THINGS I WISH I WOULD HAVE KNOWN BEFORE MOVING TO TOKYO

When we moved to Tokyo I found it very hard to figure out. As expatriate assignments go, Japan is like moving to Mars and dramatically more complex than when we moved to Europe.

As a public service announcement, I share a few key learnings in the hope that it helps others in the future.

  • Japanese addresses:  Have your home address in your contacts in Japanese. It makes it much easier with the taxi drivers. If you are going somewhere, print it out from the web and hand it over in Japanese. Easy.
  • Metro:  The Android/iPhone application for getting around the subways is invaluable. Put in your starting location and your ending stop and it maps the way. I use it all the time.
  • Costco:  It took us months to figure out where the Costco was. There are (now) many in Japan. Want to avoid that $50 melon? Costco is the place. Amazing prices, English signs and great service.
  • Amazon.jp:  I wish I would have known this right from the beginning. Amazon.jp sells almost everything imaginable and has been a savior for the family. Boxes of lemon water, kitchen items, condiments, a vacuum cleaner, humidifiers (it gets very dry), vacuum bags – you name it, that is where I start when we need something (other than Costco).  As an Amazon prime member shipping is free on many items so you don’t have to worry about buying a single bottle of $2 cinnamon. The trick is finding things, you can select “English” on the website but it may not find what you want so I often use the “People who bought this also looked at these items” features or browse by category. Last, there is nothing more amazing than ordering two boxes of vitamin water at 9AM and having it arrive at 7PM that same night  .. on a Saturday.
  • Google Translate:  Invaluable for a few words. Avoid sentences to ensure you do not accidentally offend (smile). At home, use the Chrome browser and install the extension as sometimes it gets “stuck” translating a page into Japanese and it is handy to be able to hit the translate button and have it start over. Plus, very handy on your iPhone. It is how I bought a car.
  • Money: The best way to move money from country to country (unless you are moving a huge amount), is with a check. You can read more here.
  • Electric bikes:  If you have young children, buy a bike in Japan. They have electric bikes which are a mix of pedaling and battery power. Tokyo is a VERY hilly place, and that battery “boost” will be very helpful if you have a child or a host of groceries on the back of the bike. Just don’t be like most of the expats and almost all of the Japanese, wear a helmet.
  • Guam and Saipan:  We needed a break from the city in the summer and tried to head down to Okinawa or into the central parts of Asia (Philippines, etc.) when we first moved here. As we drove to the airport we cancelled our trip to Okinawa as a typhoon was hitting. The summer is typhoon season in Asia, making your choice of destinations one that requires a lot of research. I wish I would have known about Guam – close to Tokyo, beautiful beaches, English speaking and simple. We have been there 3 times in the last 2 years – it is the easy, get out of the city break for a beach.
  • Lunch:  Tokyo has, absolutely, the best restaurants in the world. More Michelin stars than anywhere else. But dinner is expensive – with the restaurants pushing set menus that range from $75 to $250 per person. The secret is that lunch in Japan is the best deal in the world. Those $200 dinners for $30 (with less courses). Do lunch.

Tokyo is the safest and cleanest city in the world. It has beautiful parks and perplexing rules. The Japanese people are incredibly friendly and will openly try to help you out as a foreigner.

But it can be daunting, as I described in this post. I hope this helps others.

JAPANESE ON-HOLD MUSIC

Ever since we landed in Japan two years ago I have constantly been smiling at the little things that are so different. Truly, I say it again and again, living on Japan is like living on Mars. It could not be more different than Canada.

Case in point, music. J-pop is everywhere and I personally find the dollification (I made that word up) and boy/girl band music confusing and well, not reeling me in. That artificial, tinny, synthetic type of music can be found everywhere in Japanese society. It is particularly grating in D2, my local hardware store, which has found a way to make elevator music even more soul crushing by replicating it via synthetic organ music.

To give you an insight into this music, I pass on a video. It is me recording what it is like to be on hold with an un-named Michelin 3 star restaurant in Tokyo.

Michelin 3 Star on-hold music

 

I live on j-pop Mars (smile).

CONSTRUCTION IN JAPAN

In most countries when you think of a construction worker you think of a hardhat, steel boots and safety equipment.

                          Safety-boots-150x150   hard-hat(1)

In the land of paradox, where rules abound and business culture is all about adhering to the norms and coloring within the lines, the attire of the Japanese construction worker continues to confuse me.

Japanese construction worker

Construction pants? Well yes, but they are these huge, flowing baggy things that look perfect for getting caught in an auger and ripping off a limb. Called a Tobi trouser.

Tobi trousers or tobi pants are a type of baggy pants used as a common uniform of tobi shokunin, construction workers in Japan who work on high places (such as scaffolding and skyscrapers).[1] The pants are baggy to a point below the knees, abruptly narrowing at the calves so as to be put into the footwear: high boots or jikatabi (tabi-style boots), often brightly colored.[2]

According to a spokesperson for Toraichi, a major manufacturer of worker’s clothes of this style, the style was developed from knickerbockers. The regular knickerbocker-style pants are called nikka zubon ("zubon" means "trousers," and "nikka" or "nikka-bokka" is a gairaigo-transformation of the word "knickerbockers"). The excessively widened ones are calledchocho zubon.[1] This style has also entered popular fashion,[3] as evidenced by the emergence of toramani ("Toraichi maniacs"), die-hard fans of Toraichi trousers.[1]

Construction boots? No. Usually soft boots with the big toe separate to allow for slip on footwear (i.e. flip flops). Definitely not steel toe. He happens to be wearing running shoes. Called the Jikatabi. I personally like this commentary on the boot “Though slowly being replaced by steel-toed, rigid-sole shoes in some industries, many workers prefer them for the softness of their soles”.

Hard hat? Infrequently. The bandana seems to be a team favorite.

One could say that construction mirrors culture – where tradition is tantamount, despite the changing world around them. Or perhaps, the right term is “to spite the changing world around them”. The paradox that is Japan.

THE FOUR SEASONS AND JAPAN

I am a Starwoods guy. Whenever I can, our family stays in their hotels because that is where I stay on business. A friend coached me when I first came out of university – pick a hotel chain and stick with it – that is how he gets a free week in Maui every year.

That qualifying statement complete, the Four Seasons is impressive. We stayed at the Four Seasons in Cairo years ago and it is one of the best hotel we have ever stayed at. The view helped.

2008 03 23 172 Egypt

2008 03 23 174 Egypt

Recently we were speaking with someone who had managed the restaurant at the Four Seasons in Tokyo. We were discussing the Japanese culture, creativity and education. He provided the following insight (paraphrased from memory):

It was a real challenge at the restaurant because our staff struggled with the westerners. At a Four Seasons it is very common for the guest to not order off the menu. They expect to order what they want and have us prepare it.

This is very different than the Japanese clients. I cannot remember any Japanese client every asking to order outside the menu. It just isn’t how they think and our servers really struggled with dealing with the custom ordering.

It just isn’t how the Japanese were taught to think and as the world continues to change, I wonder as to what will be required out of the Japanese education system, is it being altered to deal with change? (I believe the answer is no). We all need a good dose of Finnish education.

ENGLISH

Reading this sign I could not help but a) smile and b) think that it should be accompanied by a few other phrases, such as “sure you do” at your clinic that is ‘post office opposite”.

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THE COST OF TOKYO

According to the latest indexes, the drop in the Yen means that Tokyo has gone from most expensive place in the world (when we first moved here) to number 13 .. not even in the top 10!

It sure does not feel that way (100 yen is roughly $1).

An expensive pancake (Y280)

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2 pieces of fruit (individually wrapped for your pleasure).image

12 slices of bread.

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I think these prices are the reason why Japanese stay so thin.

A PRECIDENT BASED WAY OF THINKING

There is a famous Japanese saying:

出る釘は打たれる。

Deru kugi wa utareru or in English: the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. In other words, follow the rules and in Japan, there is a big rule book.

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Rules are an interesting thing with cultures treating them very differently. I have come to believe that rules are like our legal system – precedent based. Over time, precedent changes as culture and thinking changes. No better example is what you see happening in North and South American around marijuana with some contemporary thought leaders like Bill Gates coming out with opinions you would not have expected. Our world is changing and will keep changing as views, economies, politics and opinions change. That is why slavery is banned and women can vote.

In Japan it is encouraging to see Prime Minister Abe taking the cultural challenges head on with plans such as his push to get women into the workforce, but there is a long road ahead. This is a very old culture with 3000 years of history (unlike my home country).

In the same article on Abe’s efforts, the Prime Minister makes an interesting observation on Japan which explains the conservative mindset:

Japan, he said, had been like a golfer, stuck in a bunker for 15 years, but reluctant to reach for the sand wedge, in case they over-hit the ball and shoot out-of-bounds. Now, he said, Japan had finally had the courage to use the sand-wedge.

The rules centric culture of Japan has benefits. Orderly, clean, safe and if you can figure out how it works – efficient. There is no city in the world that runs like Tokyo. You simply need to take a train in Japan and then compare the experience to a train in India to understand the power of structure and rules.

But it also has interesting drawbacks in the form of risk aversion and the creation of some very odd situations. My recent experience at Haneda is a good example of the danger of rules, in this case at the taxi stand.

The "rule" for the taxi stand is that the attendant must take the next taxi in line for passengers – no exceptions. That means that if you are in line with a family that will not fit into a small sedan, he is not allowed to call a van out of line or from where they queue to assist you.

I learned this after a very difficult conversation with an attendant around why he would not call up a van.

After the back and forth (due to my lack of Japanese language skills), he also figured out how to communicate to me that there is another rule; “the customer is always right”.

In other words, he could not call up a van. but if I decided to walk down the line and call a van to the front, he could do nothing about it.

I wonder how many years will go by before someone decides to fix this rule? Or will the nail just get pounded down every time serving the status quo?

 

And on a related note with regard to precedent, the evolution of rules often has unintended consequences. This one caught my attention and made me laugh.

Kicking habit

MEDITATION AND CREDIT CARDS

I think I need to meditate more. Or maybe I don’t.  Normally the below conversation would have driven me a little mad. Instead, I laughed because it seems to happen a lot in Japan.

(Dialing Citibank Visa)

(Press 2 for English. Press star 1 for lost or stolen card .. I press *1)

(Conversation with Japanese call center agent identifying myself and that card is stolen, I mean .. Lost)

"Have you reported this to the police?"

(Bewildered) "Why would I do that?"

"Because it is the cautious thing to do"

"Have you cancelled my credit card?"

"Yes"

"Were there any charges on it since my last purchase"

"No"

"If someone found it, would they be able to use it?"

"No"

"Then why would I report it to the police?"

"Because you should. It is the right thing to do"

"Well I can’t as I am getting on a plane and I will be gone all week"

"Perhaps you can do it when you are back"

"Why would I do that? I have never gone to the police to report a credit card loss, ever"

"Because you should, it is the right thing to do. They will take down the details in case someone finds the card"

"Ok. Sure. That is what I will do. When I am back in a week, I will go to the police and report that my old, cancelled credit card that no one can use is stolen"

"That is good. Thank-you"

"How long till I get my new credit card?"

"A week"

“And I should still report it even though I have a new one coming and it will be here before I get back?”

“Yes”

"Ok. Thanks. I will do that."

I got off the phone and shook my head, then laughed.

Can you imagine walking into a Toronto police station to report a lost credit card? They would laugh you out of the station.

I bet anything though, if I did go into our local Koban to report this, I would quickly have 6 policemen swarming around me, 2 on the phone and 2 on walkie talkies trying to find someone who speaks English and all of them willing to help. Unlike in Toronto, they don’t have a lot of other things to do. Not like there is any crime happening ….

I live on Mars.

BEING AN EXPAT IN TOKYO: A VIEW

It is hard to describe why being a foreigner in Japan is so hard. The people are friendly, they mistake me for American all the time and Japan loves the US. English is more prevalent than I thought. Why so hard?

I am not talking about the business side. That is a different conversation and as a multi-cultural Canadian with a previous expat under my belt, that is going exactly as I expected.

I am talking about living in Japan as a person, as a family. Is it because it is such a busy city? Is it because the expat community is so much smaller due to people leaving after the earthquake; leaving only the semi-gaijin behind (ones who have localized or married a local)?

2013 08 17 Tokyo_-20

As I took the subway the other morning, something happened that encapsulated the experience and perhaps, though a story, a point of view and an explanation.

I have been commuting to a new office for weeks now and tried a few different subway routes, settling on the quickest and easiest. 5 stops, up the stairs, 50m, down the stairs, 1 stop and 250m underground to our new office.

Simple.

I have found the Tokyo subway commute interesting. On this particular morning I stood on the packed train and took a good look around. Men reading manga .. I still find that odd, especially when you glance at one and notice how graphic they are. People on their phones. A man standing oddly trying to read a huge paper. An ad for whisky that made me laugh. Observing, learning, enjoying the "foreignness".

Stop 8 – Ginza (It is easier to identify by the number than the name). Time to change trains. Step out, head up the stairs and … what?

Everything is different.

Where is my next line 50m away? Where is the red circle to guide me? Where am I?

What has changed? (it starts dawning one me). This time instead of stepping on to the last car, which is busiest, I walked up 2 cars.

The smallest of changes. A tiny shift.

I am lost.

Wandering around I find signs and trudge what feels like 1000m around corners, up stairs, down stairs. How is this possible? The change between trains is a hop, skip and a jump. A long walk, it feels like my 2 minutes is now 20.

Finally, I get to my change over. Back on track. One stop, short walk, at the office.

That is the Japan expat foreigner experience.

Over that first, painful year of learning you build your cocoon of knowledge in this foreign country where everything is different, where there is a “way things are done” which allows 40 million people to live together and create the safest, cleanest and one of the most functional cities in the world.

The problem is that when you shift a millimeter right or left, that cocoon is torn asunder. Your understanding is blasted apart and you are left wondering, where am I? (This often happens when you are under a time pressure).

Drifting in an ocean where everyone understands, except you.

If you don’t believe me, rent a car and a GPS in Tokyo and try driving across town. GPS’s don’t understand 3 level freeways. One minute it will say go straight for 13km and the next, it thinks you are on the first level and is screaming “U-turn .. exit left in 150m .. recalculating .. Turn right!”

That being said, year two is about 200% easier and as always, fascinating.

2013 08 17 Tokyo_-19

REMEMBER: YOU ARE NOT IN TOKYO ANYMORE

This is a conversation I have had time and time again with expat friends and colleagues. When you leave the safety of Tokyo, you need to remember that the rest of the world is different.

Sitting in the ANA Lounge the other day I had zero qualms about leaving all of my bags at my seat and heading to the washroom. I would never do that in another country.

A colleague and I were discussing it the other day (he is American) and he told the story that I have heard so many times before. They walked off the plane in the US and ran their young children through the “You are not in Tokyo anymore” reminders.

When you go to the washroom, make sure that Mom or Dad knows.

You cannot leave your laptop on a chair and come back expecting it to still be there.

Stay close, don’t get lost in the crowd. Don’t talk to strangers.

If you are a parent with children, Tokyo is like the hometown of your youth. An island surrounded by a much different world.

Plus, where else in the world is the lounge breakfast comprised of noodles and fried tofu, yogurt and a cappuccino? (smile)

photo

TOKYO FASHION

To say that Tokyo has it’s “own sense of style” underplays the statement .. as does beating to it’s own drum.

Tokyo style is head-turning to say the least. Timeout Tokyo has a great series on the topic named style of the day, you can see the full series here.

This outfit makes complete sense, as he is in Yoyogi park.

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This, surprisingly common, teddy-bear themed outfit does not make sense to me …. and these outfits are everywhere in Tokyo …

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Foreigner in a foreign land ….

IS TOKYO REALLY SAFE?

When we were first considering moving to Tokyo I reached through my network to speak with people who had lived in Japan, I researched and spent a lot of time reading. Safety kept coming up as one of the positives about Japan, although I worried that it was too good to be true.

In fact, as 1 year approaches for us, I have begun to notice “rose colour glasses” from many foreigners as they talk about Japan. Many people who travel in and out of the country are enamoured with the country; the culture, the history, the great food (all true) but do not have a balanced view as they do not get past the county’s external face, the veneer of Japan.

To truly understand Japan, you have to live in the country. All countries have pros and cons.

When we first arrived a fellow expat said Japan is a tough place for a foreigner (not a tourist). The first year you will really struggle (It is true: Japan is like living on Mars), the second year you will enjoy it a lot more as you begin to understand how the country works … and he was right.

As an aside, a funny view of “Japan like/dislike” can be found at the blog 1,000 Things About Japan.

But is Japan really that safe? Or is it a case of rose coloured glasses?

The answer is yes, it is that safe.

Sure, if you head out to Roppongi at 1am and head into a seedy bar, you can find trouble and yes, there are lots of people in Japan who can be rude (road-rage is unsurprisingly prevalent). But for the general citizen, there are police everywhere, people are very helpful and incredibly polite to foreigners. Case in point, we were lost in the mountains on the weekend and a truck that was following us pulled over when I did. Even though he spoke no English, he took the time to guide us to our destination just because he figured we were confused. Very nice people.

Back to the safety front, I think the best way to illustrate the point is through the children and the subway. You get on the subway in the evening with tens of millions of other commuters and you will see unaccompanied children .. 5, 6, 7 years of age in their coloured hats, coloured backpack (which designates which school they go to) and uniform.

You would never see a child that young alone, on the subway in Toronto, because it isn’t as safe.

And as (another) aside, their coloured hats and backpacks, are a great idea and very practical on a school trip. When we were at the Hakone Open Air Museum, there were hundreds of children on school trips .. grouped by their hats.

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A fascinating country.

TOKYO COMMUTE

All through my life I have commuted and every time it was the same – drive. Even in the UK, I drove 30 minutes each day to get to the office. My other type of commute was to the airport.

When we moved to Tokyo I continued the airport commuting but added a “first ever” – a walk. I was a 10-15 minute walk to our offices. It was very odd to get use to as it lead to different work behaviours and a little bit of getting accustomed to. For example, as I do a lot of global calls I would often be on the phone at 6AM in the morning and see it trail through the morning with the oddity of having to figure out how to get into the office for a meeting – only 15 minutes away.

This week we moved to a new office and for the first time, I am a commuter. 10 minutes to the train, 20 minutes on the train (with a changeover), 10 minute walk to the office. The first couple days were confusing, although the Metro subway app really helps and I am not into a “rhythm”.

Part of that rhythm is thinking about the time on the train. With train switching between short rides and walking, reading isn’t working so I have lit up my old friend, Audible. My first book is humorous for a Pulitzer prize winning author: Manhood for Amateurs.

As for the Tokyo subway, I will bring my camera along once I settle in a bit more. Too much going on. But I did snap this with my iPhone: a) she looks very young and b) interesting demographic target for whiskey. (Seriously: who puts whiskey in lemonade?) I am sure I will see many different things in the months to come.

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MAKING SENSE OF THE JAPAN ECONOMIC NEWS

Whether you live in Japan or somewhere else, many people are talking about Japan’s economy. I get a lot of articles forwarded on the topic and you cannot open a local paper without something on the topic of Abeconimics.

Many foreigners are excited about the decline of the Yen, a hot stock market and media news about the revitalization of the economy. But unfortunately, revitalizing an economy that has been flat or deflating for 20 years is turning out to be not as simple as driving inflation and driving down the Yen to increase exports.

As I “re-learned” in the spring while supporting my son on a project, economies are fickle things that governments can manipulate over the short term, but over the long run it is the consumer and business owner that decides the fate of the country.

In our North American, consumer driven economies this isn’t as big an issue. People buy bigger houses when rates come down and load up on debt. The same isn’t true in Japan. In the article Japanese husbands get allowances—and they’re at a 31-year low, in a bad sign for Abenomics, the author explains a very different reality in the Japanese culture:

In at least half of Japanese married households, the wife controls the budget and allocates a proportion of her husband’s salary for spending money known as “okozukai”—which covers mobile phone bills, drinks, cigarettes, and entertainment. The average allowance has slipped to $386 per month, according toa new survey by Shinsei Bank (pdf), down 3% from last year and to the lowest level since 1982.

Last year the BBC interviewed one 47-year-old Japanese man who had been receiving an unchanged allowance from his wife for 15 years. He tried to negotiate a raise, but “she [drew] a pie chart of our household budget to explain why I cannot get more pocket money,” he said, defeated.

The okozukai system is part of a broader Japanese financial culture where families often save huge amounts, particularly when times are bad. The result has been an economic disaster, which is why a key part of the government’s “Abenomics” suite of economic reforms is encouraging savers to spend.

Now overlay that notion with the demographics: the Japanese population is aging rapidly and every year the population declines significantly as young people are not getting married and having children. This means that the strain on the government social system is going to increase as time goes by and in one estimate I read the population is on a trajectory which may see it hit 100M people by 2040 (down from the current 127M).

Japan needs young people to pay for the upcoming social system burden, replenish the workforce and create that next wave of naive, exuberant, consumerism to drive demand. But many are rebelling at the notion as the young males do not want to enter the okuzukai system like their dads (neither would I) or the salaryman culture that is pervasive in Japan: (Via A Geek in Japan):

Salarymen wake up at around eight o’clock in the morning, have breakfast, put on their suits, take up their briefcases, and get on the train for a commute of approximately an hour. They work, have lunch with their coworkers, and usually work overtime, arriving home very late at night. Often, before going home, they will go out for a drink with their workmates and pass the time at an izakaya.

From a simple logistics point of view, how do you get the population to spend more and jump start the economy when they spend 5 or 6 days a week in the office till late at night when the promise of lifetime employment is no longer on the table? (read Japan’s Lost Generation).

Now add the cultural conundrum of immigration which seems to be the only way that Japan can maintain their population, a strong workforce and base of consumers. Japan is one of the last homogenous societies in the world. 99% of Japan is Japanese, bolstered by the last earthquake which lead to a max exodus of foreigners (Flyjin). That homogeneity is one of the fundamental underpinnings of Japanese society; it means shared values, group minded thinking, true social consciousness, safety as a group, and the most orderly society in the world. But when the population is aging and declining rapidly what other choice is there? Japan is heading to this cliff and rightly recognize that this one topic will change the very fabric of their 3,000 year old society – which is why they so actively resist it.

On the business side, the stock market is up and exports have swung upwards due to the weakened Yen. But for Abenomics to work, Japanese companies need to start hiring more people (which creates more consumers) and start building factories (which drives jobs). One of the best articles to articulate this is Will Abenomics Work?

We think the current economic upsurge is mainly due to: i) exporters
enjoying a temporary respite until either China and Korea react with
devaluations of their own or there is a repeat of the Eurozone
meltdown, and ii) the spending habits of exporters wealthier
shareholders and suppliers. But since exporters only account for 16%
of the economy, and just 15% of Japan’s households hold any shares at
all, these very visible players should not be mistaken as representing
the Japanese economy as a whole. Rather, we think that while the top
1% might indeed be feeling wealthier, and 1m people can certainly buy
a noticeable amount of high-end goods, but there’s another 126m who
are not seeing anything other than rising prices and instead are
wondering just when things will get better.

Add into that an inflated labour market where companies will struggle to add to their workforce when they are not allowed to remove low performers or surplus workers:

Near the top of the reforms list, just under deregulation and lowering corporate tax, is the need by employers for more “labor flexibility” — code for the ability to fire people they no longer need. Economists reckon that 10% of employees (about 4.5m people) in Japanese companies are redundant, and if they could companies would let that many go in order to increase productivity.

When you add all these up it makes a simple point: this isn’t as simple as driving inflation, this is about culture and the question of deep change.

The challenge with that is that if you start changing the cultural foundations of the society, the downstream impact is that you reshape the very fabric of what it is to be Japan.

In a 3,000 year old society, that is not to be taken lightly and one needs to beware the rabbits as the consequences are significant.

Japan is a fascinating place with many big questions looming. It is a privilege to be here at this point in time, listening, learning and observing.

 

As an aside, a few of my favourites on Japan:

  • One Obstacle Won’t Budge in Japan’s Fight With Deflation   Fascinating read on the economy and Japanese vending machines (there is a vending machine for every 33 people)
  • A Geek in Japan    A great read on Japan culture, and what it means to be a gaijin working in a Japanese company.
  • The Japan Times.    I find the “local” papers are a great insight into what it means to be part of the culture. I still read the Guardian out of the UK.

EXPAT CURRENCY ADVICE

 

Lesson #1: on currency

When we first moved to the UK I was advised to keep currency in whatever location you were planning to live in long term. I did not listen, and we moved some money with us from Canada to the UK.

Along came the economic crash, a 30% decline in the GBP and a painful lesson when we moved that money back to Canada.

This time around we opened up a multi-currency account and have kept money in the currency that it was originally “created”, only transferring between currencies when needed. A fortunate thing as the Japanese Yen has declined 25% against the Canadian/US dollar since we arrived.

Lesson #2: on moving currency

If you are moving a lot of money and planning on moving permanently, you are not an expat and this isn’t for you.

When we moved to Tokyo I was getting some pretty annoying “wire transfer” charges. Annoying is a euphemism for large. I switched to using checks. Simply deposit the check from your home country, pay a nominal fee, and wait (in my case, it magically leaves my Canadian account in 3 days but takes 28 days to appear in Japan). A flat rate and much lower cost.

Hopefully, these lessons will help a fellow expat.

THINKS YOU WON’T SEE IN KANADA

A store in Tokyo is filled with unique finds .. most in Japanese and indecipherable to the gaijin.

Condensed milk in a tube. Purchased to make a Vietnamese coffee at home.

condensed milk

An individually wrapped prune goes well with your Cream Collon (tube cookies with a creamy center). You can’t make this stuff up.

prunes

I was speaking with someone about how healthy Japan is. But a fellow in pharmaceuticals said that the cholesterol and diabetes drug markets are growing rapidly in Tokyo. This is why; the only thing I will eat in McDonalds is an egg mcmuffin but I won’t eat that. Obesity on a bun. Hey McDonalds, “Big Canadian” could go there too (unfortunately).

cholesterol

In Tokyo there are safety men everywhere. I mean everywhere, with their hands waving to ensure you don’t crash into a truck or workmen or any of 1,000 other things going on near the roads.

But automation is on the way …. A bit hard to see, but the LED safety patrolman.

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A butcher skinning something on the street. What is it? No idea, but he had a big crowd.

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You never know what you will see next.

Update: adding one more. Sitting in the doctors office I saw an add for this brand of baby diapers.

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THE GARBAGE

 

In Canada it is progressive when a city incorporates composting. There is still a large debate on the economics of recycling beyond the most basic in a resource rich country.

In Japan, they take garbage sorting and distribution very seriously, as you would expect as the country is land and resource constrained. But for a newcomer, the garbage system can be quite daunting. We had to cut this out and put “cheat sheets” on each of the 4 different bins that we have in the apartment.

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And to be clear, make a mistake and you could face a fine. This is serious stuff and required many re-reads before we got it right (smile). At least it is in English.

Candidly, I admire them and am glad to do my part. Canada should do a lot more of this.

HOW TO BUY IN THE US or CANADA FROM ABROAD

 

Living abroad you face many challenges; such as accessing websites to maintain your subscriptions and being blocked because of where your IP address is (i.e Japan) and buying things in another country that are not available locally or way over priced (In Japan, most frequent is “not available”).

The simplest way to re-sign for subscriptions is through a VPN service like StrongVPN which make it look like your PC is in that country via a local IP address. Relatively simply and one I use all the time.

As for buying things, that really comes down to how often you travel home. In my case, going to Canada is an “almost never” scenario. But the US is more frequent due to a US based HQ. But that doesn’t fully solve the problem as many websites require a US billing address. A few examples:

  • Try to sign up for a on-line service out of the US (i.e. a music service ) and you will be out of luck unless you have a US credit card and billing address.
  • Several websites will require US billing and shipping address when buying goods due to fraud concerns.

Very difficult, or so I thought. Turns out that you can change your billing address on a Canadian credit card to another address for a period of time (30 days, 5 days). I did it with Amex, changing my billing address to the hotel I was staying in for 5 days to process the orders. Voila, order away and when I arrive at the hotel my goods will be waiting.

I will also use this trick to renew a few online subscriptions, opting to pay the entire years fee in one lump sum.

Neat trick.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

 

This weekend we bought a car. We could not find the one that we wanted at the dealership so he called around until he found us exactly what we wanted and then introduced us to that dealership.

Now that is service. As an aside, making a car purchase using Google translate on my iPhone was surprisingly effective although I found the one phrase the dealer did know in English rather frustrating:

“No discount. Company policy. One price”

So much for negotiating (smile).

During our travels from dealer to dealer (car shopping is not high on my “fun” list), we happened across this dealer who restores old Minis. I don’t know who would every buy one (they look cramped), but they were refinished perfectly – spectacular looking cars. He had 30 on the showroom floor. The right car for the tight Tokyo laneways.

2012-08-05 16.08.45

2012-08-05 16.08.18

THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF EXPATS

 

As many of my friends know, our family is planning a move – to Tokyo. We have often talked about Asia and it has been a personal career goal. As with all goals, if you set your mind to it, it will happen.

This will be very different from our “ex-pat lite” experience of living in London primarily due to language. I do not say due to culture because moving to London was a huge culture shock. I personally didn’t think it would be – but I was very, very wrong.

In retrospect, it was those cultural differences that made it such an amazing experience and one that I continue to reflect on fondly; I love the UK. But that requires a certain mindset. What I came to realize as I lived there and mingled in the expat community, is that there are three types of expats:

1. The ‘check-the-box’ expat:  This expat knows that they will only be here for a short while and are looking forward to promptly returning home and therefore decide that they are going to do it all. This generally means an insanely packed schedule with day trips and holidays that are so jam packed with sightseeing that they really don’t experience it. These are people who go to The Louvre and only schedule 1 hour.

2. The ‘I do not want to be here’ expat:  This is the executive who has to do this role for career reasons and is dragging along a spouse who does not want to be there. They are usually counting the days until they can move back into the house that they kept in North America and resume ‘normal’ life. This family shops at the butcher shop in Virginia Water who stocks all kinds of US foods like crappy Skippy peanut butter and constantly complains about everything that is different than at home. Surprisingly, there are quite a few of these people.

3. The ‘make it memorable’ expat: This family may or may not know when they are going home but are there to love every minute. The nuances of the culture, the little differences that are frustrating for family No. 2 become charming. They mix with locals and take trips that are not jam packed sightseeing trips, but also filled with casual brunches at a cafe on a side street. They love the differences and every experience, big and small.

In the UK, we were number 3 and it is best illustrated with cream:

  • Family number 2 looks at cream as an irritant. It is called pouring cream, comes in tiny little containers and expires in roughly 4 days versus the 3-4 month expiry on your 1 litre container in North America.
  • Our family laughed about cream. First thing, it took us 3 weeks to figure out that pouring cream is cream that can be used in a coffee as many shops don’t carry it. The fact that it only lasts a few days is one that we still wish we had in North America, as one has to wonder how our cream lasts for so long – what is in it?

It is all about mindset. In our case we will re-institute our weekend rule – “Do one thing different every weekend”. I cannot wait. Time to blow the dust off my camera …..

BE A BETTER MANAGER: LIVE ABROAD

 

From the HBR article with the same title:

Travel and living abroad have long been seen as good for the soul. What’s perhaps less well-known is that they’re also good for the company. People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity, our research suggests. What’s more, we found that people with this international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products and to be promoted.

For example, we ran an experiment in which 220 MBA students from Northwestern’s Kellogg School were asked to solve the famous Duncker candle problem. In this behavioral test, individuals are presented with three objects on a table: a candle, a pack of matches, and a box of tacks. They’re asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall—using only the objects on the table—so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the floor.

The correct solution demands the ability to think creatively: Empty the box of tacks and use it as a candleholder. The solution is considered a measure of “insight creativity” because it involves making the “aha!” discovery that the box is not just a repository for your tools but a tool itself.

We found that the longer students had spent living abroad, the more likely they were to use the box as a candleholder. In fact, 60% of students who had previously lived abroad solved the problem compared with 42% of students who hadn’t lived abroad. Interestingly, time spent traveling abroad had no effect on creativity.

Seven years ago I may not have understood this article, but I do now. Living in the UK was a remarkable experience that changed me as a leader/manager. I naively went into the UK thinking that Canada and the UK were similar and that the cultural integration would be easy. I could not have been more wrong. Those two years taught me how to work with people who were not like me, how to grasp the nuance of corporate and geographic culture and how to adapt.

It will be interesting to see how corporations view moving people around in the future. I was speaking with a neighbour who works for a global bank that is renowned for their international program. She mentioned that they were slowly closing down the program as ‘local talent was now getting strong enough that they don’t need to import people’. That may be the case, but it misses the point that the above article makes – it isn’t just about bringing in good talent – it is about growing the talent pool worldwide. I would argue that there were broader benefits beyond my development or my leading a turnaround – the entire UK team that I worked with grew, changed and benefited. We did it together.

25 REFLECTIONS ON THE UK (PART 3 OF 3)

 

5. One more on cars. Parking is very funny in the UK. In North America, when you park on the street you must park in the direction of traffic in the appropriate designated area. In the UK, people park on either side of the road (direction is irrelevant) and often anywhere and everywhere. After all, parking wasn’t an issue hundreds of years ago so they really didn’t plan for it.

4. British people LOVE their dogs. We loved that they loved their dogs. Parks are full of dogs running around. The elderly (who seem healthier than North Americans) are always seen walking around with their dogs. Everywhere you go – dogs. On Wentworth, one of the more prestigious courses in the world, dogs are welcome. Our neighbour would golf every weekend with his lab running behind him. Amazing. We North American’s could learn something from the European’s in this regard – seeing a family with their small dog in the restaurant in Normandy was incredibly refreshing. That is a true ‘family’ out for dinner.

3. Everything has a cost and a benefit. I just realized, after 24 amazing months that one of my costs was that I never got to say good-bye to my dog, Bram. Ciao Bram.

2. It is all about people. England is a diverse culture and I am thankful to have worked with and met many amazing people who have a huge impact on my outlook on life and my character. In two years, I owe many people an enormous debt of thanks.

1. Life is about experiences, not things.

25 REFLECTIONS ON THE UK (PART 2 OF 3)

 

15. England is very old. Canada is very young. Two years later, driving by an old church or a pub that was built in the 1400s still amazes me. I could spend hours wandering a cemetery reading the inscriptions, history was made in the UK.

14. Stop signs should be banned in North America – long live the roundabout. North America should learn the lesson.

13. Spoiled food is good. In Canada, things don’t spoil quickly. In the UK they do. As an expat it is initially frustrating as you have to hit the store more often. However, you soon realize that quicker spoiling means less preservatives and definitely less salt. All organic is now the family motto. Oh yah, and I now detest chain store fast food – have been without it for 2 years and don’t miss it.

12. Male fashion is all about the brown shoes with the suit or jeans, and the French cuff shirt. Got it. Understood! But still don’t buy into the whole pink shirt thing. Sorry.

11. Parking in England is an adventure. Like everything else, the people building the homes and roads 1,000 years ago were just not thinking! I had a BMW 5 series estate. Parking with that car meant that every time that I got out of the car two things would happen: there would not be enough room so I would have to get out sideways and no matter how hard I tried, my door always touched the car beside me. The only car that actually had enough room to park was the Mini (which is why there are so many of them in England I suppose).  In the end, the UK has cars, but really isn’t made for cars. The UK was made for horses and walking.

10. The world is flat. Ten years ago, going international would have been a lot harder. Web cams, 1 hour phone calls for $1, email, digital photos and videos, cheap flights, social networking and XBOX LIVE keep you as connected .. as you want to be.

9. A Tom Tom GPS got me all around the UK, Washington, Scotland, Belgium, Paris and through Normandy. I cannot imagine doing this without a GPS. And I will never buy in car SATNAV again. Overpriced, hard to update and generally underperforms – mobile satnav for me please.

8. I have become a very proud Canadian. Canada is a great country, with a rich and varied culture (French, English and everyone else in the world) – with a proud link to Britain.

7. Customer service in the UK is a paradox. The milkman comes to the door 3 times a week (good), you can order groceries on the internet (good), Amazon lets you buy pretty much anything you can think of (books, DVDs, shoes, MP3 drm free downloads to filters for my Jura coffee maker) from one central place and have it delivered in 1 day (awesome). But the ‘convenience’ store on the corner closes at 6, the mall is closed at 6 on a Friday night, the 16 year old checkout boy at the counter sits down while checking me out and watches me pack my own bags, and on many occasions, because they thought we were American – they were downright rude.

6. The world owes the UK an enormous debt for their resolve during WWII. If it were not for this nations ability to hold out while the Americans made up their minds, the Germans would not have been stopped.

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