was entering alone. Who knew that a 6-month study abroad program would forever change my life?

After finishing college, I returned to Japan to start my career not knowing where it would take me. All I knew was that I enjoyed teaching English, and Japan was looking for teachers. Now it's 21 years later, and I'm still here. While some things haven't changed, a lot has and I've been witness to it all.
Here are seven ways business in Japan has changed over the past 25 years.

Tourism leads the way

One of the biggest changes in recent years has been the surge in tourism. Long ago, I remember walking down the arcade in Shinsaibashi in Osaka, and I was the lone blond-haired person in a sea of black. Today, that's no longer the case. Tourism has exploded in recent years with visitors from China, Korea, India, Australia, American and many more dominating the landscape. So much so that restaurants have started offering menus in different languages to cater to their clientele. The numbers say it all; in 2017, Japan welcomed 28.7 million tourists - up from 10.4 million just three years earlier, blasting through the government's target of achieving 20 million foreign visitors by 2020.

The official business language

I've owned a school for 18 years. When I first started it, the student body consisted of 65% female, 35% male. Today, those numbers are reversed. I attribute this to a change in the policies of many companies which want to make their company more international. Today, to become a manager at many of the top firms, a TOEIC score of over 700 is a prerequisite. Honda, Uniqlo, Lawson's, Rakuten, Bridgestone and Nissan are among the companies that made the decision to make English their "official language" among management. It's clearer than ever that Japanese companies are making a push to be more international.

adrian shepherd

Courtesy of Adrian Shepherd

Adrian Shepherd.


Like in many other countries, smoking was once cool. But in Japan, it was more than that. Business would often be discussed over cigarettes and alcohol. Drink parties are still common, but cigarettes have become pretty much a relic of the past. Some companies have even gone so far as to offerholidays as a reward for non-smokers. Just this morning, chain operator Skylark just announced they will impose a smoking ban from September this year. How times have changed.

Limited editions

Japanese people love "limited edition" anything. Over the years, food has been its biggest recipient. It's commonplace to see "seasonally limited" plastered on packaging in Kanji for chocolate, potato chips, and candies. Fans go bonkers for them. Haagen-Dazs got into the act a few years ago and has met with great success.

Family first

Someone once told me that the Japanese approach work differently. In the West, family comes first. We love our family so we work. Here it used to be - we work, so we can have a family. That trend has all but disappeared with the current generation. Besides a few holdovers from the old days, today more and more Japanese people are putting their family first and it's something companies are still struggling to adapt to.

Cool biz

This was introduced back in 2005 as a means to reduce electricity consumption by limiting the use of air conditioning. It was quite controversial when it started as companies in Japan had been all about suits. It started out as the summer dress code for government workers, but has since spread to the private sector. Slowly, more and more companies are introducing casual Fridays.

6 p.m.

Recently, Japan passed a law stating that companies would be limited to 100 hours overtime a month. It's scary what to think it was before. It was so bad that some companies were designated as "black companies" due to this practice. Thanks to social media, though, things are changing for the better. A client of mine told me he used to come home, on average, at 2 a.m. in the 90s. Today, he often leaves at 6 p.m.. That's quite a change.