Three simple rules

Several years ago I found myself working at a Japanese bank owned by Americans. I could barely speak the language when I arrived in Tokyo. On a daily basis, I dealt with a three-headed monster representing worlds contrasting each other. My local colleagues came from the cloistered Japanese business culture which was polite only in appearance.

I worked with engineers from India and China who survived within close-knit communities. They celebrated functions like Diwali and Chinese New Year, and yearned to go back “home” once they made enough money.

The third head of the monster represented global expats who assimilated enough to succumb to the 24×7 nightlife Tokyo is famous for. It was entirely possible to begin your career in Japan as an English teacher, then become an investment banker, before losing employment and finding yourself as a DJ or a bartender in a nightclub. The wise expat colleagues ended up studying Zen, while teaching at Japan’s top notch universities.

I joined forces with the expats and was given three simple rules to survive Japan:

1) Make money

2) Make friends with Japanese

3) Don’t complain about work

If expats complained enough, they wound up in the basement or were shipped home with a one-way ticket. If you were a mid-career employee or a new joiner, your promotional opportunities were minimized in favor of Japanese locals. Senior executives and diplomats were the exceptions to this rule. Specialized skills accelerated the path to long-term success, along with marrying a Japanese.

Like most expats, I was relegated to a corporate job. I finished my daily routine saying, “osako ni shitsurei shimasu” to my boss. I had the fortune to work with some very talented executives. One was fond of saying that you needed to squeeze fruit daily to make juice happen in Japan. In many ways he was correct. American “can-do” spirit along with Kaizen management-style resulted in incredible progress. [Maybe at the expense of health and wellness]

The three-headed monster exceeded expectations. The Japanese workers who spoke English fluently got things done. The firm promoted many female workers with English skills superior to their older male counterparts. The hard-working Asian engineers made bonuses far exceeding what they could make back “home.” The money was too good to leave behind. The fun-loving expats were the biggest winners if they played by the three simple rules, and were in the right social circles. The secret sauce was no longer a secret in Japan.

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A couple years ago, I made a trip back to Japan. I had a reunion with some buddies. The same friend who told me the 3 simple rules many years ago, repeated them again! I guess nothing has changed since I left.