Friday, 9 May 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 2: First "job" / Early business suit business

My first "job"

Sometimes it's all about the people you know and to be there at the right time. My 1st actual job wasn't a job I applied for or thought about in the first place. A friend of mine, Hirofumi, who happens to be a talented Jazz guitarist (see his blog and schedule here), contacted me on Facebook and asked if I could help out a friend of his. It was about a medial research and they appearantly needed some Gaijin for a study about some facial cleaning or exercise device. I was a bit sceptical at first but the 19.000 Yen for doing work from home told me to look into it.

I was contacted by his Japanese friend and we quickly exchanged the necessary details for the study and I got registered with their web system. It was all in Japanese and I barely had an idea what it was about. After I was approved I was told to come to their office for an initial screening. When I was on site, I needed help from the Japanese staff who could speak a bit of English, without her I would have been totally lost and given up on the intial questionnaire already. I tried though. To take a picture with Google Translate and translating the Kanji-heavy text did the trick most of the times...well, sometimes. Given the nature of this questionnaire (like: "Do you understand Japanese?" or "Have you had any major operations in the last 12 months?"), I had to answer it precisely get my point.

Before I was given the plastic abstrusity I had to use every night before going to bed from then on, my face was photographed from different angles thoroughly. They had me smile and say "weeee" all the time, so they could see how my cheeks and wrinkles look like. The "weeee" part was the funniest one, especially because they asked me to do more "weeeeee" all the time. もっと!もっとウイイイイイください!It was like the "more cowbell" joke.

The device I was given was hillarious. It was like a mouthpiece looking propeller with exchangable weights at both ends. I had to put it in my mouth, hold it with my lips only (don't bite it) and then move my head up and down so the weights at the ends would wiggle and excercise my face. If you made it this far without laughing, congratulations. Unfortunately, I didn't keep a picture of it or the description I was given. If I'll find one, I'll upload it. It just looked too silly ^_^

I was meant to use it every single day for before going to bed and check off a short questionnaire online after, 2 months in a row. Altogether I think I used it maybe around 10 to 14 times but then just left it in the bag and filled out the questionnaire each night instead. Well, not even each day. They reminded of my missed days every bloody time by email. But how would they be able to tell the difference if I used it or not? It was a useless product anyways. Maybe it wouldn't even work on Gaijin, hehe.

Do I feel bad about not using it and basically cheating on the study? A little actually, yes. But seriously, do they really expect people to use it and even have visible results?

Given the situation I was in, money-wise, I had no real regrets. I used it when I could, filled out the daily questionnaire and went to the "photo-shoots" ("weeeee") before finally giving the device back to them. I still receive a lot of invites every month for various research studies and maybe one day there will be another one I can do.

Early business suit business

Before I even arrived in Japan I had two business events scheduled. One was an event of the Deutsch-Japanischer Wirtschaftskreis and the other a business party of the large LinkedIn group Business in Japan.

The first event was more face-marketing, showing myself and getting to know the German players in the Japanese business world. Unfortunately, I had no business cards ready at that time, but I hoped I would leave an impression anyways.

It felt like being back on the sales grind in Germany. Important looking people speaking about important things and patting each others backs more or less. I didn't like it much. Some speeches/presentations were quite interesting though, but afterwards ruined by long questions from a certain Japanese business guy who liked to hear himself speak in English, basically not even asking a question but only showing his insight on the topic.

Being in the room with a lot of top notch companies working with or interested in working with German companies made me hope I could get some contacts for my future career. Talking to them wasn't easy at all. Verena, who accompanied me pointed out some faces to me, most of them German of course and she even introduced me to some of them. Soon however I was left alone and had to find people to talk to again. Boy, that's why I hated my old job somethings. With the pressure of thinking "I have to talk to them and make a good impression" I wasn't relaxed and felt uncomfortable, so it was even harder. I did meet some nice people, one being a sophisticated German guy who worked in the stock exchange. Quickly after exchanging facts about ourselves, he offered to show me the "real side" of the Tokyo nightlife and I wasn't really sure what he meant by that. Needless to say I was intriuged.

In the end I collected a couple of business cards, met a couple of interested people and plundered the buffet. The beforementioned Japanese business guy made another speech later, praising the glorious economy and future of Japan. I'm not sure if this was meant to be a motivational speech or if he really believed in what he said. To me it sounded a bit far from the truth and very typical for Japan. But what do I know about the Japanese economy?

The second event I went to was a fancy business party at club Le G.A., organized by the LinkedIn Group Business in Japan. Before coming to Japan I reached out to one of the co-founders and most active members of the group, Jason Ball. I was looking forward to meet him in person too since he kind of seemed to be somewhat of a foot in the door into the Japanese IT business sector.

Because I arrived way too early and ended up being one of the first guests, I was approached by another early bird named Johan (Dutch, web-developer, in Japan forever, came for a woman) and we ended up talking a looooong time about many different things. It was a business party so there were drinks too, which clearly helped me in relaxing a bit more this time. The speakers did a better job this time, but unfortunately the later the evening, the less people in the audience cared about the presentations and no one could understand a word anymore. But at that time, everyone was happily mingling and mixing. The overall topic was "On the way to 2020", meaning what business opportunities there are in the future with the upcoming Olympics coming to Japan again. I even had a few chats in Japanese with familiar faces from BiJ. Jason hooked me up with a seemingly random IT contact of his after I told him what I could do and what I need. One interesting thing he said was that my timing to come to Japan is perfect. One year before, he wouldn't have said the same, the opportunities were rare and the possibilities declining. Anyhow, this guy's body language and other responses clearly showed that he wasn't interested in a part-time worker / language student combination. A common reaction in the next months...

One of the Japanese guys I talked to introduced me to an attractive HR lady from one of the bigger players in Japan. She seemed interested in my background but confused me when she asked why I would wear a business suit tonight. As in "You don't work yet, why do you come in a business suit?". After a moment of confusion I replied "Uhm, because I look good in a suit of course. Why would I wear jeans and t-shirt for a business event like this?"

I still don't know why she had asked that question...

After 3 drinks and the bad feeling of wasting my money (entrance fee was already around 2000 Yen inlcuding a drink), I left the scene. I collected some business cards and met a couple of people, that was it. Contacting them later didn't help much. The HR lady lost her interest the second she realized I couldn't fit into one of her categories, meaning she couldn't "sell" me easily. Another common reaction in the next months...

I left the party relatively early because I saw no point in staying there and mingling with the others. I didn't feel part of it and I wasn't outgoing enough to throw myself and my professionality at them...yet. But at least I looked fly in a suit.

Another business suit moment was the Daijob Job Fair the day after in Akihabara. A couple of interesting employers had booth there to speak with interested applicants. The Japanese job world consisted of distinctive groups, one being the pre- and new-graduates and the mid-career people. The pre-graduates were basically college students without any work experience who started their job hunt sometimes 20+ months before they would graduate. It was like a race, thousands of desperate boys and girls (literally) in black suits would join job fairs, send out resumes, attend complicated, multi-level interviews to find that one company and job for the rest of their lives. It was the most stressful time for these young minds, for some it proved even fatal if they couldn't get a job within a certain time. But more about that in a later post.

I counted as a mid career person, even though I didn't have a job. This job fair was particulary targeted at bi-lingual people, so international companies were present as well. Best of all, it was free! I surely wouldn't impress them with my Japanese so I focused less on job/internship hunting but instead on the task that I was asked to do by Verena, namely to hand out flyers for the Internship Japan idea of hers and talk to companies who would want to join the cause. A promising cause it was, but my part in it was rather small at that time, but would ultimately change during the upcoming months.

After registration I did some rounds in the mid-sized fair hall. All companies had booths with at least two seats behind and two to eight seats in front of their booth table. Ralph Lauren had the most of them, people were lining up and waiting for over 40mins to hand over their resumes and have a 5min talk with the HR people at the booth. Some other companies had bigger booths with many small tables for closer conversations. I sat down with a couple of interesting companies and had chats about Internship Japan, getting mixed reactions. Of course I did some promotion for myself, talking to a Spanish guy who ran a solar cell and/or renewable energy company.

I noticed a booth by Mitsubishi FuSo/Daimler, which is one of the bigger companies with German ties in Japan. The HR lady in front of the booth had a German name tag, so I approached her and did my best professional flirting (as in trying to get a job, alright?). She was pretty nice and we talked for more than the polite 5 minutes It turned out that the IT department of FuSo/Daimler might be the perfect spot for me to do an internship. The company culture, work environment, the Head of IT and everything seems like a perfect fit. On top of that, we connected on a professional level with how we approached our mission in Japan and so on. This felt very promising!

Being back home, I emailed her, registered myself on their job web-portal and submitted formal applications for the IT Controlling internship starting January 2014. I kept my fingers crossed and stayed in close contact with the HR lady over the next couple of weeks.

But in the end, it was all hot air and one of the poorest ways of communication I've seen. The HR lady couldn't give me any updates because the Head of IT didn't get back to her about me. Even the sophistaced web-portal they used for the application wasn't any better. The status of my application was unchanged for the whole time. After 3 phone and 2 email inquires over 6-8 weeks I decided to give it up. During the last call she said "actually, but we already had some interviews, but we haven't decided yet". I wasn't even invited to one, but no one bothered to tell me if I'm still a possible candidate or not. Very dissapointing and quite unprofessional communication, in my honest opinion.

Fast forward to January 2014. I just came back from Taiwan after a short break over Christmas and New Year's Eve. To my surprise, the Head of IT emailed me, apologizing for not coming back to me earlier. He wrote (quote):

Dear Mr. Meyer,

Sorry for not being able to come back to you on an earlier timeframe. The reason for this is that we didn’t have any open internship positions at the time.

I would like to inform you that we have a position open at the IT Controlling department. I was wondering if you’re still available for an internship.

I would like to attend you that if you want to be applicable for this internship you have to be enrolled into a University. If this is not the case I’m afraid that you can’t apply for this position.

Please let me know if you’re interested.

Kind regards,

Now that was a serious surprise to me. I was kind of happy that I still had a chance and kind of annoyed in how poorly they communicate with each other and the candidates. But I wouldn't leave this opportunity pass me by, so I replied:

thank you for your message and a happy belated new year to you!

I am still very interested in a paid internship position, yes. However, I am not enrolled in an university but a private language school in Tokyo. Technically I qualify as a student since my visa status is also that of a student (留学生).

Maybe I am not the right candidate by your internship rules and regulations but with my 13+ years of work experience in the IT business I might be the better candidate for your company after all. Since my intention is to stay in Japan with a full-time job later, chances are also higher this internship would benefit the both of us in the future. I leave it up to you to decide that of course.

Thank you again and hope to hear from you soon.

Best regards

Michael Meyer

Guess what happened?


No. Reply. Ever. Again.

Even after I sent another reminder, there was no reply again. In my book, this is an absolute no-go, especially in IT. Definitely not worth my time and energy. So I had to move on with a bitter feeling inside me.

Part 3 will cover four various job interviews. One of them got me my first real part-time job in Japan. One got me really close to it. Stay tuned.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 1: Foreign talent / NHK

Note: It's already May 2014 and I didn't have much time to update my blog. Apologies for that. In fact I had to quit one of my jobs, so now is the best time to finally post about the most important thing I am pursuing in Japan: a proper job.

I will not report about my endeavours in a chronological order this time but sum them up instead. So here you go:

Trying to find work as a registered "foreign talent" / model

Upon arriving in Japan I already had a couple of meetings arranged with several people. Some of them being referred to me by Verena or others. One of the first things I did was to take a trip to a foreign talent/model agency to get myself registered. You never know, I thought. Having read the book Tokyo Diaries, I must admit I had some hopes of landing a decent job with that type of work.

My visit to FreeWave was a short but enjoyable one. I had my pictures and measurements taken and was officially registered as a foreign talent in their database. Even though I didn't have a lot of acting experience apart from the extra job when I was 13 and my general "sales skills", I hoped for some small extra role in the future. A day of work as an extra is said to be a good source of income, making around 10.000 - 20.000 Yen.

Yay, I know....but I was fresh from the boat...
Usually the agency would send a mail with a short (very short) description of the job and the possible days and I had to reply to them if I'm available for the castings and shootings. Mostly there was a picture selection before the actual casting, so if you made it past that stage, good riddance. In the beginning I said yes to everything I could get, curious and excited about that unusual kind of work. My very first casting however wasn't via the agency but via a job ad I saw on craigslist. The guy seemed legit and friendly, so I thought why not go there and give it a try.

That very first casting of mine was quite strange, but somewhat fun. The director, three business people and 4 or 5 guys with beards gathered in a small basement room. Yeah, the beards were part of the requirements, probably because scruffy looking Gaijin would use the product. After signing a disclaimer and non-disclosure agreement. We were given strange and heavy looking goggles that would remind you of Google glasses if they weren't so bulky and ridiculously heavy. They covered both eyes and looked more like night-vision googles. They were supposed to play movies and stuff. The idea of the ad was to do every-day tasks but being so taken by the things on the "screen" that you'd forgot about it, like vacuuming the room and slamming the vacuumer against the wall all the time. Or brushing your teeth while watching a football match, with all the emotions and hilarity.

Some guys were doing pretty well on the teeth brushing thing, but I wasn't so much. Not much of a sports watcher. Also, the product was so annoyingly heavy and uncomfortable, I already doubted it would ever sell well. Needless to say that I didn't convice them with my performance.

Funny thing was that the business guys obviously responsible for this idea didn't really have a clue how it would look like or what they actually wanted. They just watched and commented on what they saw. So the better you'd improvise and the more they'd like that, the higher your chances of getting the job I guess.

Another casting I went to was quite a big one. The original description said it was for Toyota and that they were planning a big campaign with a Steve Jobs looking kind of guy. I wondered why they let me go to the casting with my looks, but I didn't question it. It was really a big one. There were probably over 30 people already waiting and more coming in throughout the day just to have their 3min of casting time in front of the camera. Almost everyone had their agent with them, even me. Yes, being a registered model means you have your agent supporting you during the casting, even entering the room with you and standing by your side. Quite convenient if you ask me.

This casting was more like a class reunion. Half of the people knew each other from other castings or jobs in the past. There were professional actors, professional extras and professional nut jobs too. I remember this one guy clearly who kept talking the whole time, mostly to himself in various English accents, making random statements about stuff and trying to talk to everyone within his reach. He was the craziest character I have seen in a long time and I was feeling uncomfortable simply being in the same room with him. But he and some others had something that I didn't have. Confidence and uniqueness. They clearly stick out of the crowd.

While I was waiting for my turn to talk about stuff in front of the camera I talked to a more humble and friendly fellow who told me that he's doing this for years now, mostly for the fun and the experience of meeting new people everyday. He came well prepared, wearing a lab coat and asking specifically about the required role (the details changed during my 1.5 hours of waiting). He just finished doing a shoot on the Bali bombing in 2002 where he was playing an investigator. A couple of months later I even saw him on TV in that very show, the world is small indeed.

My casting took around 1 minute only. I had to do two sales talk about a new phone, first to my colleagues in a technical way and then more a motivational sales talk. It was just like back in Germany when I had to explain stuff about a new server technology, so I was actually not even bad at it. I was running out of bullshit to say though and because I was a bit nervous, I talked quite fast. In the end I was ok with the results and left in a good mood, knowing fully well though that I will never get this job.

Other, more famous actors in the waiting crowd complained about the casting and the long waiting periods in fact. Apparantly this was the second casting already and everyone was unhappy about how it was carried out before and now. A strange group of people in a strange marketing machine I thought.

My next and last casting a couple of weeks later pissed me off quite a bit. It was just another casting for some TV ad and it happened to be in Roppongi, close to my work in the German restaurant (more about that later). I asked to leave work earlier to take part in the casting and received some heat for it, but they let me go nevertheless. I was a bit late and couldn't find the address right away so I hoped into a cab even though my money was tight.

I arrived on time and was allowed into the camera room rather quickly. Here is what happened then (for the record, the job description said "guy around 30, able to play the piano or at least pretend to play the piano", nothing more)

I did my self-introduction, trying to look cool and motivated. Then the director asked me:

"Can you sing?"

First thought: "Wut? Why do they ask this?"

"Uhm, yeah, I think I can sing. At least at Karaoke and with some alcohol involved. But I'm not a real singer. Sorry, I don't think I can sing right on cue here and now." I replied.

"Can you dance?"

First thought: "WTF? What kind of casting is this? I thought I'm here to pretend-play piano?!"

"Uhm, yes I can dance. In a club. With music. But not without it and not right now if you want me to do that." I replied, becoming obviously annoyed with these questions.

"So..." (long pause...the director became annoyed with me as well I guess) "What can you do really well?"

"Uuhhmm...(long pause)...Iaido for example. That's one my most important hobbies.....(director wasn't happy with that reply)...and eating. I think I'm quite good at eating." I said with a winning smile.

The director chuckled a little and said he's good at that too. Then he said thank you and I was finally freed from answering more stupid questions.

I talked to my agent right after that embarassing encounter and told her that this was a complete waste of my time. Everyone's time actually. If they are looking for people to dance and sing on cue, they are clearly not hiring me for that job. I also send a mail to the agency, making very clear what I am not interested in doing and since then, not many mails showed up in my inbox. Fair enough.

All the above mentioned happened near the end of 2013 and since then I haven't pursued this "career", simply because I felt it was a waste of time and money. Going to the casting costs money, waiting at the casting costs time and then having to act like a fool for something you wouldn't want to do anyways is another waste of time and effort. If you have seen how foreigners are depicted in Japanese TV ads, you know what I mean.

But in 2014 there was another moment when I almost reconsidered my choice. A scout from another agency came to my language school and was looking for western people to extra in a big baseball movie shoot. It was set in the 1920s, which was quite intriguing, not to mention the 14.000 Yen payment per day. But when the admittedly cute agent explained the details, I felt almost insulted by the offer. Of course she tried to sell it as a fun and awesome thing, but I begged to differ.

The shooting took place a bit outside of Tokyo, about a 2h drive. So their plan was to pick up all the people from Shibuya at 11pm, then drive to the location, unpack and assign the people, do their make-up and clothes and then wait until 8am to begin the actual shooting. Then you'd have an 8h day of shooting, which as an extra basically means 3h of doing something and maybe 5h of waiting altogether. Then everyone hopped on the bus again and was dropped off at Shibuya around 8pm. Since this was an all weekend shoot, you could do this from Friday night till Sunday night, having only 3h between drop-off and pick-up time. And no, it was not possible to stay at the shooting location.
For me the calculation was simple: being away for almost 20h per day in comparison to the 14.000 Yen payment was so ridiculously low, it was not even funny.

Of course, if you don't mind the waiting and being away for so long, this is probably a fun thing to do. In fact, some people I know did it and really enjoyed meeting random people and being part of a movie shoot. I for one, couldn't be bothered. Money talks and in this case it talked bullshit.

So my conclusion on finding work as an extra or model is: if you have the outgoing personality, the looks, the dancing/singing/acting skills and the time to go to the castings, go for it. After a couple of jobs it probably gets even easier. Having the right agency is also very important. I felt mine wasn't really doing a good job (for me). So in summary, this was not my cup of tea.

Random shot, Roppongi business district

The NHK interview

Last but not least, there was the very interesting and very promising looking job interview at NHK. Yes, that's the biggest TV station in Japan and also known for a German program called テレビでドイツ語. Again, this opportunity didn't come through my own research but through connections and friends of friends who I talked to directly. Germans in Japan tend to help each other out, something that I learned to appreciate more and more.

Here is the original description in Japanese and German:

The show is a rather low-budget production but running sucessfully for years already. Almost every Japanese interested in speaking German has already heard about it. Funny coincidence: Max, a German friend back in Berlin and skilled Aikido teacher (Aikodokan dojo) did the same thing back in the 2000s. He gave me some valuable advice. Yet another coincidence: Caro, another German friend currently living in Tokyo was also invited for the interview.

The odds were in my favour I felt and since this job was about presenting myself in a good way by speaking German, I had no doubt I'd perform well. I wrote that in my application even, boasting about my interesting voice and attractive appearance (I had to get their attention, right?). So I was motivated, only slightly nervous and ready for the show.

Some of you may not know that interviews in Japan aren't usually one-to-one. In my case, there were 5 people sitting in front of me. Two of them fluent in German and helping with the translation, one head interviewer (boss?) and two others with random questions. Unfortunately, I couldn't do this interview in Japanese but the translator was so fluent in German, she got everything across perfectly I felt.

I was charming, I made them laugh and enjoy the interview. I gave clever replies, even to the trickiest questions. At first they were asking about my brave statements regarding my voice and appearance. I played it humble and said that I was just writing down the feedback I received from others and that they are free to judge themselves now. A tricky question was: "What would you do if you would be told to do something you don't like to do? Like wearing only swim wear?" That was the Gaijin question. They were afraid I wouldn't follow orders properly. I talked my way out of it, acknowledging their hierachy while also keeping my right to refuse morally intricate behaviour. Maybe mentioning my tattoo wasn't a good idea, but in my mind I though "hey, you wouldn't even want to see me in only swim wear when I have a tattoo, right?". I gave long explanations about what I feel is the big difference between Germans and Japanese but also how similar they are and how this could benefit the working environment. The head interviewer was quite a tough lady and I couldn't really judge her reactions most of the times, but I was sure I won the others, especially the ones who understood German. They were basically smiling the whole time to what I said.

Last part of the interview was to read a short text in German. I did my best reading voice and put an extra bit of emotional pronouncation on top of it. Did the trick, they loved it and I left them in awe, no kidding.

I felt like a million bucks after that interview, almost being sure that this would be my job for the next couple of months.

But well, I didn't get the job, neither did Caro. There were no explanations given and their mail wasn't helpful either. Up to now I don't really know who got the job. But if you see some of the episodes of the last years and the terrible, cringe-worthy acting in it, I fear that they picked the wrong people again ;)

Up next: my first ridiculous job and my first decent part-time job.