There’s nothing too exciting about working at a western-style company in Tokyo. In a way, it’s like being in a bubble. When you’re at the office, it feels for the most part like you could easily be anywhere else on Earth, so it’s only when you step outside that you feel something is different.
For me, when going to hang out with Japanese friends, it often felt like we lived in two different cities. Many of them would have long working hours, often found it hard to even go out for lunch, and they were often quite tired. Even when working startup hours, I generally felt like I had more energy and time than they did. Perhaps because of this, I was ok paying a little bit more on a Tokyo outing because in the short time available, we had to enjoy ourselves as much as possible. This might account for why some people feel that Tokyo is an expensive city: if you go out very often, then yes, it will add up quickly.
This is a rundown of my experiences at a few western-style companies in Tokyo, which should provide a stark contrast to my previous post about working at a large Japanese firm. I’ll also discuss more modern Japanese companies that I brushed arms with and some observations about how they operate. This should give a more rounded view of the situation in Tokyo, although now dated by a few years, which in a fast-paced environment like Tokyo might mean all of this is now moot. Nevertheless, here we go.
The Foreigner Archetypes
There are any number of reasons that a foreigner might end up in Tokyo working at a western-style company. Many have genuine and pure reasons for being there. Some are in Tokyo for a new experience, and others have significant others. All of this is well and good, but there’s a few categories of other people who bear mentioning.
- The Outcast
Geeks and other socially awkward people who struggle to mesh into the fabric of their home country or city tend to find solace in Tokyo. Like all major cities, there’s an element of anonymity when blending into a sea of people. Unlike other major cities, it is incredibly easy to do activities on your own. Restaurants commonly have people coming to eat by themselves, and many have counter seats to accommodate this, not just for family restaurants, but for virtually everything from barbecue to karaoke, you can easily go it alone. Unlike places like the U.S., the wait staff generally won’t bother you or try to fake socialize with you, and won’t hold you to very high expectations, as long as you behave within reason.
As a foreigner, you’re generally not expected to live up to the social expectations that Japanese people are held to (although this may differ if you look “Asian enough”.). Wherever you come from, there’s generally a set of norms you will be held to, but in Tokyo that won’t much be the case.
By virtue of simply looking different, or behaving different, a person who would otherwise be bland or undesirable in their home city will feel empowered and socially capable in Tokyo.
… of course, this is all conjecture, and much of this perception typically comes from a lack of desire to engage with one’s local society, in contrast to coming to Tokyo and engaging with it head-on. Many outcast foreigners will take this to mean that Tokyo is the best place on Earth and can do no wrong, but more often it says more about the individual than the city.
Me: I loved my home city before moving to Tokyo, and went there part for work, part out of curiosity. Silicon Valley is a weird place where being a geek is normal and people appreciate that in many circles, so while the above did not apply to me, I saw many cases of it.
- The Womanizer
There’s a set of lonely and broken individuals, typically men, who decide that Tokyo is a place to hook up with as many women as humanly possible. Not surprisingly, they have a tendency to objectify women, but worse than this, they often perceive Tokyo women as “easy” and generally comport themselves terribly as they try in vain to fill the gap in themselves, either of self-confidence or substance.
The ones willing or able to spend more money typically can be found in Azabu or Roppongi, as these are areas where English tends to work more than other areas. There’s also known hookup bar chains like Hub, where foreign men look for Japanese women, and some Japanese women go to hook up with foreign men, either because they want to parade around a foreign boyfriend for a few weeks to show off to their friends, or they just feel they want to try something exotic or new.
Unfortunately, many of these men bring this behavior into the workplace, believing that they can get away with the kind of harassment that in other countries would impact their careers. More unfortunately, many times… they get away with it. Although this is changing, Japan is still a relatively misogynistic society with the concept of 男尊女卑 (predominance of men over women) still being a common topic. The media reinforces this regularly, which doesn’t help.
Me: Some of these individuals tried, unsolicited, to “teach me how to get Japanese girls” and other amazing things. Part of me feels bad for these people, but the bigger part of me despises them. This shit needs to stop.
- The Japanophile
Typically in love with any of: samurai, ninja, Zen Buddhism, anime, manga, games, jdramas, jpop, food, society, people. Of course, it’s a great thing for people to love culture and it’s a great help to the Japanese economy to have people spend money on these things. These are people who are in Japan almost exclusively for one of these things, often at the exclusion of many other things.
They tend to have a skewed perspective of reality, partly because, like the other archetypes, while they are obsessed with some part of Japan, they often lack the language skill or desire to see the darker shades of reality. Any attempt to cast cold water on their pipedreams of Japanese perfection will lead to a defensive lashing out, espousing the grandeur of whatever their obsession is, and the ignorance of anyone protesting it.
Me: I know very little about samurai, ninja, Buddhism and such, but sometimes on trips I do appreciate reading up on things if they’re there. I’m a fan of many things in Japan, but I’m also a staunch critic of its many shortcomings (just as in the U.S.). Perspectives need balance.
In my particular case, the western-style companies I worked at were mainly startups. This meant that the office spaces were often repurposed apartments in various parts of the city. This meant dealing with the stereotypically tiny Tokyo bathrooms, as well as the usual issues of being in a crammed space with which those people in startups around the world are intimately familiar.
In Japan there are a few companies like Glico and Yakult that offer their wares for sale, but unlike a vending machine in the office, it takes the form of simple drawers and refrigerators.
Once per day or week, a representative of the company comes by and refills or swaps out the options, including seasonal items. Sometimes they take notice of their clients’ consumption patterns. Technically you’re not supposed to put anything of your own into these fridges, but people generally can’t resist and do so anyway. In a company I worked at people regularly put their beers in here, and soon, Glico started adding hangover cure bottles into the refrigerator. I’m not sure if this was a passive aggressive complaint against this, or genuinely strong product marketing. It was amusing either way.
Amusingly, the drawers and refrigerators work mainly on the honor system. You take an item, and you put 100 yen or so in a receptacle, most amusingly with Glico a frog will eat your change. When the refill person comes by, they take the money, and sometimes count it on the spot to make sure no foul play is at work. I sometimes wondered if such a system would ever work in the U.S.
Other companies like Askul provide common office supplies in bulk and also do office delivery, and startups and big companies alike rely on these companies.
Tokyo’s internet speeds regularly rank among the top in the world, and you can generally expect gigabit speeds at the office as well. As a developer downloading packages for work regularly, I was grateful for this.
While Tokyo is awash in restaurants, when the office is a bit out of the way but still in a region of several offices, food trucks fill the niche. You sometimes also see shops set up bento versions of their food during the lunch hours. Dinner prices in Tokyo for the same restaurants tend to be 1.5x-2x compared to lunch, so people often take advantage of this, although the lines are longer as a result.
I’m hesitant to write this because the startup scene in Tokyo has changed so much in the last few years, so I’ll caveat that this is mostly about the period between 2011–2016. As always, there is great variation from company to company, so take this all anecdotally. I’m not an investor, and this is all from the perspective of an engineer. Alright, here we go.
Until recently, startups in Japan did not conjure the most glamorous of images in the public view. When people went to work for startups, it was seen that they could not get into the big companies, or that they’re just saying they’re in a startup when really they’re jobless. Working at a large company meant that getting loans to buy a house, a car, or almost anything were made easier. When running at or working on a startup, this was not the case. Investment by angels and venture capital funds was rare. Most investment was driven by banks, and oftentimes, startups were really just spinoffs from larger companies with the intent of holding a controlling share right from the start. Foreign investment, and a foot in Silicon Valley, were often seen as key to success as a result.
With the earlier success of companies like CyberAgent and Rakuten, and the more recent success of companies like Mercari and SmartNews, public opinion has shifted. A glamorization of startups, similar to what happened when The Social Network came out, began to spread. Successful entrepreneurs began to make networks, and have more recently begun to create their own funds, allowing future Japanese entrepreneurs the freedom to not have to deal with Silicon Valley unless they were ready to expand overseas. It’s quite likely that this will generate a gigantic shift toward startups in the near and distant future, not just in Tokyo, but in other startup hubs such as Fukuoka.
Follow the west
For better or for worse, Tokyo startups have often looked overseas to the ongoings of Silicon Valley, often seen through the filter of someone translating articles from Techcrunch or the like. Many of the more successful entrepreneurs have excellent reading proficiency in English, allowing them to get faster and more precise access to information than their colleagues, but still they see things through the filters of major publications, rather than a direct first-person account. This leads to seeing things in a way that is less like reality, and more like the comedy show Silicon Valley.
This has meant that many Japanese companies would copy wholesale things that companies and people in Silicon Valley are said to do. Oh yes, this means things like “Agile” development and, ironically, “kaizen” and the “kanban” system (and JIRA), but also conferences and lightning talks. Unfortunately, most conferences in Japan, even to this day, consist of people exchanging namecards, or for the more advanced, Twitter handles, and little real discussion and spontaneity. Also copied: office layouts, as many English words that sound impressive as possible (big data, synergy), chat program usage (e.g. Slack). I think it’s great to look overseas to new ideas, and to copy the ones that work, so I think this is a great thing in general, but sometimes it has felt that the surface level was copied, and the contents ignored. Also, Silicon Valley makes many mistakes that really don’t need to be emulated so much as learned from, but this is the danger of all mimicry.
I was pleasantly surprised to see many startups working smarter than in big companies, researching technologies that made life easier for programming or company operations. However, the 頑張る (ganbaru / do your best) culture permeates here as well, and oftentimes people burned the candle at both ends to little positive effect. In many cases, I saw that startup hours were grueling even by the insane Japanese corporate standards. There are definitely people that do this in Silicon Valley, but not as sustainedly as in Tokyo I feel. They will work hard to complete something as fast as possible, but completing the wrong thing fast is not always the best approach. I have always felt that if Japanese society were to direct their efforts with more precision, that it would be an unstoppable force in the world: great leadership and vision with hard work. I think the current generation is headed there, so keep an eye out for Japanese startups.
Western-style in Tokyo
I worked at a company that was essentially led by westerners. The management style was roughly what you might expect in Silicon Valley. Like many people, they sought to emulate Silicon Valley, and the usual stereotype of Steve Jobs in both design and management. Management was in general chaotic and a disaster, falling prey to many things I’ve written about previously, and having several of the archetypal foreigners I mentioned above. The product was a great idea, the engineers were amazing and I learned so much from the engineers, and from the experience. I’ve always thought that this was a real shame, because having a good startup culture combined with the amazing living in Tokyo is a dream, but sometimes people just don’t know what to do. Leadership is not for everyone.
I worked at another company then called AnyPerk (now Fond) that was essentially led by Japanese, and was a kind of fusion between Silicon Valley and Japan, trying to take the best parts of both. The founders were incredibly energetic and forward-thinking, but also hardworking. I had first met them in Silicon Valley when they were working on an earlier venture, and had the pleasure of working with them on their present one. The situation was a bit interesting, as I was working out of a shared office space in Tokyo, while they ended up mostly working out of San Francisco; a comical situation. I’ll write more in-depth about this particular experience.
We rented some desks from a design firm with room to spare, who also rented to other people, so I was surrounded by a small array of Japanese companies and a few coworkers. In general people kept to themselves, but everyone was friendly and made basic conversation. The design company had a work-from-home policy on Fridays, and in many ways embraced modern thinking.
This time being forced to use Japanese at work on a daily basis, my business speaking skill improved somewhat. I made friends with others in nearby offices and would go out to lunch sometimes. I can’t stress enough how great it is to know the local language and be able to talk to people about everyday things. I learned a lot from these conversations that I otherwise would have missed out on.
While people are more casual than at large companies, the usual Japanese formality and roundabout conversational manner still dominates. At some point, things are just cultural, and I personally find the formality and indirectness to have beauty, even if it is at times irksome.
Over time, the company continued to grow in San Francisco but stayed the same in Tokyo. Inevitably, this led to some challenges with regard to the strength of interpersonal communication, but thanks to the asynchronous nature of much development work and tools like Github’s code review, things generally moved forward at a decent clip. The significant 16–17 hour time difference meant that meetings had to be coordinated ahead of time, but this was generally not a problem. Once in a while, I would fly out to SF from Tokyo for some much-needed face time, and other times people would fly to Tokyo to visit the Tokyo team.
Since I ended up working mostly with people in SF, and the others in Tokyo were great remote workers, I often ended up just working from home, sparing me the joys of riding both the infamous Chuo and Yamanote lines every morning and night. In a way this was the best of all worlds: Tokyo living, not forced to do Tokyo commute, and none of the traditional Japanese company shenanigans.
Unfortunately, being remote meant missing out on all the great offers the company offered to their employees and clients in the U.S., but I considered being in Tokyo to be a great perk.
Tokyo Silicon Valley Fusion
In Japan, it is not uncommon to see people taking powernaps at their desk when they need to. This is often seen as a sign of hard work by management, but more importantly, it helps to refresh you. Many people in Silicon Valley try to power through their work or just ingest more caffeine or energy drinks in vain, but often a simple nap in-place will do. The cofounders embraced this common Japanese practice, and I think it’s a great thing. If you have the dedicated space for napping this is great too, but impromptu naps are great.
The notion of kaizen, or continuous improvement, was often followed but rephrased as simply “be better than yesterday.” It’s cliché, but it’s also important. In Japan when something goes wrong, typically the first step is to look to yourself and see if you are causing the problem, and starting with that assumption, rather than just blaming someone else and starting with the assumption that they’re wrong (not everyone is like this, but many are). I like this way of thinking, because even if it isn’t your fault, self-assessment often leads to self-improvement.
Like the better parts of Silicon Valley, they did away with extraneous meetings and layers of micromanagement. Formalities were kept to a minimum, and direct communication was encouraged.
San Francisco is not for me
In the end, the company decided to wisely consolidate operations to just San Francisco and asked if I would move, but for a variety of reasons I don’t want to live in SF. They include the absurd cost of living and the other usual suspects, but more generally, I don’t feel safe in the city, and I don’t derive many happy feelings while there. SoMa and the Financial District, where many startups are, feels like Batman’s Gotham City to me. I have a great love of many people I know who live and work there, but it’s unlikely that I would ever live there myself. Also, Tokyo is a better fit for me on almost any dimension. And so, sadly, we parted ways (but we’re still friends!).
I never got to experience a more typical Japanese startup founded and run by Japanese people exclusively in Tokyo, but I’m sure that would have been a fun experience. Many Japanese people I know run successful startups there, but we never had the pleasure of working together. Maybe something for the future.
In any case, I hope this has helped to round out the discussion a bit in contrast to my post that was more about larger Japanese companies, and to show that Tokyo has many people, forms, shapes and opinions, perhaps best explained by the classic expression: 「十人十色」、 literally “10 people 10 colors”, or in other words, there is as much variety to people and their beliefs as there are people.