Tokyo: An Interview with HR Generalist Max Korpinen

Max Korpinen is a Finnish Human Resource Generalist currently working at a Virtual Reality hardware startup in Tokyo, Japan. Wearing many hats in his position, his focus in his current role includes  domestic and international recruitment, employee engagement, and improving company culture. You can find Max on Twitter at @MaxKorpinen and on Linkedin at Max Korpinen.

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How Max Ended Up in Tokyo
Life in a Japanese Company
Max’s Current Role
Recruiting Talent to Japan
Max’s Transition to Living in Japan
Japanese Culture He Will Take With Him
Everyday Life in Japan
Is Speaking Japanese Required?
How Often Max Talks to Family
Advice for Those Seeking Employment Abroad


How does a guy from Finland find himself in Tokyo, Japan?

My father has been doing business in Japan for over 10 years, so I have had a chance to meet his colleagues since I was little. I slowly got interested in Japanese culture and then a few years ago I had a long summer holiday from university so I decided to see what it would be like to live here. I spent 6 months here learning Japanese and realized I really enjoyed living here and decided I wanted to come back and try to work here full-time.

Also, in university I studied organizational psychology and organizational development and workplace characteristics that are related to workplace motivation and employee experience. I am really interested in the cultural differences between Japan and Finland, the unique challenge that being Finnish in a Japanese workplace poses.

And what is it like to work in a Japanese company?

The first cultural shock was that I had to get used to the long hours. In Finland, some companies are experimenting with six hour workdays and the focus is your productivity during those six hours. You know, you come to work well rested, do your work and work hard, and then go home and enjoy your social life.

But in Tokyo, you have to be in the workplace as long as possible. It is fine if you sleep on your desk, that is fine, but you need to be there long enough that you don’t have any time left with your family, and it has a dark side to it. But on the other hand, when it is structured like that, you have to make the workplace enjoyable because you spend so much time there, so it forces HR people to be a little creative in figuring out how to achieve that.

Being a startup, as far as recruiting goes, we are really just looking for talent. For me it is very simple: find people who are smart and fit our organizational culture.

There is also a difference how people define “success.” For example, in Finland you are considered successful if you are happy and have a healthy work life balance, but in Japan you are considered successful mostly if you advance in your career, especially if you are advancing through a big company.

Also, the Finnish and Japanese mindset in the workplace is very different; the Finnish are very individual-centric and Japanese are very team-oriented. By living here, it gives me a chance to see these different approaches first-hand and gain a little different perspective on how different workplaces function and what it is like to work in a very different environment from what I would experience at home.

What is your current role at your company?

So right now I am an HR Generalist in a Virtual Reality Hardware Startup called FOVE. Especially in small companies like ours, the HR Generalist is often the only HR person in the company. I am mainly doing recruiting and some organization development projects such as strengthening organizational culture, looking at employee job satisfaction, introducing new employees to the company, and then also doing marketing activities from the point of view of employer branding. So trying to create an image of the company online so that the right type of people will find our company and want to apply. But, in a startup, everyone does everything, so I have also helped our technical people with testing software and stuff like that.

When you talk about recruiting, are you talking about recruiting internationally or just in Japan?

At the moment we have an office in Tokyo as well as Silicon Valley. Right now about half our employees are Japanese because our headquarters is in Tokyo, but we also have Indians, Americans, Australians, and foreigners who have been living in Japan for a while. Being a startup, as far as recruiting goes, we are really just looking for talent. For me it is very simple: find people who are smart and fit our organizational culture. Especially at startups, where the roles of each job are not clearly defined, smart people are more likely to adopt to new tasks and learn faster than others. And then as far as organizational culture, it is just identifying your company’s values and motivations and finding people who share them. If you can find people who fit the intelligence and culture requirements, I can be confident they will stay motivated longer and can adapt easily to the fast pace of a tech startup.

I would add that the government in Japan has a program with the goal of increasing the number of foreigners working in Tokyo because of their aging workforce.



I would add that the government in Japan has a program with the goal of increasing the number of foreigners working in Tokyo because of their aging workforce, so they are trying to bring in more man power by offering various support programs for companies who recruit from abroad, making it reasonably easy to come to Japan and work as a foreigner.

How was your transition process from Finland to living in Japan full-time?

Actually working here full-time took some time to get used to for sure. But again, everyone who has a flexible personality and everyone who is interested in different cultures will manage living abroad just fine. I think that is all it is; I am really curious about how living in Japan can change my life, so forcing myself to adapt and try a new way of living and working, that is enjoyable for me simple by satisfying my own curiosity. It is also just a fun experience for seeing how it feels to work in a society so different from my own. And it does help if you really love the culture. I have always been a Japan fan and I speak the language which makes it a lot easier.

Are there any aspect of the Japanese work or living culture that you would take back to Finland?

Yeah. Even in Finnish companies that call themselves “team oriented,” I don’t really think of them as team oriented after my experience in Japan. Here, the responsibility is really shared between everyone and everyone stays in the office until the tasks that need to be done are done. And there is an intense sense of community in the office and I feel like that is really unique when compared to other western companies where it is all about Me-Me-Me, and everyone tries to outdo or get ahead of each other. In Japan, it is far less individualistic. And I think that is something we can learn from.

I find that meeting people abroad, especially other Finnish people, after one beer you are close friends just because there is that sense that you are spending time with a little slice of home so in that way it is easy to bond.

And how is your everyday life? You are a young Finnish guy in the middle of Tokyo, what is that like?

I think Tokyo is one of the greatest cities on earth. The city really feels alive and there is always something to do; there is always something going on somewhere Tokyo. Tokyo has several big city center areas and there is always a concert or event going on so you can never really be bored.

As far as during the work week after office hours, it is really common to spend your time going out drinking or eating with your colleagues because there isn’t much time to see other people on weekdays. On the weekends I usually spend time with non-work friends or relax by myself and recover from the the long week. But there is a ton of nightlife and there is a lot of beautiful nature near Tokyo so day trips are a nice way to get away.

I find that meeting people abroad, especially other Finnish people, after one beer you are close friends just because there is that sense that you are spending time with a little slice of home so in that way it is easy to bond. There are Facebook groups for foreigners that organize meetups and certain bars that are popular with foreigners, so it isn’t too difficult meeting other expats.

You speak Japanese, I am curious if you think that speaking Japanese would be required if you move to Tokyo to work and just living day to day?

Japanese learn English in school, but that they don’t necessarily have a ton of practice speaking, so knowing Japanese really helps. Younger University students speak good English and the people with foreign experience speak good English, but other than that they are very reluctant to speak English, so they open up on a totally different level when you speak Japanese with them, so speaking the language certainly opens door here.

And how often do you go home and visit family?

I will go home about twice year, but my family has a Whatsapp group….and honestly when you are in your home country you always feel like you can so easily go see your family whenever you want, you don’t end up ever actually seeing them. But here, I am always chatting with them, sending back pictures, Skyping every second week, I think because I know it isn’t as easy as driving across town.

Do you have any advice for helping someone figuring out if they are the type of person who would handle being abroad well?

One good indicator is what your past experiences have been. If you have been backpacking or have spent some time abroad and you found it enjoyable, I think that experience is substantial enough to be a reliable indicator of how much you would enjoy living abroad full-time. I think past experience is a good indicator for future experience, so that should be a good gauge for you.

                 

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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.