Each time I sit down with a foreign professional in Japan, I can’t help but think what a treat it is to talk with them. Each person offers not only vast amounts of insight into the industry and culture of Japan today, but also that of the last dozen years. It is one thing to find the courage to come to Japan, but it is another to stay. In the context of under two months in the country, I balk at the idea that each of these people were once in my shoes – fresh, eager, and looking for that one foot in the door. Such was especially the case when I spoke with Joe, an engineer going into his third decade in Japan.
When I describe Tokyo to people, I like to describe it as having a dozen Manhattans. Akasaka is one of the Manhattans of Tokyo, complete with modern skyscrapers, tight city blocks, clothing galleries, restaurants, and lots and lots of traffic. Joe and I met at the Starbucks at the base of the imposing Akasaka Biz Tower, which is right in the heart of all of this. To give an idea of how busy the area can be, this interview may not have happened had Joe not come early to his own interview just to save me a seat. He assured me that Starbucks wasn’t normally that busy, but I prefer a more dramatic telling of events.
We got started very quickly, and it’s a good thing we did because Joe had a lot of insight to share.
I’ll ask the big question: why did you want to work in Japan? Was it your plan all along from the beginning?
It was not! I was an electrical engineering major at the University of Texas at Austin and my sophomore year I started getting burned out. I got to the point where I failed a couple classes, my GPA was dropping a bit, and I thought “Ah man, I need to figure out something interesting.” This was in the mid-1990s when electronics was starting to really pick up. Austin was a hotbed of things like AMD, IBM, all chip manufacturers, chip designers – really good engineering stuff. My peers were getting internships there, and I thought “I don’t know, I don’t want to step right into the workforce like that. I want to see what else is out there.” I was sitting in the Electrical Engineering building and on the bulletin board they had “Internships in Japan.” They were offering, at that time, paid internships at Japanese engineering companies for three months up to a year, so actually quite long-term prospects. It was really just that one random thing – or, it was a couple of events that led to the random thing and the random thing led me here.
From the moment you saw that ad, you set the course of action that you were going to do this.
Exactly. It was a really big trigger for me. I thought “Okay, this is a win-win. It lets my GPA get back up, it gives me something concrete that I’m working towards instead of going to graduation and trying to figure out what I want to do.” It really turned my university career around and got me engaged again. I did a year internship with a Japanese company and finished in June ‘99. They were trying to, at that time, become a reseller for a lot of U.S. networking companies, specifically Cisco. They said, “We could really use a foreign engineer who can open up support cases, who can really talk to the people in corporate, and get to the bottom of issues and figure out things.”
Have you been working in Japan ever since then?
Yeah! All in Tokyo, all in IT. I did two more years at the Japanese company. Right after the dot-com bubble burst, we started seeing layoffs in a lot of industries. We could see the pressure coming on us as well. I searched around and actually got into a “gaishikei” in Japan around 2002. Gaishikei are foreign companies like Cisco or Oracle that have an office here in Japan.
Where you currently work is one of these “gaishikei”.
Yeah. When you work at a traditional Japanese company, there’s certain limitations of what you can do as far as career and work-life balance. With that, the dot-com bubble burst, and industry trends, I thought “I need to get out of this company.” Because it’s a Japanese company, they don’t really lay off people that easily. However, I couldn’t see myself getting shifted around in the company, working my way up, and eventually becoming a “kachou” or “buchou” or, you know, some middle manager in this company. It was at the time and still is a pretty hard and thankless job, the middle management in a Japanese company.
What kind of responsibilities do you have at your company? Have you had similar responsibilities since you came to Japan or have you climbed up the ladder?
I definitely climbed up the ladder. When you start off as a first year or low level engineer in a lot of these gaishikei-type companies, you’re doing something like technical support, which is actually how I really learned my Japanese. I was opening support cases and then working with the customers to resolve the issues – all in Japanese. You know how Japan is big on quality? In IT, they’re just as stringent on quality. With software and how things work in this world you really can’t be exact on the cause of something, but that’s what the Japanese customers want. Casual comments of “Oh yes, we think it’s this chip” could become “We’d have to replace all of your stuff, and we’d need to do it at your cost.” When you start off as a junior engineer or are starting off your career in engineering or IT, the first thing you have to concentrate on is learning how to communicate technical things to your counterparts. If you’re not in support, maybe it’s not that bad. Even on the sales side as a sales engineer, however, you’ll see similar things where the customers try to blow things out of proportion and try to make things political when they’re really not.
You say “political.” How does IT work become political?
As gaishikei IT vendors, we’re not licensed to sell our products in Japan. Japanese distribution and reselling companies make a contract with corporate in the U.S. to resell that product within the Japan market. The gaishikei office ends up being more like a sales support and marketing branch. If anything that goes wrong, the partners want to absolve themselves and say, “It’s not our fault,” even if it was. They’ll try to push things back on the supplier and say “It’s their fault, their hardware issue or their software issue,” and all that kind of stuff. Once they start pushing back like that, there’s not a lot you can do as an engineer. You have to escalate it up and get the executives to come out and say, “No, because of our contract you have to take responsibility for part of this.” It’s politics.
The initial phase of my career was like that. Being in technical support is a good career builder and good for learning the language, but it is not good for having work-life balance and enjoying your work. So, I moved over to the sales side. As an engineer it’s pretty rewarding because you’re often working with a project that the customer is trying to build out. When they deploy it, you think, “That’s what we worked on together!” After that, I worked my way up into being management, and then I was a high-level engineer called an “Architect.” I’m now acting as the director for a System Engineers team here in Japan. When you move into a higher level of management, you have to learn new skills and it becomes more, again, politics. I sort of enjoy it, because I like reaching out to counterparts like a sales director or a support director and rebuilding the way we do business to actually solve problems.
I will add one thing. I’ve been here for twenty years, and there was one period between 2005 and 2007 that I got burned out on Japan and was thinking about leaving. In Japan there’s a phrase we call the “Galapagos Syndrome.” The MiniDisc and things like this sold really well in Japan, but they could never get a foothold outside of Japan because their focus on development was very Japan-centric. That’s still true to a large extent today I think. Without exposure to more outside and new ideas, I felt it would be difficult for me to go for a high level business position in the future. At that time, Australia had a program where you could apply and, based on points, immediately go for a permanent residence. This was actually a long-term thing I was working on.
So, what changed there?
They changed the rules. I was working with an immigration lawyer at the time and he said, “Sorry, I can’t figure out a way around this.” By that time, an opportunity opened up where I would have more exposure to travel around Asia as an Architect and start working with some of the other markets. Once I started doing that, I thought, “This is actually enough motivation for me. I have my home base in Japan, but if I have regular exposure to other stuff then that’s all I really need to stay motivated.”
What kind of unique dynamics and challenges does having a family in Tokyo pose?
I really see how people trying to do a dual-income with kids here would struggle. A lot of people put their kids through preschool at three years old. For me, I thought, “Wow, that’s really starting them early,” but after putting my oldest through that, and then having my second one in there right now, I think it really helps. It gives them three years to concentrate on not really having to study, but just learning social rules and social behavioral skills in a fun environment. The preschool we’re sending them to is your basic one, but they have a lot of activities. In the winter they have a school play that everyone is involved with, there’s the field day that’s coming in the summer, and they’ve got outings that they go to all the time. They also actually learn some really basic skills. We didn’t teach my daughter how to use chopsticks, but one day she came home from preschool and started using them. My daughter is the really, really shy type, so when she first started at age three she really didn’t participate in anything. By the time she went to elementary school, she was a normal, well-adjusted kid. So, I think it’s really interesting and really provides value. But, because of all those extracurricular activities, parental participation is, at least at the preschool we’re going to, a given. All the mothers, in this case, volunteer time to do things like help build decorations and organize the events. You would think that would stop after preschool, but when you go to elementary school you start having PTA events. PTA participation isn’t such a big obligation, but you’re still highly encouraged to volunteer a lot of time for that. So, my wife will help out with PTA patrols where they walk around with other mothers making sure the kids aren’t hanging out in places they shouldn’t be hanging out. Some mothers in the morning are standing at major intersections making sure the kids have a safe place to cross. There’s a few events they have at school that parents participate in as well. It’s a lot of work that if we were trying to do it as a dual-income family, it’d be really difficult to do.
Where I live now, we actually have a very active neighborhood association. The neighborhood was built up around the mid-70s, so they had a pretty strong neighborhood organization from the outset. They have separate kids events that they plan four or five times a year like Halloween. Traditionally, Halloween hasn’t been a thing in Japan, at least at the kids level, but now the kids will dress up and have a Halloween party. They’ll actually go about as a group and Trick-or-Treat to specific houses that are participating in the event. We also have Christmas parties and “imo hori,” which is “potato-picking.” Some of the nearby farmers will dedicate a few rows from their plots just for the kids. The kids will plant the potatoes, come mid-summer to do weeding, and then when it’s harvest time they’ll pick the potatoes and take them back. Then, we’ll have a potato party!
With that fun stuff comes responsibility. We have a huge neighborhood that’s divided into blocks. Each block has its own block “cho”, which is a block leader. Instead of voting, we just rotate every year. We moved in three years ago and, unfortunately, were right in the path of the rotation, so this year we are the block cho. We are the ones – “we,” my wife is the one who is writing up the newsletters. We pass around what is called the “kaidanban” which is a notebook with flyers to make sure everyone in the neighborhood is aware of upcoming events. Someone has to write that up, and it falls to the block cho. And then, when people move into the neighborhood, we have to go to them and greet them and say, “We want you to please join the neighborhood association, it costs this much per year.” Again, I am thankful that my wife is a full-time housewife otherwise there is no way we could do it.
Are these neighborhood events a Tokyo-specific thing, or do they happen in cities all over Japan?
I’m pretty sure it happens all over Japan and I think it’s even more important when you go outside of Tokyo. When you get out to the countryside, the people who are living there have been there for many years and multiple generations. So, they’ll do a lot more involved events. You see the big “matsuri”, or celebrations, around. I think a lot of those are really connected into the neighborhood associations. We even have one, too! We have our own small “omikoshi” that we carry around once every summer with other neighborhood organizations.
Are the matsuri festivals religious?
It’s not even a religious thing, it’s more of a cultural thing. The roots are religious, but people just keep it because it’s tradition. People like traditions. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older as well that traditions are kind of fun. Some part of it is that it’s a lot of work, but it’s cool to be apart of it. It’s a good way to connect with your peers in the community.
After an hour and a half, it was time he and I parted ways. I hadn’t thought about taking a picture, so I naively asked a random Japanese man walking by to take one of us. Joe was humored by my un-Japanese behavior – it takes time to figure out the subtle social norms of Japan! I thanked him for his time, and thankful I truly am. From burnout to family life, Joe’s experience provides unique insight into the often-neglected perspective of foreign professionals in Japan.