From Kamaishi to Tokyo with Emily Hallams

Emily in the spotlight at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Kamaishi due to her bilingual English/ Japanese language skills! Watch the full interview here.

Having chatted with AustCham Korea’s Executive Director (ED), Rowan Petz, in Seoul, it was terrific to sit down with the ED of the Australian New Zealand Chamber of Commerce (ANZCCJ), Emily Hallams in Tokyo during a recent visit! Although new to her role at the Chamber, Emily has an impressive array of study and work experience in Japan, spanning across various cities and prefectures, making her a perfect source of inspiration for Asia Options’ readers.

Language Immersion Begins

After nurturing an interest in Japanese through language study in high school, Emily visited Japan on a two-week-long high school exchange program in Year 9 and Year 11. These initial visits took her to the Japanese countryside in Fukui Prefecture, studying at a local high school and living at a homestay.

Building-up the moment from there trips, Emily decided to enrol in a Bachelor of Asia Pacific Studies (Japanese Language/Northeast Asian Studies) at the Australian National University in Canberra. Having experienced life in Japan she was certain that language fluency was the key to pursuing a career in the field, meaning that a related degree with exchange to Japan was a valuable stepping stone for her journey. Her exchange at Kansai University in Osaka was a definite highlight. To this day, it has proved to be a great conversation-starter in business settings, as Osaka is known as a contrast to Tokyo and very different from Emily’s other experiences in smaller cities.

“Osaka is a big city but actually quite different to Tokyo. Locals are known for being more outgoing and having distinct accents, so it was great to experience life as a student there”. 

Emily Hallams

As an additional perk, there was less separation between local and international students, so it was easy to make Japanese friends and improve your language skills.

Interested? Check out scholarship options to explore various language study, full-time study and exchange options in Japan. To learn more about studying in Osaka, click here

Taking a Leap Into Kamaishi 

Having completed her studies at ANU, Emily turned to JET as a way of transitioning to working in Japan. As a well-known and respected program popular among her peers, JET offered opportunities for those with Japanese language skills to work in Japan, either as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) or Sports Exchange Advisor (SEA). Although approximately 90% of the JET program placements are ALT roles, Emily was decided to apply for a CIR position. Before making the decision, Emily visited one of her seniors, who was completing a CIR placement on a remote island, which made her determined to take the leap into the ‘path less travelled’.

“After seeing my friend, who was working in Okinoshima, I just felt like it was an opportunity that would be hard to come by at any other time.”

Emily Hallams

As fate would have it, Emily ended up being selected to join Kamaishi’s local government office. Located in the Iwate Prefecture, Kamaishi started out as a small fishing village, later developing into a steel town during the Meiji era. The value of its industry made it a target during the war, meaning it was decimated from multiple bombings and later re-built. A number of tsunamis also devastated the city, giving it a long cyclic history of utter devastation and rebuilding. Apart from this intrinsic resilience, Kamaishi’s steel industry lead Nippon Steel to sponsor the local rugby team, making it one of the best in the country.

In the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, players petitioned to host some Rugby World Cup matches in the city, hoping to help rebuild the city from this latest round of devastation. Against all odds, the committee approved the decision and Kamaishi was selected as the host to a number of 2019 games!

When Emily arrived in the city in 2016, preparations were well underway for the Rugby World Cup. As the first foreigner to be employed at the local government office, the role was a rollercoaster of new experiences. Since there was no predecessor to take over from, her role involved a lot of bravery, initiative and improvisation – but the challenges made the experience a truly rewarding one.

“The job was definitely a challenge. Since there was no predecessor or training, I had to find my own way. But I learned a lot by saying yes to every opportunity, even if I felt unsure of my own abilities – learning from mistakes gives you the resilience to take on new challenges”. 

Emily Hallams
As one of the unexpected opportunities, Emily taught English on local Kamaishi radio station ( )

Emily loved having the opportunity to immerse herself in Japanese language and culture – particularly since Kamaishi offered a more flexible and relaxed environment for putting the nuances of Japanese business etiquette intro practice! Another advantage was working with a totally Japanese team gave Emily plenty of opportunities to connect with Japanese mentor figures.

As other Asia Options articles have discussed, drinking is an important element of building relationships in Asia. However, Emily emphasises that more importantly than drinking itself, coming along to these outside-of-work activities is the key to building rapport with colleagues. As people let down their guard, formality drops away and you can learn more about your colleagues and seniors. When mentor-figures shown an interest in you, it’s worth building the relationship – as it can lead to other introductions and provide opportunities for future projects. As fate would have, one of these encounters introduced Emily to an iconic figure in the Australia-Japan space, Melanie Brock.

ANZCCJ team featuring Emily, Aki and their intern, George.

Diving Into Tokyo’s Expat Bubble

After their initial meeting in 2016, Emily often found herself liaising with Melanie and other representatives from the Australian New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ANZCCJ). So when the opportunity to join the Chamber as an Executive Director came up late last year, following the completion of the Rugby World Cup in Kamaishi, Emily decided to grab the opportunity to try something new.

“Tokyo was a whole new world. After joining the Chamber, reverse culture shock was definitely a major challenge. Practical skills, like learning how to write direct business emails, which are very different to their Japanese counterparts, also took some adjusting!”

Emily Hallams

For those readers who are keen to pursue a career in Japan, Emily emphasizes that language fluency and a diverse portfolio of in-country experience have been her tickets to success. Smaller cities typically make it easier to pick up the language, as in Tokyo it’s very easy to get stuck in a foreigner bubble and people tend to treat you as a temporary visitor rather than a committed expat. Nevertheless, once you have established a solid language foundation, Tokyo is a definite hub for opportunities and career advancement to set your eyes to.

Although it’s only been a few months, working with a small secretariat and the ANZCCJ Executive Council has been a fascinating and dynamic experience (non-withstanding the impact of COVID-19 on offline meetings and events). Transitioning from working in a small city in the Iwate Prefecture to Japan’s fast-paced metropolis comes with a whole new set of challenges, but is undoubtedly a testimony to the broad scope of career opportunities available within Japan to a bilingual expat.

Interested in learning more about Emily’s career journey or finding out about ANCCJ’s Internship Program? Reach out to Emily by emailing [email protected] 

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Kate Kalinova

Kate Kalinova is a Project Manager at the Australian Chamber of Commerce (AustCham) in Korea. She writes for Asia Options and

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