Monday, September 1, 2008

Tales From A Japanese Office — The Interview and "S."

I'm 44 years old and I have, arguably, held 11 jobs in my life, so I've had a bit of experience with job interviews, but not so much as one might guess. I've only been interviewed 7 times and failed to get a job in one of those interviews. In chronological order, the 11 jobs were:
  1. maintenance crew member at a nursing home (part-time, I was 15 and quit after a week because I had no idea what I was doing and never should have been hired in the first place)
  2. assistant to a professor at my college (part-time, obviously, I was in college)
  3. (Christian) camp counselor (full-time, stop-gap job for 2.5 months just after college - a story all its own just waiting to be told)
  4. fast food waitress/cook (full-time, forced into it by my mother and quit after 2 weeks)
  5. program worker at a halfway house for the mentally ill (full-time and in my field)
  6. program worker for a United Cerebral Palsy assisted living home (part-time, in my field, and done simultaneously with job #5)
  7. housing counselor (full-time, after moving to California, arguably in my field)
  8. language instructor at Nova (2 years)
  9. "instructor" at a correspondence school (12 years - the job title is misleading as it was a catch-all job that including writing books, laying them out, doing graphics for them, teaching company lessons on rare occasions, and developing vast amounts of course material for said company lessons-I still do portions of this job freelance now)
  10. private language teacher (current freelance job)
  11. professional writer (current freelance job, though only very much part-time)
For jobs 2, 6, 10 and 11, I was solicited for the jobs so there was no interview. For job 10, no interview was required as the referral agency doesn't screen the teachers it works with. The only interview I ever failed at was for some work in California which I can't recall right now, but it was some social service job in my field. The main problem with that interview was that my husband, who was driving me there because I was new to California and had no idea how to get anywhere, underestimated the timing on something and I was a half hour late. We all know that showing up late for a job interview is damn near a guarantee that you won't get the job, though I have no way of knowing if I wouldn't have gotten it even if I wasn't on time.

I do have enough second-hand interview experience to know that an interview in Japan isn't the same as one in the U.S. Several of my students have discussed interviews in Japan with me and I've been told that they rarely or never get asked questions that are already answered by the resume. The whole point back home is to probe the veracity of the claims on your resume as well as get a feel for the type of person you are. In Japan, they are interested in what you're capable of, but tend to take what you say on the resume at face value. There's generally (but not always) an expectation that the company may need to train you here to fit their particular way of doing things whereas companies back home want you to hit the ground running fast and hard.

Regarding my first hand experience with interviews in Japan, my first interview in Japan, for Nova, wasn't much of an interview at all. A Japanese man looked at my passport and said they could sponsor me and that was it. If anything supported the oft-held idea that all Nova wanted was warm bodies, that interview did. My second interview in Japan, which resulted in my long-term work at an office, was rather a different kettle of fish. First of all, I was only interviewing for a temporary position so perhaps the bar wasn't set incredibly high, though I do recall the interview taking a bit of time. Also, I was interviewed by two people - an Australian man (D. from henceforth) who would become my boss and friend and a Japanese manager type (S. from this point on) who could speak English.

D. handled most of the interview and asked me questions about my experience as a teacher, my availability, and questions about how I'd go about correcting certain types of written errors in students' homework. After he was finished, he invited S. to ask any questions he wanted to ask. I can't recall exactly what he asked, but the first thing he asked was something along the lines of, 'you've worked at a conversation, you've never worked at a Japanese office?' When I heard this question, I had the distinct impression that he wasn't attempting to ask me anything useful, but rather focusing on some point to rule me out. This impression was strengthened by the fact that he repeated it after my first answer. It seemed to me that he wasn't focusing on how well I might be capable of doing the job like D. was, but rather on my lack of experience with something few foreigners who would apply for a temporary instructor's position would have had any experience with.

At the time, I recall feeling a bit "trapped" by the question because I felt it was designed to make me look bad and there was no escaping a negative answer. It appeared to be a deliberate attempt to focus on a lack of a qualification. After all, the only thing I could say was, "no, I haven't." I had the impression that D.'s questions were "reasonable" and that S.'s were designed to discredit me, even if he had to reach for something which no one would answer differently than I would. While I felt pretty confident during D's questions, I was left feeling as if I'd blown it by the end because of S.'s line of inquiry.

In retrospect (and now many years later), I realize a few things about that interview. One was that S. had no interest in discrediting me or putting me in a position where my answers would reflect poorly on me. As the manager of the section I was going to work in, his concerns were not with how well I'd do the job, but rather with how my presence would affect the office. He didn't ask me about my qualifications to do the job because that was D.'s responsibility, not his. He likely did not expect anyone who applied for the job to have experience in a Japanese office, but he asked the question because he probably would have preferred someone who knew what the dynamic was like and knew some of the unspoken rules of Japanese business situations. Someone with experience in Japanese ways would would be less likely to be disruptive or fail to conform to expectations.

As time went by and I learned a few things about S., I realized a few other things about his manner in the meeting as well. One thing is that he was (likely unintentionally) abrupt when he spoke English. I'm not sure if that was because he was insecure about his English (though I think that was the case to some extent) or if it was just this tendency among Japanese men to come across rudely when they speak English because they fail to make proper adjustments to be polite. I can't tell you how many times I've had to advise men not to say "I want you to (do something)" or to say "I want" rather than "I'd like" or make a polite request in situations like making a request from friends.

I also believe, in retrospect, that he was pretty nervous about things going wrong. I have a hazy recollection that he may have been relatively new at being in charge of the section. Well, actually, he wasn't at the top of it. That was reserved for the president's wife who was the head, but she didn't actually work all the time and only occasionally came around to write a bit and to rag on everyone else's work. I think if any real bad seeds had been hired, he'd have been held accountable because he was supposed to be making sure D., who was a foreigner and had been there only a year, didn't hire any axe murderers or deviants.

This suspicion is supported by (or confirmed by) the fact that S. was a salesman who was "kicked upstairs" by the president to keep an eye on the foreigners when the company was occupying two floors of a small building. There were other Japanese staff members there, but one was the president's wife and the other was female. Women weren't given positions of authority unless they'd had the misfortune of marrying the president and the woman who had paid that price for being near the top of the heap wasn't around enough to watch over those untrustworthy foreign workers. This was a fact that D. shared with me quite a few years later after S. got put back into the salesman pool once the office was consolidated on one floor (due to falling sales) and the president could station himself outside the area the foreigners worked and watch over us himself.

I always felt a strange vibe with S. because he seemed perpetually awkward. In fact, I often imagined that he was the perfect specimen visually of the Western stereotype of the "geeky" Japanese guy. Other than having a deep voice, he looked the part - short, slim, wearing glasses, short, straight hair (always immaculate) and in the requisite dark business suit. He also always gave off a vibe of not feeling comfortable in the office or around any of the authority figures around him.

That being said, I'm perfectly comfortable saying that this awkwardness may have manifested itself around me only. It was probably fueled by my lack of cooperation with certain wishes on the part of the company, but also maybe just by the fact that he always seemed like the sort of person who was uncomfortable in his own skin. When I made smalltalk with him about his work, no matter what job he was doing, he said that he didn't feel he was very good at it. That's not to say that this awkwardness meant that I disliked S. After all, I gave him an old Mac of mine to do some music-related work, but I worked with him for quite awhile and never did have what felt like a comfortable chat with him.

When I left, S. was surprised. He told me that he thought I would never leave the job. I'm not sure if he meant that as he felt they'd be stuck with me forever, or if he felt I had been around so long that he believed I'd become a part of the "family" and wouldn't leave the comfort of the position. The pessimistic part of me feels it's the former, but the part of me that is trying to be less negative about life in general would like to believe it's the latter.

1 comment:

Emsk said...

I don't know if I've ever blogged about my interview - if not I will, seeing as I'm back online again now. It's been three months since I got back and there's still so much to document.

S. sounds like a common type of character in Japan. And from working in a Japanese officey environment - the eikawa was for teaching, but there were the old Office Politics, of course - I can say that there were people with whom you never quite got comfy. But it sounds like S. was sad to see you go. There are men like him all over Japn and it kind of makes me sad to think about them, probably never changing jobs.