A Japanese word without a direct English translation reveals the biggest difference between Japanese and American work cultures

Bruno Cordioli/FlickrThe process matters just as much as the outcome.
  • “Shokunin” is a Japanese word that means, roughly, “mastery of one’s profession.”
  • Japanese people tend to take great pride in their work, and the process of performing a task often matters just as much as the outcome.
  • At the same time, Japanese workers might take too much pride in their jobs, seeing as “death from overwork” is becoming a growing problem in the country.

Ben Cole, an associate professor of strategy at Fordham University in New York City, once took a group of students on a trip to Japan.

Cole had previously lived and worked in Japan for nine years, and he’d arranged for the group to take the train from Narita airport to Tokyo.

At a stop along the way, the doors opened to reveal two train employees in full uniform, who were there to help a young woman in a wheelchair onto the train.

About 18 minutes later, the train stopped again and the doors opened to reveal two different train employees in full uniform to help the same young woman off the train. The process went off without a hitch on both ends.

One of Cole’s students turned to him, wide-eyed, and asked, “Did you see what happened?”

“Of course,” Cole responded. “Welcome to Japan.”

Cole told me this story to illustrate the concept of “shokunin” (pronounced sho-koo-neen), a word that has no direct English translation but means, roughly, “mastery of one’s profession.” You might recognise the term from the hit documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” about an ageing master sushi chef who takes tremendous pride in his work.

The key thing to know about shokunin, Cole said, is that “the process matters just as much as the outcome.” That is to say, in Japan, you do your job well at least partly for the sake of doing your job well and honing your craft.

As John Lanchester wrote in a New York Times magazine column on shokunin in 2016, the value of work in Japan goes beyond economic benefit.

The American workplace generally isn’t as focused on taking pride and finding meaning in your job

The Japanese approach to work can seem starkly different from the American approach. Cole told me another story to explain how. When his wife, who is Japanese, first came to live in the US, she was flabbergasted seeing the cashier at the grocery store on the phone while she was checking her out.

In the New York Times magazine column, Lanchester suggested that work in the US has less meaning today than it once did, now that there’s been a shift from unionized manufacturing jobs to service gigs. That’s largely because manufacturing work provided a strong sense of community.

At the same time, Cole argued that American workers – just like workers everywhere – still crave meaning in their work. “What business leaders [in the US] forget,” Cole said, “is that people work to be paid so that they can feed their families and take care of their families, but ultimately people work because they want to believe in something. They want to belong to something that’s meaningful.”

A good manager, Cole added, will understand what drives their employees – and there’s a good chance money isn’t their primary motivation.

Still, it’s impossible to talk about the meaning of work in Japan without talking about “karoshi,” which is the Japanese word for “death from overwork,” and a growing problem in Japan. As Lanchester wrote in The Times magazine column, one might argue that work has too much meaning and is too tied up in individual identity in Japan.

As Business Insider previously reported, a 2016 report focusing on karoshi cases found that more than 20% of people in a survey of 10,000 Japanese workers said they worked at least 80 hours of overtime a month. And while the problem once affected mainly men, women are now struggling as well.

Japan has been implementing policies that give people more time off at work in an effort to halt the spread of karoshi, Business Insider reported. So far, they haven’t been very successful.

As with many sociocultural patterns, shokunin appears to be a double-edged sword – one that other cultures should only emulate to a certain extent.

NOW WATCH: Ideas videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.