Hopelessly, Helplessly Falling - Part One: From Executive to What?

Hopelessly, Helplessly Falling - Part One: From Executive to What?

Recently I received a letter from a reader who is married to a Japanese national and is considering moving back to Japan so that his wife and 3 kids can be closer to her aged parents. He is a senior executive in a major firm in the US and is well respected for his organizational and leadership abilities. He wonders what kind of job he might be able to find here in Japan, particularly since he has never worked here before and doesn't speak Japanese. His current company is not represented in Japan and therefore he is unable to apply for a transfer.

Well, my first reaction was to think,"Oh dear, this person is walking into a potential minefield." As much as I admire his reasons for considering coming to Japan i.e., letting his wife reconnect with her roots, the idea of moving the family lock, stock, and barrel after being in a high-powered job role, and not being able to communicate or function as a leader in a foreign society is fraught with problems.
Starting with lack of human network, no legal or cultural awareness, a multitude of family adjustment pressures, and the costs of accommodation, education, and food - well these are just a few of the many issues that will beset this foreign executive and his family. Indeed, when I recruit overseas, I typically only recruit singles or people whose spouse already has a job waiting for him or her in Tokyo and thus allows a quick transition.
Successful people in the West often underestimate the difficulties that not speaking a language and not having a personal network to operate from. In effect for the first few weeks in Japan the person is usually reverted to "baby" status, struggling even to buy food and get around on the public transport to do job interviews. There are no short-cuts, favors owed, strategic positioning, persuasive selling techniques, or other situational advantages that win business back home. This comes as quite a shock, and indeed, many don't make it past their first 6 months before hopping on a plane back home.

So let me say from the start that if you are a senior executive in a job which entails lots of social and communications skills, then getting a similar position as a local hire in Japan is probably NOT an option. No matter how successful you were in your own country, the lack of market knowledge and inability to even talk to your own employees will mean that you can't really function. I have met a number of senior guys who come to Japan full of confidence, only to have that knocked out of them as they come to realize that they can't even get laboring jobs.

So pretty much the only path for a non-Japanese speaking executive looking to move to Japan is to find an employer while still in your own country, one who would be willing to transfer you to Japan after, say, two years. A multinational will readily absorb the hundreds of thousands of dollars in accommodation and education costs, and tax offsets for their senior executives. So if your company does not have an office in Japan, like our reader's, then consider finding one that does.
Set the condition of joining that you will be reviewed for a Japan-side transfer within the following two years. Although this approach is slow and may delay indefinitely a return to Japan, I have nevertheless seen foreigners married to Japanese use the method successfully to eventually get parachuted into a decently paid and supported position here in Japan.