Asia Connect Dispatches: Interview with Kristina Shen

Kristina Shen is a fourth-year student at the University of Victoria’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business. After declaring her specialization in international business, she went on to complete an international co-op with the Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan. She worked as support staff in the Career Research and Development Center. She is the recipient of an Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada Asia Connect award to support her co-op work term in Japan.

What kind of work did you do as part of your internship?

My biggest project was developing a promotional video to encourage the university’s students to participate in their own international internships, particularly in Southeast Asian countries. I was also asked to prepare a speech about my own experience as an international internship student. I presented both to incoming and returning students at introductory seminars during the spring break. I also did a lot of English-to-Japanese and Japanese-to-English translation work on official school documents and edited them to make them easier for both Japanese and international students to understand.

How did this kind of work help you grow both professionally and personally?

I had the chance to practice and strengthen my research and public presentation skills for an international audience, both of which are very important in an international business environment. As a bonus, I also honed my skills in editing both video and written material as well as my translation abilities. And the need to juggle various projects at once forced me to become good at multitasking and prioritizing.

Because I was working for a centre focused on career development, I learned a lot through my research about the history and current status of cooperative education in Japan and other Asian countries including China, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

What can you share with us about what you learned about Japanese work culture?

Through my daily office interactions, I noticed that Japanese people show more respect to their superiors and give their superiors more authority than we do in Canada. At the office, coworkers maintain a fairly formal business relationship and don’t generally discuss non-work-related topics during office hours. Fortunately, before I started my co-op term, I spent a term learning Japanese, a language, which has many ways to convey respect. For example, when entering the office in the morning, it is customary to say “ohayou gozaimasu” (good morning) to everyone present. And when leaving at the end of the day, it would be disrespectful not to say “otsukaresama desu,” which roughly translates as both “thank you for your hard work” and “we have worked hard today.”

Although I was treated as a foreign employee and encouraged to leave at the end of my shift, I noticed that if the director or manager of the office stayed late, the rest of the staff stayed to work with him (Japanese managers are usually male.) They do this to show loyalty to the organization. This was my first-hand experience with Japan’s collectivist culture.

You mentioned that Japanese managers are usually male? How did this impact the work environment?

That was my observation, yes. The various departments within the university each had a “bucho” and a “kacho,” a director, and assistant director. These positions are usually held by male employees and they sit perpendicularly to the rest of the office to watch over them. Japan still maintains a degree of patriarchy in its culture, particularly in more rural areas like where I was on the outskirts of Kyoto.

While the ratio of men to women working in my department was balanced, they had different roles. Pouring tea was always the women’s job. My office also had the unwritten policy that whoever went on a business trip to another region would bring back sweets as a souvenir to share with everyone. Regardless of who bought them back, it was always a female colleague who passed them out to others in the office. I should point out that not all Japanese believe in the fairness of such traditions; my colleague who spoke English and had gone on an exchange to London, for example, expressed her distaste for this kind of practice.

In addition to developing a sophisticated understanding of various aspects of Japanese work culture, how else did this experience help you to grow as an international business student and as a global citizen?

Through the experience, I gained a lot of empathy for others, especially people getting by in a language they are still learning. I had taken some Japanese lessons before moving to Kyoto, but the language is complex and has multiple forms which are used to communicate with people of different social standing and importance. There was little English support offered in the more rural area where I lived, so day-to-day interactions were difficult. Shopping for groceries and taking public transportation suddenly became a challenge as I could barely read kanji (the Japanese script) or understand words that were spoken too fast for me to comprehend.

I will forever  more sympathetic to the many brave immigrants and tourists who visit or live in a foreign country and try their best to simply get by with what little English they know. From the perspective of a business person, I also learned how to create and manage relationships in Japan and other Asian countries with similar cultural tendencies.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about going to work in Japan or any other country abroad?

Do your research! For example, read up on cross-cultural management strategies for the place you are planning to go and learn what others have observed about how this impacts how locals think, act, and perceive things. A surprise might be nice on a one-week vacation, but it can present a lot of problems when you are planning to live and work in a foreign country for even just a couple of months. If I had known more about how different Japan’s work culture is from Canadian work culture, I would have prepared myself better by learning more about the do’s and don’ts of how to conduct myself.

One thing I observed is that in Japan, everyone seems to have two ‘selves’: the professional one you present at work and the other freer and more unhindered self that you present at a social gathering outside of work, where the social rules are different. Whatever you do or say in a social setting is considered completely separately from how you conduct yourself at work.

But a word of caution: seniority is still sacred in Japan and subordinates must do whatever their bosses tell them, even if that is to drink oneself to oblivion! Regardless of what you might think about this type of local culture, it is important to have some understanding of it as soon as possible, ideally before you even land there. And once you arrive, just try to be adaptable to and respectful of local customs.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Kristina Shen

Kristina Shen is a recent graduate of the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria where she majored in International Business. She followed an academic exchange in Japan in 2016-2017 with a co-op term at the Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan.