Overseas Returnees Face Variety of Obstacles


After two years, Chihiro Suematsu returned to Japan from California's Stanford University, girded with a master's degree in business management that had been sponsored by his Japanese company. But, back on the job, he found himself immersed once again in routine work that consumed 80 percent of his time, while the remaining 20 percent was spent futilely attempting to put what he had learned at Stanford into practice.

Like many overseas returnees, Suematsu faced a chasm in understanding of just how he could appropriately and effectively use his training while easing back into the rigid, hierarchal Japanese business structure.

"I wanted the challenge of work," he explained. "But challenge means risk and change, and Japanese employees, especially middle management, don't want either. They want to protect their positions."

Disillusioned, Suematsu quit the security of lifelong employment 15 months later at the age of 30 to join an American business consultancy firm. Now, he says, he is directly utilizing the knowledge and skills that had been financially underscored by his parent Japanese company - and earning a higher salary as well, enabling him to obtain his own apartment and enjoy his financial independence.

Suematsu's situation is not uncommon in present-day Japan.


Helping returnees overcome "re-entry" difficulties is a growing problem that Japanese companies still must hurdle in order to satisfy their financial investment, reap the rewards of their human resource cultivation and prevent a siphoning of capable, ambitious employees by Japan-based foreign companies keen to snap up motivated and trained local staff and willing to give them freer rein and higher salaries.

But the traditional Japanese social philosophy of hammering down "the nail that sticks out," plus the rarity of overseas pay incentives and home leave benefits are making overseas assignments less alluring as a career stepping stone. Developing effective business experts capable of dealing with Western competitors demands a commitment that, ironically, many Japanese companies themselves are unwilling to accept when confronted with their returnees' "Westernized" behavior.

Foreign Ministry figures place 472,000 Japanese living overseas for longer than three months, a mere .04 percent of the 119.5 million population of a nation that ranks as one of the top industrialized, though not internationalized, world powers.


Abroad, they battle the reputation of being "economic animals," while back in Japan, faced with silent accusations of having become "too Westernized," they must confront coworkers' jealousy, drop in status, loss of personal and Japanese business contacts and delayed promotions.

Such disadvantages, however, must be individually balanced against the rewards of enjoying higher living standards and a highlighted understanding of varied international issues and viewpoints.
"It's easy for me to obtain business information from highranking U.S. experts, and to arrange for visiting Japanese officials to be hosted in the U.S.," explained 41-year-old T. Kagawa (who asked that his given name not be used), a 16year employee and staff advisor for a large Japanese company, who lived four years in Washington, D.C.

Some assignees work even longer hours than in Japan. As his company's first U.S. representative, Kagawa's first responsibility was to locate real estate property as a company investment. He collected competitor information, solicited business, coordinated visitor schedules and activities, and attended numerous obligatory social functions.

When he returned to Japan, he underwent "reverse culture shock," he said. His family moved in with his in-laws after living in a 600-sq.-meter house in Washington, D.C. ; he commuted to work one hour each way on a packed train compared with an eight-minute drive in the U.S. in his American car, and he found himself the subject of office envy, particularly because of his direct access to top management.

The ability to weather the reentry storm depends on such factors as place of assignment (less developed countries pose greater difficulties for returnees cut off from up-to-date information), length of time abroad (long-timers suffer more Japanese culture shocks than short-timers) and depth of exposure to foreign culture (some Japanese live and associate as much as possible with other Japanese).

Older returnees with many years invested in a career, a higher position, and a family to support exert a conscious effort to avoid confrontations with coworkers.

"One colleague who had lived abroad advised me not to show my overseas photographs around," related Mamoru Shibuya, a 34-year old research engineer. "He said it would probably make others jealous."


Some returnees frustratedly find themselves back in their original positions, while others are compensated with titular promotions with increased responsibilities but no accompanying financial reward.

"Returning to one's own department is also not always possible," explained Takeo Takahashi of Canon, Inc., "due to rapid changes in product lines and business conditions."

Such changes leave many returnees scrambling to catch up. During Kagawa's four-year absence, economic conditions had not only restructured and reduced his company, but forced others to reorganize so that former acquaintances were replaced with successors who were unfamiliar with him.

The ability to endure the long promotion process depends on a returnee's ambitions. With the promise of an overseas job promotion within 10 to 15 years, 30year-old Aki Tamura, director of legal affairs in the Maritime Safety Agency, whom the ministry paid to study at Cornell University in the U.S. for two years, is focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel. "In the end I'll be able to use my contacts," says Tamura.

But for Suematsu, the slow, laborious climb up the Japanese ladder of success involves too much time for too little reward.

"The Japanese tenure system is too rigid to change," he explained. "In it, no matter how incompetent a person is, that system keeps him his job. But in a Western company, it's either up or out."

"After many years, my personal contacts will have risen up their own corporate ladders," predicted Shibuya, "so my knowledge now is being reserved for future use."

© Kathryn Brockman      “…to the ends of the earth…”