Toxic workplaces and bosses in Japan

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and I think I finally have enough distance from the situation to do so. I mentioned briefly in this post how bad things had gotten at my last job (which I quit in November 2015 after working there a year and 9 months). I really don’t even know where to begin chronicling those experiences. They’re all so bad.

Basically, when I started working at this company, I was absolutely thrilled. It seemed like the best place in the world. I was working AT A GAME COMPANY, ON GAMES, and I was translating every day. The other people on my team seemed nice (operative word: seemed) and I had an incredibly charismatic team leader that I quickly developed a gigantic crush on (I mentioned him in the other post). I loved going to work every day and seeing him.

That fun time lasted… about 5-6 months. When I first started, I had been trained by the other full-time translator on my team, a really sweet fellow American girl. Everyone on our team was Japanese, and they adored her. After 5 months, she dropped the bomb that she was quitting to work freelance for our company, and had been planning to do so for a long time now. I was upset because I didn’t feel like she had taught me enough yet, and I was going to miss her a lot. I had tried to emulate her example in everything I did, but there were some things she was just naturally better at (like gently explaining her translation decisions to the Japanese staff members who had an intermediate knowledge of English but not enough to fully grasp our native-level translations, so they would question them) and that I struggled with. I was worried about her leaving.

At the same time, I found out that we supposedly had another team leader for this team who had been out on maternity leave since before I started but who was coming back at the end of the summer, and she and my other team leader were going to rule together, essentially. Also, the manager for the team who oversaw everything was also quitting, and until they found a replacement for him, an even higher-up manager was going to be overseeing our team part-time.

A lot of changes. This is pretty standard for this industry…

Anyway, I was optimistic about everything because it had all been so great up until that point, but that was basically the beginning of the end. The woman who came back from maternity leave turned out to be pure evil. I sensed this immediately, and only now has everyone else on my old team realized that she is a terrible manager. She is 90% of the reason I quit, and at least three other people have quit because of her as well since then. I’m sure many more want to quit but don’t have the opportunity yet.

Why is she so bad? Well, at one of our first morning meetings that we did every day that she attended, we were going around the circle saying our plans for the day. There were two levels of employees in our team, assistants and full members. Only the members say their plans, that’s how it’s been forever. So the assistants were silent and she said “Why aren’t the assistants saying their plans?” and she was told because they don’t, and she immediately said “Why not?”

I mean… that sort of aggression is just really surprising, especially from a Japanese woman. I thought she would spend her first couple weeks here observing, adjusting, and only then start making changes. Nope. She wanted to make changes from day 1, without even observing how things were working first. I had been working with my main team leader to hire a very skilled individual freelance proofreader, and had gotten pretty far in the plans, but once she got there that plan was completely canceled because she didn’t want proofreading to be done by freelancers. It was incredibly frustrating. She also canceled or slowly phased out other improvements I had been working on with him (namely, getting the Japanese team to be better about letting the translators check completed images, because often there would be typos because the images had been made by Japanese designers. But the Japanese team considered that a waste of time and balked at adding the extra checking step).

I met with her several times and talked with her about my frustrations and about what I wanted. She seemed to listen, but would then do whatever she wanted to do anyway.

One of the things she instituted that I absolutely hated was the rates for our freelance translators. Namely, she lowered them to cut costs. And our rates were already low by industry standards. I thought this was such a slap in the face to our hardworking freelancers. So before she changed this, the rates were 2.8 yen/character (lowest) to 4.5 yen/character (highest). Even 4.5 is just barely the low end of industry standard, but it’s pretty good, especially considering the amount of characters in these stories. You can easily make thousands of dollars a month. The only people getting the 4.5 rate were the girls who had quit the company to go freelance, and they were acknowledged to be our best translators. There was nothing wrong with the quality of their work. Well, she decided that the new maximum would be 4 yen/character, so these two were going to have their rates lowered to that. Unbelievable. I still don’t abide by this at all. They work so hard and this is the thanks they get?? And then she lowered the lowest rate to 2.3 yen/character, which is abysmally low. Part of my job was to find and audition new freelancers, but after she did that I couldn’t get anyone to agree to work for that. And the people that WOULD work for that were terrible! (By and large. Fortunately, there were exceptions, but then I would just feel bad for those people for working for so little!) And trying to get good translators raises was absolutely impossible. It was so frustrating and I hated feeling like we were deceiving people. I really disliked that part of the job.

Then a replacement translator for the team was hired. It was my friend Ry I had known since I first moved to Japan to work; I had recommended him and he had gotten the job. Everyone was thrilled. It should have been great, but… it quickly became obvious that everyone preferred him to me. I mean, I get it. They’re all Japanese women, and of course they’re going to prefer a white gay guy to a white woman. I see it. But it still stung, because I was really trying my absolute hardest, but it was like nothing I did was going to be good enough.

The problems were also compounded by another girl on the team who decided she didn’t like me. She had initially been hired to do planning work, but it was too stressful for her and she wanted to do something else. I had been pushing that we do our proofreading in-house (by me) and stop using this terrible third-party company we had been using up until that point, so they seized on that and decided to make her the official in-house proofreader and have me train her, because I had lots of proofreading experience. So I did, or tried to, but it was soon obvious that she didn’t have the right skill set, or shall we say English knowledge. She’s a returnee who’s lived abroad many many years, went to international school, and can speak English at a native level fluency, but that’s not enough to be a good proofreader. You also need to be a good reader and have a wide vocabulary and knowledge of idioms. She didn’t have that knowledge and would mark things as wrong that weren’t wrong; she just hadn’t understood the idiom. I tried really hard to work with her and recommended a number of things she could do to improve (like start reading a lot more books in English; she said she didn’t have time) but she wasn’t improving at all.

I talked to several higher-ups on the team about it, and told my new team leader when she came back about the situation, but almost everyone felt more sympathetic towards her than me. I wasn’t being harsh, like “You need to fire her, she’s terrible,” I was just frankly expressing my concerns. I think that got back to her and she developed a bitterness towards me. She’s very prideful about her English ability, and she didn’t like that I was implying it needs any work.

I think the reason the higher-ups didn’t care is a part of Japanese work culture, which is not about matching people’s abilities to their jobs. It’s about taking the stance that everyone has the same basic skill set, no more or no less, no one’s more talented than anyone else, and from that point on it’s all up to your hard work to determine how you’ll excel. So it doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t have the right skill set for a certain type of job; if they just work hard enough at it, they’ll be able to do it eventually, and until then we should support them and be patient.

As an American, I find this philosophy complete CRAP. The most qualified person for a job based on talent and experience should be hired for it. Jobs shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all type thing where you hire people for departments, not specific positions on that team. But in Japan they love to shuffle people around every few years, moving people (especially people hired right after graduation) from the game development team to the PR team to the marketing team and so on. It’s ludicrous. If you want the best product, put the people best suited to it on that team–not just ANYONE and tell them if they work hard enough they can do it. What if they have no interest in that type of work and they quit? What if they’re not good at it and the product suffers? I just do not understand Japan on this one.

Anyway, so naturally, this girl took to my friend, the new translator, right from the start. So for the translators’ team it was me, him, and her. And she hated me, and wouldn’t speak to me unless she absolutely had to (she went to crazy lengths never to speak to me, like waiting until I’d left my desk for a minute to put a souvenir gift she was handing out to everyone on it so she wouldn’t have to speak to me, or chatting it up with everyone else as she delivered souvenirs and then saying one perfunctory word to me and moving off immediately. It was so obvious and childish!). But she loved him and always went to him for help, even if I was the better person to ask. And then there was my new team leader, who was quickly (too quickly–they had planned it all along) promoted to manager to replace the one who had quit over the summer, and once she became manager of the whole department things just went completely to hell. That was in January of last year, and I spent the entire time from then until November when I could finally quit being more or less absolutely miserable. It felt like everyone on the team was only barely tolerating me, even though I was putting out an extremely high-quality output of work every day and working very hard, and I spent several lunchtimes crying in the bathroom. It wasn’t a good time, at all.

I also had several long conversations with this manager in which I cried. It wasn’t pretty. Almost every time we went behind closed doors to have what ended up being a 1-2 hour conversation, I started crying. And it didn’t phase her at all. I think it made her think of me as weak. She told me I needed to be more 冷静 (calm, unemotional). She said this as she was doing the exact things that were making me emotional, like not listening to me when I said I couldn’t handle all the work she was giving me and not letting me negotiate my deadlines at all. Basically, another member would decide my deadlines and the amount of work I would do, and I couldn’t change it at all. If I tried to say “Actually, that’s going to overload my week, can we adjust it?” they would act like I was the most irresponsible, unprofessional person in the world. It made for a lot of really awkward translation team meetings where the girl who hated me would just sit there smugly. I found out later that she also asked to have her workload adjusted, and it was granted no questions asked. It was reduced to the point that she is now barely doing any work, and working at a snail’s pace with noticeable mistakes when she does, and the other team members are having to pick up the slack. Yet when I asked, I was treated with the ultimate contempt. I was told that I have 40 hours of overwork included in my pay, and if I haven’t used them up, then I can’t ask to have deadlines or workload adjusted. When I told the amount of characters I was translating per week to my future coworkers at my interview for my current job, they couldn’t believe how much I had been doing. But I never had a choice. I was forced to do it and I was not allowed to say no or they made me feel terrible. I tried so hard to please them so they wouldn’t make me feel like that, to just shut up and say yes and do what they said, but it didn’t help. She just found a new angle to criticize me from. Nothing I did was good enough.

I made a lot of mistakes, definitely. I spoke too critically to Japanese members of the team about how they were letting English typos and mistakes slip through the cracks on in-game images, which quickly incurred their wrath. I stupidly contacted a fan on Tumblr anonymously but said I was an employee of my company (my manager found out and was livid. That was the day she lost complete trust in me). I didn’t turn in a couple translations on time (though I had warned them I wasn’t going to because it was more work than I realized it would be), although I made every deadline since that point because they warned me so harshly after that. I went to a celebratory party held the night of a day I had called in sick (though I only sipped ginger ale, and just went because I really wanted to celebrate the woman whose honor it was being held for), and was warned not once but twice that I shouldn’t have done that. I was also told off once for using my internet browser to access 8tracks so I could listen to music to focus on my work (because that’s using company resources for something not work related. Ridiculous!).

But I did so many things right and just wasn’t appreciated for it. I actually cared about the games and the characters and just wanted to make a good product. I caught so many English mistakes and turned in good, accurate translations that fans liked. I came up with a lot of new systems and ways to improve workflow and the team (well, I had to–one thing about this job was that we all had to make a presentation every month, one PowerPoint slide, and give a 60-second presentation on it in front of the group. In Japanese, of course. I hated that). My first six-month performance review, with my first manager, went really well. My first team leader loved me, and still thinks I’m great. It was only when my manager took over that my reputation started to really suffer, though my work hadn’t changed at all. Also, because I was translating for games that members of our San Francisco team were in charge of, sometimes they would look over my translations too, and because they’re extremely picky, they had a lot of critical comments, which they shared with my manager and she took them as bible truth, barely letting me defend myself, and certainly not believing anything I said to defend my translations. None of the other translators were subject to that; if they were, they would have been criticized too, I know it. But because it was just me, that only made me appear more incompetent to her. (I stand by my translations. They were great, and accurate, and true to the feel of those games.)

But at my last performance review, right before I quit, my manager told me that because the sales goal for the game I proofread the texts for hadn’t been met, she was going to reduce my salary. I wasn’t in charge of sales. I had nothing to do with sales. All I did was catch every English mistake I possibly could in the scripts. That was the extent of my power. And yet, because the sales goal hadn’t been met, she was going to punish me. It was so petty. I wanted to quit right then, but I had to wait a few more days.

Then when I did quit, my manager and another woman whispered and gossiped about where I was going next, and if it was our rival company, that wasn’t legal and they could sue me. Actually, no, they couldn’t. I specifically asked HR when they gave me 50,000 yen as a sort of non-compete bribe when I quit if it was okay if I went to a rival game company. They said it was, as long as I didn’t spread specific information I’d acquired at this company. I just can’t believe my manager was all too ready to try to harm me, after she’d made me miserable in the first place and had to have known it.

And I could point fingers at other members of my team and say what I did was no worse than what they did (one girl regularly yelled, actually YELLED at another member). But I do want to take responsibility for my mistakes. I just think my manager was never sympathetic enough towards me. I was basically the first person hired for this department to translate full-time. The girls that had been there before me had both started as game planners and had transitioned to translating more and more. I’ve also realized since leaving this company that the whole company environment there is very toxic and cliquey. Everyone seems to have their own agenda, and if you fit into it they’re nice to you and invite you to things, and if you don’t they completely ignore you (and you have to see their posts on social media about hanging out with just each other, the Japanese girls only group). Looking back I realize how snobby and cliqueish the Japanese girls on my team, and others, were.

It’s not to say I didn’t make good friends there, including with Japanese girls in my department and in others. I did. But it wasn’t enough when the majority of them didn’t seem to like me at all or respect my hard work.

It’s been very hard for me to separate out how much of what happened was me, and how much was them. But now that I’m in a new environment which is so, SO much less toxic, where people are actually friendly and seem to mean it, where my coworkers actually like me and think I do a good job, and where I seem poised for promotion in the next several months, I’m realizing it has to be largely them. (I should also mention that my last team was primarily Japanese, and the Japanese people’s opinions were the ones that counted–even though it was the English localization team. At my new company, it’s the exact same industry but the English localization team is actually made up primarily of, you know, English speakers. So the majority of my coworkers are Americans, plus one super cool returnee Japanese guy and one Korean girl who’s also amazingly chill. It definitely makes a huge difference in the work environment, but even in the all-Japanese teams at my new company, which I work pretty closely with as well, I see that difference in the environment too. It was just so toxic there, and it’s really and truly friendly here.) Not shockingly, other people have quit because of this manager too, and Ry says everyone on the team hates her and wants out now. Yeah, I can’t say I’m surprised at all. I’m just glad I’m out. I took a week to attempt to unwind in Bali after I ended up quitting earlier than expected because I couldn’t take her a second longer (giving up my December bonus of about $5,000 to do so). That’s a story for another post…

Fortunately, Ry and I’s friendship didn’t suffer at all as a result of the team turning on me but adoring him (my manager loves him so much she even promoted him–if I’d stayed he would have been my boss!), and we still get together for lunch at least once a month, and drinks on the weekends sometimes too, and trade gossip. As for my old team leader I had a crush on, we talk on LINE every once in a while and I got to see him last month for lunch while he was back in Japan briefly.

There are some issues with my new job, specifically one very high maintenance person, but overall it’s really, really good. I also don’t do translation full-time anymore; I’m doing more general localized game planning type work. It’s really fun and every day is different and interesting. My coworkers are almost all otaku nerds and we giggle about silly fandom stuff every day. We are also all super into the Japanese boy idol game Ensemble Stars and we discuss it every day. It’s like when I would go in to high school to join my friends before class every morning, I love it.

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7 thoughts on “Toxic workplaces and bosses in Japan

  1. Olivia says:

    Ahh I wish I could fly down to Tokyo and hug you! I had no idea things were so bad at work for you but I’m so glad that you have moved on and are in a better environment. A friend of mind posted something on FB about some 80% of people leave their jobs because of bosses and poor work environments and I found it eye opening. Every time I’ve wanted to quit a job it was because there was someone above me who made my work life miserable. And when I was in an environment I felt appreciated, I loved the job despite how tired or mundane it became!

    It really makes all the difference. I can’t wait to get out of the environment I’m in now, but I’m also past the point of caring, I just want my last few paychecks and wish the next person better luck than me.

    The environment with an unrelenting female boss reminds me Amélie Nothomb’s experience in Fear and Trembling. I do think her reaction was a little nuttier and I’m not her biggest fan, but at least her novels are quick to read and have relatable points!

    Not that you want to be reminded of that, I’m sure. I want to Line you later~ I wish I wasn’t such a flake when it comes to reaching out, I apologize, being less of a flake has been a hard task for me. But reading your posts always reminds me how much I like you and want to be on your side lol! I really wish I was closer by.

  2. Charlotte Steggz says:

    I’m so sorry this happened to you. I have had a similar experience – I too worked in the games industry (Big N) and while it was tricky at times, I really enjoyed it there. I did, however, work in a really terrible big Japanese company that was so toxic I lasted just 2 months there.

    Your new company sounds amazing! I have family duties here, but in the future I’d really like to go back to Japan. I’d love to get back into the gaming industry, and reading about you getting annoyed at the Japanese-translated graphic mistakes made me chuckle. I have had more than a few of those experiences!

    Stay strong. Keep your eye on the prize!

    • seira says:

      Yes! I know you worked at Big N in Germany. The irony is that I’m contemplating working at Big N in Washington in the U.S. next (I know someone there), but not sure if the same bureaucracy issues will plague me. I would advise against returning to Japan, but it’s really up to you and what you want. For me, I just think my life is not going to be able to progress here (career-wise, and dating-wise).

      (Again, sorry for the late reply!!! I need to do something about my inbox!!)

  3. Charlotte Steggz says:

    No worries at all. Big N in Washington (Treehouse, right?) doesn’t pay as well as the European group. They also translate differently (or at least used to) – J- Eng done deftly by a Japanese person then a non-Japanese speaking person take the rough translation and turn it into good English. If you were interested in working in Germany, I could ask around.

    • seira says:

      Oooh, I see. (Yeah, Treehouse.) I’m not interested in working in Germany though – I mean, I might be, but I also know someone who’s there now, and I don’t really want to work with her. I don’t think her Japanese is really translator quality good, so I’m not sure what it says that they hired her. (And also, I don’t want to learn German… which I’d feel like I should if I lived there.)

      Hopefully I have other options at U.S. game companies! What I do also doesn’t have to be just translation. Right now I’m doing more game planning work, with some translation thrown in (I think the job titles for it in English are things like “associate producer”), so I’d be interested in that as well.

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