Realities of Japan: Working in a Rural City of Japan as a Foreigner

“How can I apply for a job and get an employment VISA in Japan?” “How proficient do I need to be in Japanese?” “How is living in Japan?” These are a few questions you may want to ask if you are aiming to move to Japan. The answers will probably depend on situation, timing and people. Therefore, we are trying to figure out the “Reality of Japan” by featuring various people who have experience living in Japan.



I Want to Work in Japan, Despite Many Cultural Differences

When it comes to working in Japan, big cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka will probably come to mind. However, Ms. Francesca Discenza is working as a Coordinator for International Relations in Minamishimabara City, which is more than 1200 km away from Tokyo and has a population of approximately 50,000. Even many Japanese people don’t have any experience working in a rural city. This interview is going to feature the reality of working in a rural city in Japan.

Ms. Francesca Discenza (Italy)
Minamishimabara city, Coordinator for International Relations
University of Tubingen, Germany
*Image shows Francesca playing a Japanese traditional drum

Making a Connection between Italy and Japan as a Coordinator

<Could you tell us about what you are doing in Japan?>

I am mainly in charge of international relation affairs, teaching Italian language and culture and supporting private communication associations. In order to explain what I am doing in detail, it may be better that I firstly talk about the history of Minamishimabara City where I am working. More than 400 years ago, in 1580, the place where the first western-style school was established in Japan by Italian Jesuit Missionary Alessandro Valignano was actually Minamishimabara City. The name of this school was “Arima Seminário”. Two years later, it was the first time for Japan that four of the best students who learned at the Seminário, visited Portugal, Spain and Italy as a delegation sent by Valignano to Europe with the ultimate goal of meeting the Pope in Rome. At the time, Japan was unknown to Europe, yet it is said that Japan made Europe aware of its presence because of this delegation. Today, the City of Chieti in Italy, the hometown of Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano and Minamishimabara City are about to become sister cities, thus I am making a great effort to connect Italy and Japan. In January 2015, Minamishimabara City made a delegation which consisted of four junior high school students and sent them to Italy as they did in the past. I participated in the delegation and was in charge of arranging the tour and interpreting between Italian and Japanese. Our delegation attended the Pope’s General Audience, having the privilege of sitting in the first row. I think the Japanese students in the first place, but all members of the delegation had the chance to experience something special.

*Francesca interpreting between Italian and Japanese

The key to getting this job was Japanese proficiency

<This project sounds great! What process did you go through to get your current job?>

Coordinator for International Relations is part of the JET Programme*. When it comes to the JET Programme, ALT* is a famous program where qualified applicants come to Japan and teach a foreign language at schools in Japan, usually English speakers are requested the most. However, Italian is not in such high demand in Japanese schools, in fact, currently including me only three Italian people came to Japan via the JET Programme, but all of us are working as Coordinators for International Relations (CIR). I came to know the JET Programme when I was a postgraduate at Tübingen University in Germany. The Japanese Embassy in Italy was looking for an Italian Coordinator for International Relations and I thought this was a good chance, so I applied for it. The process was like this; “by the end of March 2012, applications were accepted. After passing the first screening, near the end of April, the job interview took place, which included a Japanese proficiency test. Early in June the results were announced. And early in August I moved to Japan”. I was applying for it while writing my master’s thesis and preparing my graduation examinations from my postgraduate course, so I was pretty busy. Depending on the country, the number of candidates will change and accordingly the duration of selection will also change, but I think Italy finishes selection for the JET Programme quicker than other countries. In my case, the number of candidates was approximately 27 people. 6 out of them passed the first screening. The required qualification was JLPT N1, however 2 people who had only JLPT N2 joined in the second screening. I still remember that I felt, “Oh, that’s surprisingly not so strict, after all”. I passed JLPT N1 in December 2011 before entering the screening and even though I was not sure about the effect of this qualification, I fortunately got through it.
*The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme
*Assistant Language Teacher

<Could you tell us about the working conditions?>

One of the attractive points in Japan is that the system of salary, social insurance, and social annuity are well-organized. My working time is from 9:15 am to 5:15 pm. I have two day offs weekly. When I came to Japan, my monthly salary was 280,000 yen (*2330 US dollars or 2050 euros on 11th October 2015) and it increases once a year, even though I don’t receive any bonus. Because of the social insurance, even foreigners can go to see a doctor at affordable prices and receive an annuity. I am not sure if I will still be in Japan after retirement, however, if I return to my own country, I can get a certain amount refunded.

A strange word made me learn Japanese

<Why did you decide to learn Japanese?>

I like to learn languages. My parents love to travel and they’ve always traveled all over the world. Thus, since my childhood, I’ve naturally interacted with people of various cultural backgrounds and I was interested in their language as well. After English, the first language I learned was actually German. My mother can speak German and when I listened to her talking in German, I felt attracted to this unique language. I moved to Germany and joined a language school after graduating from a high school in Italy. The students in the school gathered from all over the world, some of them were Japanese. This was my first encounter with Japanese language. I became friends with them and we shared an apartment for a while. Through living together, I felt that Japanese culture is similar to mine, that’s how I started to become interested in Japan. The first Japanese word I learned was “mijingiri (mince)”. While my friends were cooking, they often used this word and I thought “how cute!”. Then, I started learning Japanese and majored in Japanese Language and Culture when I was in university and in a postgraduate course in Germany.

Little by little, Minamishimabara City is certainly changing.

<When do you think that working in Japan is worthwhile?>

When I can feel my work contributes to someone or something. Working for international relations is not always splendid like the delegation I talked about earlier. Since Minamishimabara city is a rural area, there are a lot of people who have never visited a foreign country or even lived in other cities in Japan. There are also people who regard foreigners as completely different people, as if foreigners were aliens. I try to dive into such situations and approach them to become friends. Then, they start changing their attitude and say, “I would like to visit Italy!” or “I would like to make friends with Italian people!” Sometimes when they see me on the road, they greet me in Italian saying “Ciao!” Through these experiences, I feel the effort I put in working for international relations is meaningful. I believe that mutual understanding between individuals will eventually make good relations between nations and ultimately contribute to creating peace in the world.

<What is tough about working in Japan?>

There are cultural differences. The most important thing in life for most Japanese people is working. I think private time is as important as working time. However, there are many Japanese people who work hard even if they need to sacrifice their private time. There is a tendency among Japanese workers that if other people work overtime; they feel compelled to stay in the office, even though they have nothing to do. This is because they value very much the harmony of the group and they would feel guilty if they left their co-workers doing “their work”. We are sometimes required to work on weekdays in case of events, but many of my co-workers don’t take an alternative day off even if they’re entitled to, because of the same reason I explained earlier. Also, I don’t like very much the Japanese drinking culture. In Japan, drinking together is one of the ways for people to communicate and maintain the harmony in the group, however these parties are expensive and there is terrible cigarette smoke. In Italy, smoking in public places and restaurants has been banned since around 2000. I think Japan is very behind in terms of that. I have my opinion, for example, I think paid leave is employees’ right, so I believe it should be used. In fact, thanks to my boss’s understanding towards my culture, I was able to take a vacation for two weeks (the regular Japanese employees wouldn’t take longer than 2-3 days) last June and traveled to Bali, where I could spend some time with my family. However, I am not saying that I am not following all the Japanese traditions and customs. Of course, I respect Japanese culture and in order to make this acceptable for my Japanese coworkers, I certainly pay attention to things like giving my paid leave requests in advance and participating in “welcome-farewell” drinking parties once or twice a year. I think the most important thing is to maintain the attitude of trying to understand each other.

Relationships with people; that is the primary reason

<It seems that it’s not easy for foreigners to work abroad. Despite that, why do you still work in Japan and don’t want to return to Italy?>

The reason is my relationships with people. I think I am blessed with amazing friends here. The people surrounding me understand how hard I am working and encourage me all the time. I like them, too, and I think these relationships are something special that go way beyond just business. Also, I am participating actively in local events and Japanese traditional lessons such as taiko*, iaidō*, yosakoi* and kyūdō* and I’m making friends with lots of people of all kinds. Last year, at a local festival, a three-years-old cute little girl suddenly gave me a hug. I asked her mother why, and she replied to me that the girl watched all of the local TV programs on which I appeared and was a big fan of me. I felt so touched it almost brought me to tears, because I realized the things I’m doing can impress even such a little girl.

*Taiko: Japanese drums.
*Iaidō: Art of drawing the Japanese sword
*Yosakoi: A unique style of dance that originated in Japan.
*Kyūdō: Japanese archery.

*Francesca participated in a local festival and danced yosakoi, a Japanese traditional dance.

Having a tolerant mind toward different cultures

<Could you give some advice to readers who would like to work in Japan?>

Please prepare yourself mentally before coming to Japan. Once you are in Japan, you will receive a lot of questions about your own country. Some people may have preconceived notions about your country. In my case, many people asked me, “Please teach me English,” assuming that my native language is English even though I am Italian. If you are irritated and create a barrier, you won’t get good results. Thus, I always tell myself that they are innocent and just don’t have knowledge of foreign countries so I now respond this way: “I am Italian and my mother tongue is Italian. English is what I learned in school just as Japanese people do”. Therefore, I think that tolerating each other will result in trusting each other. Remember to learn about your own culture before coming to Japan. It may be more difficult than you think to explain to others about something that is very natural to you or that you take for granted.
You may also have difficulty learning Japanese. If you try to find a job in Japan, it is better that you have advanced Japanese abilities. However, after learning basic Japanese, using textbooks or online Japanese lessons, please somehow find an opportunity to visit and stay in Japan for a while. I think by interacting with Japanese unique culture and Japanese people, your perspective will be broadened and you will be able to enrich and improve yourself. Cross-cultural communication and learning a language… they are not always easy, but when it comes to cross-cultural communication, being broad-minded is extremely important. As the Japanese would say: “akiramenai de, ganbarimashō! (Let’s do our best and never give up!)

After the interview…

In very rural areas where there aren’t other foreign coworkers, Ms. Francesca Discenza is getting great results. We feel the secret is that, aside from her Japanese proficiency, she is a curious and friendly person, which enables her to dive into the local culture. Also, her patience enables her to overcome the cultural differences. Even though she is working in a rural city, in an environment where is not easy for foreigners to adjust to, thanks to her optimistic attitude, she can achieve great results. Minamishimabara City and Italy are about to revive the relationship they shared more than 400 years ago. We would like to continue to pay attention to her work and encourage her in her mission!

Author and English Editor

Author – Takuya Tokiwa

Takuya is the co-founder, Project Director of Wasabi and a serial entrepreneur in the education field. He is utilizing all of his knowledge and experiences for innovating Japanese learning.

English Editor – Natalia Weiner

Natalia is the Editor and Web Content Manager of Wasabi. She majored in Writing with a minor in Journalism and graduated from Loyola University Maryland in 2013. She was the Assistant Content Editor for the popular culture website EmcBlue, and has written and edited for a variety of publications in both Japan and the United States.

(This post is reblogged from Wasabi, Learn Japanese Online )

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“Wasabi” is a new online Japanese language learning service that started in June of 2015. They match the needs of those who want to communicate with foreigners, with those who want to study and learn the Japanese language.

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