By: Keith Pratt; Foster Undergraduate
Part 1: If you’re considering studying/living in Japan, you’ve probably read blogs and watched Youtube videos about Japan’s ancient tourist sites, amazing convenience stores, extremely packed but convenient train systems and somewhat eerie robotic toilets, but you probably haven’t heard very much about what its companies, called kaisha, are like. So, in this blog post, I will “humbly receive your letting me write,” as they say in formal business Japanese, about my experience interning at a company in Japan. (I won’t list the name of the company in this blog.)
When I entered the company, a Japanese multinational corporation with over a hundred billion dollars in assets, I was taught a little about what the company does and the basics of customer interaction including the ritual of exchanging business cards (which is an entire topic of its own), and then I was sent off to the division I would be interning at. Most of the content of the internship involved shadowing various eigyou-man (somewhat of a slang term), who perform the extremely critical tasks of maintaining customer relationships, making sales/negotiating business transactions, and drinking with customers (I wish I were joking). The company opted to spare me the last function “since you’re still a student.”
The people I worked with—and the company as a whole—were very hospitable and helpful, and I felt like they did their best to make me feel comfortable at the company. Having said that, while I won’t go into the details of my every day, there were some memorable moments one might describe as culture shocks…
Experience 1: Eigyou-man (plural) in Japan meet with clients. A lot. And while my Japanese wasn’t perfect, I knew enough of it to understand that a lot of what the conversations were about had absolutely nothing to do with business. In fact, one day after the team I was with took well over an hour to get to one of our customers’ offices out in a more rural part of Japan, we met with our client, a slightly older gentleman, and for the first forty-five minutes did nothing but talk of the exquisite splendor of Japan’s rich history and other such topics relating to the greatness of Japan. After taking about a half-hour talking about actual business, he proceeded to offer me advice about how to deepen my understanding of what it means to be Japanese through a range of different
methods, and then inquired as to whether one of the other eigyou-man, a girl only a few years older than I, had read the book he recommended to her the last time they met. (It turns out she had bought it but hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet.) We then made the one-hour plus trip back to the office. This kind of experience wasn’t that far from normal.
Experience 2: Another day, an eigyou-man in his mid-twenties and I visited a traditional Japanese electronics company that made about forty billion dollars/year in revenue. The eigyou-man I was with had a fairly close relationship with the company we were visiting, and after briefly talking about some business the eigyou-man on my side changed the topic and bluntly said to the person from the other company, “Please buy these baseball tickets.” And he replied, “okay.” I could not believe my ears—baseball tickets had nothing to do with the electronics company, but he agreed to buy them regardless. I later learned that this type of purchase was normal in order to maintain good relationships between companies (*facepalm). We then bowed, exited the room, and entered the elevator to go down to the first floor… but the man from the other company was still with us. Upon reaching the first floor, we exited the elevator, bowed again, said goodbye and thank-you, and headed towards the set of three sliding doors we would walk through. Before passing through the first sliding door, we turned around, made eye contact with the man who was still standing there, bowed again, and then passed through the first door. This happened twice more, every time we passed through a set of sliding doors, until we were completely out of sight. When it comes to traditional Japanese companies, this is supposedly normal as well.
These are only a couple of my many experiences of visiting Japanese companies.
Part 2: Only a little bit of my time in Japan was actually spent interning, so I’m going to write out some of my thoughts and bits of advice for those of you considering/planning an exchange program in Japan such as one at Gakushuin University.
For those of you studying Japanese, you’ve probably already had some level of exposure to keigo, and you’re probably concerned about not being able to use it properly. But here’s my advice: relax, since just about all the college students in Japan are feeling the same way. In fact, I’ve heard some Japanese people comment on how gaijin (foreigners) are often better than many Japanese at keigo because the Japanese aren’t taught it in school like gaijin are—so don’t worry about it too much. Just make sure you know the basics really well.
For those of you concerned about the smoke in Japan, yes—it is a lot worse than it is in Seattle. However, it’s not nearly as bad as it was in the past; in fact, it’s outlawed in most public places in Tokyo as well as in many restaurants and cafes. Also, I’d like to note that not once was I ever pressured to drink; people were very understanding, to my pleasant surprise.
One of the greatest inconveniences of Japan is the difficulty to get free wifi—not even Starbucks offers free wifi. You can get wifi boxes from service providers like Softbank, but don’t expect to be connected to the internet unless you enter into some kind of contract with a company.
I was pleasantly surprised was to see how lively and energetic the churches I visited in Tokyo were. I often hear how few people in Japan are religious, but I was actually able to make many deep friendships with the locals, especially college students in Tokyo, through the different churches here.
A few other words of advice would be to keep track of when the last trains of the day are; to be active in making friends in your classes, “circles”(clubs), churches, student groups or whatever other organizations you may choose to join since your time in Japan will fly by before you know it; and to make a lot of Japanese friends before leaving for Japan, not only to gain practice speaking, but also since they can help you out once you’re in Japan.
Going to Japan is definitely the best way to improve your Japanese, but in order to make the most of it, you have to speak Japanese. Don’t worry about whether your Japanese isn’t good enough—go for it anyway! I’m not saying you have to hang out with only Japanese people, but having conversations in Japanese with your friends will go a long way in improving your ability to communicate, especially if you own a denshi jisho, an electronic dictionary. Denshi jisho are excellent for intermediate and advanced learners of Japanese, and I think they’re indispensable for understanding lectures in school and learning words while watching TV or talking with friends because you can find words with them far more efficiently than you can with a paper dictionary. Some advantages over using smartphone dictionary apps include longer battery life, better dictionaries/ word lists, and easier word input.
Lastly, I highly, highly recommend finding a host family if at all possible. The quality of my stay in Tokyo was doubled, both in getting to create valuable relationships and in practical ways such as being able to practice my Japanese over dinner, because I was able to stay with my host families.
As I write this, I’m actually in Kyoto studying at Kyoto University, which is quite an experience in of itself. After this semester ends, I will head back to Tokyo where I will do one last internship before returning to Seattle. Since I’ll have experienced living in both Tokyo and Kyoto, if you have questions about what they’re like—or any questions about studying in Japan in general—I’d be happy to answer them!
I hope you make the most of your time abroad, and happy travels!