It’s always interesting to hear about the experiences of individuals who have relocated to another country to work, and how work environments differ in various parts of the world. Tokyo, the world’s most populous metropolitan city, has been described as a place where traditional and modern cultures collide. I recently had the opportunity to interview an Appirio veteran who spent 3 years working in our Tokyo office, and he had some great insights to share.
Igor Androsov is a Technical Architect with 24 years of industry experience and has been working in the cloud at Appirio for the past 7 years. He has lived in Japan for 8 years, where he now has a family. Igor attended the University of South Florida and speaks 4 languages.
What’s it like working in Japan?
IA: Living and working in Tokyo was one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve ever had, to the point that Japan feels like home now. During my 3 years working in Appirio Japan, I had the privilege of seeing that team grow and be part of it from the beginning — through lots of ups and downs. It has been a humbling and fun experience to work with such a wonderful group of people.
Over the last 20+ years of my IT career I’ve worked in many places — including New York City and San Francisco — but I must say that our team in Tokyo is the most dedicated and skilled group of technologists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. We have built great systems together and I look forward to more fun and innovation with the Japan team.
What makes Tokyo unique compared to other large cities you’ve been to?
IA: Tokyo is one of the world’s mega-cities where about 11 million people commute to and from work every day by train, subway, and other forms of transportation, yet the city size is relatively small. Every mile of Tokyo is so packed with shops and offices that it looks like chaos at first, but soon you realize it is amazingly efficient and organized. The great part is there is no need to drive; you can get almost anywhere in Japan with public transportation. The network of subways seems complicated at first, but is truly amazing. The city is very multicultural; millions of foreigners live there, so it’s never an issue to get around or find a place to hang out with like-minded groups.
Despite its population, the city is likely the safest in the world for locals and foreigners alike. There are many interesting districts in Tokyo, but none are considered particularly dangerous. It also has the best variety of food you will ever experience! Expect your palate to change if you live there for some time. There are more izakayas (Japanese pubs) and other speciality eateries than you can count. Every region in Japan has a local food speciality and many can be found in Tokyo. Another unique thing I experienced were the earthquake tremors, which can be a little startling at first, but are no reason to panic. Periodic small building shakes are normal and usually end within minutes.
What are some major differences between working in Japan and the U.S.?
IA: When it comes to language, work communication is done mostly in Japanese, but most professionals can read and write in English (though some may not feel as confident speaking English).
Work group dynamics are a little different than the U.S. Traditionally, the Japanese are focused on keeping harmony and peace, and emphasize society over self-interest; fitting in with the group is very important. Things are starting to change a little more toward a more individual focus now, due to global and economic pressures, so people are learning to adapt.
Something I found peculiar about the traditional Japanese work space is that it’s typical to see people stay very late in the office working. While Appirio is a pretty flexible company, traditional Japanese companies expect employees to be at the office and work overtime (zangyo) or even stay late to demonstrate their work ethic. Some will even need to take a nap at their desk — it’s not always the most effective use of time.
How does the IT field differ there?
IA: Japan is #1 in the world for services. I think service was invented by the Japanese. High levels of service are expected in all areas of society. Since Appirio delivers IT services, it presents some cultural challenges with high levels of quality and reliability requirements. IT systems that would accept reasonable risk in other parts of the world will not pass in Japan. On top of that, Japanese information systems tend to be overly complex. With that immense complexity, some unexpected troubles occur, but the reaction to them is amazing. Not only the root cause must be found and eliminated, but in-depth explanations of problems are required. Depending on a project’s visibility, public apologies from representatives may be given — sometimes on national television.
What advice would you give someone who is preparing to work in Japan for the first time?
IA: Embrace the culture and be prepared to learn with an open mind! Expect to have fun, meet new people, exchange ideas, and learn as much as you can while making some embarrassing mistakes along the way. There is an old Japanese saying: “To ask is one moment of shame, but not to ask and remain ignorant is lifelong shame.”
If you are a techy like me, be prepared to be humbled by the dedication and skill level of people you will meet and be working with. If you’re in business development or sales, you might find negotiations in Japan frustrating, as big decisions are not made in the board room, but in more informal settings. Knowing a little about the Japanese culture or showing some interest in Japanese traditional arts can be good for conversing and networking. Speaking some Japanese will make your stay in Japan much more fun and productive, and the more you practice, the better it will get. Just remember that it’s okay to make mistakes when learning a new language and culture.
One more small tidbit to consider is that appliances in Japan — like the microwave, washer, and even bathtub — operate on electronic controls that are typically marked only in Japanese characters. That can make it challenging to do your laundry or take a bath. All part of the fun!