Company Culture Matters: Written from a Perspective of a Cross-cultural Kid Working in Japan.

Oct 16, 2018

Recently, I’ve gotten the opportunity to begin a new career with a software company in Tokyo called The Plant. Though my time here has been short, these past three months has made me think more than ever about work culture, and specifically about Japanese work culture. The Plant offers an unique work experience that is intrinsic to its Japanese roots, yet at its core, speaks to my background of coexisting cultures. I was born and raised in Tokyo with a Japanese father and a Taiwanese mother. Having attended an American school my entire life, my first language is English, yet I have only lived in the US for two years during college. As I am currently back in my home country working, I’ve gotten some time to reflect and write about my current company, and how it ties into my identity today.

The Office Terrace

Nestled in the quiet neighbourhood of uptown Tokyo, The Plant is located in a white minimalistic building that houses a fashionable Spanish michelin star restaurant on its base floor. The office itself is a two story apartment that was rearranged to be an office. It seems to be designed to incorporate a mix of cultural interior designs, however I would say it leans more towards a modern Japanese feel. Once entering, the meeting room on the first floor adorns a shoji paper window (a translucent Japanese paper commonly used in Japanese interior), and upstairs is the main floor with our large wooden desks, and of course, the kitchen and beer-stacked fridge. My favorite part of the office is our wooden terrace. And we have a sufficient amount of plants growing outside, such as olives, aloe, and a couple of herbs I can’t name. From time to time, I sit on the patio to work as I enjoy and soak up the sun on a sunny day.

The company itself is a melting pot of cultures, with employees coming from countries like Korea, China, Australia, America, Thailand, Canada, and Japan. The dominant language used within the office is English, and we work with global brands from world-wide offices. I would say the work culture follows more along a Silicon Valley startup, with perks such as flexible time and being able to work remotely. The office interior, the people, and work culture truly represents an international atmosphere as each of our own experiences molds the company, rather than the company molding us into conformed shapes.

On the business side, having such a diverse set of backgrounds allows the team to cover more ground and toss around unique ideas. From my perspective, the variety of cultures means that we have empathy. Empathy is important in a business environment as it allows us to understand and be flexible towards a variety of cultural practices. It means we can help each other in certain situations when working with clients from around the world. The inclusive atmosphere of the office also builds a friendly cohesive environment that betters our responsibilities. And of course, most importantly, we often engage in after hour activities in which the fun loving atmosphere follows even on work days.The Plant offers an unique experience of being in Japan, yet once in the office, you are able to experience something far from a typical Japanese work environment.

「かなちゃんは外人だからね」“Well, you are a foreigner so…”.

It wasn’t unusual for me to hear this during my time working at my past Japanese company. Having spent my entire life in the country and holding a Japanese passport, it seems quite strange to be held as a foreigner in your home country… but I played along. Playing the ‘gaijin’ card was easier for me. It was an excuse for my imperfect 敬語 (Keigo business Japanese) and lack of conformity. It was a way for me to breathe easier in an environment that I did not necessarily fit into.

Culture and Identity is a topic I’ve grappled with for a while, and I struggled with this concept during my time working for my first company in Japan. I was not Japanese or American, nor was I Taiwanese. My first language was English, yet my Japanese father spoke none of it, and my Taiwanese mother only spoke some. My Japanese was native but not to the standard of Japanese business, and thus I was considered as a gaijin, and I was reminded often.

My experience at The Plant however, rather than making me feel like a foreigner, has embraced my mixed background and allowed me to identify and reflect back to my mixed roots. As a Taiwanese Japanese kid growing up in Japan, I would spend my days with my group of friends from my international school, speaking a lingo of “Japinglish”, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or gushing over the hottest Backstreet Boy.

During the summers, I would spend my time at a local Japanese school, following along with the traditions of daily classroom cleanups and morning greetings (朝礼 cho-rei). With my Japanese friends, I would gush about the newest 文房具 (Bun-bo-gu writing utensil) or write in our 交換日記 (Ko-kan-nikki exchange journal) over a boy we were crushing on in class. This mix of polar cultures coexisted within me as if another organ. It was natural, and merely who I was, rather than something I projected to be. I didn’t necessarily belong in a certain nation or culture, yet this interesting mix of culture made me who I am and placed me in an imagined ‘country’ I created within myself.

Nate and Nampu Enjoying a Beer in the Office

This ‘country’ I believe is embodied in The Plant. As I look back at my experiences, and reflect on putting the scattered dots together, I realised that the culture and work environment of my current company speaks to me as an individual and to my international upbringing. My colleagues are all from different countries and backgrounds, yet the at-home atmosphere of our office brings us together beckoning us with warm arms. The somewhat Japanese interior speaks to the core of the company roots, yet it is only when the desks become occupied in the morning, and the stereo is turned on playing mellow jazz music, that The Plant truly comes to life. What I learned more so in the past three months is that it is the people and each of their unique backgrounds that makes a company so great rather solely the company itself.