By Stephen Morse, president, Boston Scientific Japan
September 15, 2021
Relocating to Japan has been quite the experience. Despite growing up in a globally connected place like New York City, and traveling extensively for work, my four years living and working in Japan have challenged and energized me.
My passport has more stamps than most, so comparatively, I might seem more “global”—but I’m still unmistakably American. Working in Japan has expanded my knowledge about business, people, and myself. These lessons did not come easy, and I’m thankful for the patience and support of the Japan team and my colleagues from around the world. While I have gained a lot, I realize I still have much to learn.
Learning to Swim
The glossy overview of culture behind the windows of western hotels, driving in pre-arranged taxis, and eating at carefully curated restaurants provides a cultural snapshot, but it does not provide true global insight. I’ve learned the most from being immersed in the challenges of everyday life, like figuring out how the air conditioner works in a budget hotel when everything is in kanji, crowding onto the infamous Yamanote train line on a Friday night in searing mid-August heat, or facilitating multi-lingual strategic planning sessions across time zones – it’s almost like you need to drown in all of it before you learn how to swim.
On top of these little everyday trials, working in a different culture can make you constantly second guess your choice of words and body language. Thankfully, I received great advice from my predecessor that I have since shared with others: “the best thing to do is be genuine because that’s something people can see and respect across all cultures.” I remember that every time I feel out of place.
Respect for Culture
In the U.S., there are people from all cultures, and that mix can seem quite ordinary. In Japan, foreigners—like me—stick out much more. Fortunately, I have found that most locals are not only tolerant, but sometimes even fascinated by my presence. While there’s traditionally a distance between strangers in Japanese culture, I have felt welcomed and accepted by coworkers, shopkeepers and customers alike. I’m always surprised that the effort I put into learning the local language, culture, food and history seems to boost the national pride of my new friends, much more than my meager abilities merit. Their hospitality makes me wish I could go back and coach my younger know-it-all self, when I first became a “global” product manager, to just slow down and listen more.
Appreciation for Home
The familiarity and convenience of life in the U.S. is easy to take for granted, and my family and I miss it every day. I only wish the U.S. was as orderly, polite and clean as I have found Japan to be. And those planning a visit to Japan will be happy to know the pizza in Tokyo is world-class, and you can still find a good burger. You might even be shocked to learn that Tokyo has twice as many Michelin star restaurants as Paris—sorry, France! On the flip side, we’ve found that our favorite brands of everyday items like toothpaste are often triple the cost of U.S. prices.
As a foreigner, I can't always decipher the very particular Japanese processes and protocols required to get something done. For example, my driver's test in Japan wasn't focused on technical skill. Instead, I was tested on my ability to learn the driving exam choreography to the satisfaction of my examiner—all in Japanese, of course. Early on, I often found myself questioning why certain things were done or said differently than the ways I was used to. I learned to “walk in another person’s shoes” to better understand local perspectives and behaviors, and—once I understood how the Japanese culture shaped their processes and protocols, it was easier to embrace the unfamiliar.
I remember returning to our Tokyo apartment after a long flight back to Japan (pre-COVID 19), and I asked my daughter which place felt most like home, our house in Minnesota, or our apartment here in Tokyo? Her answer: both. While she is undoubtedly a Minnesotan, I was so relieved that her heart was here with us. Years from now, memories of Japan will be like a favorite movie that we never tire of seeing. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity my family and I have been given. The journey has grown me as a leader, and it has made us closer as a family.