You’re not from round ‘ere, are you? (part 2)

This post will be even more difficult to write than the previous one. I will attempt a short essay on the pros and cons of being a foreigner working at a Japanese games company, but it will obviously not be a definitive essay; with something so subjective, how could it be? I can only offer my insights from personal experience and observation, but remember that each foreigner, each company and each situation is very different.

Firstly, if you get hired it probably means your employer has an open-minded attitude towards foreigners. Few companies are beginning to realize the importance of the foreign markets and the slow dwindling of the Japanese one. But even fewer are making efforts to remedy that. The time of change is now, so theoretically you are in a good position, but do not be surprised if your “foreignness” is barely used constructively to this end. They may hire you with the idea that, hey, a foreign employee could help us crack that strange and difficult foreign market, but end up just using you as a regular employee as changing things is kind of difficult.

In a worst case scenario the preconception is that foreigners are brash, loud, arrogant and difficult. It will work in your favour if you make an effort to dispel this idea. Don’t walk around like you’re all that, don’t be too difficult, if there are problems deal with them diplomatically and if you’re complimented humbly brush it off. My memories of working in the UK revolve around bashed keyboards, broken mice and conversations that could be heard from the other end of the building using expletives only. The Japanese work floor is a quiet affair, and though there is some chatting and laughing I have never seen or heard a Japanese colleague lose his rag. There will be moments when your first instinct is to shout “FUCK!” and punch a few keys off your keyboard, but I’d strongly advise against it. That kind of thing is simply not done and will only give the impression you are a dangerous foreign psychopath.

When confronted with bad working practices or idiotic decisions, which you probably will be, take a breather and have a think before you act. Choose your battles carefully as riling against all such problems will only result in Pyrrhic victories at best. In the short term you may get people to listen and maybe even act, but in the long term it just solidifies your image as a troublemaker. There is an expression in Japan that goes “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. You do not want to be that nail.
Your attitude should be one of mutual education. Be open to the Japanese ways of doing things and “share” your thoughts on the Western attitudes. You won’t be able to impose them.

Sometimes, though, it is useful to be the scary foreigner. When negotiating pay, for example, which you should always do during the interview, you are in a better position. I have a feeling my Japanese colleagues don’t really get into that kind of thing. When your employment rights are being trampled upon it may also be useful, but again, choose your battles wisely. If your boss in the UK would ask you to clean the rubbish bins or move heavy equipment you are perfectly right to point to your contract and job description. In Japan be prepared to give a little. I, for example, will help moving but refuse to do any cleaning – something which is quite common in Japan. I don’t refuse by loudly protesting, I refuse by passively ignoring the cleaning rota. When asked about it I will just say I’m too busy with, you know, my job. As there will always be a looming deadline this is a very handy excuse. Eventually they’ll just give up on you, if you’re lucky.

The same method can be used for your working hours. Unless you’re incredibly young, eager, single and stupid chances are you won’t want to follow the Japanese working hours. At first, though, you may not have a choice. When you first join a company and are still under a temporary contract it may be wise to follow your colleagues in their long days. As I mentioned in a previous post, don’t work at full steam, but stretch your 8 hour day over a 14 hour period. Once you’re settled in and preferably have a full-time contract you can slowly scale down your hours to something more reasonable. Start coming in earlier and leaving earlier by half an hour a week or something. The problem with coming in early is that there will not be anyone there to see you come in, so start dropping the fact into conversation as often as possible. “Man, I’m so tired. I came in at 8 again today”. Eventually people will always see you in the office as they come in and they will have heard about your hours and slowly begin to accept it. Then start leaving earlier. In the end you can approach something similar, but not quite identical, to regular working hours. In one company this little training scheme had worked so well I even got them to not schedule meetings after 5 o’clock, and when I was at my desk at half past six people were asking me why I was staying “late”. This is a slow process and it takes time, so expect to do some mad hours when you first start work here.
But don’t forget: the quality of your work and your ability to reach deadlines are as important! Sadly, you can’t rely on those alone as being seen to work late is still important, if even just subconsciously.

When it comes to working methods, inform rather than demand. If something can be done better or more efficiently then do it yourself and show your colleagues; don’t demand changes from others. I always offer my services to proof read, give pointers of game design and localization issues when I get the opportunity, but it’s up to the boss to implement these or, as is so often the case, not. There is not much else I can do about it. Becoming aggressively insistent is certainly not going to help. And what’s more, it’s not your job. But I still show my colleagues useful tips, tutorials, programs, websites and western games when it is useful and I know it is appreciated. If anything it encourages your colleagues to do likewise which can lead to valuable learning experiences.

Your colleagues will most likely be a friendly lot and keen to chat with you. I found most people made an effort to talk slowly or use baby Japanese to communicate if things got too fast for me. I have only met one or two guys who flatly refused to make the effort and just jabbered away at me; and why shouldn’t they? It is my problem and responsibility to learn the language after all.
But your Japanese skills are a quick and easy panacea for the company if they ever have problems with you. “We’re not going to make you lead because your Japanese…”, “we’re not going to give you a seishain contract because your Japanese…”, “we’re not giving you a bonus because…” you get the message. It’s an easy excuse for them and a difficult one for you to effectively fight. I once had a long and difficult meeting regarding my seishain contract, using a lot of official terms with a man who was a notorious mumbler. During the whole meeting communication was no problem at all, yet his excuse for not giving me seishain was “your Japanese ability”. At this point I thought acting the gaijin was useful and told him I’d quit otherwise. I got the contract.
The “Japanese ability” excuse could crop up forever and sometimes you simply can’t win.

The thing to remember is to give a little and take a little. Make an effort to integrate as best you can, to follow the rules and be helpful and even obedient. When things get out of hand let a little of your foreignness slip, but never in large doses. Don’t think to yourself “well, they hired a foreigner, and a foreigner they’ll get” because that can only hurt you, in the end. On the other hand, look around you, look at your colleagues. You don’t want to end up a wage slave working 10 a.m. to midnight for a pittance. Sometimes it’s good to put your foot down and at those times it is handy you’re a foreigner because it is almost expected of you and people may be a little intimidated by you as well.

Another important message is to get involved with the local expatriate community. With all the frustration you feel you simply need to get drunk sometimes and have a good old bitching session about everything and nothing. You can’t keep it bottled up; the rage or the beer.

In summary, don’t fret. Being a foreigner working in games is no big deal. As long as you do your job well you’ll be fine. Remain diplomatic and make an effort. Don’t take shit but occasionally swallow your pride and accept things for what they are.


  1. well written, engaging and informative - as always.


    p.s. any idea what's up with TCE? Maybe it's been blocked at my company, but I can't tell as I don't have the net at home.

  2. re. TCE, see the comments in the "the cast - 4. the programmer" post. Marcel and Nutshell have the same problem, as do I. Insert joke about sudden boost in productivity here.

  3. I know in America if a game developer comes around anyone with any geek in them they have a "woah" moment before composing themselves. Do the Japanese act similar?

    How do they act to foreign game developers?

    Since games are much more accepted can you use it to your advantage to pick up girls?

    Are level designers called planners or something else?


  4. This article could kick off useful discussion on whether these approaches work for Western dev teams. (Or should, principles like "give a little take a little" can get steamrollered by just one bad egg with a huge ego).


  5. "Since games are much more accepted can you use it to your advantage to pick up girls?"

    Ah, you anticipate a subject for a future post. There is no advantage. Not since the Train Man craze has passed anyway.
    And level designers also fall under the header "planner".

    Emerald, I think yes, a more moderate approach to development should be desirable. Sadly, too many companies know that a passionate fanboy is cheaper and works harder than a professional journeyman.