Shawn Schrader, the Tokyo-based group creative director of Google’s Brand Studio Asia-Pacific, died in July after a battle with cancer.
Named to Campaign’s 40 under 40 in 2016, Shawn arrived in Tokyo more than 10 years ago from the US and quickly made a name for himself as a well-liked and highly respected fixture in the local creative scene. Before joining Google, he spent nearly four years at TBWA Hakuhodo, where he worked on brands such as Apple, Nissan and Panasonic. He won more than 40 awards including a Cannes Grand Prix.
As a tribute to Shawn, with the kind permission of his family, I am republishing an article he wrote in May 2017, offering thoughtful advice to foreign creatives interested in building their career in Japan. As one who knew Shawn, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying he will be deeply missed, but not forgotten.
—David Blecken, executive editor, Campaign Japan
What it takes to be a foreign creative in Tokyo
A little advice for those with their eye on Japan.
(First published on LinkedIn 23 May 2017)
“What’s it like working in Tokyo?” “How do I land a job there?” “Do you have any advice?” These are just a few of the questions I get weekly from foreign creatives (strangers and acquaintances) curious about working in Tokyo. Well, and of course the shameless “Are you hiring? Here’s my portfolio link”, smiley face and all.
So I was one of the lucky ones.
My first creative gig when I arrived in Tokyo was at a small boutique agency in need of an English-speaking designer as one of their long-time designers was heading back to Canada. More importantly, Japanese language ability was not mandatory for that role although I was studying rigorously knowing my future in Japan depended on it.
Those types of opportunities are rare nowadays but they are out there if you are willing to grind and seek them out.
When I got here in 2005, I witnessed a slow diminishing of foreigners in the creative field as agencies and clients were cutting budgets and that usually meant those expensive foreigners on nice packages were the first to go—especially if you couldn’t speak Japanese. Then came the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which ran out many more foreigners who were slightly less committed to being here.
As the industry started to normalize again after that, I looked around and realized that we were only left with highly valued and committed foreign creatives here, meaning many of us that stayed had
- Strong company ties
- Great understanding of Japanese culture
- Solid fluency of Japanese (not everyone of course but many)
- Weren't afraid to call Japan our permanent home
- Most importantly, I think many of us just really loved being here.
That also seemed to translate to the types that were coming over and trying to make it here. Over the past several years, I’ve met up with a bunch of hungry mid- and junior-level creatives who are eager to work in Tokyo. Many of them already in love with the culture, were studying Japanese back home and would come here on vacation to do some aggressive networking on the ground, and from what I’ve seen it’s paid off for many of them.
So how about everyone else who reaches out with an interest in coming here but isn't yet as hungry or committed?
If you are sitting around waiting for an agency recruiter to call you with an epic expat package offer to move you here, you may be old and gray before that happens.
It’s not totally out of the question though.
Highly skilled and awarded senior creatives even with no Japanese language ability are still sought after for many foreign agencies and companies (gaishikei) that have branches here. But those roles are quite limited and will most likely remain limited.
So where does that leave you? Oh yes, the advice part. This topic was interesting enough for me to think that people would get more out of it by hearing from a handful of other top class creative directors in our gaishikei world here in Tokyo, so I reached out to a few friends and former colleagues to get their thoughts.
So pull out your letter-pressed Moleskine and get ready to take some notes.
Ricardo Adolfo, creative director, Ogilvy & Mather Japan:
To work in Tokyo you need to be able to decode the world not from your own point of view but from the perspective of someone you don’t know, you never heard of and you don’t understand. To get used to this, try watching movies from a region as far as possible from yours with no sound or sub-titles. The 1 percent you’ll understand will give you a sense of how clued you’ll be living in the best city in the world.
Glenn Bartlett, ECD, Turner Broadcasting Asia-Pacific:
If you want to work in Japan, first learn patience and be a damn good listener...learn to read the air as they say here meaning to be on alert to sense things and adapt. Nothing is as it seems in Tokyo but always be yourself!
François Claverie, creative director, UltraSuperNew Tokyo:
Either you speak Japanese and you should be OK...or you don't and you're going to need a few cards up your sleeve. Display deep interest (if not understanding) in the Japanese culture, the language, and the marketing landscape. It's important to show that you've come to stay.
Foreigners here are known to come and go so your commitment to Japan and the company will be questioned. Here more than anywhere, building a network is key. Then top it off with a good deal of resilience.
Claudia Cristovao, group creative director, AKQA Tokyo:
Japan is not a language or a history. It’s a way of walking, a change in palate, a certain manner of speaking and eventually a thought-affecting tool.
Mike Farr, ECD, Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo:
It depends on where you're going to work, what type of work you wanna make and whether you feel you can influence the work culture. Roles are pretty defined here so if you're coming in as a junior then make sure you know what is expected of you and find out as much as you can about the work culture of the place you're going to be working in. It's difficult to effect change in a collective work culture. Everyone needs to be on board and if things are working fine then a consensus for change can be quite a high barrier.
Working in Japan generally means you are producing work that is meant to move Japanese people, to emotionally resonate with the way they look at the world. If you are making creative that you love but speaks to the foreigner part of your brain it probably won't work and it will feel alien to the very people you are trying to connect with. And so you need openness and a constant ability to listen and question. You will never become Japanese, but you can be sympathetic to your surroundings and question your native assumptions and preconceptions. After embracing the unknown, make sure you keep sharing your ideas with the people around you. There's no better guide to see what works and what doesn't than to ask.
Masashi Kawamura, ECD & founder, Party:
There are many talented creatives and wonderful studios in Japan but the best places just can't communicate in English. I've seen so much great foreign talent trying to move to Japan but end up at mediocre studios just because it was the only place that was bilingual and could accept them. So learn Japanese! But be ready, Japanese studios work crazy hours sometimes even 24/7. It's f*cked up but the Japanese industry works that way. If you are a hard worker that treasures a good work/life balance Tokyo might not be the place for you. My biggest piece of advice is just to learn Japanese and you'll have a chance at experiencing working at the best places in Tokyo—but be ready to work some crazy hours.
Alex Noble, creative director, JWT Japan:
To get a job in Japan you have to be in Japan. It truly is a face-to-face place. Only pounding the pavement meeting people will get you a job. Japanese people are all about relationships and trust is really only built with exposure. So come to Japan and make yourself known and build a relationship. The last point is to be good at your job if you are an outsider. Be good at something Japanese are not. That way it makes sense for them to hire an outsider. So whatever you are good at, get better at it. There is no excuse for lack of quality and Japan is no exception.
Kazoo Sato, chief creative officer, TBWA Hakuhodo:
1. Don't assume English works everywhere in the world. Konnichiwa is not enough. If you're interested in the advertising and marketing business in Japan, you have to learn some Japanese. That’ll enlarge your job opportunities I guarantee.
2. Chopsticks tell. If you're good at using chopsticks, great. You can fully enjoy our diversified food culture in Japan. But why do we use chopsticks? What's the cultural context? Why are they designed this way? Why do even French restaurants use them sometimes? Think about it. And when you find the answer, you're ready to work in Japan.
Go Sohara, ECD, JWT Japan:
To survive in Japan one word that comes to mind is friendship. If you have a core diverse group of friends around you, Japan becomes an amazing place to work and live. Being in a foreign country, you're gonna have to deal with a ton of situations that you can't handle alone. You'll also have nights where you just wanna drink and shoot the shit with someone. Having a good social situation and friends that have your back allows you to focus on doing great work to succeed here. Only then will this city be able to truly inspire you and give you a different perspective on life that can motivate you forever.
Masa Tanaka, Design Director, R/GA Tokyo:
Find opportunities from a different angles. If you are in creative industry for long enough, you realize how small this world is. Everybody knows each other and somebody you just met is probably connected to somebody you know. That is exactly same for Japan, except maybe even smaller. Be vocal about your interest in moving to Japan. If you are good enough, they might even pay you to move here because your experience outside of Japan is something valued here. Either way, start studying Japanese now because you really need to know some. Survival Japanese might be good enough to check out Tsukiji market as a tourist, but if you want to do good work, you're gonna need to be able to get your creative concepts across to clients or CDs. If you can talk smooth enough, you might be able to land a Japanese spouse and get a resident card as a bonus.
Yo Umeda, creative director & founder, Present Agency:
First off, step back and ask yourself, How valued am I at my current company in my own native country? I say that to get you thinking—are you bringing something special here to Japan (besides being a foreigner)? If you’re an art director or designer, Japanese design and craft is world class so you’ll have to be better than them. If you are a writer, you need to understand the language and culture to be able to generate ideas for a Japanese audience. It’s a tough market for people from outside, however, YOU my friend have huge weapon in this market and that’s thinking outside of their system. Your fresh eyes to see things here the way Japanese creatives might not see them is what makes you unique. And have no fear of making mistakes, that’s also an attribute seen rarely here. After all, working in Japan will be a commitment. You’ll have to learn the language, culture and the system and only then can bring your unique perspective that a Japanese creative never could.
What it takes to make it here will vary depending on what you are bringing to the table. Years of experience, international experience, skill level, language ability, personality, adaptability, the list goes on and on—but even as you read through some of the advice above, you'll probably notice some key factors that keep popping up. These four points below, in my opinion, are crucial to making your Tokyo dream come true.
- Be committed. Anyone that wants to work here can make it happen, I mean anyone. If you’re just curious and not serious don’t waste everyone’s time because there are a ton of hungry creatives out there trying to make their way.
- Be in Tokyo. Being present here in person to meet people and make connections is huge for this market. So use some of that vacation time you’ve been saving up and get back out here.
- Be unique. Make sure your self branding is on point and be clear of what your specialties are. In the creative industry, being a foreigner (gaijin) isn't an attribute, it's just a part of who you are. You still have to bring something to the table creatively here that your competition can't, otherwise the balance of the things you can and can't do in this country will never even out. No one should run away from the fact that they are a foreigner but it should never be the number one selling point.
- Learn the language. I think this is the one all foreigners dread. Don’t panic though, there are different ways everyone can manage this. As a creative, knowing the language won’t make or break you because your main skill is of course your creative ability. It will however eventually limit or expand your opportunities here. Getting to the point where you are fluent is a huge commitment and this is obviously not necessary for everyone. Starting to study and learning the basics though will help you adapt to Japanese culture faster and most importantly being able to say “I’m studying” when you go into interviews makes a huge difference in how they perceive you.
So what are you waiting for? Start sending all these guys your portfolio links, or better yet, get serious.