By: Jonathan Heit
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
During the planning stages of my relocation to Tokyo to be more readily available to support the team here in APAC, I had some of the usual concerns any foreigner headed to unfamiliar territory might experience. Will the language barrier be too difficult? How will my family adjust? How will the business and team back in The States fare?
Then there were the more trivial concerns. These included depriving my daughter of walking her eighth grade graduation with her friends and my six-year-old missing a year of tee-ball and the start of Kindergarten. Recognizing the benefit far outweighed such matters, off we went.
The kids’ school year started and quickly got into their grooves without a hitch. We made friends within a thriving expat community, and I deepened ties with colleagues from Shanghai to Sydney, Seoul to Singapore. I got to know my new officemates in Japan in a way that would otherwise never be possible and also experienced this incredible country through their eyes. True to the reputation of the Japanese culture, their generosity of spirit and welcoming nature knows no bounds.
As the holidays neared and Tokyo’s autumn foliage gave way to a crisp winter chill, we were charmed by the many beautiful illuminations lining Tokyo’s streets and planned a trip that was sure to be one of the most memorable of our lives, including skiing in Hokkaido and ringing in the New Year in Thailand. We’d travel from the capital to the mountainside to the beach over the course of an extended break.
We would finish in Singapore, where I had been spending a good deal of time working closely with colleagues. While there, my family could see this office, one of the most stunning in the Allison+Partners network with views across Marina Bay from the 38th floor. In this way, they could relate more directly to the responsibilities that so often call me away for long stretches of time. These special moments far outweighed any bittersweet feelings brought on by missing home for the holidays.
As Chinese New Year loomed, my travel to Singapore and other markets in the region was due to pick up thanks to a combination of key hires made and our annual in-person town halls. These would be a chance to highlight the incredible strides we have made in the region. All offices were thriving and poised for growth, despite some underlying economic issues and geopolitical cross-currents.
However, everything would soon change. In January, we started to get word of a new virus impacting large numbers of people in China. And it wasn’t long before our offices there were effectively shut down with entire teams working from home indefinitely.
As the virus started to gain traction and spread decisively across the region, schools in Japan were among the first to shut down. Tokyo was a city on the brink. Numbers seemed absurdly low, skeptics thinking perhaps this had something to do with the Olympics. It wouldn’t be long until those too were put on ice, with the world officially in a pandemic.
Watching my home country from afar, while bolted at home under what would paradoxically be called a voluntary lockdown, was perhaps one of the most bizarre experiences of my life. We enjoyed Zoom trivia sessions with our newly made Brit and Aussie expat pals and did family and college reunions 13 hours ahead. Like everyone, we made do and soldiered on, working and schooling remotely in our cozy Tokyo apartment. Of course, I worried for the safety of my family here and abroad, but I had to scratch my head at some of the behaviors I was witnessing.
In Japan, the concept of Wa (和) is one of the first any foreigner or gaikokoujin (外国人, far more polite than the better known but pejorative Gaijin) doing business in Japan should become familiar with, or any visitor for that matter. It is a historical foundation for this storied people and one of the bases of the Shinto religion. It is the belief that everything should stay in balance. Your behavior must take into account others before yourself, and consensus is far preferable to individual opinion.
For Westerners, this can be one of the most complicated – and honestly frustrating – parts of doing business here, as it can lead to perceived “inefficiencies” in the system because consensus can be time-consuming. Witnessing it put to effect in containment of the novel coronavirus, I’m here to tell you there are incredible advantages to this way of thinking.
While many countries, including my own, politicized or downplayed the importance of wearing masks, Japan embraced the concept fully in the spirit of maintaining harmony and looking after each other’s well-being. Japan’s history of mask wearing dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868). But before the pandemic, it was an oddity to most expats. My family and I were certainly surprised to learn the primary consideration for mask-wearing isn’t about keeping yourself safe, but for the wellness of others. It goes without saying this effort has led to Japan being a clear leader in containment.
The other somewhat-related business concept that took root so effectively in Japan is known as kūki o yomu (空気を読む) or “reading the air.” This is ordinarily the driving factor behind so much being unspoken in Japanese culture. Applied here, it made the determination of “return to work” dictated not so much by the government, but by a sense among the broader business community of doing right by others.
Interestingly, Japan’s Constitution, formulated after World War II under the oversight of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, does not permit the government to mandate decisions for business. This was designed to effectively eliminate the ability to provide for a war effort. But it more immediately limits its ability to force businesses, including restaurants and other entertainment venues, to shut down.
The government declared a State of Emergency in early April. But it did not enforce it punitively or with severe fines as in other countries throughout this region. Instead it enforced it through the subtle suggestions coupled with the risk for those who didn’t comply to lose face, as they might be publicly disclosed. However, the government is rethinking this policy as cases start to rise again in an unsettling second wave.
This harmonic effort of companies understanding their obligation and providing for their people a safe way of working has again led to significant success in the effort to contain the virus, and was a great learning for me and other expats across this nation.
The entire experience was incredible and humbling. Even with a pocket of nearly four months of quarantine slowly loosening and opening, there were some powerful moments. I’ll always have indelible memories of jogging and biking through nearly empty Tokyo streets and seeing more of the city in a way we never would have previously been able. Unimpeded pictures of cherry blossoms and shrines were saddled with the sad reality that money was being lost and businesses around the world were struggling so mightily, not to mention the human toll.
So like the rest of the world, we took on our share of the burden. Working from home, Zoom calls, VPNs. Pitches and media meetings done remotely. Technology – the cornerstone of my focus throughout my career – was put to the test as never before and stepped up most pointedly as one would hope.
Technology could only do so much though, I’m afraid. My visits to the other markets in the region all became virtual, making my reason for being in this region somewhat obsolete, driving my ultimate decision to return.
As I look back on my experience as an expat during the pandemic, it is more than a little bittersweet. Though the last few weeks allowed for greater travel around Japan, including the rare opportunity to visit Kyoto with nearly no other foreign travelers in town, it is hard to put into words what this experience has meant, and how I hope travel picks up again soon so these experiences can be shared with others.
I have spent the past nine months learning Japanese, only to be quarantined in a house with three people who speak only English. But as we re-emerge into the world, I’m no longer intimidated by the many different characters of the Japanese written language. If I see a wall of letters that just a year ago would have been indecipherable to me, the fact that I can often make out a word or two, or at the very least can sound out what they represent, is a source of great pride.
I firmly believe the legacy you leave is the impact you have on people, and that’s been a driving force for our agency since day one. I can’t say any more unequivocally how deeply blessed I feel to have worked with the team here so closely. I have built a lifelong relationship with this team and this country, but I’ve only just scratched the surface.
Jonathan Heit is a global president and co-founder of Allison+Partners. As part of his responsibility, he works closely with all of our offices and client in APAC. Last August, he relocated to Tokyo to be closer and more accessible to the teams in the region. COVID-19 had other plans.