Culture shock: an American woman lives the startup life in Tokyo
People jump through all sorts of hoops to come to the United States and work in a tech startup. By some estimates, Silicon Valley's startup scene is about 37 percent foreign born. It's become such a popular thing that the U.S.'s ruiner-in-chief has taken aim at Obama-era visa programs designed to make the process easier. But, what you don't hear about is that a small number of ambitious and adventurous Americans are reversing the trend and heading abroad to work in startups around the world.
We caught up with Emily Lombardo, a St. Louis native who went just about as far culturally and geographically as she could — to Japan. Lombardo lived in Tokyo for 3 years, working at a startup called ST Booking, an online platform that matches students with studying opportunities in Japan. Here's what she had to say about the experience:
How did you find yourself in Japan? I worked for a startup called ST Booking that matches students who want to study Japanese to Japanese language schools. They were hiring part-time writers for their English language blog on Craigslist, so I had an interview and a writing test and then I was hired.
What did you actually do there? You had to work in the office twice a week and write 10 articles a week for a base pay of 50,000 yen ($450 USD). The articles could be about Japanese culture, language, whatever. I think our most popular article was about getting a Japanese boyfriend. If you wrote more, you would get paid more. After about a month, I was promoted to Content Manager and I would edit everyone’s articles, give them feedback and use Google Analytics/SEO to see what kind of articles people wanted to read about.
What was the office like? We worked in an open floor office with about 15 other companies that were all pretty small operations in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. I interned at a creative agency in college in St. Louis and the set up was pretty similar. ST Booking was pretty small; there was a CEO, a manager and a part time team of four Americans. There were also some freelancers who all lived abroad.
What was the office culture like? It was really quiet! I was surprised when I first started working there. Everyone was very nice but it was an introverted atmosphere, with everyone doing their own thing. There were other startups where everyone had worked together for a few years and they were pretty tight knit, but there wasn’t a lot of interaction between people. Almost everyone had their headphones in while they worked. The CEO and manager of the company spoke English, and I speak Japanese, so I didn’t have to worry about a language barrier. Speaking Japanese made it easier to have non-work conversations, but the lack of interaction was a bit jolting at first.
We've all heard about the brutal hours the Japanese work. Was it even more intense because you were working at a startup? Very few people in Japan really expect Americans (or Westerners for that matter) to work like Japanese people, so I had a very different schedule than the Japanese guys working there. I think being part-time helped a lot too, but the other Americans came and went with a lot of flexibility. I went to language school in the mornings, so I would get to the office around 1 p.m. and stay until 6 or 8 p.m. After I was promoted, I started working longer hours — I think the latest I ever stayed was until 9 p.m. But, the Japanese worked the sort of hours that you would expect: 12-14 hour days, six days a week — and that included the interns. In Japanese, working overtime is called zangyou (残業) and it's a very accepted part of the culture and workers generally aren’t paid for it, especially at a startup.
Wow, that is brutal. Was the office at least designed to be fun like startup offices in the States? I'm thinking video game consoles and ping pong tables? Like the States, startup culture is a lot more casual than corporate culture in Japan. No one was ever in a suit and we all worked from the same desk. While everyone was left to do their own thing during their day-to-day schedule, there were a lot of fun moments. We climbed Mount Fuji as a group. There were a lot of weekend events collaborating with other startups, and we went out for lunch and dinner as a group.
We didn’t have a ping pong table at the office, but we went to a place nearby that rented tables by the hour on national holidays. I think some of the other startups that were more tight-knit had a lot more social events like drinks after work, soccer leagues, etc. In Japan — not just in startups — it can take a lot longer to form social connections and build a friend circle, but once you do they’re pretty strong.
What was the most frustrating thing about working in a Japanese startup? I think the biggest thing that startups in the U.S. do that Japanese startups could really benefit from is more communication. Japanese culture isn’t big on direct communication and you can feel that in the workplace, which in turn makes organizing and collaboration more difficult. That was probably the most frustrating part of working in a Japanese start up for me.
You're back in the states now, do you miss it? I’m starting work at a non-profit in Washington D.C., so I definitely miss the casual culture. Tokyo is a really cool city and has a lot to offer if you’re getting into tech or working at a startup. Tokyo is just a great city in general, honestly.
Images via Emily Lombardo.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.