What’s it like to work in Japan?


Cogswell College Digital Art and Animation graduate, Chelsey Shuder (class of 2007) offers her insight into what it’s like to work in Japan.

1. Company name, your job title, a brief description of your job responsibilities and how long you have worked there.

Company name: OLM Digital Inc.
Job title: CG Animator (Designer)
Job responsibilities: Animation of 3D components for feature 2D animated films, from mob extras to giant evil robots. To date, I have been working here for 7 months.

2. What prompted you to work outside the U.S.?
Honestly I was willing to go wherever the job took me. It’s a blast and a challenge that my first job happened to be in the Japanese animation industry.

3. What was the process to find and apply for this job?
Where I first approached OLM Digital was at the 2008 LA SIGGRAPH. I gave them my reel and applied for their CG Artist (Designer) position in person at their job fair booth. I was told that if they liked the reel they would want to interview me before the end of the convention. The important thing was that I followed up with them the next day. Following up showed that I was serious about wanting this job and as such they gave me an interview.

It didn’t hurt that I had previously studied the language and was at least able to introduce myself in Japanese when I first approached the company. Now, can I speak the language fluently yet? No, but regardless, I think that was a big factor that helped me get this job. I was willing to learn and adapt to their ways and I showed that in my interview. It also helped that I was a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki.

4. Can you give an example of what you might do on a ‘typical’ day?
Get to the office, great my coworkers with “Ohayougozaimasu,” read the company emails (or translate them via the internet), set to work on my current shot checking the time sheet, blocking, double check with the 2D materials, continue animating, then go to the afternoon check, ask the PAs a few questions, get back to my shot and continue working, take a break for dinner, then come back and continue working unless there is a meeting.

5. What challenges do you face working in a foreign country?
The language. Currently I’m taking evening classes to help continue my study of Japanese but it’s the number one challenge with living here. It makes it harder to just chat with my coworkers or even make friends readily.

6. What was the most difficult part of making the transition? The most rewarding?
Well the most difficult physically was all the “butterfly net quests” I had in the beginning, like getting my apartment, residence card and phone. Mentally it was difficult to leave my family and friends behind knowing we are not only separated by a huge ocean but a vast time difference as well. There was also a time period of adjustment that wasn’t easy and one can easily feel on edge with a different culture and environment. I remember whenever I walked outside I would always have that huge reminder that I was a stranger in a foreign land. Nowadays everything feels like the norm, from the kanji to the crazy Japanese punk kids.

And I think that leads to the most rewarding aspect of the transition: The fact that I have adjusted to life here in Japan, more or less.

7. What legal requirements did you have to meet in order to work in Japan?
Firstly, to not be a criminal to the Japanese government. I’m pretty sure I was clear there but the Japanese embassy still had to do the background check. One has to obtain a work visa and it helps to have a company sponsoring you. If you don’t, the process is a lot harder. One also has to have their passport as a part of the process to getting the work visa. You cannot work here on a student visa.

8. What do you enjoy most about living outside the U.S.?
I think the challenge in itself is rewarding, and exploring what Japan has to offer (when I have the time). Oh, and getting the latest Ghibli films right away.

9. If you have also worked in this industry in the U.S., is there a difference in the workplace environment?
While I can’t say I was a feature film animator back in the U.S., my prior work experience in the media industry in the U.S. definitely differed from here. The major difference is the long hours. Granted the industry works long hours no matter where one is but Japan is just a little more insanely longer. Sometimes there just simply is a lot of work to do. Other times the Japanese community mentality is the culprit and people will stay longer just because their coworkers are. Where in the West going home on time is seen as a good thing, in the East going home on time is just not something one does, and certainly not encouraged.

The structure of how the pipeline works is a little different too, though that is slowly changing here. There are some key phrases that are different but it’s not hard to adjust to what means what (most of the industry terms are still in English but they might use one term to mean something different. For example, they call us CG aritsts “Designers”).

And there’s no such thing as cubicles or offices here. I work elbow to elbow with my peers operating from a small open desk, and the producer only sits a few rows in front of me owning a slightly, but only slightly, larger open desk.

There is also a sense of family one has with their company in Japan. Never in the U.S. would a producer help me install a washer and dryer (unless I was a close friend or family or something). In Japan, that’s a different case. Bosses help their employees as best they can and that sometimes includes things outside of the job. In return they expect their employees to work hard and be loyal to the company. It makes the long hours not so bad when you can feel close to the people you work with and know they’ve got your back when you need the help.

10. What advice would you offer someone who would like to work in Japan?
Study the language. Even if you can’t speak fluently, knowing the structure and some key phrases helps a lot. Also, be prepared for the different working environment. Even during non-crunch time it’s a 6 day work week.

11. Other comments?
There are quite a few companies in the industry here that do hire foreigners and most of them use English as a second language. Polygon Pictures is one such place as well as OLM, so working in Japan is not so far-fetched. Just be prepared that if you love Mexican food as much as I do, you will have to pine for it and wonder why it hasn’t become as popular as Indian food here in Japan.

-Bonnie Phelps, Dean of Institutional Advancement

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