From the Trenches – DP: Part Two
Surviving the First 3 Months
Since starting to work in a Japanese language-only office one year ago, with only conversational level Japanese I've learnt a good deal of day-to-day office Japanese as well as come to better understand the mentality of Japanese business practice.
Like many things, the first few weeks were the most difficult. However, once I had learnt the basics of what was expected, how the general workload proceeds, and a basic core of several hundred frequently used words, it was easier to focus on getting the job done and on time.
My first day at the office I received a 125 page, Japanese-only technical specification (with a lot of bio-tech jargon) and a three month deadline. At that moment, I wondered if I'd done the right thing, sweet-talking my way in there. However, over the following few weeks, with diligent study, I became comfortable with the differences in development style and feedback. Slowly, day-by-day, page-by-page the document began to make sense - to the point that I was able to finish two weeks early!
Perhaps more so in IT, but also in many other lines of work, changes in the country's workforce mean many companies have a hard time filling vacancies. This is despite limited Japanese communication skills. Therefore, if you are able to get the work done, on time and without burdening others, I think the number of benefits a foreigner can offer an employer can often outweigh the costs.
Still, the Japanese office is very different from the west and foreigners have a partly deserved reputation for unpredictability. Basically, hiring a foreigner is a high risk strategy compared to hiring a native Japanese as an employee. However, with a few cultural courtesies, it's possible to minimize the perceived risks to a manageable level and thus make it beyond a probationary contract and learn a lot in the process.
For starters, by letting the way you've previously learned and done your job take a back seat, and by concentrating on watching and learning how Japanese behave, it's easier to gain trust and acceptance and later be asked for your input. It's also useful to favour speaking Japanese over English as much as possible. Although this makes it more difficult to express yourself, it certainly does help communication, because people can't use the excuse that they don't understand you when they don't agree with you - instead, they are obliged to talk back. In my case at least, when my Japanese wasn't comprehensible, the other person in the office would soon ask for clarification, helping both of us catch potential problems earlier.
In software development most of the code here uses English function and data variable names with very few comments on what the code is doing. At times it can be incredibly frustrating trying to interpret the meaning of an obscure function name, which an earlier programmer seemed to have creatively lifted from a convenient Japanese-English dictionary. However, this love of using English can give a native English speaker a distinctive advantage when reading an old code. Indeed, I feel sorry for Japanese programmers who aren't as skilful at interpreting obscure English and consequently have to ignore all the text clues in the application and retrace the core function being performed at each step.
For me, learning the Japanese language has been a long and slow process. I think of it as being like swimming in the ocean; each stroke takes you forward, but the islands move so slowly that it feels like you're not making progress. Only after months of on-going work do random moments remind you of how much progress you've made. It's important to not rush learning and get burnt out, but rather to put in the hours and to have realistic expectations. There aren't any short-cuts, but if you work every day, the benefits of improved language skills are worth it.
In Kansai I've met many foreigners who have lived for ten or more years in Japan. These people seem to gravitate to the two extremes of the language scale. There are those who put in the hours early on to reach a high level of language proficiency in the first few years and then have gone on to build a strong base, and there are those who didn't put in the effort and thus don't have a foundation to build on. In my opinion, this group takes much longer to make significantly less progress - financially or from a career perspective.
In finding work and staying employed, the most important thing I've learnt is to be open to new ideas from the Japanese culture, to persevere with your Japanese study, and to create your own opportunities. In short, make sure that your only competition is outside your domain, and not your own personal issues.