Why Japanese People Aren't Interested In Promotions

Organizational constraints limit employees' potential.

Japanese woman working on laptop nathaphat | Canva

It’s no secret that Japanese employees don’t aim for managerial positions. This isn’t limited to a specific generation like Millennials or Gen0Z. According to a poll, 77% of Japanese workers claim that they don’t want to be managers irrespective of gender or age.

While the underrepresentation of Asians in executive leadership positions at global companies is referred to as a “bamboo ceiling,” Japan also faces a lack of leadership potential. I have declined a promotion offer, but before telling my story, let’s dive into common reasons why Japanese people are reluctant to pursue promotions.


Here are 3 reasons why Japanese people are not interested in promotions:

1. Promotions aren't always rewarding at Japanese companies

Believe it or not, one of the most efficient strategies to get ahead at Japanese employers is being a slacker. That’s because most companies still adhere to the outdated seniority system without a functioning employee evaluation. It is uncommon for them to utilize productivity-related key performance indicators. Managers focus on achievements as a whole, not monitoring each individual’s performance. This strong sense of teamwork contributes to the traditional long working hours, even though the Japanese government has been trumpeting work-style reform.


For young employees without managerial titles, overtime payment is the easiest access to extra cash. No matter how common remote work becomes, the rule of thumb at Japanese companies doesn’t change: the slower you work, the more you earn. Besides, most companies’ culture holds onto presenteeism. If one’s colleagues and manager are working late at night, most people feel it embarrassing to bow out first because it may be perceived as a lack of dedication.

Considering these backgrounds, losing access to overtime compensation due to promotions can be troubling for employees, unless the pay raise for the promotion is sufficiently impactful.

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2. Managers bear too much stress

When companies are driven by strict top-down management and formality instead of bottom-up communication and organic dynamics, the burden of responsibility falls on managers’ shoulders due to a lack of voluntary leadership.

Japanese employees are quiet followers who don’t voice their opinions at official meetings, even though they endlessly grumble over beer and sake after work. With this collectivistic corporate culture, it is difficult to establish clear accountability for employees. Divisions and teams face both achievements and failures as a team, and managers are the ones who bear the brunt of it all.

Although Japanese companies’ promotional ladder usually goes only upward, entry-level managers don’t have much authority to make changes to their teams due to the hierarchical structure. Managers are overloaded and stressed out without autonomy, sandwiched between upper managers and subordinates, so it doesn’t thrill younger employees to get promoted.

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3. Japanese people have low job mobility

The average number of job changes that Japanese people experience in their lifetime is around 1.5, much fewer than Americans’ 3 to 7 times. The cultural norm still favors lifelong dedication to a single company, which leads to the low necessity of an impressive resume and active networking outside the company, including platforms like LinkedIn.

When career paths are primarily confined within the same employer, there’s no pressure to make decisions based on the job market trends or the desired job titles that enhance candidacy during interviews. Japanese employees are committed team players who are not easily swayed by recruiters’ offers and more attractive titles.



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My story: The imbalance of salary and the managerial title

I also found myself caught in a difficult decision before, though it happened at an American company based in Tokyo. Despite several salary increases, I was still earning a modest income due to the low pay scale at my former Japanese employer. When my boss asked me if I was interested in becoming a manager, there was a catch: I was still underpaid as a chief, and I wouldn’t be able to receive the minimum manager-level salary even with the promotion.

“You’re gonna get a raise anyways within the range that the company can allow me to sign. If I were you, I would be a manager even if it meant being underpaid. What about you?” my boss asked me. He was a typical job hopper who appreciated flashy job titles.

In the end, I declined the promotion and kept working as a chief with a raise. My boss seemed frustrated, but I couldn’t accept the bigger responsibility without proper compensation. Even at the American company, Japanese supervisors worked around the clock, shooting emails even on weekends. I couldn’t sacrifice my private time for free, and my close colleagues agreed on this point.

Japan’s productivity is notoriously low, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Japanese people are incapable of working efficiently. It’s the organizational structure that restricts employees from reaching their full potential in terms of productivity and leadership.


Unfortunately, it’s hard to find middle managers who enjoy a healthy work-life balance at Japanese companies. Young employees need more admirable mentors and better compensation models that don’t rely on overtime payment before getting offers for promotion.

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Yuko Tamura is a writer, cultural translator, and the editor-in-chief of Japonica based in Tokyo. Her articles have been featured in The Japan Times, Unseen Japan, The Good Men Project, BBC Radio, and more.