Strength in numbers

I had an interesting conversation with a friend and fellow foreign lifer here who pointed out the obvious I was already vaguely aware of but had not quite yet formulated into a thought: the more gaijin work at your office, the better. And this isn't coming from some kind of racist superiority complex, no.

There is a kind of foreigner in Japan who suffers from the commonly called "my Japan syndrome", for whom the mere sight of another foreigner breaks the illusion that the solitary life here can easily trick someone into: that you're somehow special and unique. And certainly, the fact Japan is so homogeneous and every white, long-nosed face sticks out in a crowd, you'll find interest, idolisation even, from many Japanese people who don't often come into contact with "your sort". If your dream of working in the Japanese game development industry is based on a love for very Japanese-y games, you may even think you'll want to work in a very Japanese company surrounded, exclusively if possible, by Japanese colleagues. There is no better way to immerse yourself, is there not?

Well, it's not all piss and cakes. The Japanese system has its faults and problems, as does any, but I daresay we labour under some more egregious managerial fallacies that have either already been decimated in the West or have generally been decided as being a very bad idea. Not so Japan, where the old adage "but this is Japan!" is still the most commonly used excuse to not have to think about any troubling situations. I have had long and frustrating conversations with colleagues, usually over a cigarette or two, about their work ethics. "If you are so tired," I'd ask, "why not go home on time and take a good rest? That way you'll be more focused tomorrow!" And they'd nod and agree. And then they'd just go ahead and do what they always do: stay late because this is Japan. Whenever I come across interesting articles on technical issues, game design or tools I make a point of sending it in an email to interested parties, or rather to parties who should be interested, though they never make an effort to read them. When I am given neither autonomy nor direction over my work I pipe up and say it's a waste of everybody's time for me to create something and then change it later when they have ironed out all the issues. I try to lead by example, working solid hours, always coming in on time and trying to remain focused during the day. I try to inform colleagues of new games and the interesting things we could learn from them. I try to push for best practice approaches to problems. However....

I am the only foreigner in our part of the studio. Therefore, I am also the only one trying to bring about change, for the better, hopefully. I am the only one who comes in on time every morning, who leaves on time too. I am the only one who avoids unpaid overtime. I am the only one calling other disciplines to task when they make mistakes that directly impact my work flow. I am the only one who really tries to research games and techniques. I am, in short, the only one who wants change.

Now the main problem with this is that I don't, nor am able to, offer any real context to my proposals and ideas. I am just one man, and as such, in a communal country like Japan, can all too easily be dismissed. "This is Japan," they say "and we do things our way. You are just some weird foreigner." And well, I am, I guess. "JC comes in very early every morning," they think, "because he is just this weird foreigner who sticks to his contracted hours." or "Don't ask JC to come in on weekends, because he's weird and will say 'no'." However, had there been three or four or more of us, all doing these things, it wouldn't be represented as one man's insanity but as "the way things foreigners do it". If every morning, when people finally come in, there is a group of foreigners already hard at work, they will think, "wow, foreigners do it this way, huh?" rather than "ah, there's good old mad JC." A single person is a problem, a group of people is a movement.

The message of this post is twofold. Firstly, if you are keen to work in Japan you may be thinking you want to work in a Japanese company with a Japanese working environment. As a Westerner this is not a good environment to work in. I will go into more detail in the future but the Japanese system is inefficient and broken; one can witness this in the companies that are successful, which also appear to be the ones actively changing their approaches. Secondly, a single person cannot affect change, especially in Japan. For these reasons I highly recommend future ex-pats to investigate, even ask during interviews, how many foreigners are working at a studio before making any commitments. The more foreigners there are, the more chance there is that there isn't too Japanese a working mentality, that the studio has a future and that you won't end up too frustrated and overworked or that there is a real possibility of change for the better. By painting this as a Western vs. Japanese attitudes thing might come across as racist, foreign arrogance even, but from my experiences and observations it seems to be the case. Japanese developers too are slowly beginning to realise they dropped the ball, in development terms, quite a while ago, and some companies are actively making changes to emulate the more useful Western approaches to stay competitive. Having foreigners on board helps with that and it will help you, as a foreigner working at a Japanese company.

As for me, well, I have long given up trying to change things. As the solitary white guy here I am simply unable to. I can have frank discussions with my boss over a few drinks, where he vehemently agrees with me, even spurs me on, I can talk to exhausted colleagues who will agree that they are working so hard as to have become inefficient, I can try to lead by example, but in the end "this is Japan" and I am just the single odd one out. I am that single nail that sticks out. So I spend my days just doing exactly what I am asked to do and nothing more, while pondering the future I might have at this studio. Or not, as the case might probably be.

9 comments:

  1. Do you know if it is possible for a foreigner to start a company in Japan?

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  2. Yes, it is possible. Look at Q Games in Kyoto, started by Brit Dylan Cuthbert, and several other examples in Tokyo that I know of. Restrictions on start-ups, foreign or not, have eased considerably over the last few years.

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  3. Just wondering though, if you translate the articles you found on the internet before sending them to your colleagues, do you think they will give more attention to them ?

    I am not a westerner, but I am "much" more familiar with alphabets than Kanji, and I think they may have the same opposite feeling when they read English.

    Another thing is, I don't know but I have heard people saying that, if you don't like the way how things are done in your company, and you've tried to change it without any improvement, you can always go to another company. What do you think about this?

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  4. Good article JC - I can understand how you feel...It drives me crazy when people wont help themselves.

    I'm looking to return to Japan to work in the games industry, and I'm targeting the more progressive studios - I'm pretty familiar with Q-Games as I used to work with a guy who was there, but I'd be interested to hear the names of these foreigner startups in Tokyo.

    Cheers

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  5. Haven't been back to you blog in quite a while, but just wanted to say again how excellent your thoughts and writing are. SO glad I DIDN'T get my visa all those years ago to end up in a Japanese game company... Keep up the posts and congratulations on throwing in the towel!

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  7. Excellent post! I work at a japanese company liek you and I am the only white guy (there is an indian friend with through as well which helps tremendously!)

    I can talk to other co-workers about working late and stuff being unefficient and they come to a point where they agree, but then it ends with the "but this is japan" and "japanese have to work like this" saying. I wish you luck, as for me Im changing jobs next year. Maybe one with more foreigners in them.

    Do you have any tips btw in breaking into the gaming industry in Japan? All I have is business level Japanese language, basic c++ skills and 2 years of exp as a computer hardware engineer. Id like to be game designer someday and reading your posts gets me a better idea of what im going to have to face. I guess i should start by making some indie games by myself, heh.

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