Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Quit my High-Powered Job... AND THAT'S OK

So, some people seemed to be wondering what the hell was up with my previous post about job hunting in Japan. After all, it wasn't so long ago I announced to the world that I was taking on a fancy new position, right? Was that post just a random thing, or a late compendium of thoughts?


I have actually accepted another job, my second in less than 9 months. I quit my previous company and then spent 2 months soul searching, job hunting and confronting a lot of my prideful demons.

Let me make it crystal clear: I adore my previous company. This is not lip service, I had fantastic colleagues (whom I am still in close contact with), great pay, nice corporate culture, and a lot of support. The product is amazing, and the technology truly top notch. It was because of all of these factors that I stayed on as long as I could, even past the point that was probably mentally healthy.

The only issue was, I hated the job: sales. Towards the Japanese market.

As someone who likes to speak to people and give presentations, I thought sales would be a good fit. I had done something related before, and was excited to dive into the tech world and prove myself.

But pure sales turned out to be a very different experience. Cold calls, pushing clients, constant back and forth over technical issues, pressure and late hours. All this done in Japanese.

I did my best, taking company-sponsored keigo classes, researching competitors, gleaning info from my sempai, calling company after company, mailing list after list. Eventually, I was waking up every morning with a cannonball of dread in my stomache, breaking down in tears of fear and frustration, and waking up at 5:00am in a panic. I ignored it for as long as I could, because I liked the company so much.

I have a huge sense of responsibility, and so whenever I saw my numbers stagnating or not rising as rapidly as predicted (even for reasons outside of my control), I felt horribly guilty that I was letting down the team. My self-worth attached itself to those numbers, and left me in a constant state of anxiety. What made it worse is that my teammates were all so kind and helpful, giving advice on how to resolve technical issues or boost results. It would almost have been preferable if they had been mad at me, thus reflecting how mad I was at myself for not being able to reach the level I thought I should.

Sales people, those who actually love the thrill of the chase and are motivated by bonuses and KPIs, are amazing. Watching my sempai in action was a masterclass, as he took hold of the power balance and brought huge accounts in again and again.

But it isn't for me. And that, I eventually figured out, is ok. No matter how much you may want to, you can't be good at everything, or make yourself like something you truly do not.

Now I have found a position much closer to my interests (travel), that uses my language skills, and that is challenging without making me an anxious mess. It is still IT-related (a must), venture-like and allows me to tell stories, which I love.

I have figured out what I can and cannot live with, although my pride took a giant hit in the process. 

The more you know, right?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sundays in the Shitamachi: Arakawa Line

The charming little Arakawa line is one of Tokyo's hidden gems. An old-fashioned tram, it snakes (very slowly) from around Waseda all through the shitamachi, before ending up Minowabashi.

The trams themselves are a bit of a mishmash, with modern streetcars mixed in with adorable older models, all papered on the inside with advertisements that seem to have remained the same since late Showa. 

The tracks are tightly sandwiched between houses and shopping streets, the little free space often taken over by impromptu gardens of roses and hydrangeas. In short, a nostalgia buff's idea of heaven. 

After buying a cheap all-day pass (only 400 yen, yay!), we jumped on near Ikebukuro and headed towards Sugamo.
Sugamo also happens to be known as 'Grandma's Harajuku', with the average age appearing to be somewhere around 60-70. The long shopping street, which is quite close to Koshinzuka station, is well-stocked with tea, old-style breads and snacks, along with the famous shops purveying bright red underwear (said to promote health...by what means, I choose to not inquire).

Our first stop, inspired by Matcha-kun's desire for coffee, was at a little wood paneled coffee shop, across from a crazy umbrella store. The iced coffee came in tall, brass goblets. Perhaps not the most convenient vessel, but certainly an entertaining one, ideal for proposing silly, caffeine-fueled toasts.

After checking out Asukayama park, with its fanciful playground and fun concrete elephant, we headed back towards town (and dinner). The final stop of the day was at Zoshigaya cemetery. Thanks to the tradition of cremation (ie. no zombies), Japanese cemeteries hold no fear for me, and in fact are a special favorite for walks, checking out unusual tombs and the giant cats that often populate them.
While a whole bunch of famous historical figures are buried here, I cam looking for two in particular. Ogino Ginko (the first female doctor in Japan) and Natsume Soseki (the famous writer). Sadly, despite checking maps and roaming back and forth, we couldn't find John Manjiro (one of the first Japanese people to visit the United States) whom Matcha-kun wished to visit... perhaps his spirit wasn't interested in guests right then?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Tradition: Behind the Snark

My affair with Japan is like a good relationship: I care for the darn place so much that at times I hate it. I can't pretend the bad sides don't exist (that would be denial, very unhealthy), but after cooling down remember once again why I fought so hard for so long to return.
Outside the new Kabukiza, glowing in Ginza's neon twilight, I can just make out the sound of the hyoshigi, the inimitable high-pitched wooden clappers, which never fail to make my ears prick up.

From my open window I watch a trademark Yokohama Pastel Sunset, and hear strains of far-off Bon Odori music.

Walking home I smell curry, unagi and ramen, laced together with a faint hint of summer rain on the wind.
Funny how it is smallest things that reassure us that all is well.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Job hunting and interviews: what the guides don't tell you

Job hunting in Japan is known for being quite difficult for expats. At least 90% of companies are domestic, and so have little interest or reason to hire people who speak other languages. The remaining lot often require 'native Japanese' along with 'native English' (which is basically a way of saying they want Japanese employees who speak excellent English... a small and highly sought out minority).

If you are fortunate enough to get interviews, the weirdness is far from over. Japan is quite 'late' in many things, and famously the treatment of women in the workforce is one of these. Most of the weird questions I have been presented would never be asked of someone Japanese or male. By the way, some of these are against the law, so if you are asked them feel free to react with well-placed shock. (Disclaimer: many of these are, naturally, not exclusive to Japan)

So, here is the top 10 of weird, rude or illegal questions I have been asked:

10- Do you have children?
I checked with several male friends, both Japanese and non, and none of them were asked this. If you are, I recommend a good, long piercing stare, because this is illegal.

9- Are you married? 
See above. I additionally recommend using gender neutral language, to check how comfortable they are with non-binary relationships.

8- So, how do your parents feel about you being so far away?
This question is basically a different version of 'so, when are you going back to your country?'. While it is a legitimate question, bringing parents into it feels a bit patronizing. I realize that this is partially a cultural thing, but it should be clear from one look at my CV and personality that parental approval is not a big concern.

7- Why Japan?
I hate this question, because my truthful answer is usually not what people want to hear (aka I love the culture, the history, the traditions, the food...). While I do love the koto and old stuff, mostly I find that (on the whole) Japan is a good fit personality-wise. Also, hey! I speak fluent Japanese... far too practical reasons, it seems.

6- Well, we were kinda hoping to hire a native Japanese person... do you know anyone?
Fine, then put that information in the job description! What was particularly annoying is that this was for a qualitative research position... a field where, famously, knowing a culture but not being of a culture is considered a major asset.

5-Are you Catholic?
No, and how does this have anything to do with my skills, potential or ability to do the job? 
Also, not all Italians are Catholic, and not all Catholics are Italian. Repeat until it sinks in.

4- Describe what you would do if money was no object.
Write. Sleep until 10am everyday. Volunteer at animal shelters and food banks. Play the koto. Go out for long leisurely lunches. Get hour long massages from Oguri Shun lookalikes (okay, that sometimes happens already). You know you will be lied to when asking this question...so why ask it?

3- Please list all of your schooling, starting at elementary school.
Do my results in Colouring and Show and Tell really matter for this job? Also, the schools I attended all across the world will mean nothing to a Japanese interviewer. This is not a case of figuring out if my elementary school self was smart enough to get into Waseda's 'elevator' middle school (a concept I already find beyond the pale). In addition, there seemed to be some kind of insinuation that I had gotten kicked out of the schools... certainly not the more logical (and previously explained) fact that my parents' occupation required constant moves.

2- Can you use a computer well?
No, somehow I managed to run an official social media page, and then work for a famous tech company without ever having to touch one of those scary devil-boxes... like, seriously?!
Also, my proficiencies (including, you know, the ability to check source code for tags and deal with major DSPs) are all listed on my CV, which the interviewer had obviously not read.

1- Where are your ancestors buried?
I usually have an answer for everything, but this question left me spluttering. There are literally no words, and when the company (a famous, supposedly hip Japanese platform) decided to call me back for a second interview I let my recruiter  know exactly why I flat out refused. Eeeesh.

What weird questions have you been asked during interviews?

Friday, July 25, 2014

卒業: Graduating from share houses

Living in a share house can be a blast. Although your experience can depend a lot on where you live and your sharemates, it is a good way to save money, while also ensuring that you will have access to a few well-sized shared spaces (spacious living room, kitchen, bath). It is also nice to have someone to greet you and talk with when you get home.

However, it does have its downsides: an upstairs neighbor with an elephantine footfall, people playing music late at night, waiting your turn to use the shower, food occasionally disappearing.
I have been very lucky with my living arrangements and sharemates, and we have had a lot of fun times...but I have come to realize that it may be time to graduate from shared living.

There will be lot to miss. My share house is particularly lovely, with a wild garden and fresh tomatoes everywhere, that you can eat right off the vine. The sunsets over the Prince hotel, pink and lavender, which I can see from the large sliding glass door in my bedroom. The strange call of the mobile tofu salesman, and the distant sound of trains rolling by on quiet evenings. Dinners spent discussing romantic conquests while eating takoyaki and parties in the fairy-light encircled garden.

But I have lived in my share house for almost three years now. And, with the exception of my Fulbright year, I have shared rooms or housing for over 9 years (not to mention, of course, all the years previous to those, when I lived with my parents).

I want to be able to go home and know that it will be quiet, that I will be able to laze about in the bathtub when I want to, walk around in underwear and a t-shirt if I feel like it, or take up the entire floor to do weight training and stretches without compunction.

While I don't intend to move immediately, my eyes stray more than ever before to the 'for rent' posters which cluster on the windows of real estate agencies. Imagining and plotting where to live next is immensely fun for me, as I have a bit of a love affair with real estate. How big is the apartment? How much? Do they allow pets? No, no tatami floors. Is there a park nearby? A supermarket? Could I bike to work? The possibilities stretch out endlessly, like my friend's Maine Coon cat in the air conditioning.

At the same time it is a little frightening. Will I miss the 'instant community' of a share house? How very different it must be to share space with 1 person instead of 7-8. On a more practical level, how annoying to have to pay more rent!

Somehow, despite technically being an adult, this all feels very 'grown up'. Weird.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wind Chime Festival at Kawasaki Daishi

I don't know about you, but I am one of those people who always finds out about a cool festival...right after it has concluded.

The Kawasaki Daishi Wind Chime festival has been on my to do list for years. But, as it only lasts 5 days (of which only two are non-work days) each time I have managed to be elsewhere or forget about it. But this year I actually got my butt into gear (aka: wrote the days down in my planner) and whisked off on the adorable retro trains with a running friend and her boyfriend, to check out the chimes.
The temple is a 10 minute walk away from the tiny Kawasaki Daishi station, and is a nice old-fashioned temple town, the main street dotted with purveyors of kuzu mochi, the local delicacy.
Approaching the temple, the energetic sound of cleavers on wood welcomes visitors, as old fashioned candy stores line the way, interspersed with shops selling bright red daruma . The sesame filled candies are definitely worth a try!
The wind chime market itself is covered and misted with cool water, a nice respite from the July sun. The creators of these lovely crafts come from all across Japan, representing almost every prefecture, to display and sell their wares. The varieties are endless, from classic glass globes and iron bells, to unusual charcoal, bamboo and pottery chimes. The sounds are also very important, although it can be hard to figure out where they come from, due to the sheer quantity of wind chimes! Personally, I am partial to high, light bell tones (from small, heavy iron chimes) and the charming clunky sound of pottery chimes.

The colours and shapes are a feast for the eyes, and it is hard to choose a favorite amongst them all. Eventually I settled on a colourful fuurin from Akita, a heavy bell attached to a hand-decorated silk ball (in the picture above).
These apple chimes were a big hit, lots of children were requesting their parents to buy them. The glass chimes were the most creative, with all sorts of different shapes... including a cucumber which was entirely too suggestive!

My new chime is proudly hanging by the window in my room... now if we could just get a breeze to go with it!

(All photos by the awesome Eugene Roussin, used with permission)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Nihonbashi to Ningyocho: Business in the Shitamachi

In preparation for the Olympics, Tokyo is getting major face-lifts. Nihonbashi, which used to be a shabby but well-beloved shitamachi haunt has now been invaded by the Coredo shopping centres. While they are tastefully wa, and house some interesting traditional shops (for example crafts made using gold leaf from Kanazawa), this is not the Nihonbashi I remember.
Much of the shitamachi is home to traditional Japanese industry. By this I don't just mean artistic crafts (old style umbrellas, lacquerware, wood working) but also businesses that cater exclusively to the Japanese market. Walking from Nihonbashi to Ningyocho you find purveyors of those iconic OL uniforms, small workshops manufacturing a very specific part for kotatsu heaters, printers of promotional uchiwa fans.

The longer I live and work in Japan, the more I have come to realize that there are two business models that do very well here: either be extremely local or go completely global. The interesting thing is that the actual size of the business is irrelevant. Companies that deal with business globally are usually thought of being ginormous corporations... and yet there are tiny 3D printing specialists or app creators in Tokyo that have dedicated customers on every continent. On the other hand Japan Rail, the queen of the 'super local', is massive.

The old and the new coexist peacefully. Although I am often annoyed and flummoxed by how slow business can be here, it comes with some benefits. People will hang on to traditions for dear life, even if they are the last ones chugging along. Even when it is not profitable. Companies are often loath to leave their suppliers, who they have known for decades, in the lurch. While business-wise I fully understand this does not make sense, on a human level it is kind. 
Sometimes I think resistance to change, in Japan, can be a strategy of its own.

In Ningyocho there is a traditional sweets parlor called Hatsune. It has stood in the same spot since 1837, purveying old fashioned anko and jelly desserts, along with traditional kakigori (the type topped with green tea and red beans, or syrupy preserved apricots). They make tea in a cast iron tea urn, which is both time consuming and easy to burn oneself on while bustling past, just because it tastes a bit better.

Time does not stand entirely still at Hatsune, but their dedication to the old has served them well, as the competition for seats is fierce. Well-to-do ladies in expensive summer kimono (obviously regulars, from the chit-chat) smile benevolently at younger customers and the unusual Japanese/foreign couple at the table next to them.

The global and the local sit companionably side-by-side, over ice and tea.