And in today's human interest story: a rather big and short earthquake hit us around a quarter past five. News reports it was magnitude 4.8 I was just in the lift when it happened and I haven't been so scared in my life. In fact, the earthquake lasted the exact length of my ascent, so for a few minutes I was confused as to whether it was just a mechanical failure on not.

No matter how long I'll live in Tokyo, those earthquakes continue to freak me out. It isn’t helped by the constant creeping knowledge that Tokyo is overdue the Big One, and to me any little seismic shock could be it.

Tokyo is definitely not for the paranoid, though I’ve managed so far…


CEDEC day two and I only managed to pick up one seminar; the demonstration of the sexy new aspects of Maya 8.0. The first half must have been a bore for the programmers as they only showed off the new poly tools and transfer options, but they got their own back in the second half, which was a boring slog through the programming side of the new package.

And it only crashed twice in the one and a hall hour lecture, though the first time was deftly deflected with a quick explanation of the help files and the live debug crash reporting functions. Either way, it looked a pretty decent upgrade and I’ll be pestering my company like a spoiled child to get it as soon as the Japanese version is released in December.
But they had me at "proper, working alpha Z sorting in the viewport", praise the Lord!

To make this post slightly relevant, any aspiring expat artists should do themselves a favour and make sure they familiarise themselves with Maya. Though there are still a few companies that use 3DSMax or even XSI, it would seem Maya is the norm. Luckily Maya's interface is still in English; the "Japanese" version just includes a Japanese manual. That said, the Japanese version of 3DSMax does indeed have Japanese menus but comes packaged with the English version as well. So neither package should give anyone new to the local language any problems.

CEDEC 2006

It's the time of year for hundreds of developers to shuffle up to Sangenjaya's Showa Women's University, sadly vacated for the summer holidays. There we all squeeze into Gaijin-unfriendly, hard wooden school benches to listen to industry professionals on a variety of subjects; you get the idea.

CEDEC, stands for “CESA Developers Conference”, and to open up this matryoshka of an acronym, CESA stands for “Computer Entertainment Supplier’s (sic.) Association” Here's the official site.

I thought I'd attend this year mostly to spend a little time away from my desk and avoid retina screen-burn; I swear I can see the Windows toolbar when I stare at bright surfaces.
Skipping the morning’s opening speech I attended the crowded seminar by two, programmers on “Wanda and the Colossus”. Though they didn’t really share any development secrets that weren’t already available on-line, it was pretty cool to see their tools and techniques demonstrated in real-time and to get a look the psychedelic character animation test levels.

For the 30 minute break we weren’t content to wait in line for half an hour at the cafeteria, so in stead we waited half an hour in line at the nearest convenience store. A quick cigarette at the official smoking area, funnily enough the bike shed, we had to hurry to the next seminar.

This second lecture, “How to become a box-office hit creating graphic artist” was a waste of time. Focusing mostly on semi-traditional 2D anime art, we were shown a very mediocre company show reel, followed by a long speech about how to be as great an artist as those guys are. It included such gems as: “Characters with blue hair, white skin and big eyes are cool because they look American” and “If you interview with us, here’s what to say…” I utilized the time by napping, as much as my caffeine-withdrawal headache allowed which just about woke me up enough to survive the rest of the afternoon back at the office.

Tomorrow I hope to quickly attend a demonstration of the new aspects of Autodesk Maya 8.0, after which I have to get back to work and inform the rest of the art team of my findings. Friday I have another seminar planned. I thought I’d append that with the evening’s developers' drinking party, but I learned today it isn’t free, so maybe not. I was hoping to attend more seminars, especially some by IGDA Japan, but sadly my work schedule is a bit more pressing this week.

Eidos, Spike in publishing deal

Gamasutra announced today that Eidos and Spike have a publishing deal for three games to be released in Japan.

Now I'd be the first to congratulate Spike on their bold move. I really think more Western games need to infiltrate the Japanese market. The market here is shrinking, the quality and technology (and home sales) of Western games has shot up; Japan could do with a taste of that right now.

However, the deal seems to be for console and PC versions. The PC market in Japan is tiny. 10k units is considered a big hit ("daihit"). And the games they have lined up... Tomb Raider, Commandos and Urban Chaos aren't exactly the kind of thing the Japanese market is hungry for. Even a massive title like Tomb Raider simply doesn't carry the weight over here as it does in the West. And Spike, bless 'em, don't exactly have the name recognition and muscle that is needed to mount a massive PR push that would seem necessary if any of these titles are going to make any significant sales.

If I let myself be cynical for a moment, I doubt this deal will make a massive impact. I hope it does, though. Then maybe other publishers will try their luck too, opening the floodgates.

Good luck to Spike! I hope they can make something of it.

The Great Japanese Overtime Swindle

It is often commented that the Japanese are hard and diligent workers. After a few years of experience working with Japanese colleagues I can tell you that this is categorically untrue.
It is not that they are lazy or bad workers; don't get me wrong! But the story is a little more complicated than that.

One of the unwritten rules of work in Japan is that no matter how late you come into the office one must stay late in the evening; preferably not leaving before the boss does. So most Japanese employees have resigned themselves to the fact they are working 10, 12 or 14 hour days, if not longer.
Now, the Japanese are no fools! If you spend that long working hard you'll grind yourself to the bone in no time. So what happens is that they carefully spread their tasks over that period rather than keep up a pace. I often spy my colleagues reading manga or magazines, having a long and pointless chat, browsing the internet or even taking naps at their desks! But they stay late. Very late, on occasion.

As a foreigner on a seishain contract I have successfully trained a few employers to accept the fact come in early, hours before anyone else, but also leave "early", or rather, at a normal hour. It's a slow process; like weaning a child off the bottle I slowly start leaving earlier and earlier, at all times making sure my tasks were done and everybody was aware of how early I got in in the mornings. I was so successful with this that at one company people were asking me why I was staying late, at 6.30 pm., and art and design meetings weren't scheduled to start after 5 p.m. anymore.
In that time I did as much work as my colleagues did in a 14 hour day or longer. I was just more focused during work hours and did my work then, rather than procrastinate. The upshot of this is that I am enjoying a reputation for being a very fast worker.

In one memorable crunch I worked extra hard during the day but still managed to get home at reasonable hours. Coming in in the morning I found, usually, my entire team sleeping at their desks. I'd start work, they would slowly wake up, loaf around, make coffee, have chats, doze a little more, start thinking about starting work. By midday some of them would actually have started doing some work, sometimes interposed with the occasional nap again or a two hour lunch to "recuperate". I'd leave at a normal time and they would stay the night again. This pattern went on for a few weeks.
The game got finished, my work was in good order and on time. I had a life outside work and a healthy rhythm. They were all knackered but got a few holiday days in compensation.
Now who's the fool? That is a hard question to answer, actually.

So, sure, the Japanese work diligently. Their work isn't bad (though the game industry has its fair share on no-hopers), they make sure things are done on time, but in the end I do the same amount of work in a 9 hour workday as they do in a 14 hour one; except, they are more tired every day and in the end it affects their work and health

So what, as a foreigner, can you do? To be honest, not much to begin with. Without the safety of a good reputation and preferably a seishain contract you may be forced into the same unhealthy rhythm as your colleagues. And at first this is probably what you should do. It shows you are not a trouble maker and can do it "the Japanese way". Once you've established yourself as reliable and/or talented you could start to slowly adjust your hours. If you do that from the outset you run the risk of being seen as "difficult". On the other hand, your employer may also see what he can expect from you when it comes to working hours. It is a bit of a gamble at this stage.
Obviously working these mad hours is possible if you're young, single and eager, but whatever you do don't work at full steam! It is simply untenable. Adjust your work speed to that of your colleagues.
And in the end, even if you adjust your hours don't expect to get it down to a regular 9 to 5. I am quite happy with the hours I've set for myself but I still find I work longer than I did back home.

It'll be a while before all this changes, but I think, in the end, it must. Some of my colleagues are slowly following my example, which is encouraging. To bridge this cultural gap takes a bit of compromise from both sides, but Japan could do with an EA_spouse of its own to hurry things along.

Gamesmanship - part 3

I am Jack's textbook racial stereotype

The best state of mind for a gamesnman's opponent is a confused sense of confidence. If the target feels assured and correct it puts the gamesman in a better position. One way to accomplish this is to play into the deep-rooted sense of racial stereotypes the Japanese have towards Westerners. Validate their misconceptions to your own advantage.

At the airport check-in desk ask for a seat next to the emergency exit because your legs, I don't know, must be longer than those of the Japanese or something. The check-in clerk will instantly realise that this is true, because all Japanese know Westerners have longer legs; it is common knowledge for them! Thanks to the vindicated smugness of the clerk a seat next to the emergency exit is almost guaranteed.

Non-smokers may want a particular seat in a restaurant as far removed from the smoking section, which is more often than not an open area. Point out how sensitive your eyes are. The maitre d' will see this as Truth and to show how aware he is of your genealogical differences he will happily comply.

Claim ignorance when asked if it is true that Westerners can hold their alcohol better than the Japanese* and be assured an evening of free drinks from the curious eager to test this hypothesis.

Japan has a rich vein of racial stereotypes the gamesman can tap for fun and profit. We are all equal but foreigners are less equal than others.

* It is.

How's my nihongo? Call 1-800-SUCK

Having lived in Japan for nigh-on 6 years now, and working at a Japanese developer you'd think my Japanese was pretty damn good, right? And by all reasoning it should be! I have decided I'll probably stay the rest of my life in this country, I deal on a daily basis with my colleagues, I watch tedious Japanese television... I'd be a pretty sad individual if my Japanese wasn't up to scratch, right?
Well, it isn't. I'm rubbish.

So what went wrong? For a start, I am naturally lazy, like most people. You come home from a hard day's work, the last thing you want to do is hit the books. No, you want to sit back, play some games, watch some tv, go out for some drinks. You definitely won't want to learn kanji. I would like to go back to school but that can be quite expensive. I once tried group lessons, sharing a class with only two other foreigners, neither of whom had the slightest interest in making an effort. While they were being sponsored by their companies I was paying for it myself and keen to make it count. So I would be sitting in class thinking "man, we went over this last week! Haven't you learnt it yet? Sheez." In an ideal world classmates would offer a little competition or at least motivation. I was unlucky enough to be stuck with the two most tiresome individuals the foreigner community had to offer. So I tried private lessons. Much more expensive, obviously, but at least it was tailored to my needs and weaknesses. It went great for a while, until crunch kicked in at work.
In the end I let it slip and never had the balls to pick it up again.

I also firmly believe reading is the best way to study a language. But with Japanese you're buggered. Sure, katakana and hiragana are a doddle to learn, but kanji? A right Royal pain in the neck. Even reading a newspaper requires some 2000 odd kanji.

Of course my spoken Japanese is alright. I have no problems communicating with my colleagues about work and life. Occasionally I stumble over some words but so far I've been lucky to have worked with some very patient people who were always willing to speak in baby-Japanese when necessary. I learnt some handy slang too when out for smoking breaks. Emails and documents still go through Excite, most days. I could wrestle my way through them, but I am usually busy enough with my own tasks so a quick and dirty translation on-line is good enough. Except when I send them out, of course, then I do spend some time making sure I am not inadvertendly insulting the boss's mother or anything like that.

So I'm screwed. I have no excuse but to go back to school. I really should. One day...

But how good do you have to be to actually work? I guess if you can manage an interview in Japanese you're probably good enough, at first. I shouldn't bother with JLPT too much unless you want to go into translation or work for another industry. I don't think I've ever met anyone in the games inudustry who cared about JLPT or even knew exactly what it was. You may want to use it to motivate yourself, but I don't think it's required for development work.

The final tip I can give is probably "learn kanji NOW!". If you're toying with the idea of moving here, start learning it immediately, while you're still young, preferably, before your synapses start eroding with old age. The Japanese start learning it from age 6 orso, and even they have problems with it! But always keep in mind that, aside from the kanji, it is just another language. Grammatically it's pretty easy and solid. Once you get to grips with the structure of words you'll pick it up fairly quickly. If you just put in a little effort it is not that difficult to learn!

A giant leap for one man - part 4

So you've made your decision, studied some Japanese and read a few crappy blogs; you're ready to make your move to Japan. But how to go about it? Well, there are four, fairly obvious ways to do this.

1. Play it safe
Stay at home, keep your job and spend your waking hours writing and sending out a billion application letters and emails. You may hit upon the one company who wants to actively invest in a foreign employee and help you make the move to Japan. The upshot of this tactic is that you'll get some help from your employee when it comes to Visas, housing, moving costs, etc. The downside is that these kinds of companies are increasingly rare and you are severely limiting your chances.
This may be a viable option for those that are merely toying with the idea of moving to Japan but aren't entirely sure yet. Your hundreds of rejection letters won't hurt you much and a possible acceptance may help you make that final decision. For those absolutely Hell-bent on making the move this is the slowest and most frustrating choice of action.

2. Move sideways
Find a nice big corporation with offices in Japan. Join locally, in your home country, and try to get transferred to the Japan branch. This will take some time and it won't always be possible. Plus, again, you are limiting your choices.
The plus side is that if you succeed you will be in a very cushy position. Your wages will probably be higher and you'll have more job security.

3. The detour
Come to Japan and do something else first. Maybe become an English teacher or JET, or a model or a leafletter. There are plenty of jobs on the lower end of the market, some, like teaching, even offering pretty good money for very little work. You'll get your Visa this way and you'll be settled in Japan, making applying to development companies a lot more efficient. This is by far the safest route as a job in any other industry is fairly easy to get compared to development work.
The negative side is that, well, you may be stuck teaching English to bored housewives for a while. To be fair I've never taught, but there are plenty of stories going around. Visit any Eikaiwa forum and you'll find vitriol and hate that almost, but not quite, matches that of professional game development communities. But as a means to an end it's an option.

4. The deep end
Just pack your bags and fly over. This is impossible without some savings in your bank and a bit of luck. Companies will still need to sponsor your Visa and to validate it you'll need to leave Japan and re-enter. Being close and available for interviews at any time will count in your favour, as Japanese companies are a lot less profligate than their Western counterparts and will probably not pay for people to be flown over. It is possible to find cheap, and often dirty, digs in Tokyo for shorter periods. Don't expect to be living like a King.
This option only differs from nr. 3 in that you will have a lot of spare time to look around Tokyo, to apply and be ready for interviews. But you won't have a valid working Visa or an income.

I know for a fact all of these options are viable as I've met and worked with foreigners who have come to Japan following any of these ways.

Two slightly different peas in separate but very similar pods

Seeing as Japanese games are so crazy, well-produced and numerous there must be one Hell of a difference in the development cultures between East and West, right? Well, surprisingly no, not that much.

For a start, not all games produced in Japan are of the visual quality of Final Fantasy or the crazy madness of Katamari Damacy. People who play Japanese games in the West usually only access a pre-filtered pool of acceptable games. Aside from those there are an awful lot of games that are plain bad, cheaply made, too niche, pornographic, that most people just don't get to see. And someone has to make those games too! So working in Japan doesn't automatically mean you'll be working on a massive title the whole world wants to play; you could just as easily be working on a mediocre little cash-maker in imminent danger of being cancelled.

On the actual work floor I found very little difference between the work I do here on a daily basis and the work I did back home. Pretty much all the parallels with the West hold up and each company has their own problems and attractive points.

The main differences from my own personal experiences boil down to these:

Salaries tend to be lower in Japan than in the West, especially the US. You have to get pretty high up the food chain to earn a decent wage and even then it's a lot lower than someone in the same position back home. Graduates and the young usually get a pretty rough deal, with salaries so shockingly low it's no surprise they live with their parents for so long. Foreigners are in a slightly better position as we have the guts to negotiate salaries, which seems not to be the case for Japanese workers (though I may be wrong).

With a few notable exceptions development budgets are also much lower than in the West. This probably has something to do with the previous and following points.

These seem to be tighter, or rather: shorter. Sometimes they are so spectacularly short that overrun is inevitable. At these times it seems the focus is to get everything in rather than cut features, but that also happens on occasion. Where in the West you may sometimes hear "what can we cut to make the milestone?" in Japan you'll just hear "good luck, guys!".

It isn't half as bad as you'd expect. As mentioned in a previous post the game industry isn't quite as old-fashioned as other institutions, but some remnants remain. What the boss says is final. What the lead says is final, if approved by the boss. etc. Not that much different than in the West until you start dealing with official bureaucracy. HR, holiday days, salary details, etc. That said, there are a few older corporations where things are still done the old-fashioned way. These dinosaurs are best avoided.

Decision making
I guess this is part of Japanese culture. Decisions aren't made, they're implied. Three hour long meetings often seem very unproductive because at the end of it there still won't be a hard yes or no answer to something. And there never will be. This is something you, as a foreigner, will have to learn to adapt to, to interpret correctly; not just in work but in daily life too.Meetings seem to be popular too. Once you get into a lead position you'll find most of your hours are wasted on meeting after meeting; some necessary, some not. Either way, none end on time or with a solid resolution.

Attention to detail
Yes, Japanese developers love their little details, but often a bit too much. Expect to be working on iteration after iteration of a very inconsequential detail despite the fact here are bigger, pressing problems to be solved. I seem to be reworking things a lot more than I did back home, not because of the quality but simply because a lead thought of a new little detail to try out or simply because he says "try it again". This can be a little frustrating especially when the milestone approaches and that other big problem hasn't even been addressed yet.This whole issue is somewhat aggravated by fact that most things seem to be hard-coded. The implementation of a new version of an asset is usually work for the artist as well as the designated coder, wasting two people's time for the price of one.

The hours
Ah, the Myth of the Japanese work attitude. Yes, hours are long, as in, a lot of people stay late. But they also start late and spread their work out over a longer period. Timekeeping seems to be something the Japanese industry is terrible at. I'll definitely broach this subject a few more times in future posts.

The thing to take out of all this is that you shouldn't worry too much about entering a wild and strange world different to your own. If you have development experience back home those skills of yours are easily applicable in Japan without having to learn special pipelines or approaches. Any real differences shouldn't impact your work too much.

In future posts I hope to look into the differences between specific Western development roles and their Japanese counterparts and maybe offer some more detailed information on the above mentioned points.

Gamesmanship - part 2

Know your place

In Japan the bow is used to pay appropriate respects to whomever you are bowing to. How deep you bow, duration and regularity or refusal to actually stop bowing all show due deference to your superior. The gamesman though reverses this tactic and uses the bow to impose his perceived position on others. As a foreigner making a cultural faux pas means very little. You are not meant to understand the ins and outs of such niceties. So when you bow, bow as little as you can. Consciously the other person will see this as a failure of a non-national to understand and adhere to the rules, but subconsciously he will be put in his place (fig. 2).

Study these examples
"Mr. Gaijin-san, good morning!"
Deep bow, "Good morning, honerable colleague!"
"We have a lot of work for you to do today!"

"Mr. Gaijin-san, good morning!"
Quick nod, "Morning."
"How is sir today? I hope sir will be kind enough to consider some of our humble requests."

If at all possible the gamesman's chin must never be lower than his Adam's apple. Once you have learnt this version of the "bow", be sure to use it often so that people will think you are very polite and socially minded.

If one is forced into a show of respect to an undeserving recipient, say to someone with decisive power over your continued employment, the gamesman should combine the bow with another activity which requires the downward motion. Bow deeply but before you get up, scratch your knee, or pick up an object as if that was the reason you were down there (fig. 3). The recipient will be slightly confused as to whether you were showing him the respect he expected or not. He may feel good about himself but at the same time be unsure as to your status.

Bowing is a weapon, not a mere social nicety. The true gamesman knows this all too well and will make extensive use of it.

A giant leap for one man - part 3

So you've decided to make the move to Japan. Now what? Well, getting your first job is probably a priority, but it's not that easy. Unlike back home where it's just a matter of polishing up your resume and portfolio here you have the added disadvantage of being an unknown. On the other hand, you are a special case and this makes you stand out from most of the other applicants at Japanese companies, for better or for worse.
But are you ready to make the leap? Let's go through a few points to keep in the back of your mind:

Minimum spec:
Some basic Japanese skills.
Visa eligibility

Recommended spec:
Advanced Japanese skills.
Talent and experience.
A valid work Visa
Japanese residency
A big chunk of savings in the bank

Japanese skills.
You should assume no Japanese developer speaks English. All communication on the work floor is in Japanese. All software and operating systems, meetings, emails and discussions will be in Japanese. At first you may get by with simple Japanese, as long as you can hold a simple conversation, but eventually you'll have to buckle up and study. Not just to make the work situation easier on everybody but also because you'll get frustrated not being able to join in or have your say.
If you have absolutely no Japanese ability you are severely limiting your opportunities. There are some companies here and there that will take on someone like that, but they are few. If you're extremely lucky your company may even subsidise your study, or appoint a poor bastard to be your interpreter. But you have no excuse. Japanese isn't half as difficult to learn as you might think, and if you're planning on building a life in Japan you have no choice, so get studying!
This is a point I will make again and again.

Talent and experience
Talent is important. If you have a cracking portfolio you can go far. But as with any development company experience counts for a lot! You will be a much more attractive prospect if you have a few titles under your belt. It may also alleviate some of your employer's fears that they will have to teach you how development works while battling with a communication barrier. Having experience means they can just set you to work and not be too worried you won't manage.

A working Visa or Visa eligibility
Obviously to work legally in Japan you'll need a Visa. I have provided a link (sidebar) to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They'll be able to tell you much better than me what you'll need.
One thing I can tell you is that few Japanese companies have much experience organising Visas, and this may turn them off from hiring you. It definitely goes in your favour if you already have a valid Visa; it's just one more thing your employer doesn't have to worry about. How you go about getting a Visa first is a whole other subject in itself.

Japanese residency
Obviously being local means you can start at a short notice, or come in for interviews at a whim. Organising an interview while still abroad could prove difficult. The best you can hope for then is to line up a few interviews in the same week and fly over. Don't expect them to reimburse the travel expenses though!

Tokyo is expensive! Say it takes you a month or two to get a job; you'll still only get paid at the end of the first month you work there. So even if things go swimmingly it will be a few months before your first paycheck comes in. A little nest egg should ease you through that period. How much do you need? That depends on a lot of things, but a minimum amount of "a neat little pile" should be enough.

Like in the West, people in the know can often lead to better or quicker job interviews than cold calling or answering ads. If you're lucky you already have a friend or two working in Japan. You may have to fight hard for your first job but once you know a few people your contacts will grow quickly and changing to another company will be much easier. No surprises there.

Sure, it is not impossible to get a job in Japan, but it won't be easy. Be prepared for some frustration, long waits, a lot of rejections and a demoralising sense of futility. But stick with it! Once you're in, you're in. Maybe that first job won't be your dream position, but at last it's a foot in the door. Maybe the money they offer is lower than an English teacher's wage, but you need the experience. Maybe you get rejected a lot because they fear your Japanese isn't good enough. Well, only one thing to do while you wait for replies from other companies: study. On top of that Japanese HR can sometimes move very slowly. You're waiting for a reply, and they're waiting for the boss to OK an applicaion form to validate the interviewer's request to ask HR to send you an invitation for an interview.
It's no mean feat, but not a Herculean effort either. Just stick with it; when you get knocked down, just brush yourself off and try again.
In the next "Giant leap" post I'll talk about the different approaches to getting that first job.

Pregnancy is dirty!

Mainichi Daily News reported today that an advert for women's magazine Bazaar courted controversy by planning to show the nude and pregnant Britney Spears on large posters at Omotesando station. The officials at Tokyo Metro stated the poster didn't follow the guidelines that all materials should be appropriate to all viewers, including the young.
Apparently the fact she was nude, and modestly covered the business parts of her cleavage with her hands, wasn't the issue. Her inflated stomach seems to be a corrupting influence on the nation's young, and the publishers reluctantly agreed to cover it up with a big black box.
No wonder Japan's birthrate is so low if the sight of a pregnant stomach is deemed inappropriate.

Direct link here.

The Great Japanese Bonus Scam

One onerous aspect of working in Japan is one that most foreigners don't know about until they get stung by it; what is laughably called the "bonus scheme".
There are several different types of employment contract you can sign when you join a Japanese company. Each company has its own system, of course, but what seems usual is to hire someone under a three or six month temporary contract, which acts as a kind of probation period. After a successful run the employee may be offered a full-time contract which lasts for a year. This contract usually has all the usual benefits: health, tax, pension, etc. After this contract has concluded the employee may be offered another one, until the project is finished, or be offered a full-time "seishain" contract. This is basically a full-time contract which lasts, has all the benefits and the dreaded bonus scheme.
(Note: a few notable exceptions exist to this rule. Some companies do not offer "seishain" contracts, period.)

Say you blag your way into a 6,000,000 Yen/annum salary. First you need to tell me where you work and if there are any artist positions open. Under a part-time or 1 year contract your salary would be:

6,000,000 Yen / 12 months = 500,000 Yen/month (before tax)
Which is nice.
Now you are offered a "seishain" contract. This includes, you are told, a twice yearly bonus of 1 month each. "Great," you think, "I get my salary of 500,000 a month plus an extra 500,000 Yen twice a year!"., not quite. What happens is that the company withholds those 2 months from your salary and pays it out in two 1 month chunks twice a year. So the sum goes thus:

6,000,000 Yen / 14 months = 428,571 Yen/month (before tax)
+ 2x 428,571 Yen (before tax)
Yes, you heard me right. They deduct the money from your salary and then give it back to you later as a "bonus". And 14 months is just an example. Some companies have "bigger bonuses" which means bigger deductions from your monthly salary.
6,000,000 Yen / 12 months = 500,000 Yen/month (before tax)
6,000,000 Yen / 14 months = 428,571 Yen/month (before tax)
6,000,000 Yen / 16 months = 375,00 Yen/month (before tax)
6,000,000 Yen / 17 months = 352,941 Yen/month (before tax)
6,000,000 Yen / 18 months = 333,333 Yen/month (before tax)
As you can see, the company's bonus scheme can seriously affect your monthly income.
But surely there is more to it than this? Well, yes, to an extent. The bonus payout follows the same kind of performance related adjustment as in the West. If your work is bad, your timekeeping terrible and your manner atrocious you could get a bonus which is lower than the money deducted from your salary. On the flipside it can also be higher. But don't be fooled. These steps are usually in single digit percentages.
So what is called a "bonus" in Japan is basically a scheme where your employer gets to keep his grubby hands on some of your cash to invest with, collect interest on, and to keep that dangling over your head to make sure you stay to collect what you're owed. A "bonus" it is not. Sure sometimes you can get a few percent more than what was withheld, but is that worth the decrease in your monthly salary? Probably not.
If you sign a "seishain" contract you are basically forced to participate in the "bonus" scheme. So why go for "seishain" at all? Well, there are a few reasons you may want to consider:
  • As a foreigner, getting a "seishain" contract will show your next employer that you have been through the system, played the game, that at least one other company valued you enough as an employee to offer you the same contract it offers its Japanese employees. This means something.
  • Slightly better job security. It's much harder to get rid of someone under a "seishain" contract. One year contracts can simply run out and not be renewed.
  • For certain official institutions having a "seishain" counts in your favour. Be it trying for a loan, (re-)applying for a Visa or applying for permanent residency.
  • It will go some way to help you integrate in your company. Being treated as badly as the rest of the Japanese staff means you've successfully become part of the whole. Whether this is truly beneficial depends on your doomed wish to become Japanese.

The most important thing is to be aware of this "bonus" system. Ask about it in interviews so you won't get a shock when your first paycheck comes in. Think long and hard before you sign that "seishain" contract. And if you do, never quit your job until you've received your bonus, or you'll be throwing away money.

Notes from the underground

You may have seen images on sensationalist documentaries on how crazy and whacky Japan is; images of trains stuffed with people with white-gloved station attendants pushing in even more commuters, leaning on them so the automatic doors can squeeze shut. Well, unlike most of the things seen on such television programs, this is actually all true!
Being one of those idiots who like to start work early I find myself struggling with rush-hour travel both on my way to and back from the office. It's the price I pay for trying to live a healthier lifestyle. Sure, I could go to the office at 10.30 or even later, but then I'd be stuck eating convenience store pot noodle for dinner and not getting back until midnight. No, early to bed, early to rise, a full workday followed by a home meal, it's all good; except for the commute.

Unless you like to pay through the nose for a tiny apartment in central Tokyo it is likely you'll have a daily commute for up to an hour or an hour and a half each way. It's one of those sad facts of life in Japan. And yes, the trains are clean, fast, cheap-ish and punctual, especially compared to, say, the London Underground, they more than make up for this convenience with overcrowding. It differs from line to line and area to area, but if you're unlucky, like me, the train ride to work will be the most harrowing, bruising and aggravating part of your day.
Those people who honestly believe the Japanese are friendly, sociable people who always care for others in their community should take a ride on the rush hour trains. Like a survival situation can bring out the instincts in people, so the Japanese train system will bring out the worst.

Here are some of the things that make me lose my sunny disposition:

  • People who are too aloof to grab hold of the many straps or metal bars. For them the natural sway and starts of the train can be addressed by leaning into the person next to you. This is fine if you're standing in the middle of the train but if, more often than not like me, you're standing near the end of a carriage or near the door this can literally push the wind out of you. Imagine being stuck between a metal wall and the weight of a couple of dozen lazy people leaning into you.
  • People that don't grasp the fact that a row of people waiting in a certain spot is called a "queue". The station platform usually shows you where the doors will be once the train arrives, so people tend to queue up there so we can all enter the train in an orderly, impromptu "first come, first served" fashion. I find it strange that I sometimes get the angriest looks when I stop someone approaching the front of the queue from the side when I block their passage with my arm or umbrella. How dare I stop them from being so rude?
  • Pushing me in the back will indeed haste your way to the exit when the train stops. However, when the train is still moving and the doors still closed it does little but anger me.
  • Why on Earth try reading a broadsheet newspaper when all the rest of us are in a life or death struggle for breathing space?
  • We all know you saw that old woman. Pretending to be so engrossed in your book or pretending to sleep is fooling nobody. Sure, leave it to the foreigner to stand up an offer his seat.
  • It is simply too full. The air-conditioner is on full blast but you are stuffed into a mass of bodies. You sweat like a madman. People are already pressed against the windows and some guy still tries to push into the carriage. And by God, he manages it, somehow. It is nobody's fault really, but's crowded.

Here are a few useless survival tips for those who must commute in Tokyo:

  • Prevention is better than a cure. Find a place to live which offers you the shortest or most direct line to work. It is not always predictable which lines will be busy. When we moved to our suburban location our train line was moderately busy, but since a line extension and a few new apartment blocks were built it is now officially one of the busiest lines in he greater Tokyo area. Seeing as you can't really plan for this at least go for the quickest, most painless route.
  • Don't push back. Pushing back a tide of dozens will only tire you out. In stead, offer some resistance then quickly step aside. Then laugh at the indignant look on the face of the idiot next to you as he tumbles to he floor. Then make a big play of grabbing the strap again and steadying yourself. Who knows? After a few falls the guy may finally learn what those straps are good for.
  • Never become aggressive, pushy and loud. It only reinforced the stereotype that foreigners are aggressive, pushy and loud. And they fight back, despite what you may have heard! The best way is to be calm, soft spoken and direct. When a guy told me to move my arm because it was in his way I just looked at him and softly said "too bad", in Japanese. Within seconds he was on the other side of the carriage. This is a much more effective technique.
  • Avoid the express! Most people take the express trains. Sure, it'll get you home a few minutes quicker but it will be much more crowded than the local trains.
  • Lead the usual "developer's lifestyle". Go to bed late, get up late, eat lunch at 3 pm, eat a fast-food dinner at 11 pm and never see any friends or family on weekdays. It may be a shitty, unhealthy lifestyle but at least you can avoid the rush-hour.

It will be unlikely that you can avoid a commute by train when you live in Tokyo. It's one of those necessary Evils you are just going to have to learn to live with.

Gamesmanship - part 1

Gamesmanship, n. The use or practice of using dubious yet not technically illegal methods to win a game or further one's position. Origin: "Gamesmanship: The Art of Winnings Games Without Actually Cheating", by Stephen Potter, 1947.

Being a foreigner in Japan has many advantages as well as disadvantages. But with clever use of gamesmanship it is fairly easy to get your own way or further your standing in everyday life. In a series of posts I will try to explain some of the finer details of gamesmanship that professionals as well as amateurs to the sport may want to try out.

Part 1 - More polite than polite

It is a well known fact that the Japanese are considered, no less than by themselves, to be very polite. As a foreigner you are often forgiven your brash and rude ways for the level of politeness required in common situations is understandable only to the Japanese themselves. The first phrase the amateur gamesman must learn is "Tondemo arimasen!" (pronounced quickly as "Tondemarimasen!"). This phrase is accompanied by holding your open hand in front of your face, the palm towards the speaker, waving it left to right briefly (fig. 1).

Whenever a Japanese person compliments you on anything whatsoever saying the phrase and waving your hand will show them you are not only capable of brushing off compliments, but also that you can do it in the most polite Japanese way. Not only will your standing increase with the speaker, but you are almost guaranteed further compliments on your Japanese and manners. A quick and easy way for the shy or inexperienced amateur gamesman to make a good impression with the minimum of effort.

A giant leap for one man - part 2

I have on occasion talked and posted (elsewhere) about the 5 stages of living in Japan. Though this list is fairly subjective, I have seen the progression in people other than myself. When you move to Japan you'll probably go through the following stages:

Green - Wide-eyed amazement, the big screens in Shibuya, the toys, the people, the clean and punctual trains.
LeafGreen - Honeymoon. You've just moved here, life is good and exciting. You're learning new things every day.
Orange - Culture shock creeps in. "What do you mean I can't order extra mayonnaise?" "How many times do I have to fill out the same form??"
Red - Aggression. The trains are too crowded. Salarymen stink. People are not friendly at all, just very annoying and unaware of others. No one speaks English one tiny bit after 6 years of mandatory study at school. Some things are way too expensive. Tokyo is dirty. Mental isolation. Pure hatred! Rampant racism and xeno-ignorance.
Grey - Acceptance. Hey, Japan is a country pretty much like every other country in the world. It has good points, bad points, nice people and arseholes. Live with it.

Now the speed at which someone moves through these stages varies from person to person, obviously. And it isn't always linear. After more than 5 years I can still slip back to the red phase occasionally. On holidays or when I go somewhere nice with the wife it can still feel very much like the leafgreen phase. Generally, though, I'm fairly solidly in the grey phase, but it took me a few years to get there.

My only advice is to grit your teeth when you get to the red phase. Usually people get through it, but at this point the temptation to just give up and move back home can be very strong. But also keep in mind that maybe, just maybe, Japan isn't for you. If you're in the red for a long time you may have to consider the possibility Japan isn't going to offer you what you thought you'd get out of it. And there is no shame in that.

Female women of the opposite gender

It is true that there are more women working in game development in Japan than there are in Europe or America. I guess this may have something to do with the fact that games are more of an accepted phenomenon in society than in the West, where, often with good cause, it is still the prerogative of the teenage male or the young adult male professional.
That said, sexual equality seems to have passed by Japan without making much of an impression. Women still face work floor discrimination, sexual harassment, unequal pay and a very low glass ceiling on the career ladder. Women are often regarded as temporary workers until they get married and become housewives and mothers for the rest of their lives, so why invest time and money in them? It would seem that a lot of women seem to foster this view, many of them on the look out for a financially attractive husband to willingly drag them away from their working lives. This makes it all the harder for those women intent on building a career for themselves.

The games industry isn't quite as stale and old-fashioned as many other businesses and is often quite more relaxed in certain areas where, say, a financial institution would enforce the traditions of business. Apart from the usual roles in which one would expect to find women, like administration, PR and HR, you will often find many women in actual development. Though programmers are still rare, but not unheard of, many women fill the roles of designers (artists), planners (designers) and producers or APs. The sight of a woman on the work floor doesn't result in a geek-testosterone fuelled embarassment of faffing about as seems the case in a lot of Western development houses. They are as accepted a part of the project as anyone else.
In more business oriented roles they are often still not taken seriously. Imagine a female manager meeting with clients only for them to address all their comments and queries to her male assistant. It happens.

I have not yet met any female foreigners working in development other than localisation. I have had the pleasure of working with many female Japanese developers and I can honestly say that such a mixed company does nothing for the overall geek levels of a group. But then, women can get away with carrying Pokemon handbags, whereas it means instant death for someone like me.

All in all Japan can teach the West a lot about attracting female developers, in the same way the West has a lot to teach Japan about sexual politics.

A giant leap for one man - part 1

I know from correspondence that many people often toy with the idea of moving to Japan. Sometimes it's based entirely on their love of manga or anime, sometimes they fell in love with the place after a few holidays here. Whatever your motives there is one thing you should do if you want to make the move: just get on with it!
It is no great accomplishment that I managed to get settled here and build myself a career. Sure, it took some work, some study and a little bit of luck, but it is very do-able. You should not stop yourself due to some misguided idea that it is almost impossible.

Some issues you will have to deal with:

  • Language; it is a safe bet to assume no one in Japan speaks English. Of course some people do, and do so very well, but you can't rely on them and they are but few. In your daily life, at work (unless you're an English teacher), you will need to speak Japanese. Once you're here and you're surrounded by the language it is much easier to learn but you should do yourself a favour and get started as soon as possible back in your home country.
  • Culture shock; though Japan likes to think it is a unique and impenetrable place, it isn't. But it is very different from what you're used to at home. Things work differently here. People interact differently here. Body language differs. Houses and apartments are different with, if you're unlucky, different types of toilet. Food is different. Attitudes are different. In short, it's different. The best you can do is soak it all in and learn as you go.
  • Homesickness; apart from having friends and family halfway across the globe, you will also miss a few comforts and foodstuffs simply not available over here. Your craving for Sheppard's pie may crop up occasionally, but luckily Japan offers plenty of its own wondrous foods and services that if you just get broadband and a webcam to stay in touch with your loved ones the homesickness can be combated.
  • Racism/frustration; you look different and sometimes people will act on that. Often as a benign kind of "positive racism" (be prepared to be called "cool" even if you're blatantly not), but sometimes also an annoying xenophobia. In my case the latter has been extremely rare, and I don't think I've been unduly lucky. People that come here expecting to totally integrate into society will fail and they always go home bitter and twisted, hating Japan and the Japanese. Don't even try it. Just accept you're no Japanese and make the best of it. Your biggest frustrations will be due to bureaucracy, but I'll post more on that some other time.

But you will be rewarded:

  • Japanese language and culture; learn a new language and see something of the world. Though it has many bad points Japanese culture is also rife with little gems and pleasures.
  • Achievement; you didn't take the easy route. You moved half-way across the world to start a new life, and it is very satisfying to achieve that.
  • The Motherlode; if you're a geek you'll love it here. Games, comics, films, gadgets, you name it, they've got it here. It's not always cheap but it is very often very desirable.
  • Opportunity; you'll have many of those in Japan. Though some jobs will obviously be out of bounds for you until you are absolutely fluent at the language, in other areas you being foreign can be an advantage. I'll elaborate more on this in a future post.
  • A happy life; once you battle your way through the frustrating period, when everything just seems crap and convoluted, and when you come to realise Japan is just a country like any other, with its good points and bad points, you'll come to find life here can be very good. You can walk around safely with your entire month's wages stuffed in your wallet. You are spoiled for choice if you want to go out, and you're almost guaranteed not to get any aggro at the end of the night from drunken yobs. There is good food everywhere. The summers are bright, hot and humid and the winters crisp and clear. You can ski in Japan as well as go mountain climbing or diving. In short, life is good, if you let it.

In future posts I'll detail some of the pitfalls of the actual move to Japan as well as handling the tricky aspect of finding your first job in the Japanese game industry.

The joy of the unwanted holiday

Ah, Obon season. The time for holidays, visiting your home town and the graves of relatives, as well as the massive fireworks displays and, though I've missed all the local ones already, the Bon dancing festivals.
Anyone working in a decent sized Japanese company has probably had to deal with their HR department. And as with many things in Japan, there are Rules. One should try to order anything off a menu at a Japanese chain restaurant but ask for specific dietary changes to the dish. No Mayonnaise. No ham. It simply cannot be done. Much in the same way there is simply no leeway when dealing with HR and arbitrary company rules.
We were given a few days off this week, but as our schedule is unnaturally tight, the wife was busy and I didn't particularly need a summer holiday I offered to come into work and exchange my holiday days for daikyuu (paid holidays in lieu). After going through the whole process on our intranet, filling in form after form and making sure it went to the right people in the convoluted chain of hierarchy and approvals, I received a phone call from head office telling me that it's all fine and dandy, except I had asked for the daikyuu to be taken in December, when I do want a few extra days off and by when the project should be finished.
"Daikyuu," I was informed, "must be used up within three months".
"But surely a few weeks 'past the deadline' isn't that much of a problem?"
"Three months is the maximum."
"Look, we're rushed off our feet right now. I don't mind coming in on the holidays to make sure we can reach our deadlines, I just don't need to take these days off until December."
"Three months, it's the company rule."
(Though to be fair he was a lot more polite and apologetic).

So, here I am at home. With my feet up, waiting for my opponents to send in their Naked War turns. It feels like such a waste, but if you can't beat them, just sod them.
I can see where they are coming from though. Japanese employees don't seem to grasp the concept of "time off" very well, and without a little guidance and a few rules you'll soon have a company full of workaholics with 50 holiday days clocked up. Sometimes a company needs to tell their employees "now is a holiday, don't come to the office, whatever you do, for God's sake!"
Still, I tried my best to be accomodating in the face of a maddening schedule; there's nothing much I can do beyond that.

It's nostalgia all over again!

One of the tangible benefits of living in Japan is having a Japanese postal address, which is a gateway to the wonderful world of Club Nintendo. Unlike its European counterpart the presents and campaigns over here are actually worthwhile. From game music CDs and slim metal DS cart cases to plastic figurines and custom Gamecube controllers; it is actually an effective tool for getting Nintendo fanboys like myself to spend even more of their hard-earned cash on silly games they don't need. And occasionally they come up with something really cool. So cool and amazing, in fact, that if you don't have the points ready and you don't order it on the first day of its release you'll have to wait for a second, or third manufacturing run as all of Japan's geeks eagerly spend their points to get their greedy hands on it.

This summer club Nintendo made available, or a whopping 500 points, the Game & Watch Collection for DS, not available in (regular, law-abiding) shops. You can imagine the fevered excitement with which I, and many other people, ordered this a few weeks ago. It arrived by mail a few days ago and...well, I'm beginning to think I should have spent the points on that Hanafude card set in stead. Don't get me wrong, it's pretty cool and fun to replay these three old favourites again. It includes "Oil Panic", "Donkey Kong" (!!) and "Greenhouse". But after playing them all for a few minutes, and struggling with the mustard-yellow background, which cheapens the whole feel of it all, I am done with it.

It just goes to show that retro doesn't always mean it's still fun. Games have progressed so far in the last few decades that these really don't offer any challenge or diversion anymore. It's one thing to own the original Game & Watch consoles; the metal cases, the bent safety-pin fold-out stand, the rubbery buttons, that is all still pretty cool. But this DS carts just offers the "gameplay" of the originals. And, let's face it: they don't particularly have much of that anymore.

So, onto the pile marked "sell on eBay in a few years once the value has increased", along with that Sonic LCD game keychain, the Club Mario plastic figurines and the complete, boxed Famicom 20th anniversary GBA set. What I could have spent that money on in stead.... sigh.

On the bandwagon at last

It has been said that there have been so many books written on the subject of Japan that is has become a mark of distinction not to have written one. The same can be said for blogs, I presume.

One thing that constantly surprises me is that so many game developers in the West still see Japan as a kind of Mecca of development with many wishing to make the move over here and seek their fortune or, at least, be part of the creation of something special. But few people realise however is that it is just a country, just a job, like anywhere else in the world. It does have its own particular foibles though, and with this blog I hope to educate and entertain you on the pitfalls and pleasures of working in the games industry in Japan.