Terrie's Job Tips -- Being a Bilingual Assistant, Part I: Positives and Negatives

Foreign companies setting up in Japan are much more reliant on the quality of their staff than are Japanese or older companies who’ve been around a long time. This is because they have not yet earned the goodwill and human networks that help them make sales more easily and take the sting out of negotiating solutions to problems. But at the same time, finding high quality, bilingual staff is a huge challenge, and for some companies an insurmountable one.

A common way around that challenge of finding experienced bilinguals is for a company new to Japan to bring in a manager, an engineer, or a finance person from one of their operations around the world, and have that person apply their expertise through the efforts of a bilingual assistant. For senior managers this will be a secretary, and for technical people it will probably be a junior or trainee bilingual person who hopes their language skills will leverage them into an opportunity to gain experience.

There are pluses and minuses in having a skilled individual accompanied by a bilingual assistant, versus having both skills in a single person. Let’s look at the advantages first:

- The company can get a high level of skills quickly and thus respond to market needs without having to invest long-term in a bilingual with the same experience.
- Highly skilled people in “soft” industries (versus manufacturing) are hard to come by in Japan and are much more available overseas. Therefore, it makes sense to bring in an experienced person, establish a best practice operation, and train the local staff.
- Having the ability to tap into the overseas recruiting pool makes the company much less vulnerable to the departure of a highly skilled bilingual person.
- Having a senior native speaker communicating with the head office can be useful in explaining some of Japan’s unique business issues.
- At some point the bilingual assistant will have accumulated sufficient knowledge to be able to pick up and handle many of their assigned duties without assistance (provided that they have had the correct basic education/training).

Then there are the problems inherent in the assisted manager model which can introduce a high level of risk if the assistant is unable to quickly pick up on the responsibilities of their role:

- Especially at the start of a working relationship, the inexperience of the assistant can severely hinder the effectiveness of the senior foreign person.
- In particular, there may be instances during critical meetings of misinterpreted or unclearly explained concepts and solutions.
- The assistant may be asked to relay some very high-level and critical information, which is inappropriate for a junior person to do. This is particularly troublesome when there are delicate personnel or financial issues being discussed.
- Having a junior assistant present at high-level discussions will probably make the foreign organization look less competent.
- There is little opportunity for the foreign senior manager to project their own personality or emphasis on a given topic.
- Being a bilingual assistant can be stressful since the person doing the job is often expected to do less independent thinking and try to be faithful to the message being relayed by the foreign person – even though that message may be highly inappropriate in a Japanese context.
- Having a really competent assistant coupled with a high-end executive can also be very expensive, adding JPY 10 million or so to the cost of an ex-pat.

Next week I will write about the actual job role of a bilingual assistant and what the opportunities are.