Working as an accountant at a multinational company in Japan, 31-year-old Keisuke Tanaka corresponded frequently over email with his colleagues at the India office. “They were very friendly and even invited me to a party in India. I found Indians are, in general, warm-hearted people,” he says. “Also, I’ve always been curious about how India produces such smart IT people and medical professionals. So I have always wanted to work in India.”

Following a four-month internship at the GIIP global advisory firm in Chennai, Tanaka got a fulltime job.

He is one of 19 young Japanese professionals and university students sent to India by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in an endeavour to create a pool of global professionals. Another 67 were sent to other emerging economies including Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Facing tepid growth at home, even as geopolitical risks with China still run high, the Japanese government is looking to its college students and young professionals to explore untapped emerging economies. The effort is among the first of its kind for a country that has always been inward-looking, and where enterprises and businesspeople rarely aim to go globetrotting.

India-bound

In just one year (November 2011-12), the number of Japanese companies in India increased by 14 per cent to 926, says the Embassy of Japan in India. In October 2011, there were 5,554 Japanese living in India, a 23.4 per cent increase over the previous year.

And while the Japanese expatriates are in all age groups, there are some clear generational differences, says Taichi Urakami, a 21-year-old college student interning in Chennai under a different programme. Working at Formula Group, a company that offers housing and related services to Japanese companies in India, he gets to meet many expatriates.

While the older Japanese live in luxury residences and have the services of drivers, the younger set is very adaptable and enjoys the challenges of living in a different culture. Significantly, he finds many of the Japanese working in big companies sounding pessimistic and stressed by the noise, unfamiliar smells, poor infrastructure and different working styles in India.

“They don’t seem to enjoy the culture, nor do they mingle with others. When I said I came here of my own will, they looked stunned. On the other hand, I was surprised they don’t have strong English skills. This, I believe, adds to their stress here,” he says.

Living with stark contrasts

Of course, some culture shock is inevitable for any Japanese, young or old, landing in India. Coming from a society that values punctuality, quiet and cleanliness, it is disconcerting to find that Indians are largely flexible when it comes to time-keeping. The roads are choked with honking cars and bikes. Power failures are frequent. There is no guarantee of hot water in the bathroom. The odour of garbage piles and animal waste is unsettling.

“When I sleep, I often have to swat mosquitoes and scratch myself everywhere. I have to stay alert 24/7. Everything is a brutal experience but I feel this is how it is in India,” says Tanaka.

For Kazutaka Suzuki, a 34-year-old businessman at Hitachi Plant Technologies, walking here is a hair-raising experience. “It’s unbelievable to see vehicles careening on the streets and blowing horn all the time,” he says, adding that he mostly stays home after work and watches movies.

Accustomed to an organised routine both at work and in private life back in Japan, 25-year-old Erina Sugimoto is stressed by the stark differences she encounters during her stint at a Japanese trade firm in Bangalore. “When my shower broke, a repairman said he would fix it the following day but didn’t come for several days. Once when I took an auto, the driver took me to a completely different destination.”

Digesting differences

The chopstick wielders, with a preference for meat and fish, are in for more challenges when face to face with Indian cuisine.

“Eating with my hands is very new to me. I observed how Indian friends eat, and slowly got the knack of it. First you need to stick your fingers together. You hold the rice with fingers and use your thumb to push it into your mouth,” explains Shun Furushima, a 21-year-old assistant Japanese language teacher at ABK AOTS Dosokai.

Tanaka, a meat lover, sees the virtues of turning vegetarian: “Now I can eat a variety of curry rice and vegetables. I eat South Indian thali every day. But I just wish Chennai had more restaurants where people can drink sake.”

But there are others who haven’t had it easy. Futoshi Nozawa, a 27-year-old intern at renewable energy firm OGPL at Dindigul in Tamil Nadu, stays at the biggest hotel in the city but is unhappy with the limited selection of food. “Poor hygiene and the oil used in the food made me sick,” he says.

Describing diarrhoea as a “rite of passage of living in India”, Furushima recalls his troubled early days as, like other Japanese, he was unused to uncooked vegetables and Indian spices.

But the same spices, and their sheer variety, have some of them excited and raring to cook. “I bought different kinds of spices, which I cannot get in Japan, as I want to cook Indian food back home. I also bought Indian clothing, accessories, shawls, healthcare products… I enjoyed haggling at the market,” says 21-year-old Kaoru Nishizaki, who interned with a Japanese consumer appliance maker for four months.

Chilling out, Indian style

Besides shopping, many interns love to watch cricket with their Indian friends, attend family gatherings and travel around the country.

“We go to a shopping mall, the beach and join a sports club on weekends. Japanese expatriates enjoy drinking and nice dining experiences at five star hotels. They tend to go to Thailand during holiday seasons such as Diwali or Pongal,” says Urakami.

Twenty one-year-old Mio Nidono, who has interned at Casio in New Delhi, plans to visit India again in February. “India is such a diverse country. If you go to a different town, you see a different culture.” She has travelled across North India, and wants to travel to the south next. But some of the interns are not fond of the smaller cities and towns, citing the lack of facilities there.

Nozawa, in Dindigul, says his company advised him not to go out at night, so he spends time doing yoga and muscle training as well as watching movies and chatting with friends on Skype. “I enjoy jogging, but animal waste, trash and bad traffic prevent me from going out,” he says.

Gender sensitivity

Nishizaki and Nidono, who both interned in New Delhi, had a close ringside view of the recent outbreak of protests against the violent rape and murder of a young physiotherapist in the Capital. The Japanese girls feel that despite the strong economic growth, women in India are in a weaker position.

Nishizaki senses a huge gap in rights between lower- and upper-class women. “Women’s clothing stores, laundry services, hotels and beauty salons are dominated by male staff. Many still believe that women should take care of domestic chores while men work outside. I travelled to a village and found the women doing labour-intensive work such as drawing water from a well and washing clothes,” she says, adding that it is usually women from upper classes who are found in executive jobs.

Nidono, however, welcomes the fact that unlike the Japanese, who usually hide their emotions, Indians are more expressive about their feelings. “I have never seen people express emotions so vividly before, but I felt more comfortable once I got used to it,” she says.

Nishizaki, too, has her share of pleasant memories. “I found that Indian men are romantic and passionate. I got poems and songs from them,” she smiles.

Back home, Furushima is already missing India: “It has been several weeks since I came back to Tokyo. When I recall Indian food and the warm-hearted people, I feel like going back.”

Jugaad vs Just In Time

The Japanese are reputed for precision planning, which includes setting targets, identifying risks and troubleshooting; India, on the other hand, prides itself on its capacity for jugaad — a Hindi word that describes a frugal and flexible approach to solutions with limited resources.

Differences surface even at the personal level. While the Japanese value consensus among colleagues and harmony, they see Indians as argumentative and pushy.

“Whenever a problem crops up, no one admits it’s his or her fault. Instead, they continue making excuses. The problem remains unsettled,” says Erina Sugimoto, an intern in Bangalore

Keisuke Tanaka, in Chennai, cannot agree more: “India has many talkative and aggressive people, and they don’t listen to others… that often irritates me. But I’ve realised this often gives me new ideas and now I’ve learned to accept this attitude.”

Mio Nidono, who interned in New Delhi, thinks she understands why Indians tend to be argumentative. “If you observe meetings between Indians and Japanese, you will see Indians are the ones who always speak up. But I understand you need to speak up and be assertive to survive in India, to differentiate yourself from others,” she says.

But a lot of them are more than willing to look at the brighter side too.

Kaoru Nishizaki says that initially she felt angry and upset whenever she encountered a problem, but soon began to see things from a different perspective. “I learned to laugh at unexpected events or mistakes rather than get angry. In India, the unexpected often happens and plans do not work as scheduled. I learned to be flexible,” she says, describing India as a country where “all’s well that ends well”, and adds, “I definitely want to come back here.”

Tanaka observes that unlike in Japan’s established society, in India he is able to design his life from scratch. “Unlike the salaried life I led in Japan, here I have to do everything by myself while looking after colleagues. I need to explore new customers to increase sales; otherwise I cannot survive,” he says. “Having said that, I feel life here is very rewarding.”

(This article was published on February 7, 2013)
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