Alumni’s Guide to Japan: 4 Secrets to Perfecting your Move to Japan

In our third instalment of 'the Alumni's Guide to The Galaxy' series, Singaporeans Ng Yan Ting, Jorel Chan, and Derrick Lim share sage advice for navigating life in Japan.

By SGN | 24 March 2021


Falling in love with Japan

From anime to furniture, cuisine to fashion, Japanese cultural exports have become a ubiquitous part of everybody’s lives. Japan’s unique culture, distinct aesthetics and addictive cartoons have endeared many to this East Asian nation. Who wouldn’t want to experience life in the country that gave birth to both Muji and Sushi? Yan Ting thought so too.

Yan Ting (foreground; right) posing for a we-fie with her students whom she taught during her days as an English language teacher.

In September 2009, Yan Ting had her first taste of life in Japan while reading psychology in university. She poured her heart into acing her Japanese language elective, which paved the way to a spot in an exchange programme at Soka University in Tokyo, Japan for four months. She fell in love with the country immediately.

She returned to Singapore after the exchange programme ended, but the desire to return never left her mind, even after she started work after graduation.

“I quit my job in Singapore and took a pay cut, starting as an English teacher in a Kobe-based private school. I enjoyed it, but the pay cut did hurt and wasn’t realistic,” she adds.

Yan Ting moved on to become a product development merchandiser at Ryohin Keikaku — the Japanese retail company better known as Muji — in Tokyo for almost 2.5 years, where she took charge of product development, planning, procurement, quality control, and price negotiation.

Finally, she landed her current job as an Assistant Marketing and Communications Manager with Hilton Hotel, where she believes her native fluency in English and Mandarin was likely instrumental in landing the role, since the hotel attracts guests from many English- and Mandarin-speaking countries.

Much like Yan Ting, Derrick fell in love with life in Japan after experiencing it as a student. In his final year of study in university, Derrick moved to Tokyo to collaborate with full-time employees of the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT).

As Japan’s sole national research and development agency, NICT is responsible for promoting and driving growth and development of Japan’s Information and Communications Technology sector. Derrick notes, “I really enjoyed my time in Japan, despite not speaking any Japanese. I really wanted to return in the future for a longer stay.”

Derrick is seen here outside his office in Tokyo, trying a selection of different types of milk from Hokkaido during a one-off pop-up event. He muses, “There’s a regular rotation of events, like skating rink in winter, and a beer garden in summer.”

The opportunity to return to Japan presented itself when Japanese tech firm Rakuten came to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) for a talk. Derrick seized the opportunity to share his resume with the company.

He added “I didn’t know a thing about Rakuten at that time, but I’m glad I attended that talk hosted by the company. The interview was a drawn-out process with multiple rounds of Skype, phone and in-person interviews and lastly a coding test as well, but it was worth it for the opportunity to relocate to Japan.”

Derrick eventually secured the opportunity to join Rakuten’s Tokyo office as a Network Engineer for more than 5 years. “About a year ago, I moved within the company to focus on load balancing using open-source software as an infrastructure architect.”  

Jorel’s route in relocating to Japan has been decidedly unique. He received a scholarship from the Japanese Government’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) to learn Japanese and subsequently read his Master of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo in 2016.

To be a contender for the MEXT scholarship, students must belong to a country which shares close diplomatic ties with Japan. The student must also demonstrate an interest or expertise in Japan. In Jorel’s case, he clinched the scholarship because of his strong interest in public policy.

This interest was demonstrated through a disaster relief research expedition that Jorel did, in the summer of 2014, as part of his graduation thesis for his Bachelor of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Durham University in the U.K. His research was centred on charting the humanitarian progress made in various cities and towns in Tohoku region following the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami.

Through his interactions and interviews with refugees and residents of the area, Jorel returned to the UK not only with a complete thesis, he also had amassed a collection of poignant photographs of the disaster hit region. These photos have since been displayed all around the globe — in places such as hotels, museums, and embassies in the U.K., Singapore and Japan — as part of photography exhibitions.

Jorel Chan (above)

With the MEXT scholarship in hand, Jorel moved on to read his Masters at The University of Tokyo shortly after graduating in the UK. While studying, his work experiences with various domestic think-tanks and start-ups helped Jorel develop a budding interest in finance.

Upon graduation, Jorel joined the Japan office of Singapore’s Government Investment Corporation (GIC) where he was part of an investment team dealing in real estate private equity assets across Japan. Following his stint at GIC, Jorel joined the investment team at UB Ventures, an independent venture capital fund that invests in seed or early-stage cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) start-ups in Japan and abroad.

“Now is an opportune time for Japan’s start-up scene – on the one hand, capital infrastructure has matured greatly, and on the other, demographic changes are giving rise to many, long-term opportunities.”

With almost 18 years of experience living in Japan between the three of them, we asked Yan Ting, Jorel and Derrick to spill their secrets to navigate life in the Land of the Rising Sun.


Succeeding in Japan: Speak the language, embrace collectivism and more

You can get by with English, but learn Japanese to go far
If you are in the tech industry, Derrick explains, it is possible to find jobs in Japan that do not require Japanese proficiency. That said, your limited command of the Japanese language will inevitably cost you the ability to grow professionally.

“Local conferences and meetups are held in Japanese, so you would miss out on opportunities for learning and networking,” explains Derrick.

Yan Ting shares that her interactions with call-centre staff regarding utilities tend to be difficult at first due to the service staff’s tendency to converse in keigo, an honorific form of the Japanese language. “My command of Japanese was subpar at that time, so I couldn’t understand a lot of the things the staff were saying. And even after I explained my poor command and told them it is okay to speak to me in simpler Japanese, they just slowed down their speech.”

Bargain hunters will also do well to master the language. She enthuses: “Japanese websites typically give better deals. Everything from skiing and snowboard lessons, even moving is cheaper!”

Yan Ting cites that she received a substantially lower quote for $400 from a Japanese-speaking moving company. Her friend, who sought help from English-speaking movers got a more expensive quote – costing somewhere between $800 and $2,000. If you’re looking to brush up your command of Japanese, Derrick suggests, “Salespeople make for great conversationalists. They make small talk while I try things out at shops. So, I got a lot of practice out of shopping.”

While textbooks remain the best way to get your grammar up to speed, Jorel proposes a whimsical means to becoming proficient in the language. “My best advice? Dating. Works miracles,” he jokes.
Place collective needs before the individual
One of the most significant differences between Singapore and Japan lies in the Japanese’s natural tendency to consider the group’s interests before themselves.

Derrick notes that this tendency to value the group’s thoughts and interests above oneself extends to their attitude towards work and helps to build a strong sense of camaraderie. “Decisions are made collectively as a group, and once everyone agrees on something, they support and look out for each other.”

His colleagues have also been nothing but kinds and supportive when Derrick first joined the company. “It felt as if they considered me as part of their team even though I was only there for a short time.”

Jorel notes that the Japanese motivation behind this tendency is motivated by a genuine consideration of the social cost incurred, such as inconvenience, disrespect, or shame borne by others. “It’s the relationships that we share daily that govern how we treat each other. That’s something I have learnt to cherish greatly here.”
Don’t be late – punctuality is everything
If there’s something that the Japanese are known for is their respect for and expectations surrounding punctuality. This facet is still very much alive in modern-day Japan, shares Yan Ting. She points out that the same spirit of punctuality extends to the efficient public train system in Tokyo. “This means if the train leaves at 8:05, you will need to be inside by 8:04!”

This incredible punctuality is born out of Japan’s collectivist spirit. Every individual harbours a strong sense of pride towards the perfect performance of their work, as they believe that every individual effort contributes unerringly to the group’s achievements.

Unwinding and experiencing Japan like a native

Jorel spends his weekends exploring Tokyo’s suburbs, which are only an hour’s ride away by train. On these trips, he makes it a point to make friends with the locals, embracing the quaint, peaceful residences. These are often tucked away from common tourist destinations.

If hiking is your passion, Japan is a dream come true. Home to over 18,000 mountains, you could spend every day hiking a different mountain and never run out of new peaks to conquer. Derrick takes long outdoor hikes whenever he has the opportunity to, capturing breath-taking shots of sunrises peeking out from the horizon.

A shot of the sunrise on the horizon captured by Derrick on one of his outdoor hikes.

When Derrick isn’t scaling the tallest peaks in the land, he spends his time wandering the streets of Japan. “I often walk around towns and look at urban design and architecture. I especially love tunnels and areas under bridges which have a nice atmosphere.”

If you are a food lover who ‘lives to eat’ like Yan Ting, spend your exploring and sampling different Japanese cuisines, where each prefecture offers a different dining experience. And when you’re walking off your last meal, travels during the seasonal peaks — for instance when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom or when trees turn a deep red hue, marking the start of autumn. 


Take a Leap of Faith – You Won’t Regret it

Take it from these three: sometimes, to make a change, you just need to take a leap of faith.

Yan Ting says it is crucial to keep a positive mindset and take challenges in your stride. “Try to see everything as growth. Sometimes I feel like I’ve wasted time, but I also know that all these experiences I’ve had, have helped to shape me today.”

It is just as important to remain open-minded and embrace change, adds Derrick. “Every time you move to a different country, it’s like restarting your life over again. Only by keeping your mind open can you successfully assimilate into a new country and experience its culture to the fullest”.

Then, there is the question about timing and when is it ever the right time to make your move a reality. Jorel shares, “Life is far shorter, and the world is far bigger than [you may] perceive it to be. If you want to go and try something out – the only thing that’s stopping you, is you.”

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About Yan Ting

Yan Ting is a Singaporean Assistant Marketing and Communications Manager at Hilton Hotel. She is currently based in Tokyo, Japan since 2014. Connect with Yan Ting here.

About Derrick

Derrick is a Singaporean Infrastructure Architect with Rakuten. He is currently based in Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture which borders the country’s capital, Tokyo since 2015. Connect with Derrick here.

About Jorel

Jorel is a Singaporean Investment Associate at UB Ventures, an independent venture capital fund that invests in seed or early-stage cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) start-ups in Japan and abroad. He is currently based in Tokyo, Japan since 2016. Connect with Jorel here.

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