Deeply seated in the Japanese psyche are many concepts drawn from China and formalized in Japan through Zen Buddhism. One of these is the concept of do (?), often translated as "the Way" such as bushido, the Way of the warrior; juudo, the gentle or soft way; dotoku, the Way of virtue; and so on. But it is really more like a code, a method, or a set of structured rules. The idea is that by learning and practicing these routines through endless repetition, you refine a Way of staying in perfect harmony and balance, able to perform with concentration and consistency.
In business it means that there are procedures or a set of rules for doing almost everything. There is a set protocol for dealing with customers (what you say, how you package their goods) that does not deviate from a high class department store to a neighborhood shop. There are rules that govern when one changes from the summer uniform or clothing to the winter, when one goes to lunch and when one returns. Trying to take short cuts or deviate from the rigid rules is highly frowned upon - you're likely to be suspected of being lazy, sloppy, or a trouble maker.
This can create problems if you want to suggest a more efficient way of doing something. If the procedures say you take step 1, 2, and 3, before doing 4, that's the way it has to be done, and they're not going to change it without first doing an analysis, a trial, and then a full procedural change where all documentation of the processes is altered. Proposing something that requires flexibility will usually be met with dismay and insistence that it must be preplanned from A-Z.
Michele Gelfand, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, and a large group of international colleagues, did an extensive survey across 33 of the most developed nations to determine their attitudes toward rules. The scale ranked them from "tight," where rules were plentiful and adherence was strictly enforced, to "loose," where rules were more relaxed, and departure from the rules more tolerated. As you might expect, Japan ranked high on the "tight" end. One of the most interesting things about the study, however, was that you could predict where a country would fall on the scale today based on the population density in the year 1500.
The rules in Japan may seem silly: There may be a housing allowance for a house under a certain size, but not for anything bigger - even if the rent is cheaper. There may be a rule that there can be no "free" days on a business trip, even if that means flying back to Japan from Europe for one day, only to return the next.
The rules may be inconvenient: You may need a Director's permission to get a new pencil. No one under the rank of Vice President may be permitted to change the thermostat, even if it's set for 82 degrees in winter.
The rules may seem like they are designed simply for conformity: Often, no personal items are allowed on employees' desks - like photos, knick knacks, and sometimes not even your own coffee cup. Women may not be allowed to wear makeup and their skirt length may be regulated to a specific height above the knee. Men may only be allowed to wear their hair a certain style (not longer or shorter).
The rules may be designed to build a stronger sense of identity with the company and other workers: You may be required to recite the company's core principles and do group calisthenics each morning. Company parties and group trips may be mandatory.
The rules may seem like a waste of time: You may be required to write daily or even hourly reports on what you have been doing. You may need numerous people to stamp their approval on your expense report before you get reimbursed.
The bottom line, however, is that if you want to work in Japan, you're best off resigning yourself to following the rules. The rules are set and fighting them just makes you seem to be a self-centered individualist. And after all, following the rules is dotoku, the Way of virtue!