The benefits of change are appealing – new lifestyle, new opportunities, new friends, change of scene. In spite of all this, you can’t deny the significant emotional and physical compromise in leaving behind one home in order to start afresh.
My interview today changed this concept for me. We talk frequently about leaving Australia to pursue our goals abroad. But what about when our goals bring us back? I realised something important: all roads lead back to home.
I recently caught up with Andrew Carter, the Political and Economic Research Officer at the Consulate-General of Japan (Brisbane). I wanted him to share his story in hope that it would dispel a number of myths about having an ‘international’ career and, most importantly, Japan.
For some context, tell us about your transition from being a student to living and working in Japan. In hindsight, was it expected?
My career so far has been mostly involved with an element of Japan in one way or another. Shortly after graduating from Griffith University with a Bachelor of Arts (Modern Asian Studies), I moved to Japan and became an English teacher. In time, I became a translator and proofreader, working in-house for a company in Tokyo. In the early 2000s, I found myself back in Brisbane working for a trading company with a Japanese customer base. Now, I work as the Political and Economic Research Officer for the Consulate-General of Japan.
The biggest change was not necessarily transitioning from a student to full-time employment, but rather living in Japan. I was excited to move past university and to see the world.
Living in a new environment, not knowing anybody, and not understanding how society works was a great challenge. While I never regretted moving to Japan, I often found myself feeling homesick. While getting used to working full time took a little while, I could do more with a stable income and truly experience life in Japan.
The movie ‘Lost in Translation’ depicts the expat’s life in Japan as isolating. Was it hard to adapt not only living in Japan, but working as well?
It was extremely difficult initially. Not having a full understanding of the language made things difficult, but equally as difficult was not understanding how Japanese society functioned. I had to rely on co-workers to explain things to me, as well as learning by trial and error. Simple things that were easy to do in Australia were suddenly a challenge and quite difficult.
When I first moved to Japan, the Internet was much smaller than it is today. Life was at times extremely isolating. Nowadays with the Internet as developed as it is, perhaps living overseas may not feel as isolating as it once did.
What are some differences you experienced in Japanese business environments?
When teaching English, I worked with other foreigners so the environment was quite relaxed. Of course, we had to follow the local office etiquette but it wasn’t as strict as a one-hundred percent Japanese environment.
When I moved into translation, I was one of about five non-Japanese in an office of about 150 so it was a very different environment. There were many rules which needed to be followed. Overtime also was expected, however, thankfully, it wasn’t very much. It wasn’t very hard to fit in with the office environment as I had been living in Japan for several years by then and had a good understanding of society and expectations.
As for pros and cons, Japan has a reputation for working long hours, and I have many friends who regularly work 10 or 12-hour days, however, I haven’t really had to deal with this on a regular basis in my experience.
Work-life balance for me is very important, and you have to make decisions based on what is best for you.
Are there many career opportunities for expats in Japan? What can a graduate do to better their chances?
I think there are many opportunities for expats in Japan – it is just an issue of finding those opportunities. I know people who work in language education, law, finance, recruitment, translation, adventure sports and IT, among others, who are all enjoying their respective careers.
In addition to the obvious that is learning the language, I think networking will certainly better your chances. During my time in Japan, I didn’t network much and in hindsight regret this as it would have exposed me to more opportunities, and could have possibly led to me still living in Japan.
One thing I recommend is simply finding a way to get experience. For example, if you want to learn Japanese, you will learn by immersing yourself in a Japanese-speaking environment. Even volunteering at a local Japanese school will allow your Japanese language to improve.
I only worked for three companies during my 10 years in Japan, so my experience is somewhat limited. However, I have found that being able to communicate and adapt to the local working environment is looked upon favourably by Japanese employers (in addition to the skills required for the job). While the interview process may be different to Australia (for instance, the time between interview and starting), I haven’t found there to be much difference in terms of what employers look for.
How did Japan help you in your transition to working in the Consulate-General? Tell us about your current role and the work that you do.
My experience of living and working in Japan certainly helped in transitioning to work at the Consulate-General. The Japanese work environment is one that I am used to and comfortable in, so working here has felt a natural fit.
My primary role is to follow economic and political developments in Queensland. Changes of governments, policies and sectors can have an effect on Japanese investment in Queensland so it is important to have an understanding of what is happening. For example, the passing of new laws with a changing government can directly affect the economy and the opportunities for foreign investment in Queensland. I brief the Consulate-General on these matters.
The Consulate-General is a busy office. I am also involved in many other areas such as assisting with inbound delegations, event planning, translation/interpreting, Japanese Government programs, to name a few tasks.
Would you say your career has led you to not only fulfilling, but discovering personal ambitions?
The Japanese Government runs the Japanese/POW Friendship Programme, which aims to promote mutual understanding between the people of Japan and Australia by fostering reconciliation and encouraging the growth of friendship between the two countries. I have made numerous contacts through facilitating this program for Queensland participants, which has led to private research into 24 Australian prisoners of war who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
Over a two-year period, and with the help of numerous people, I was able to locate relatives of these 24 men and inform them about the database at the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Hall, which lists the names and details of all those who were in the city on the day. Through this project, I have discovered a real passion for the military history between Australia and Japan, specifically prisoners of war. I have been able to forge close relationships with families of POWs, Japanese researchers, Japanese WW2 veterans, and victims of the atomic bomb.
None of this would have been possible without my role in facilitating the Japanese/POW Friendship Programme. In pursuing this project, I have been exposed to possible future opportunities in fields I hadn’t thought about previously. The development of my passion in this area has been quite unexpected to me but it is one area which I am now actively involved in and may further pursue in a professional capacity at some point in the future.
How important is Japanese in your daily work? Do I need to pass the top level of JLPT?
Japanese language ability in my position is necessary, but you do not necessarily need level 1 of the JLPT (I only have level 2). Having worked in a Japanese environment in Japan certainly provided me with the language skills necessary to easily adapt to my current office environment and job role. Being exposed to new language on a daily basis also means that I am continuously learning.
Any final tips for enthusiasts, students and graduates looking to go further with Japan?
Personally, I think in-country experience is absolutely necessary to pursuing a Japan-related career. Living and working in Japan will provide you an understanding of the country, society and working language.
Try to network and engage with people in your preferred field, and actively pursue opportunities to do so. The more people you meet, the more aware you become of possible opportunities in fields you hadn’t thought of previously. Think about what you need to do today in order to reach your goal tomorrow.
Many thanks to Mr Andrew Carter of the Consulate-General of Japan for his wisdom and his time.
In short, a few takeaways for you all from Andrew’s interview:
You can transform your skills at any time to suit new situations.
You will face drastic changes in your life, and they can happen at any time. It’s important to reinvent yourself as these changes present themselves.
Opportunities will not arise if you do not seek them.
Andrew emphasized that even now, his career is taking new turns in ways he never imagined. His research led him to help people, educating and imparting knowledge.
Mastering the Japanese language?
For Andrew, it was a full decade before he found himself back in his hometown using his language skills every day.
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