Archive for October, 2016

From Japan to North America, Reverse Culture Shock

by on Monday, October 31st, 2016

Nik and the rice fields in 1994

 Nik is a Canadian who had three stints working in Japan for a total of twelve years: 1992-94, 1997-2003 and 2007-11. He is now living just outside New York City, where he’s working in IT. It’s a two-hour flight from his childhood home in Nova Scotia. I reached him from the Philippines via Skype. (Thanks to Nik for the photos.)

Nik in 1995

Nik’s story

In 1992, I went to Japan on a working holiday visa. The idea with this international exchange program was that young people could work abroad for a year in order to supplement travel costs and experience the culture. There were so few Canadians going to Japan that I was able to work for two and a half years as an assistant English teacher in both junior and senior high schools in the Gifu and Nagoya areas.

In 1997-2003, I worked with computer-related companies. I first had a job with a venture business trying to develop a competitive product to Java, and then an internship in database programming and software development. I worked in Nagoya for four years, then moved just outside the Tokyo area with my wife and two boys. On the third stint in 2007-11, I was an application support engineer with a US-based company. I had a side project of gathering all of the company’s knowledge and making it searchable through one knowledge-based search system. This system became so popular that the company transferred me to the NY office.

2006–Nik and his wife Nana with their sons Taz and Leon

Durig my first time in Japan in q992, I met a lot of foreigners who were teaching English while trying to get into graduate school in Japanese universities, where a lot of the reading and writing can be done in English. The undergraduate programs were all in Japanese. I met a guy whose Japanese was really just fantastic and who was enrolled in an undergraduate program. I wanted to do that too, but I found that getting into a Japanese program in the sciences was extremely competitive. Some students spent years in an endless state of trying to write entrance exams before finally getting in. There was also the expense.  Japan was good for making money, but it was extremely expensive to study there.

So I decided to switch gears. I spent a year learning French and then went to the University of Montreal for computer science. However, I couldn’t shake my attachment with Japanese culture, so I lived in downtown Montreal with some young Japanese folks. My social life was mostly built around associating with Japanese people. One became my wife.

What drew you to the Japanese culture?

In learning basic Japanese and French, I discovered that Japanese people were quick to complement me, whereas French speakers would often snicker and tell me to speak English.  So I guess the praise and the humility of the Japanese culture I found very appealing. I didn’t feel awkward about making mistakes. But I was also frustrated that I didn’t get corrections. I was attracted to the lack of sarcasm, which I found extremely refreshing, although after some years in Japan I learned about alternate ways to be insincere.

I also found a lot of ingenuity among technical folks, and I was attracted to the amount of detail Japanese engineers used in figuring things out. I really enjoyed working with the technical people.

Nik and cherry blossoms in 1994

In Gifu and Nagoya I felt extremely welcome, connected both with the foreign community and with my Japanese friends. This part of Japan was extremely warm and welcoming. My wife is from Fukuoka, and I enjoyed my visits there as well. In Tokyo I found that, because of the large number of foreigners, there was a wall between Japanese and foreigners and that the Japanese would push me over to the other side of it,

The only time I felt truly connected with Tokyoites was during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. I was watching one of the final games outside an electronics shop which had a huge television screen in the window. Quite a large crowd had gathered. Korea’s star pitcher had already dispensed with several Japanese batters. He was at the top of his game, and most betting people probably thought Korea was going to win. But then Suzuki Ichiro was up, and he hit the ball to allow Japan to win the championship. Everyone was overjoyed. Strangers were talking to each other and to me. It was a wonderful experience. Overall, if I were to live in Japan I’d choose western Japan, not Tokyo.

What about reverse culture shock?

I experienced reverse culture shock three times. When I returned in 1995 I felt extremely disconnected with my own culture and the people around me. I’m not a generally a talkative person, but in Japan I never felt socially awkward. There was always a basis for starting a conversation: how long have you been in Japan? what do you do? Among foreigners there was a camaraderie which I missed back home. I’d meet people who’d lived in another foreign country, and I could identify a bit, but there was never the same level of connection I had with my foreigner friends in Nagoya.

In November 1994, between Japan and Canada I went to Hong Kong. A café waitress serving my coffee just plopped the cup down on the table, and some of it sloshed over the edge. That would never happen in Japan, where coffee was carefully set down with two hands and without noise or spillage.

In North America everything felt a little bit raw or in-your-face. In New York ethnic restaurants with Spanish-speaking or Middle Eastern people behind the counter, I didn’t know how loudly to project my voice in order to be heard. A big one was interrupting people. In Japan people are very respectful about allowing others to speak. Of course in a senpai-kohai [superior-junior] relationship that could change. When I first came to New York, I was dealing with Israeli-Americans and an Israeli manager and coworker. I couldn’t get a word in.

In my own family, everyone interrupts. For me it was a psychological trigger back to my childhood. While I was in Japan my social skills with people in my own culture remained at a standstill. When I came back people would ask me about something they considered common knowledge, and I would have no idea what they were talking about. Like what happened to Seinfeld and Friends.

Then I might get asked, “Why don’t you know that?”

“Excuse me, but I’ve been cryogenically frozen for the past seven years.”

Some people would laugh, but at first they were definitely a bit surprised.

Once in Canada I asked a Japanese for a certain number of meters of network LAN cable.

He said, “Why are you asking in meters? You’re Canadian. You say ‘feet.’”

On  the Internet, Japanese immigrants to Canada [who are undoubtedly struggling to become as Canadian as possible] would say, “You’re Canadian. You should know that.”

Canadians would just give me a funny look as if wondering whether I was really from there.

At the same time, my accent had mellowed out so I didn’t sound markedly Canadian. In the US a lot of people don’t pick up on my not being American right away. If they know I’m Canadian they expect me to know about, say, a well-known Canadian band I’d never heard of.

Going back to 1995 when I was 21 years old, at first I couldn’t identify culturally with a lot of people my age. But after maybe two or three months I discovered there were large groups of people who were actually very interested in Japan and maybe interested in going themselves. They wanted to ask about my experience. People were impressed when I spoke with my Japanese girlfriend and would come up and ask me questions. That was mostly in Vancouver, but in Montreal it happened as well. There it was awkward. I’d be reading a Japanese book on the Metro and people would ask in French what I was reading and where I learned Japanese. I wouldn’t be able to respond because my French wasn’t very good yet. Finally, I bought an Oxford guide to French grammar, read that on the Metro, and immediately people assumed I was a regular Anglophone learning French. They stopped talking to me.

Where there’s culture shock, there’s also culture benefit. Learning Japanese was the catalyst which led me to the career I have. It became my buki, my formidable or marketable professional skill immediately after I arrived in Canada. From then on I could always rely on my Japanese speaking ability as a tool I could use professionally.

During my first time in Japan, it seemed that the only Japanese people who wanted to talk to me were those who wanted to practice their English, while I was trying to practice Japanese. It was like a river of Japanese people coming downstream toward me while I was trying to get upriver.. I was dead-set on speaking only Japanese even though that probably meant closed doors and missed opportunities.

But there are well-educated people in Japan who speak educated English very well, so instead of having baby conversations in Japanese you can have intelligent conversations in English. There were also foreigners who were intellectually transferring their Western life to Japan while being well paid as English instructors or business people, so they had no incentive to learn Japanese.

What about the earthquakes?

About the Fukushima earthquake, on March 11, 2011, I was at work in Tokyo. I had experienced lots of smaller quakes. At first the shaking wasn’t scaring me even though most people were leaving, but one shake had such a depth that I thought that the building might come down. I was in the middle of the floor, probably the most dangerous place. Half or two-thirds of the computer monitors flipped over. There were no extremely huge tremors after that, but when I was outside I saw a lot of buildings swaying, which means they were probably more structurally sound. Our eight-floor building was not. The ones that just shake and don’t sway are the ones that crumble to pieces. I was extremely glad to be out of there. The most difficult part was that the tremors didn’t stop for days and even weeks. At night you couldn’t sleep. Every after-tremor might be the big one.

The earthquake was on Friday. For the following week we had a schedule of rolling blackouts to save power. On the Monday after the quake there was a sudden, nonscheduled power outage with a warning maybe an hour before. My company was figuring out whether people should go back to the office or not.  I asked my manager if I could work remotely from Kyushu. The following Wednesday I continued working in Kyushu at my in-laws. Because of power outages in Tokyo I was the only Japan contact the American offices had. I was online and could tell the American office that the tsunami did not reach Tokyo, that it was just a sudden, unplanned power outage.

In Tokyo after the earthquake all of the convenience stores had nothing left to sell. The trains stopped running, but there were shuttle buses to the airport. As soon as I got to Kyushu, I found it surreal that it looked so totally unaffected. It was like night and day, although people were very concerned about the tsunami that hit Fukushima. Kyushu felt like a safe haven from the quakes. You may know that Kumamoto in Kyushu had an earthquake this year.

How did you adjust to Japanese working environment?

For several months in 1997 I worked in a smoking office. People were smoking right beside me. I found that extremely stressful. After some concessions I was allowed to move to a no-smoking floor. Once I was on the ferry from Kyushu to Osaka, and a Japanese gentleman came right up to me and asked what I found the biggest cultural difference between Japan and North America. I didn’t want to tell him it was cigarette smoke because he was smoking right in front of me and I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. I just wanted to get away from him.

How about things, like the way the hierarchy functions and the way Westerners are treated?

Since I went to Japan at nineteen, in many ways I learned how to be a functional adult in Japan. Probably I would have had a different experience had I remained in Canada longer. That led to more culture shock in North America. In Japan the pecking order is very clearly defined, including linguistically. When I learned Japanese–and I think a lot of foreigners do the same thing—I imitated the way people spoke to me, so if they spoke to me in honorific Japanese I would reply to them in honorific Japanese. If they spoke to me in plain Japanese, I would reply in plain Japanese. This can be awkward. If you establish a relationship with your company president and four months later you realize speaking plain Japanese to him is totally inappropriate, what do you do? Switching over is also stressful. So even though my language with the company president was wrong, I continued using it with him because of the rapport we’d established. It was the same with friends I made early in Japan, people I spoke to in English. Sometimes they would go away for a year. By the time they came back I was already comfortably speaking Japanese, but because our rapport was already established in English, I would revert to English with them.

After many years in Japan I did discover that not everybody followed the rules. There are people who may be at various places on the Asperger’s scale, who don’t pick up on social cues the way 99% of their fellow Japanese do, and so they speak in rough or inappropriate language. They just get segmented out so they aren’t forefront in social situations. They aren’t trusted to deal with customers, but are put in a back room. Not picking up on the cues doesn’t necessarily mean being ostracized. They’re just treated differently.

It’s the same with foreigners. I remember reading—I think it was a guide to etiquette–advice against trying to be Japanese because it would only confuse people. Just use your best Western etiquette. A book like that was written for Western business people, not a kid of 19 who was trying to immerse himself in the culture. I probably did end up confusing people by trying to act Japanese, to the point where I did actually begin to develop something of a Japanese persona.

How did you find moving back to a Western workplace?

I came to really appreciate a lot of aspects of Japan. In the US, and probably in Canada too, there’s a bit of a fight-or-flight phenomenon in the workplace and in personal relationships. In Japan there’s a group mentality, along with the concept of dealing with a problem until it’s resolved, although younger Japanese businesses don’t necessarily operate this way. Traditionally, a problem is handled within the group. That includes how to deal with an employee who can’t be trusted with business decisions anymore. The idea is they don’t fire people. Lifelong employment is not a business policy but a social dynamic. The first impulse is to restructure the group in a way that works for the group, not to get rid of the guy.

Anything that you want to talk about that I haven’t asked?

Just that what’s going to happen in the future is anyone’s guess. In some ways I was disappointed that Japan lost the mobile phone race. They were the first to introduce color liquid crystal screens and to make smart phones. Then US companies like Apple and Google came and took their lead away. Japan has a way to go in terms of learning how to innovate and improvise. They’re a great culture in terms of following established formulae, but not in coming up with new ideas. I hope it finds a way to reinvent itself. But with China as the world’s number two economy, I think I’d tell young people they’d be better off learning Chinese.

Would you like to move back?

Not at this stage. My wife and I would be interested in retiring there. There’s a lot we love about Japan. Right now we’re pretty happy in the US with our three boys.

A reader writes:

Interesting story about Nik and his Japan experiences, specially now that I’m in Tokyo for a short vacation far from his extensive stories however. Great read just the same and an eye opener for many.

Cindy Starts a Business in Japan

by on Thursday, October 13th, 2016

Lucinda Lohman-Oota and her husband Hiro

Many of the things Cindy says about the traditional workplace in Japan are also true in Korea: the cozy relationship of government and large corporations, which undermines small and medium-sized companies, the obligatory after-work drinking sessions, the mandatory early retirement, the ambivalence about having foreigners in the workplace and—particularly in Japan—the marginalization of foreigners. Fortunately, shortly after having been knocked down by early retirement, Cindy was on her feet again, making a new career for herself and finding more freedom and more satisfaction in trying new things.  

 Cindy’s story

On January 29, 2014, my life as I had known disappeared forever. My mother and I were very close. On that same day, she died in Maine. I was also downsized from my job as in-house legal counsel at a Japanese  pharmaceutical company where I had worked for 4 years. I was 55 and had spent two-thirds of my professional life in Japan, quite often feeling excluded and marginalized. I felt unanchored and yet strangely liberated. It was a time of immense change, upheaval, personal growth and the beginning of a new adventure.

Fortunately, three or four months earlier I’d already started thinking of switching to something with more lifestyle balance—perhaps freelancing as an legal translator. Toward this end, I spent a year—April 2014 to March 2015—in an intensive Japanese language program at a YMCA. I was quite perplexed to have tested into the highest of 12 levels, since I had always been told by my Japanese colleagues that “my Japanese was not good enough.” I was put into a class of fifteen Chinese students, all  aged twenty-five or younger. Being Chinese, they all knew the characters, the kanji. I had to study four to five hours a day outside of the five hours of class at the YMCA just to keep up. Week after week, I kept getting essays backed bleeding red, because I could not write the characters properly by hand. Prior to this, I had not even so much written an email, let alone full-blown essays! I would come home in tears of frustration because I couldn’t keep up. I’d fail a paper or exam and have to do it over. What I really wanted was the grammar and vocabulary to pass the first level of the Japanese level proficiency exam, which I eventually did.

I decided to leave the Japanese language program and said to myself, “Eh, I’m fifty-five, I’m not doing this for anybody but me. It’s okay  not to finish.”Passing the proficiency exam was good enough. I am sooo over doing things to please others.

Before all of this, I’d spent the better part of twenty-five years in Japan, ten at a very traditional Japanese law firm, four at the large Japanese pharmaceutical company, and the remainder in similar jobs. The pharmaceutical company hired me because they had a US company and decided that they should “globalize”. I was part of that initiative. Now, the problem for foreigners is that people may want to hire you because of those magic words, “globalize globalize, globalize,” even though there’s no consensus about what “globalize” means. Or maybe there’s only one person who wants to hire a foreigner—your boss—but after a honeymoon period of three to six months, the newness wears off and you are judged by Japanese standards. You don’t go out drinking enough, you take too many vacation days, you are too loud, you ask too many questions…. You start to lose your self-confidence pretty quickly. You start to believe what you are told over and over.

At the pharmaceutical company, the head of the legal department told me that I needed to go out drinking more in order to set an example for other people. In Japan people don’t talk at work, ever. So this usually obligatory drinking or getting together is part of your work. It’s how you get to know people and make connections. My thought was that I was setting a good example, especially for women, by showing that your off-work time was private and that work-life balance was important. When I was being pushed out, they told me I wasn’t Japanese enough because I took too many vacation days. (I was allowed 20 in my contract and had taken 10.)Basically, you’re excluded, you’re marginalized and you start to internalize  and believe what you are told.

On the other hand, I have had fantastic opportunities in Japan—exciting work with top companies, more responsibility than I would have had if I had stayed in the U.S., like the chance to teach law.

Anyway, I decided that I wanted more autonomy. That’s why I didn’t want to be just a freelancer; I wanted my own company. This decision came from desperation more than anything else. The greater Kansai area—Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe—has a large GDP, but for foreign women there are almost no jobs here. Whatever you want to do, you have to do it on your own.I was faced with a lot of things I’d never done before. I’m good at what I do, but I’ve never been the type of person who’s eager to acquire new skills.

I started by coming up with a name for the company. InScribe Language Consulting. Then I did a business plan for the services I’d provide initially—translation, editing and teaching Business English. I’d been an ESL teacher for a long time, and I thought teaching would provide me with a springboard to get into companies so once people got to know me they’d ask me to do some editing or translation.

I needed to have a sense of mission. It couldn’t just be about my bank account. So for my target clients, I decided to focus on small and medium-sized companies because the whole Japanese economy is set up to benefit the large multi-national companies, which are well connected to the government and the banks. The smaller companies really get squeezed. Over my years as a lawyer, I’d seen that the biggest risk for small and medium-sized companies came from lack of sophistication and the lack of a level playing field. Offering language would give small and medium-sized companies access to a good professional who could help them to do websites, give business advice for globalizing, and otherwise help them reduce the risk and increase their reputation. That would be contributing to a sector of the economy that was under-served. I am very passionate about helping the economic underdog.

Although I talk about autonomy, I need to give full credit to my Japanese husband of close to 25 years, who is a law professor at a prestigious private university. He has supported me emotionally and financially throughout this transition, including actually doing translation work. In June of 2015, he also found a wonderful month-long class offered by the city for entrepreneurs. It was four Sundays in a row, four hours each time, and it took you through setting up a business, all the way through registering the business and accounting requirement.

So, one year after losing my job and my mom, I had passed the difficult proficiency test and started down the road to being an entrepreneur. From that point, I was faced with innumerable challenges—doing things I had never done before—like setting up my own website. I spent hours and hours looking at websites of competitive companies-50 for translators, 50 for editors, and 50 for freelance English teachers. I spent a lot of time networking with people who were doing what I wanted to do, both in person and online. I was amazed by their generosity and encouragement. I didn’t have enough confidence to draft the web content myself, so I outsourced it to someone I found online. I paid her $500 for about six pages of text. When it came back, it was repetitive and needed editing. I began to suspect I was competent at more things than I’d thought I was!

I found a great office situation with 3 other foreign women entrepreneurs from Norway, Switzerland and India. One of my office-mates designs websites, and she showed me where I could find stock photos, which I’d never heard of before. I chose ones I liked, all Japan-based. Because I wanted to market us as a husband and wife legal professional team, I arranged for a photographer to spend the day in Kyoto,taking shots of me and my husband. Then I worked with my office-mate and her husband to get my website up and running. Before this experience I didn’t know what a web host was or a service provider was. Now I do.

We’re now coming up on the first anniversary of the business. We have business cards, a dedicated bank account for business only, the website, a virtual secretary and an accountant. I also invested in a new computer and downloaded some new translation software.I’m a member of five or six professional organizations for copy editors and translators in Japan and elsewhere. I just finished a year-long copy editing program at the University of San Diego. It’s one of three in the US that’s pretty highly regarded in the industry.

More importantly,I have clients who come back to me. There’s a song from The Sound of Music that’s going through my head. Julie Andrews is singing,“I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain, I have confidence that spring will come again. Beside which you see I have confidence in me.”It’s been a long time since I’ve woken up every morning knowing that it’s a new day and that I’m in charge of how it goes. I no longer feel marginalized or excluded. I often have a sense of joy and anticipation that I hadn’t felt in a while. It was always,“Just grin and bear it. You’re getting well paid. There is nothing you can do about it.”

My clients include a medium-sized law firm, where I work 2 days a week. I enjoy the people there. It’s very laid-back, I go in and do translation, editing and legal work. The job provides me with a stable income so I’m no longer in constant fear of being unable to pay my bills.

As for other clients—I just recently finished drafting an application for UNESCO patronage for a foreign scientist working at a national university; I have fun writing a monthly newsletter for a foreign real estate agency. I met this woman on LinkedIn. I put myself out there, made myself vulnerable, by sending her an email saying I also had a business, why not meet for coffee and see whether we could work together. When we sat down, she knew exactly what she wanted. She wanted me to help her with her website and also do a newsletter for her. The newsletter has turned into a golden opportunity for me because I need to contact people and interview them for the little articles I write, and that in turn helps expand my own network.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of English language websites, either from scratch or from a draft written in English. There’s a huge market for that in Japan right now because the economy is increasingly focusing on tourism as its one last hope. Lots of small and medium-sized companies are rushing to have English language features to their websites. As a result of the small jobs I get and the skills I discover I have, the focus of the business is shifting in completely unanticipated ways, like web content, grant writing, letter writing.

These small successes have given me confidence to tackle some larger projects—doing some direct marketing instead of doing the Asian thing and waiting for introductions. Some of my marketing efforts have failed, others produce surprising results. The success of the direct approach was a surprise.I assumed in Japan I’d need introductions.

I don’t. I am my own introduction.

I’m doing things I never thought I could do. I don’t think of myself as a lawyer anymore, but as a business owner. It’s scary sometimes because it starts with and ends with me. At the same time,that’s very liberating.

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A reader writes: I liked the article, very uplifting.