Freelancing in Tokyo: Culture Clashes

Posted by David Chester on 30 August 2011

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Culture Clash
Culture clashes. You've heard of them; have you experienced them? In our situation, we specifically refer to the Western experience in Japan. The picture above is a great example. On the left we have McDonald's, which established itself in Japan over 30 years ago. On the right, we have tables of squid drying in the hot summer sun. They seem to be existing peacefully side-by-side. But are they?

Culture clashes are defintely part of any experience when you travel to or decide to live in a country markedly different than your own. Despite the "Westernization" of Japan, Japan is still Japan. In other words, do not make the mistake of making assumptions about things you see or hear.  Why is this important for you, the freelancer? 

Perhaps the answer to that should be obvious. But I have discovered that for almost every foreign acquaintance I have, those clashes continue, even after lengthy stays in Japan, and even despite the fact that some of those acquaintances speak fluent Japanese. 

Although I have covered this "culture clash" in earlier blogs, I believe it bears repeating: Generally speaking, in the Japanese entertainment industry, the amount of payment, the percentage taken by agents, what exactly will be required of you on the job, and the payment date itself all seem to be big mysteries that require the Westerner to go to uncomfortable lengths to solve. Why? I have been told that Japanese do not like to discuss money matters. They also do not like it if you become urusaii (noisy) about them, asking too many questions or making too many demands. 

From my viewpoint, why shouldn't you? Your talents are being exploited, sometimes in crude and rude ways. Why shouldn't all your questions be answered immediately? And if they can't be, when can they be? 

I have tried both paths in dealing with this issue. The straight-ahead-in-your-face Western way, and the subtle, quiet Japanese way. I find that if you approach things in their way, they might like it better, but you won't find out what you need until sometimes way after the job has been completed. I don't like that style anymore and I do not see the benefit of it. 

The Japanese, too, make assumptions about non-Japanese (for the PC crowd out there, if you have a better term, please suggest it). They assume we will fit in, get with the program, put up with unendurable situations without complaint, and work long hours in silence without extra pay. Why? Because that's okay for them? 

Japan has given me almost everything I've needed to make myself a better person. It has provided me with unique opportunities, it has made me a better man, it has provided me with a life partner, and it has paid me to do things that I didn't think I could, or wasn't sure I was capable of (a slight difference if you think about it). For those things I am grateful. And I have endeavored to be the way they want me to be, hoping that that will allow for smooth sailing. But ultimately, it doesn't. Because I am not Japanese, nor will I ever be. Yes, I am aware, that is obvious, but if you decide to live here for many years, you will have moments where the Japanese will say to you, "You are like Japanese!"

Well, I can be, if I need to be. But I do not want to forget who I am--and neither should you. Sometimes, even though it may be urusaii, it is important to speak up and be heard. It is important to establish transparency at every point along the way so that there is no confusion. Because there is very, very little to no protection for you, the working foreigner in Japan, if you do not clarify from the get-go all the details about the job you are offered, you might find yourself one day wondering how you got into the situation you're in. 

Embrace Japan to the best of your ability, but do not drown in it. I wrote FIT to help others avoid the many, many mistakes I've made (and still sometimes make) trying to set up a life here. I see newbies trying hard to fit in and learning the language. That's great. It's important to do those things--but not at the expense of forgetting that the main reason you are here is that you are bringing something unique to the table; that's why you are being hired in the first place. Think about that and reflect on it. And use that uniqueness in a positive way and perhaps both parties can benefit from it.