Alumni News

From Barcelona to Tokyo - A chronicle by Gemma Izumi

Hamarikyu Gardens, Tokyo.

This article is particularly addressed to those who are considering going to Japan to work. Here I’ll tell you about my arrival to Tokyo, which difficulties I found, and I’ll give future creative people who wish to live a new experience in Japan a piece of advice.

First of all, I’ll introduce myself. My name is Gemma Izumi, I'm Catalan-Japanese and I finished the Simultaneous Studies Program at Elisava last June 2018. The same day that I presented my master’s thesis before the panel of professors I got into the plane that would take me to the Japanese capital, where there was a job interview waiting for me.

To understand what brought me here, you have to rewind time and go to Escudellers street. Surely many of you will have passed by the window of the store LOVE STOP, located in the opposite corner of the same block of flats where Elisava is located. Well, one day I went in out of curiosity and I felt particularly incredulous to see some vibrators, sealed with the Iroha brand, which looked like Japanese sweets. The beauty of its design and the ability to transform a product like a vibrator into another with a morphology away from the phallic figure was bewildering. It wasn’t until then when I discovered an industry that I had not previously taken into account: The industry of sexual well-being. I soon investigated the brand and discovered that it was part of the Japanese group TENGA, headquartered in Tokyo.

It happened a couple of years ago, around 2016. The drive that led me to apply for a job in this Japanese company was my time working as a flight attendant at the Mobile World Congress in 2018 for the largest telecommunications group in Japan: the NTT. After living with Japanese for a week I thought that going to Japan might not be such a crazy idea, considering that I had not gone to Erasmus and had a huge desire to go out of the country for a while.

Tokyo is not the cluster of stereotypes we are builing in Europe. Tokyo is what you want to make of it

The idea of moving to Tokyo for a job was, for me, equal to imagining a society obsessed with work and effort, which sacrifices holidays and lives to the limit of stress. But the reality goes much further, as it is a society with cutting edge technology that protects the cultural heritage, where between skyscrapers and skyscrapers you can find a majestic Shinto temple. The city that never sleeps, the mecca of manga and otaku, and the city with the most Michelin stars in the world. Tokyo can be everything you want depending on how you live. There is so much of everything that you will never get out of weekend options. Now, you have to know how not to get lost, you have to bear in mind your city of origin to be able to compare and decide whether or not to fall into the roles and customs that define Japanese society, especially if you are a woman.

“Be open to change, show interest and gratitude, and hope to build the trust of your colleagues to be able to propose improvements”

Looking for a job in Japan means following a completely different process from the exact moment you apply for it. And once inside the company, you find yourself with a series of customs and processes that can sometimes seem inefficient, but that have been followed over time as a tradition. The first weeks   –or months– it is normal not to understand anything of what is going on around you. The temptation to question everything and turn it upside down is very big, and it is not wrong, but you have to find the right moment. One of the things that I quickly learnt is that Japanese first accept the role assigned to them and, therefore, they also accept who is in the position to teach and who is in the position to learn. Newbies learn from veterans, accept the rules, and get used to the way of doing business. Everyone has gone through this process, and only few have considered whether it is right or not.

You have to bear in mind that you are the outsider and, therefore, at the beginning you have no choice other than adaptation. And if you really want to improve and suggest changes within an organization, you must first demonstrate your skills to build the confidence of your superiors. Otherwise, they will think that you want to get away with not doing anything and will tend to think that "these foreigners do not want to understand Japanese culture". Slowly, if you are working in a flexible organization, changes will take place, but you have to have patience and perseverance.

Chuo-dori by night, Ginza, Tokio.

This was my case, in a company that I entered right after graduating and, therefore, in a rookie position. Generally, positions are divided into two categories according to whether you are Shinsotsu (recent graduates or without work experience, and without counting company internships as experience), or if you are Tenshoku (changing job, and therefore with work experience).

Looking for a job once you have completed your degree is relatively easy considering that the labor supply is very broad. One of the advantages that Japan has in the recruiting environment is that there are many means available to find what you are looking for. Digital portals where you create your profile-resume and receive proposals of all kinds, mobile applications such as Tinder aimed to find your ideal job, and more rudimentary methods such as advertising on the subway or posters on the street. The one I advise the most is, if you have a specific company in mind, looking at their website in Japanese. The official websites of companies usually contain a tab of job offers. There you can not only see what profiles are searched, but also what are the working conditions, the wage, which allowances are included or even if there are financial grants for renting the flat. In these pages it is possible to fill out an Entry Sheet that will be your digital resume and if the profile interests you, you go to the interview phase (about this, it can be said that, unless the company has an international scope, the offers will be in Japanese).

And this is precisely how I got into TENGA, at the R&D department to develop new products in the area of sexual well-being. The process that I followed was preparing the curriculum in Japanese and send the form. When I received the possibility of an interview, I hesitated to do it from Barcelona via video-call, but I felt that I had to go and live this experience. The following days I was watching videos on YouTube about what the interviews are like in Japan, since there is an obvious long list of procedures and manners that must be followed to keep your chances of getting the job.

“Hierarchy defines your expected behavior, although knowing how to play your cards can help you to stand out and grow”

Protocols and procedures. This is the most difficult thing to learn and what made me to take a while before adapting here in Japan. The cultural shock is obvious, and the first months I had to be very careful not to screw up. But there was something that was clear to me: I could provide a vision of design from a European viewpoint, and being the newbie of the company didn’t mean accepting a passive role.

Japanese organizations have a very visible hierarchical model when it comes to the way employees communicate. Depending on the time you have been part of a company, or your working experience in general, you will have an interpersonal relationship of Senpai-kōhai (lit. former partner- after partner) or Douki (companion of the same period). Therefore, first you have to understand where you are, and where is the partner sitting next to you.

The rookie role is not only represented in the language you have to choose when addressing your colleagues and bosses, but in the actions you carry out. For example, the most novice will sit in the closest seat to the door of the room during a meeting, while the oldest will sit in the center, and customers or guests will always sit on the opposite side of the room’s entrance. If you have to take a taxi with some co-workers, the oldest of the group will be the first to enter and will sit behind the driver, while the most novice will go as co-pilot to guide the taxi driver. Everything has a very simple reason: to raise others as a form of respect for those who have more experience. 

“Enjoy everything within your reach and look at your work as an opportunity”

This can be explained with an example that I am currently living. As I am the youngest of the Research and Development department, I am responsible for the operation and maintenance of the additive manufacturing machines that we use for prototyping. Giving this responsibility to the newest is not due to their expertise in these technologies, but a simple matter of workload that older people should not undertake. What at first sight may sound like a punishment if you look at it in a negative way, for me it is an opportunity to learn how to use the latest generation digital machines that perhaps in a non-Japanese company I could not have. To be honest, during the first year you’ll have to work hard and do everything, and sometimes it is going to be hard, but thanks to that you’ll get the chance to know people from different departments, establish more personal relationships and learn from everything.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the company I work for is that there is a huge investment in research, and the R&D department is their largest. Therefore, the figure of the designer is respected and valued, which does not always happen in other companies. We cook new ideas in the lab to later send them to the production department, followed by the marketing and PR, and finally with the commercial along with the international relations. As I am working in a Japanese SME in the middle of an international expansion era, I feel there are many possibilities to be able to express the individual will of each person and see it reflected on a global scale.

But even in the most intense moments you have to know how to find calm and disconnect. And luckily, in Tokyo there are enough islands of peace to find silence, either between bamboo branches or between the fluorescent lights of some hidden spots.

And finally, some topics to think of:

Language: If you plan to come to live in Japan, having basic knowledge of Japanese will open you many doors. English is not yet a language spoken by most Japanese, so mastering more than two languages will already be a strong point to start with.

Visa: The company normally takes care of the visa, although it can be a somewhat time-consuming process that lasts for months. If you have the nationality, this problem fades away.

Housing: The price of housing in Tokyo is expensive, so flats are usually very small. Sharing a flat in Japan is not a deeply rooted habit. If you are going to live alone, the most usual thing is to rent a room with kitchen, WC and shower included. Luckily, some companies offer financial grants for rent, so it is worth asking.

Transportation: Traveling by metro and train is the most usual option, especially if you do not live close to where you work. Being at walking or cycling distance would be idyllic, since in the rush hours of the working-days trains can be jam-packed depending on the line you take. Taking into account the reach of the capital and its immensity, it can be worth living outside to have an economic rent and sacrifice 45 minutes by train. Take into account that companies generally pay for transportation from home to work and vice versa.

Holidays: It is true that in Japan people have few holidays, although it is not always because they cannot, but because they do not want to. While some companies only give 10 days of holidays per year (besides national holidays and weekends), others give 20 or more. But Japanese rarely consume them all at once. Knowing how to find the balance between work and personal life is important if you don’t want to end up sick.

If you are interested in coming to Japan and you have any doubts, you can talk to me through Elisava Alumni.

I encourage you to look for what you really love and dive in new challenges that captivate you!


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