The fall and fall of the gaijin dev

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?

Why Japan has trouble getting gaijin dev staff

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.

Why Japan has trouble keeping gaijin dev staff

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.

So what can be done?

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.
I’ll end with the slight but important footnote that of course not all companies are in this situation. A few are actively looking outside and others are changing their systems. At the moment they are the minority but if they succeed they may become the tend-setters. There are good companies to work for in Japan, you just need to know where to find them.

17 comments:

  1. HUZZAH! Let's do it!

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  2. Very handy advice/ insight!

    Must bear it in mind when i eventually pluck up the courage to try and join the japanese 3d industry!

    What company do you work at, if you dont mind my asking?

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  3. Andy, of course I don't mind you asking but please don't mind me not answering. I know people are curious but I really don't want to get my employer into trouble; more importantly I don't want to get *myself* into trouble. I haven't broken any NDAs or leaked sensitive information, but at the same time my rantings may focus negative attention on my place of employment; I don't really wish that on my boss. Sorry.

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  4. I've been reading your blog for a couple of weeks, JC. You're a very good writer and your frequent updates keep me coming back for more.
    I'm a games programmer, working in the industry for about 7 years now and I've been interested in Japan ever since I programmed and played games as a hobby on the popular (in Japan) MSX system.
    I learned katakana, hiragana and some kanji to be able to play the japanese games that were never localized. Even nowadays I still visit kanji learning sites to learn new stuff (although I wonder if my skills are worth anything after firing up Sakura Wars IV on my Dreamcast recently and not understanding much of what was going on :)
    I always wanted to work as a coder in Japan, even after reading all your blog entries I still feel strong about this (maybe because I don't earn huge amounts of money working as a coder in Europe; I gave up a better paying job to enter the industry).
    Just want you to know that I'm still preparing myself to work in Japan one day. Not for the money, but for the experience. And hopefully for better work conditions in the asian continent (I'm aware they still need to learn a lot about working conditions).
    Thanks for all the stuff you've been writing and maybe we'll meet one day ;)

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  5. Thanks anon. As long as you can communicate in Japanese, with or without using a lot of body language, you should have good enough entry prospects. And if you're that interested in working here there isn't much that can stop you. Good luck!

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  6. No probs - i totally understand that any company employee writing about so many personal and office-related things could get unsavoury attention from his employers.
    I was just curious, as my current ambition is to work in Japan, either in games or broadcast, but the working hours sound like a right bitch. Your place sounds pretty sweet in the sense that you work sensible hours most of the time.

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  7. I could be wrong here but I'm pretty sure that the fact JC works sensible hours most of the time doesn't necessarily mean everyone at his company does the same.
    I'm a game developer too, here in Japan, and as I gaijin I can assure you that very few Japanese game developers would choose to work just eight hours a day even though they don't really have to work overtime. In the west workers would leave as soon as they can to spend time with friends, family or just to relax but Japanese workers simply don't. At least most of them. There are always exceptions.

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  8. Anon above is right. I work (semi-)sensible hours simply because I refuse to do otherwise. None of my colleagues do the same; they all stay till well late. But then, I do come in WAY early, get my work done quickly and of good quality so they know not to have a go at me for it.
    I still work a Hell of a lot longer than I would in the West though. :( Actually, I work slly hours. 10 hours a day? My God, what am I doing???

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  9. But surely if you refuse to work insane hours -like I would- then the boss would think 'hmph - slacker gaijin', sack you, then replace you with a blue collar, hard working local robot...

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  10. Great post! I'm yet another American dev who has always been somewhat interested in Japanese game development. I find your writings very interesting. Keep up the good work.

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  11. As long as you make sure your bosses know what you're up to and that you're not behind schedule or at least less than any of your colleagues, you should be fine.
    Then again, some bosses are so useless and disorganised that won't remember where they left their coffee cup 2 minutes ago.
    As JC says, most of the time they keep on adding/changing stuff without really thinking what the consequences for the team and the project will be. I don't think they really care to be honest, they just assume everyone is going to stick together as a team a fix any mistakes their bosses may pass onto them. Sad but true.
    In my experience, Japanese games developers or at least the ones I have worked for know two things: when the project starts and what they would like the game to look like, anything else is just a huge big mess. Scheduling, milestones, organization, technology (software tools) are just afterthoughts and not really that important.
    Anyone who's OK with that should feel just right at home at any Japanese game developer company, :)

    Sorry JC, I get too excited when talking about these things!

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  12. I hear you. But you speak the Truth. All you can do is cover yourself and occasionally put your foot down. Say, yeah, I can make those changes but it'll take an X number of days. But make sure you calculate those days to EXCLUDE overtime.

    As a gaijin at least you're in a better position to say "NO!" occasionally. But then again not too often, or you'll just be the troublemaker. It also helps if your boss is slightly scared of you.

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  13. JC - In this article and a few others, you've indicated that the average wage for a game developer in Japan is not as great as it would be in Europe or North America. Could the same thing be said for other (unrelated to gaming) developers with regard to wages?

    Thanks for keeping up the blog as it is always a pleasure to read.

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  14. I started programming at mid-sized-Japanese-game-company-to-remain-nameless 2 1/2 years ago, and it really surprised me how few foreigners there were, certainly none in the company itself. I don't think job applicants were being rejected, people just didn't apply. It's kinda sad, because I wanted friends going through the same experience!

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