Interview: Everything you have heard about Japan is True!
Or Life, Food and Work for an Indian in Japan
Japan is a curious place for most of us. We have heard so many stories about Japan, how it is ridiculously clean, how people are extremely polite, how there is almost no crime. I wanted to know what it is like to actually work and live there, especially as an Indian. So I called up my friend Siddharth Kannan, who works at Mercari in Tokyo as a backend engieer and I interviewed him about his life in Japan. Here’s an edited transcript.
Harsh: So, Siddharth, how did you end up at Mercari?
Siddharth: So, I was in a dual degree program in IIT Kharagpur. Around the beginning of my 4th year, I knew that I wanted to work as a software engineer and I was particularly interested in living abroad. During my placements, some Japanese companies came to Kharagpur for the first time and I had a good coding test and interview with Mercari. That’s how I ended up working at Mercari in Japan.
Harsh: What were your first thoughts when you heard Mercari is coming for placements and recruiting people for Japan?
Siddharth: Japan wasn’t really on my radar before I saw the listing from Mercari. I was thinking, if it would be an Indian city, it would be Bangalore, and if it was outside then probably the US or Europe.
Then I looked into what kind of company it is, how many people are there etc. Back then I think it was like 500 or so people, and it was huge in Japan. And I don’t think anyone outside Japan knew about it. I read stuff on a glassdoor. It was pretty standard. My dad used to work in a Japanese company when I was in eighth or ninth standard. So he has come here (to Japan) quite often. So I don’t think about Japan as somewhere no one’s ever been.
Harsh: What was the response of other people around you about Mercari and moving to Japan?
Siddharth: Mercari was not a very well known company, so I don’t think that offsetted the fact that it was in Japan.
I had a bunch of conversations with people who were like, “I don’t want to move to Japan”. I would rather move to somewhere like the US. I’m not sure of the reason, but I think it was mostly fear of the unknown.
Japan is just so different and it’s very foreign. I think very few people get to interact with Japanese people or Japanese pop culture. I think the only people who were not scared of Japan were people who are really into anime or other Japanese pop culture. But I don’t think that anyone else has that kind of interaction with Japanese pop culture.
Harsh: What were your expectations before you moved there?
Siddharth: After I got the job, there was this program where we would study Japanese for two months in India and then we would move abroad. So before those two months of learning, I was pretty scared. Yeah.
Harsh: Why was that?
Siddharth: So during that time, I went abroad to Taiwan, it was completely all in Chinese. I think that was the first time that I went to a place where I did not understand anything. So I realized what I have got myself into. I was pretty scared about not knowing Japanese and having to live here. I was also not sure about the food.
That was before my Japanese language training in Pune. In the program, there were all these Indians who had lived in Japan for like 10 years or so and they were teaching us Japanese. Apart from just teaching Japanese, they would tell us stuff about Japan and like what goes on here. I think the exposure was more important actually than the Japanese itself. Because I think that was the first time that I really heard about what life here would be like and what would we be doing?
Harsh: How were your first few months in Japan?
Siddharth: Once we moved here, everything was set up. The company had taken care of a lot of the paperwork, they helped us open a bank account, get the resident’s card, all kinds of paperwork.
Daily life-wise it took some time to get used to stuff. Like, where to get food, how to get it, what is what, because pretty much everything, even in Tokyo, is not in English.
So like all the labels for food, everything’s in Japanese. So that was the hardest part. And also things, like getting furniture and getting home appliances, was pretty tough.
Harsh: Why was that?
Siddharth: When you have to get like furniture or something, you have to go to these huge shops and choose what you want. And then you have this huge process where you set up the delivery day, and they have these bunch of forms you have to fill out where you say, I accept that there might be some damage when they deliver it and they won’t redeliver it and so forth.
It’s a lot of paperwork that you have to do on your own and it’s all, of course, in Japanese. So the whole process of getting the house set up is pretty long. So I think that was kind of challenging. And then just getting used to things that you do every day, like laundry. I didn’t expect them to be that different from India because I have lived in a hostel for five years. I was like, whatever, I can figure it out. But it was pretty different.
Harsh: How so?
Siddharth: We came here in October and it was extremely cold, so there was no way to dry clothes outside. There was no dryer in my house. And then I found out about coin laundries and then I would go there every week but then I didn’t understand a lot about coin laundries.
So I would just go to the one that I had seen the first time until I found out that they are everywhere. I used to go to coin laundry that was pretty far away for a while. So the first few weeks I figured it out and other small stuff.
And bills was another confusing thing. Phone bills, electricity bills, etc. When we got shifted into the apartment, the housing agent explained to me, these are the bills that’ll come to you. They’d be like monthly and everything. And I wrote them, I wrote everything down. I was waiting for the bill, but they didn’t show up for like two months because I didn’t use enough electricity. That was confusing because there’s no way to figure these things except to call the provider and you can’t call the provider if you don’t have someone who can speak Japanese for you and explain to them what is going on.
I missed a couple of bills here and there, and then I paid them off later. They have a pretty lenient collection policy where they let you off for like three months or so. So, I wasn’t really in trouble. But, I can see how I could have been if I had gone back home or something.
Harsh: Yes, It would be very annoying to find out one day that your electricity is gone. BTW How do you manage your food?
Siddharth: Food was pretty easy. For the first few days, I didn’t understand much. So I would just eat the basic stuff that I did understand, like sandwiches. There are a lot of subways around. So I would just go to Subway and it would be pretty simple. Then after a month and a half or so I felt comfortable here and I was like, okay, I can now try some Japanese food. That was when I started to go out and find restaurants that had Japanese food.
Harsh: Are you a vegetarian by any chance?
Siddharth: Oh, no, no, no. I’m not a vegetarian. So I was saved.
Harsh: How is the situation for vegetarians?
Siddharth: Vegetarians have to pretty much cook every day. No Japanese food is really vegetarian. If you want to eat out, there are a lot of these new restaurants where they have vegan food and veg food but they tend to be in touristy places. It is rare to find them in residential neighborhoods. So eating outside is kinda tough and you have to pretty much start cooking as soon as you get here.
Harsh: What is the work culture like, what is your team like?
Siddharth: It is pretty good. So when I joined I had a month of just onboarding and things like just getting to know the kind of teams in there and everything. And then there was a team placement process where you would give your resume and all the managers will look at it and they will choose whom they want to put where.
So I got into the backend team for the US app. So Mercari has a Japan app and app in the US that’s smaller than Japan but growing. When I joined, the team was like 80% Japanese people and everyone else was American.
It is a pretty chilled out and nice environment. There are a lot of new graduates of course. Work is really good, I got into a good team and it’s fun.
Harsh: What are your work hours like? I am asking, because, Japan has a bad reputation for having a really hard work culture. How true is that?
Siddharth: It’s not true at Mercari at all. It’s pretty chilled out. You’re required to put in eight hours a day on average for a month. That’s 40 hours a week. And then if you want, or if you have to, you must put in overtime.
Even now my overtime has never been above 10 or 12 hours a month. Yeah. So it’s not crazy at all. You go in at like ten or so and then leave at like eight or seven depending on whether you have work or not.
Though, there are people who have worked here for a long time and worked in Japanese companies where you have to walk in at 9:00 AM and your salary will be deducted if you are one minute late or something. I have not experienced it myself. I’ve heard stories about it.
Harsh: Do you have friends in other companies who have these kinds of stories? I want to know if a person applies to a Japanese company how likely is he to find such work culture.
Siddharth: I think it’s pretty common if you are applying to traditional Japanese companies, but if you’re applying to a company that doesn’t require Japanese skills at all and you can just speak in English, then the traditional japanese work culture is rare. For example, there are a bunch of American companies that have Japanese offices like Indeed and Google. They have pretty much the American culture, but in Japan. Though a completely traditional Japanese company would definitely have a pretty formal structure and a formal culture and strict hierarchy.
I think as foreigners you would apply to a company where you would not need that much Japanese. And those companies tend to be pretty modern.
Harsh: Are there any other ways to recognize companies that you don’t want to go to and which have a really hard work culture?
Siddharth: I don’t know. In my interview, I asked my interviewers about work and work hours because I had read the same stuff. I think that’s the best you can do. Ask them about it. I don’t know how else you could.
There are a lot of varying experiences even inside Mercari, where a lot of people are not really happy and they would like to leave. That’s the way companies are, it’s pretty hard to judge from the outside.
Harsh: I want to know more about the language situation there. You learned Japanese before going there. But do you work in English? Or do you have to use Japanese? How do people who are not very comfortable in Japanese cope up?
Siddharth: I learned Japanese but that was nowhere near the stuff that you would use at work. Once I got here, I was just working in English and pretty much did not use Japanese for about six months. Most of the stuff like the documentation and conversations were in English and it was pretty normal.
Once I got a little better at Japanese and I was feeling more confident about talking in Japanese regularly. I was able to get on teams and do things with other Japanese people, which I would not have been able to do. But it’s not a barrier, like not knowing it would not have hampered my daily work. Maybe reduce the kind of stuff I could have done.
In general, a lot of companies now have this movement to move to English. Even inside Mercari like the team that’s working on the Japanese app, they have this whole move from Japanese to English where they are trying to write specifications in English and discussing in English and so on.
I think that a lot of companies want to have their employees work in English because it makes them more compatible with other offices and it’s just better or something like that. But it’s a slow process and it’s in its early stages. Japanese is still pretty much the main chunk of what’s going on here.
Harsh: I still don’t get it. So, uh, you worked for six months in English, and now you mostly use Japanese for work, is it?
Siddharth: Oh, no, no. I still use mostly English at work, but now I can work on projects which have other Japanese people who aren’t that comfortable with English. So the policy of the team that I’m on right now is to do everything in English. Because the team is 80% Japanese people and everyone who was in their team before me, of course, knew Japanese including all the foreigners. So before I joined everything was in Japanese. Like they would write stuff in Japanese, they would have their meetings in Japanese.
So it was a pretty drastic change from all Japanese to all English now. Even now, a lot of conversations are in Japanese, so I think I would say I use Japanese, maybe 30% of the time at work. The majority is English.
Harsh: What do the Japanese members of team feel about this change? Do you see any kind of resentment or negativity around this?
Siddharth: I don’t think that there’s any resentment per se. I think it’s just that people tend to move towards other people who do speak the language. From a management point of view, it becomes hard to manage a team, which has one person who does not speak Japanese and other people are not that good at English.
So, teams tend to become structured in a way where all the English speaking people are together and all Japanese people are together.
Harsh: What has been the experience of your other Indian friends in Mercari?
Siddharth: So actually a lot of my friends, who joined at the same time as me, did not really learn Japanese. They were in English speaking teams and they just continued to speak English. So you don’t have to talk in Japanese. It’s a pretty normal, routine kind of life if you cannot speak Japanese, but the moment something happens to you, say you lose a phone, you didn’t pay your bills, and now your gas is gone, then you’re suddenly stuck because you need someone to help you out as you can’t talk to them on your own. But I think as long as bad things don’t happen to you, things are routine in your life, then it’s fine.
Harsh: But something or other is bound to happen, right?
Siddharth: Yeah. It is bound to happen and I think it’s great that we all came here together, so we have like a lot of new graduates from India who joined the company. So people know us and they help us out and we know people. So I think it’s a good sustainable setup. But if you come here alone and you don’t have a lot of people, you know, and all the people you know are at work, then not knowing Japanese can get kinda tough.
Harsh: Interesting. I am curious how do the Japanese see India and Indians? Also did you ever face any kind of racism?
Siddharth: A lot of Japanese really like Indian food. That was kind of surprising. there are quite a few Indian restaurants here, they are pretty much everywhere, even in residential areas. They’re not that common, but they’re still there.
Then, the languages and kind of the differences within India baffle them because it’s, it’s kind of hard to explain and it’s kinda hard to understand.
In general, I don’t know how much interaction they have with Indians, on a normal basis. It’s pretty much the superficial stuff they know. I’ve had people ask me if the dance sequences in Bollywood happen in real life too. It showed me what kind of effect Bollywood has on foreigners. Though generally, don’t think there are many stereotypes about Indians, atleast I have not heard them.
I’ve not observed any kind of racisim, nor I have heard stories about it.
Harsh: That’s great, I asked about racisim because I have heard some stories about racism from my friends in Western countries. I have also heard stories about voilence, like knife attacks in London and muggings in New York. Whereas I have heard Japan is extremely safe. Is that what you saw?
Siddharth: Definitely, Tokyo is extremely safe. I’ve stayed out late, even in places that you think would be stereotypical shady places like railway bridges alleys and it’s completely safe. It’s all monitored. It’s very structured enviornment here and it’s extremely hard to find dangerous places. In Tokyo, despite being a foreigner and not knowing anything, you would still feel safe.
I don’t know what exactly it is. Right. It feels a lot safer than a lot of places.
Harsh: That’s really nice. Everything you talked about, like the work culture thing, the language situation and Tokyo being safe verifies what we have heard about Japan. But what are the misconceptions people have about Japan and what are the things which surprised you?
Siddharth: I think language-wise, you would probably think that you could get away with English in Tokyo. I definitely believed that. It’s like everyone goes there, there are so many people that there’s no way that you cannot get away with it. That was surprising because in a lot of situations that I was expecting people to speak English but they didn’t.
Then some people have some misconceptions about anime and stuff. The way they speak in anime is not the way they speak in real life. A lot of people recommend watching anime to learn Japanese. This is detrimental because it’s very different, normal Japanese people don’t talk like that. You can still gain vocabulary through anime. But you can’t really learn grammar or how people actually talk. I think all of the other conceptions about people being very polite and all pretty much holds true.
Harsh: Basically we have not been fed garbage about Japan?
Siddharth: Oh, yeah. I think something like Shin Chan would be like the worst image of Japan.
That’s kind of surprising because a lot of Japanese people really like that show. Even if they don’t like it, they don’t mind it. And when I told them it was taken off the television in India and stuff. They were really surprised. It’s just a show. It’s not a big deal.
Harsh: It was extremely popular back then.
Siddharth: Yeah, exactly. It was extremely popular. I think that was kind of surprising. We made it such a big deal.
Harsh: How is life outside work for you in Japan?
Siddharth: I live in a locality which has a concert hall nearby. So I used to go to live shows there. That was fun and it’s completely different. Then there’s a lot of other stuff to do, like in winter, most people go snowboarding which is pretty fun. Then I’ve just been roaming around Tokyo and places nearby and just visiting them. Being in a new city just opens this whole new set of places that you’ve never been to. Even if it’s not like a special place, it’s still an experience to go there and visit.
Harsh: Before we close this, are there any stories you would want to tell? It can be anything, any small incident that happened with you which surprised you, which you surely did not expect.
Siddharth: So, I was caught jaywalking once. So they stopped me and they got all my documents like photo ID and matched everything. It was a pretty surprising, okay. It was just like crossing the road.
Harsh: What did they do after that? Did they put a fine or something?
Siddharth: Oh, no, there was no fine. I was on my bicycle and I was crossing the road, and I didn’t realize that you can’t. This is like two or three months after I was here. So I knew what is jaywalking. It was pretty close to my house, I was like, okay, whatever.
There were two policemen there and I didn’t see them, of course. I don’t know what I was thinking. So I crossed the road and then they stopped me.
All cycles are registered here. So they asked for the number on cycle. They got my resident’s card and they matched everything up and they asked me a bunch of questions, where do you work? Where do you have to go? And it was this whole procedure of kind of getting pulled over. There were two people. So one guy was just talking to me and I was telling him stuff, and the other guy was like calling people and confirming. So yeah that was jarring.
Harsh: Did you feel scared or threatened?
Siddarth: I just felt kind of embarrassed. It was pretty close to my house. I didn’t know anyone here, so I thought it was okay, but it was pretty embarrassing.
Harsh: In India, you are used to just crossing the road, right, because there is no concept of jaywalking
Siddarth: Yeah, pretty much. I was not thinking. So that was a jarring experience. It was a pretty pleasant accident. I mean, it was extremely normal. They would just ask you stuff and be like, “okay don’t cross the road again, it’s dangerous”. I get it now.
Harsh: Thanks a lot for that. I hope this will be quite helpful to people who want to know about Japan, who have been thinking should they move there or are just curious.
Siddarth: Thanks for having me.
Thanks to Vivek Ray, Himanshu Mishra, Rubal Jabbal and Abhishek Tripathi for edits and suggestions.