As the internationalization trend accelerates among Japanese companies, there’s never been a better opportunity for Taiwanese students and graduates to pursue a career in Japan, especially in the IT industry.
We recently spoke with Tony Huang and Toby Liu, two software engineers at renowned Japanese tech firm Mercari, to get their perspective on life and work in Japan. Both Tony and Toby chose to start their careers in Japan, joining Mercari right after finishing graduate school.
―Please tell us a bit about yourselves.
Tony: I graduated with my master’s degree two years ago, majoring in computer science and telecommunications. And I also did an internship at Yahoo! Taiwan for two months, which was my first time as a software engineer. That was a great experience because I saw people using features I developed, and I really felt like I achieved something.
Toby: Basically I grew up in Taiwan, but during middle school, I spent 3 years in China. When I came back to Taiwan I already knew how to do programming, but I decided to take a different path in college, so I entered the economics department. I found economics and behavioral science interesting, but after I graduated I joined a software company for a year and a half, then went to graduate school for machine learning.
Working in Japan: Perception vs. reality
―What impression do you think people have about working in Japan?
Tony: I think that a lot of people have an image of really long work hours and a traditional work environment where you always need to be wearing a suit and obey your boss no matter what. But I feel lucky, because here at Mercari we have a very open-minded culture where everyone can share their ideas. And it’s a casual atmosphere where we can wear a T-shirt or hoodie while we work.
Toby: So, I consulted with a friend who works for Amazon in Tokyo, and something I realized is that compared to working in Taipei, there’s a wider spectrum of positions you can find here. It’s more international than what we have in Taipei, and while there may be that stereotype of abusive bosses that you see in Japanese dramas, I’ve had a totally different experience (laugh).
―What are your thoughts on internationalization at Japanese companies?
Toby: The thing that stands out to me the most is that more companies in Japan are internationalizing than I thought, as a response to the country’s labor shortage. Even more, “traditional” companies are making English their official language. The biggest players in the tech industry here are increasingly moving in the direction of internationalization, which I think people outside of Japan might not be aware of.
―What led you to pursue a job in Japan?
Tony: At first I thought about finding a job in the US, but it’s very hard to obtain a work visa there now, and I had only limited experience with software engineering. I didn’t graduate from an American university, which also made it tough. So when it came to finding work in another country, I chose Japan because I love Japanese culture. I figured if I could work in Japan, then I could explore the culture more. But another reason was that I know Japanese people really go for perfection in their work, so I wanted to work with Japanese people and be a part of that.
Toby: In terms of machine learning, I’d say that the industry in Taiwan isn’t too different from what we have in Tokyo right now. But for me, my major field of research is emotion analysis, which is something connected to humanity. As Taiwanese people, we share some degree of similarity with Japanese culture, but I always found it interesting to dig deeper and understand elements of the society that contrast with my own.
―How have you fared with learning Japanese?
Tony: I can’t say that I can speak Japanese very well yet, but being Taiwanese, I can already read Chinese characters, so reading Japanese is pretty easy. As long as I know the grammar, it’s not hard for me to understand the meaning of Japanese sentences. As for speaking, I’m often studying with my colleagues. We often have study sessions at the office where we practice together.
Toby: I think the Japanese lessons that Tony mentioned are one of the biggest advantages of working at Mercari. It’s not just one teacher teaching a bunch of students; it’s quite collaborative and we share materials and agendas online. I think it’s a pretty fun learning experience, compared to a normal student-teacher setting.
Advice to job seekers
―What advice would you give to students or new graduates in Taiwan who may be thinking about a career in Japan?
Tony: The most important thing is to just make the effort. If you don’t try, it’s not going to happen, neither give it a shot!
Toby: My advice is to put yourself in companies’ shoes. Try to imagine the challenges you’ll be facing as an engineer and how you can help solve the company solve them. That’s going to be the most interesting aspect of the job. I did plenty of research on Mercari before my interview and knew what challenges they were facing, so I was able to address those issues in the interview. If you find a position attractive, then really go after it. And don’t worry about a language barrier! It’s not as big a problem as you think.
Toby: I agree with that. Before you apply to the company, understand what goals they’re trying to achieve and think about whether you really want to achieve those goals together. I think that’s a really big priority.
Working at Mercari
―How is your work at Mercari going?
Tony: I’ve been at Mercari for two years, and I’ve learned a ton about how to deploy software. For example, I’m in charge of a new feature called “Offer,” which lets buyers negotiate prices with sellers with the push of a button. I’m also a mentor to three new members who joined last year. I’ve been able to both share my own experience and also learn from them as well. It’s been a great experience. I’ve been promoted to tech lead and am the leader of my team. I’m still learning how to make the best decisions for my team, and it’s a challenge, but I’m doing my best. At Mercari we have a lot of chances to improve ourselves.
Toby: For me, I think there are two points that are especially impressive to me. For one, I didn’t expect there to be so much top-tier talent here, especially in the machine learning team. We have dozens of PhDs and master’s graduates, some of them from prestigious schools like MIT and the University of Tokyo. At first, I felt like, “Whoa! What am I doing here?! (laughs)” The other thing is this company’s organizational flexibility, especially as a large-scale startup. Mercari has a special ability to alter our structure to meet challenges coming up in the next few quarters.
―Thanks to both of you for taking the time to chat today. We wish you all the best going forward.
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