You may recall back in LA when I mentioned that I’d just overcome an “epic battle with strep.” Well, I didn’t really fully emphasize quite how epic of a battle it was, but it pretty much completely incapacitated me for two weeks with a high fever, unequalizable sinuses, a throat so sore that I couldn’t even swallow water, and a total lack of energy. The relief that the antibiotics eventually provided felt like pure awesometude.
So guess what. Un-freaking-believable. The night before my first work day, a week after I signed up at a $75/mo gym, I had a relapse. I mean, come on, what did I do to deserve this!?! And on top of that, my health insurance paperwork hadn’t gone through yet so going to the doctor for antibiotics would be prohibitively expensive for at least another week. Wonderful. Just freaking wonderful.
Thankfully, work started on a Wednesday and Friday was a national holiday, so I only had to power through two days before getting a long weekend to rest up and recover. And as it turned out, this particular battle wasn’t nearly as epic as the previous. A week later I was pretty much back to 100%.
So yeah. Work has started. And it’s been interesting…programming for a totally new platform using a totally new development environment with a totally new code base built on a totally new SDK. In Japanese. That’s what I call one hell of a learning curve. It’s just amazing how much slower I go now that I can no longer read everything I see at a glance, particularly when all of the non-alphabet keys are in different places on the keyboard than I’m used to. Learning curve.
And when I say “in Japanese,” I mean that they’ve got me set up with a Japanese version of Windows; that the company webboards (including assignments, development schedules, progress reports, etc) and most of the code comments are in Japanese; that even the Nintendo DS debugger has zero English. Ever seen a memory dump explained in Kanji? I have!
I gotta say, with all of these hurdles to overcome I’m really thankful for the other English-speaking employees whom I can rely on during this initial adjustment period. And for the documents of which they do have translated versions. And for my supervisor, who although speaks virtually no English has been wonderful about speaking slowly and explaining things to me on a level that I can understand (i.e. using words like ファンクション instead of 関数)
As far as the company goes, like any situation I suppose there are both positive and negative aspects. The employees all seem really cool and easy to get along with (25 guys and 1 girl…in typical “video game industry” fashion 8)), I’ve got a totally awesome workstation (with dual 21″ LCD displays for optimum screen real-estate), and the office environment itself is quite nice (including a kitchen, big TV & couches, and every video game imaginable). Plus, there’s no dress code at all (normal in the US, but extremely rare in Japan).
On the negative side, however, the strict control that they maintain over the employees is really quite a morale-downer at times. They won’t allow us admin access to our own PCs, they restrict our internet access during work hours, and we can’t step outside for a snack on our own (only during a very specific “snack time”). Sometimes I just feel like I’m right back working as a programmer for the Department of Defense – just a tad more good faith towards us employees would really go a long way towards making us feel “appreciated,” in my humble opinion. While I absolutely understand the need to keep everyone productive, when programming for 8+ hours in a day the freedom to check your e-mail without having to use one of the “net PCs” or to take a quick 5 or 10 minute break on your own can really rejuvenate one’s productivity. Or the ability to come in an hour late in exchange for working an hour late if you’re having a particularly rough morning.
There are also quite a few interesting Japanese cultural differences in the workplace. A few examples:
1) Everyone takes their shoes off at the front door to keep the office clean. I just love this. I always used to secretly slip my shoes off while working over the summers at Northrop Grumman, or while in class at college, but here I can walk around barefoot all day long!
2) The “group” mentality makes doing anything out-of-the-norm, out-of-the-question. D’oh! Perhaps this is why everyone has to take their snack breaks at the same time…and why they won’t let me use Outlook for my email simply because everyone else uses Outlook Express. Huh? 😛
3) Bookkeeping. This is one is pretty interesting to me. I’ve often been called obsessive compulsive with my organization; making lists of things to do, keeping lists of accomplishments to help monitor my productivity, etc. Here, things are run in a very similar way, but to the power of ten. In addition to the usual one-on-one interactions with our superiors and source-control revision notes, we have progress meetings every morning, group meetings every week, and a webboard where we’re expected to document our work regularly. Again, it feels a bit on the overbearing side, and if I were them I’d probably want us to spend more time coding and less time talking about what we’ve been coding! 😛
Still, in spite of all of these cultural “oddities” you’ve got to appreciate all of the ways that they’ve managed to break the mold in Japan. Aside from the lack of a dress code (Japanese “salarymen” have to go to work in business suits regardless of how hot the weather or how rarely they interact with other companies), they give us 10 vacation days to start, along with the more than 20 days of “national holidays” in Japan (including three week-long breaks). Many of my Japanese friends get no vacation days during their first year, and even once they do start to receive days, taking them is seriously frowned upon. My friend Yano “gets” an incredible 40 days a year…but he’s never been allowed to take more than five. And he’s almost 30. And he was only able to take those five because it was for his honeymoon!
(As an interesting side note, the reason why salarymen are given so many “official” days is because typically they’ll take them all at once, right before changing jobs. That way get a huge block of time off to recharge, travel, or search for new work…while still getting paid as they had been).
So back to week-one of work: since my first Friday was a national holiday, the company held a welcome party for myself and one other new employee at an izakaya (Japanese-style bar) on Thursday night. Company gatherings are a large part of the working world here, as co-workers go out drinking to celebrate everything from new employees to New Year’s. This particular gathering’s sashimi platters, multiple nabe courses, kara-age, kaki-age, okonomiyaki, rice, soups, salads, desert, and unlimited beer was all wonderful…and paid for by the company. Alright, they get back some more morale points for that one 😉
(If you’re wondering why I decided to go out drinking while in the middle of a strep relapse, the answer is because I’m a fool. Actually, the answer is because I was just too pissed about having to once again put my life on hold for my stupidly incapable immune system…and I couldn’t very well skip out on my own welcome party anyways. Shockingly, I ended up feeling even better the next morning. Perhaps the alcohol actually killed the bacteria that was causing my strep instead of making it worse!)
So, all-in-all how do I feel about my new life? I’m really not sure yet. On one hand, I’m happy to be in Japan and to be doing the type of work I’ve always dreamed of doing. On the other, this is my first real full-time salary job. After five years of college life and eight months of relaxation, adjusting to a life of “wake up, go to work, come home, eat, go to sleep” is no easy task. Plus, I haven’t really had much time to just sit back and enjoy Japan since I got here – the beginning was a scramble to find an apartment, then work started, then I got sick, and since then virtually every free moment has been filled with errands just trying to get up and running. I have gone out a few times, but on the whole things have just been too busy for much carefree fun. Welcome to Real Life, ‘eh?