Although we do have an electronic calendar, I like that most Japanese offices still have white boards specifically for breaking down the monthly schedule and keeping track of where people are or how long they’ll be out of the office.

Typically, the word 帰る (kaeru) is translated “going home” or “coming home.” This is why the typical exchange in Japanese households when someone walks in the front door is as follows:

Person walking in: Tadaima. (“I’m home”, but more literally, “Now (here)”)
Person already inside: Okaeri. (“Welcome home”, but more literally, “(You are) returning home.”)

Back when I was studying abroad, my 5-year-old host brother and I would usually have a race to see who could say something first. As soon as he’d hear the door, he’d shout “OKAERI!!” without giving me much of a chance to announce myself with “tadaima.”

In office or classroom settings or guest-and-host settings, there are different sorts of aisatsu (greetings) you’ll typically hear upon arrival, running into each other in the hall, or leaving at the end of the day. When people had work outside the office and return, they don’t always say something to announce their re-arrival, but occasionally, for lack of more appropriate phrases, you’ll hear the familial okaeri-tadaima exchange around the office, too.

Although in my years of studying Japanese the okaeri-tadaima exchange always had a distinct homey, family feel to it, but it’s not limited to such personal settings. However, although there are stricter codes of conduct in a work place, it is like a second family for many careerpeople in Japan. This is why it’s considered a necessary part of office culture to socialize together outside of work hours. Personally, I love work parties in Japan, because it’s not simply a matter of seeing more of the people I already spend more days than not with, but getting to know them in a more open setting where the goal is to be social rather than productive. Compared to my experience in US offices, it’s more like socializing is interspersed with work taking place in the break-room or striking up conversation by standing around someone else’s space, avoiding, of course, the people who make it clear they don’t want to socialize.

However, getting back to work being a second home, one of my co-workers made a comment once that really stuck with me:

“I spend more time with the CIRs every week than with my kids, so of course getting along is important.”

Besides overtime hours he pulls, his kids are busy with their high school clubs, which can run very late into the evening and require weekend practice. Then in the evening they’re busy with homework, and everyone takes a turn in the bath, and at some point everyone needs to sleep–of course he’d probably spend more waking hours with me than with his kids, even though I can typically go home at 5pm guilt-free! Not sure I’d be able to say the same if I were working in the private sector. Sometimes a CIR is more like an office resource–like an expensive piece of technology everyone can share–than a full-fledged civil servant bound to the whims of office restructures and not as strict limits on overtime hours.

The biggest difference is the term, since JET participants are only here 1 to 5 years, but a typical civil servant does this sort of work for a large part, if not all of their career, and being switched around to different sections every few years means most people get a very wide familiarity with how different offices are run, and who works were, thus increasing social familiarity across the whole government office. What’s more, unlike in American offices where everyone has their own office or cubicle or some sense of privacy, in most offices everyone’s desks are facing each other with no barriers, so everyone can see and hear each other all day long. Thus, everyone at city hall is like one big family (or so I’ve been told in the most sincere of ways).

So perhaps okaeri to the office is not that different after all.