Alumna Judit Varga in Tokyo: Navigating the Business Landscape in Japan

Judit Varga Tokyo bay
Judit Varga, an experienced finance professional at Takeda Pharmaceuticals International, shares her experiences in Tokyo. She graduated from the Rochester-Bern EMBA in 2020 and is now taking the next step in her career by immersing herself in the cultural intricacies of Japanese life and business.

Takeda supports lifelong learning and as part of continuous talent development, employees can apply for short-term assignments to experience other areas of the business, to develop skills and to facilitate global and cultural exchange. Judit Varga did not miss this opportunity and applied for a commercial assignment abroad. She is now spending four months in Tokyo working in the Japan Pharma Business Unit at Takeda´s Global Headquarters. In this article, she shares her experiences of Japanese culture and business.

The Language Barrier

People at Takeda in Japan speak good English, and in case of a few meetings happening in Japanese, Varga is using technology to translate. Daily life is, however, more challenging in terms of language. Communication in shops and restaurants is mainly through translation apps. Restaurant menus are rarely available in English.  “Luckily I love trying out any kind food, and Japan has an amazing and diverse food culture. I just order something and let myself be surprised,” says Varga. “The limited communication in English is overcompensated by the unbelievable kindness of the people.”

“In terms of signposting, Japan has come a long way in recent years. Nowadays, subway and train station signs are labelled in most places in English as opposed to some years ago. Public transport in Japan is excellent: Tokyo has an incredibly complex network of 13 different metro lines and several railway lines. Once you understand the system, it is very efficient and easy to travel around here” says Varga.

Working is possible everywhere

Japanese are famous for their dedication to work.

“I was shocked to see express office booths at every major subway stop. These are extremely small office boxes with a table and chair and wifi connection to allow you to work” says Varga.

Ikigai

Ikigai is a Japanese concept of referring to something that gives us a sense of purpose. “This concept is very much used in quality conversations, to discuss career aspirations and belonging to the company.” – says Varga.

Nemawashi – Prealign Carefully

In Japan, meetings and changes are prepared very carefully. This culture of thoughtful preparation has a name: Nemawashi – an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project by talking to the people concerned and gathering support and feedback before a formal announcement. “People here are very keen to do a good job and prepare everything perfectly. It is a sign of respect,” says Varga.

“Pre-alignment meetings are very typical to build consensus with the decision-making team members prior to a formal meeting to achieve a good conclusion in the actual meeting. As we learned at my class’ field trip to Korea, Japanese business is based on consensus-based decision making.”

Thankfulness and Appreciation and Respect

Thankfulness, appreciation, and respect are very highly valued in Japan. This can be seen in small gestures. Bowing, for example, plays an important role. “The security guard at the Takeda building and the shop assistants greet everyone with a 45-degree bow,” says Varga. “Japanese people are extremely politely challenging each other as opposed to more direct way of communication in Western culture. This politeness is shown even on a crowded metro in rush hours: people are politely, gently pushing each other to be able to get in the metro. This would not work in any other society!”

Lining

For most foreigners initially it is shocking to see the discipline of people lining up politely for subway, train, and restaurants. Everything is beautifully signed to facilitate the queuing.

Loyalty to your company

In line with Japanese business culture, hierarchy and seniority are very respected in traditional Japanese companies and many people stay with a company for decades. “Loyalty to the company is more common here than in Switzerland,” says Varga.

Insights from the Rochester-Bern EMBA Program

Judit Varga’s preparation for Japan was augmented by the Rochester-Bern EMBA program. The continuing education offered cultural insights during a week in Korea. Furthermore, cultural management classes of the EMBA Program emphasized the significance of establishing relationships, hierarchy, and seniority in Japanese business culture. She also benefits from the network she built up during her studies. One of her former classmates is currently in Tokyo, and Varga has just met him last week to share her experiences with him.

In conclusion, Judit Varga’s Tokyo journey unfolds as a compelling tale of cultural immersion and professional growth. For those considering Japan, she encourages embracing the wonderful country, relishing the landscape, fantastic food, and the warmth of its people.