Japan: Where work is your life

Picture this. Summer, 30-35#C, extreme humidity, crowds, congestion, a smoggy haze, endless high-rises, $12 for a coffee, $16 for a beer, 14-hour work days. Plus locals with a strange culture and even stranger language.

Picture this. Summer, 30-35°C, extreme humidity, crowds, congestion, a smoggy haze, endless high-rises, $12 for a coffee, $16 for a beer, 14-hour work days. Plus locals with a strange culture and even stranger language.

This week, Tokyo beckons. While at first glance it may seem like the futuristic technological hellhole that provided inspiration for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner film, for some Kiwis the place is heaven.

I was there last July and it is all the above, as well as a fascinating place to visit. Access Technology is a major high-tech executive recruiting company serving foreign-owned IT firms in Tokyo. Its Wellington office is seeking IT recruitment staff to work in Japan, though the firm is also happy to place Kiwis looking to work in its IT industry.

However, Japan is not as keen as other countries to recruit overseas IT workers and has no special arrangements for them. You effectively need to be degree-qualified for a work permit, though if under 30 you can apply for a renewable six-month working holiday visa.

In addition, firms prefer to employ Japanese and only the finance sector is amenable to employing foreigners. However, the rewards can be "huge", says Access.

Steve Zawodny from Access says a typical IT package pays $200,000 to $300,000 a year, with management roles paying $700,000 to $800,000. "Someone can live comfortably on $70,000 a year, paying rent, their living expenses and going out two or three times a week," he says.

However, 12-hour days are the norm. Most professionals work five days a week, a third work six days and 10% work every day. "But working longer hours means better pay," says Zawodny. He admits Sydney is a "happier" place to be, partly as its locals speak English.

Access sends a Japanese business manager to interview Kiwis before they work for the firm in Tokyo to ensure they are up to it. The website advises: "We are not looking for IT geniuses. We're looking for intelligent, focused individuals whose work is their life."

One of those is New Zealander Craig Marsden. After seven years in sales, six years ago he went on his own to the Access Tokyo office. "I decided it was an opportunity, working in the world's second biggest market," he says.

And don't forget the money and the cultural experience. "I plan to come back and buy a beach house," he says.

Marsden says the New Zealand and Japanese lifestyles are like chalk and cheese. "The lifestyle [here] is focused on work and work. Everything falls behind that," he says. Professionals work from 8-9am until 7pm at the earliest and usually until 10-11pm. People also don't get promoted over anyone younger, he says, so it's tough if your boss is younger.

"You are in their world. You have to adopt. When you know these rules you can wend your way around them but at the end of the day you have to go with the flow," he says. Such methods are slowly changing. The foreign-owned firms that Access supplies are adopting more Western ways such as promotion on merit rather than age.

Another change is the urban environment. Marsden left behind a house with a garden to live in a flat in the Tokyo metropolis, population 17 million. The city stretches for miles and the country and beaches are not as accessible.

But the drawcards of money - earning "triple" Kiwi levels, the challenge of working with the latest technologies, for "world leaders in their fields", being able to buy cheap electrical goods and experiencing the varied Japanese culture are more than enough for some.

However, the culture and the lack of English speakers can be the main drawbacks. "When you first move here you find it lonely," says Marsden, "but if you have your head screwed on you will realise the opportunities are large. [Fortunately] there are many foreigners here [at Access]. If you come off the plane half-heartedly, you are in trouble. You need to commit yourself to a couple of years and go from there."

He also advises people to learn some Japanese. Though harder to learn than English, it opens up more opportunities. "In addition, stay open minded when coming here. It's a different world. You have to fit in." Despite it all, Marsden says he is "very happy with Japan and loves it".

Closing the interview, I note it has just turned 5pm and is time for home. "I remember those days," he says.

Darren Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send email to Darren Greenwood. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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