For such a homogenous society it is a little surprising how many foreigners end up in the game industry. A fair amount of these are from neighbouring Asian countries and another percentage is on the production side, usually as an international liaison or external producer to foreign development houses, or localization, usually as translators, often just proof readers. When it comes to the number of Western development staff, artists, planners, coders, musicians, etc. there are no exact figures but from experience I’d say we are few, very few. I’m not terribly well connected, but I have a few ears spread around the industry. There are a few companies with their own foreign worker, some even have more. But what’s worse is that every so often a few of us just raise our hands, admit defeat and move back home or onwards to another country. We’re maybe not a dying breed, but we’re certainly coughing up blood.
What’s more, Japan really needs more of us! This isn’t so much gaijin arrogance but actual fact. It’s terribly hard these days to find experienced staff, especially programmers, so this industry, as well as many others, will soon be forced to look outside its borders for employees. Part of this is the gray society time-bomb, part of it has to do with the lack of decent education to prepare youngsters for a career as a development pit-pony. But what are the problems? What is going wrong?
Though the games made in Japan seem to have this exotic aura of excellence, the reality of working here is, thanks to scaremongering blogs like mine and others, not a secret anymore. Or rather, most of the interested people already had a pretty good idea about it, but it’s always a little daunting to have it confirmed from the inside. Bad pay, bad hours, bad working practices; the Japanese industry has an image problem. You can’t attract good staff if you aren’t offering an attractive deal.
Probably the largest part of the above concerns salary. You cannot poach outside talent with low wages like they have here. The “honour” of working in the Japanese industry simply doesn’t cut it anymore, if indeed it ever did. It would seem a lot of Koreans and Chinese sill come over here for that exact purpose but maybe wages compare more favourably to their local salaries. There are certainly a lot of “otaku” that move over here simply for the games. This doesn’t help the overall statistics. Why should an employer pay double for a gaijin when he knows other foreigners expect wages similar to or lower than the Japanese average?
Another issue is ignorance; a lot of companies aren’t even thinking about the possibility, let alone need, for hiring gaijin staff. They’re having problems hiring good programmers. They’ll work it out, or rather; it will work itself out eventually; that’s the Japanese way. If you’re not actively headhunting gaijin staff you are relying on the luck of one suddenly appearing on your doorstep, desperate for a job. This is indeed how most gaijin staff in Japan got here.
When companies are actively making an effort they lack the experience. Hiring gaijin staff isn’t just a matter of signing mutual agreements. You need to relocate, help settle into the company and society, organize Visas and other legal issues, etc. Most companies have never done this and have no idea what is required. When they do some research some of them may be scared off. All this hullabaloo! We’re better off hiring in some cheap Japanese graduates! So they do. They renew their interest when a gaijin appears magically at their reception desk, fully settled with Visa in hand, but they are not interested or equipped to help people immigrate.
The stories of bad pay and long hours are all over the internet. Even if your drive for working in Japan is so deep that you’ll ignore this at first, eventually you’ll be forced to reexamine your situation. If you are in your early to mid twenties and earning a Japanese average wage you know you’re being underpaid, especially for the hours you work. For far fewer hours a day you can earn at least 250,000 Yen a month as an English teacher for which you require no other skill than being able to speak English at an acceptable level. When your monthly bills need to be paid, when you have a family to support or simply when you start getting older the salary will become a major point of contention. This gets worse when you hear stories of your peers earning much more back home. Aside from all the other difficulties you may have living and working in Japan this will be the one to tip you over the edge. You’ll leave the industry or the country.
Other frustrations also add to the stress. The Japanese inability to make decisions often leads to very frustrating projects with little regard for scheduling or design. When you get asked for the umpteenth time to redo something because a planner changed his mind your blood will boil. When a producer or lead asks you to work the weekend because delays in their decision making has put the deadline in jeopardy, or when you are forced to sit on your thumbs for a while as they sort out some design issues while the deadline ticks closer and closer. These are not problems unique to the Japanese industry, but with the attitude of hierarchy, overwork and, especially, indecision they do seem to wreak far more havoc over here. Culturally you’ll have a much harder time coping with this. Whereas your Japanese colleagues will unquestioningly jump over the cliff, you may see the futility of it all.
When you do find yourself as an employee at a Japanese studio you’d think, for the money they are paying, they want to get the most out of you. Often they don’t. They’ll lump you into the pool of workers and crack the whip. This is not a plea for special attention but rather a serious question about not using the staff’s talents properly. Often I see English texts in my projects rife with errors and comedic mistranslations while all the time noone had the idea to say “Hang on, JC is British. Why can’t he quickly look this over; it should only take him 5 minutes.” This is how in localized games you’ll have 4 character name entries or Engrish on textured text. Or there will be a meeting about how to focus the design to maximize sales in, say, Europe and the only person not present is the company’s only European.
I don’t particularly mind not being troubled with these tasks but it’s obviously such a stupid waste.
Knowing how the Japanese system and mind works I would say “pretty much nothing”. Things will have to get a lot worse before they get better. Problems aren’t avoided, they are dealt with when they arise, even if they are clearly visible and looming on the horizon approaching with deadly speed.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. I recon the pro-active gaijin can carve himself into a pretty good situation in Japan if he is willing to risk it and fight the good fight. Here the balance between being aggressive and assertive should be extremely closely observed. It’s no use if you get the reputation for being a scary foreigner, but some sense of persuasion needs to be involved. The my first few years in Japan I was very actively promoting myself and my skills at work, but when they kept going unnoticed and I was still sitting in the trenches carving my own name onto bullets I gave up. What Japan needs is foreigners who can stick with it, unlike me, and can actually teach the developers what needs to be done, what needs to change if they have any chance of survival during the reign of this and the next generation of consoles.
My proposed checklist for the gaijin developer:
- Do it for the money! Don’t accept lower salaries because that keeps setting the precedent. This will make your job search much more difficult but someone needs to get the ball rolling.
- Don’t become Japanese! Stick with your regime of hours and work and don’t fall pray to the procrastination and eventual overtime of your colleagues. If someone higher up muddles the schedule don’t cover for him. This is difficult but if you slowly ease your employee into this state of things it is do-able.
- Teach your boss and colleagues despite their protestations! Send round documents about new technologies, tutorials, tricks and tips. Point colleagues towards Western games that do something specific relevant to your tasks. Offer yourself as a consultant on matters foreign. They won’t listen, mostly, but eventually they must.
- Force decisions to be made! Don’t let your leads and bosses wallow in their own putrid swamp of indecision. Ease hard answers out of them. When you ask something keep asking until you have an answer. Have them e-mail you confirmations. Eventually they’ll learn that they need to take responsibilities for their actions and that you don’t mind being directed as long as you’re directed properly.
- Work hard! Show the Japanese that we Westerners do know our stuff. We’re not all arrogant, scary and antisocial arses, we are damn good developers! They need our skill and experience and the best way to show that is to let them bask in the full glory of your work. If you show them you are indeed a marvelous asset they may start looking abroad for more of us.