Exclusive Interview is a series where we interview expats about their experiences. This time, we contacted Jessica (Peiyan) Fan, a healthcare professional in Japan. She graduated from a Japanese university in 2010 and has been working for more than 10 years in Japan.
Country of Origin: China
In Japan since: 2005
Japanese Level: N1
Working Industry: IT/ Medical
Why did you originally come to Japan?
I came as a college student. My home town has a sister cities partnership (shimai-toshi) with Matsumoto city, Nakano. I thought going abroad was a good opportunity.
How did you study Japanese?
I studied Japanese in China initially for a year, but it extended into a year and a half as I waited for the student visa. The program required the participants to have JLPT N2 level before coming to Japan. Then, I studied for a year in a language school in Japan to pass N1 before enrolling in university. Total 2 years and a half.
How well do you need to speak Japanese at your job?
My current company requires native-level Japanese for my role. However, I didn’t use Japanese a lot at first because I reported directly to the US. The management changed recently, and I have to report to managers in Japan. So, I use Japanese day to day now.
How did you learn Japanese? Was there a best practice for you?
I think using the language to communicate is the most important in learning a new language. I watched tv shows a lot and recorded them so I can listen to them repeatedly. Back then, there was not much media. TV shows helped to understand the right way to use the language. Talking with people was also a good practice.
What are the difficulties of communication in the working environment in Japan?
A lot of Japanese customers are quite conservative and not comfortable using English, even if they understand the language. If you are in a client-facing role, you have to be fluent in Japanese. English is not accepted in certain areas.
With that being said, no matter how long I have been in Japan, people can tell that I’m not a native Japanese speaker. I still have an accent and sometimes pronounce words in unnatural ways. Also, the honorific speech of Japanese or keigo is hard to master.
What are the challenges of working as a foreigner in Japan?
In my industry, it is very challenging to get promoted. Unfortunately, sometimes it feels like Japanese clients prefer to communicate directly with a Japanese manager. However, this is a difficult topic in general in Japan to discuss with managers due to strict hierarchical relationships, especially in bigger companies.
How often do you visit your home country?
My last visit to China was in 2017, but my mother visits me from time to time. I don't get a chance to go back a lot because my work requires me to be present physically. Even if I’m allowed to work remotely, some services are not available in China. So I probably won’t be able to work from there.
Have you ever felt lonely or like an outcast in Japan?
Yes. When I was a student, I’m the only foreign student in my department. I always felt different. I was not fluent in Japanese at first, so I had difficulties understanding and keeping up with conversations. It makes someone feel lonely because it’s hard to communicate.
After I start to work in Japan, I guess the loneliness is not because I’m a foreigner. It is applied to everyone. The reason is that people in Japan work a lot, so it’s hard to socialize outside the workplace. Many people don’t have friends other than coworkers.
How to cope with those feelings?
I try to explore new activities and join international communities. These days, I also help those who want to learn Chinese. It would be easier to make friends if you have the same hobbies and interests. My advice is to step out of your comfort zone, reach out and join communities.
Where do you find these communities?
I use social media a lot. There are a lot of online networking services. I use Meetup, Internation, Lunchclub, or Yenta. I think 80% of people I met there are foreigners and 20% of them are locals, but it may be the algorithm. Since I’m a foreigner, the app matches me with another foreigner because we have things in common.
What are the differences between Japan and the countries you have been to?
Japanese culture is so unique. Even after living here for 17 years, I still find new things to learn about Japan. Japanese people are very keen and hard-working. They are also very honest, so people rarely get scammed. It's very safe in Japan.
What about the differences in terms of working in Japan and other countries?
There are big differences. Japanese clients or companies are very detail-oriented and very careful. Sometimes they can be too cautious, so the process becomes slow. From my experience, foreign companies, especially western companies, are often not as detailed.
What are your hopes for Japan?
I think Japan has a lot of potential. It's a very beautiful country and has a very unique culture. In the future, when many companies don't have a location limit, Japan will be a good remote-working location for people around the world.
I think more foreigners will come to Japan in the future, and local people will change the way they see foreigners because they are used to them. I imagine Japan becoming an international country like Singapore.