This week, I got a chance to catch up with my old friend and coworker from when I worked as an in-house marketing consultant at Philip Morris Japan (PMJ). Anirudh Devulapalli's career in Japan as a foreigner is a success story for those aspiring to make it in the professional world. Watch the video to see how he went from not really knowing anything about Japan, to working in a major foreign company in Tokyo and forging a life in Japan over 6 years.
Maybe give a quick introduction of yourself?
Sure, so my name is Anirudh Devulapalli. My friends call me Ani because it’s easier to say. I’m from India, I’m 32 years old. I’ve been in Japan for 6 years now. I came here to get my MBA from Hitotsubashi Institute of International Corporate Strategy and then I joined Philip Morris Japan straight after graduating in 2016 and I’ve been with them ever since.
What brought you to Japan in the first place? Was it through Japanese language study, or was it just a good job opportunity that you saw?
For me, the story is a bit interesting. I used to be in the States. I went in 2008 and I was there until 2012. I did not know anything about Japan then, but then I had a community of friends who were Asian and a lot of Japanese people in the group as well. So in 2012 when I decided to go back to India, I took a month off and I traveled a bit. I did a small tour around Asia, and Japan was part of the tour, but then after that I went back home – didn’t think too much about it. I was working for a couple of years but I wasn’t really satisfied, you know, with what I was doing. I wanted to challenge, once again, to move abroad and find a job, right? But, as you know it’s not very easy to just pack up your bag and say, “I’ll move abroad,” so I had to find a purpose and one of the ways was getting an MBA.
It’s always good to scale up, and I wanted to do it at a place where I could pay for my own schooling out of my savings, rather than get a loan or have debt. As you know, MBAs are expensive! Especially in North America and Europe, so I decided to look at Asia as an option. I was primarily focusing on Singapore, but I got onto a forum where I was researching some schools in Asia, and the university I finally decided to go to was on there. I did a bit of research, found out that it’s a fairly small school run by a lot of Harvard grads with a LOT of scholarships. They take only about 55 students a year and 40 of them get scholarships, so it was a good option. The course was in English, so all the more comfortable, so I decided to go. Haven’t looked back since!
So would you consider yourself fluent in Japanese? Obviously you started in Japan in English, but now you’ve been here for 6 years – has that gotten a lot better for you?
Well, I can comfortably say that I can do business in Japanese… But “fluency” in Japan[ese] isn’t something that you can really use until you’ve been here for about 15 or so years, primarily because Japan is a very high context society as opposed to the US or the UK or Canada where you're a straight shooter there's no beating around the bush. In Japan there's a lot of nuances to communication, so you can’t truly master that unless you've been in several different situations and made mistakes. Then you learn the right way of handling or the right things to say. So even if you consider yourself to have the vocabulary I wouldn't really say you're an efficient communicator here until you've mastered the art of high context communication. So I think I would put it differently; I would separate “fluency” and “efficient communicator” – especially when you're in Asia.
That's a good way of breaking it down. I found the same thing where you can run a meeting or you can run a presentation, but are you going to go and have a really deep conversation in year 2, year 3 or 4? Probably not.
Even in meetings one thing you realize is that you can use perfect Japanese to present what your idea is or what your findings are, but your message doesn't get across or you don't necessarily agree on something. You know, there's a layer beneath there – a couple layers beneath the surface – or what you're supposed to pick up from your Japanese clientele.
Sure, you see the nods around the table thinking, “this is great, they're all getting it there with me,” but then we part ways and that was the end of it. There's no more business.
We've experienced it together, having worked together at Philip Morris. With some of the senior people you're saying something and they seem interested but at the end of the day nothing moves because you didn't actually tap into and try and understand where they're coming from or what they actually wanted. So yeah, it's very different.
So you really came out this whole thing from a different pathway than most people approach it, where you weren't really studying Japanese before you came to Japan. You saw the business opportunity, the career opportunity, in Japan for yourself and then you're like, “OK well I'm here so I'm going to study Japanese and get good at this.” Is that that kind of how it happened for you?
When I found out that I was admitted to my university and I had made the decision to actually go to my university, I spent about a month trying to learn Japanese because you need at least a little bit to get by – to open your bank accounts, get a phone, all of that. So I did that bit for a month before coming and then when I moved I knew a bit of Japanese. And I mean it's not just about anywhere you go you need you need to assimilate into the local culture if you want to become successful or if you want to have a comfortable life. So I knew i had to learn Japanese because I didn't make a move to Japan to do my MBA for two years and then go back right? So that wasn't an option for me. So yes I did enroll into a class and luckily for me my university was offering business Japanese, so I took that as part of the curriculum for two years.
But the other thing for me is what really helped me: you can learn it from books and learning in the classroom, but unless you use it, you don't know. I mean it's like any other skill – like programming – unless you keep to it you're not gonna master it. I've not mastered it yet but I am in a comfortable position now.
One thing that did help me was I lived in a sharehouse for four years. It's like a hostel basically; you get a room and then you share the floor with a lot of other people and use common areas like the kitchen, the living room, the common shared space etc. So that's where I really polished my Japanese because even in Japan anywhere you go you don't want to be an uptight person speaking only the business language. You need to break the ice so the share house is where I was able to pick up a lot of Japanese.
I did the same thing when I was a student. I was in a sharehouse for a year and [there were] lots of people from different countries even, but your shared language is always Japanese.
So your Japanese at work right now – do you operate mostly in English or mostly in Japanese? Do you have a lot of meetings in both languages?
The team I'm in right now it's like 50/50. However the senior people on the team – the director and the senior managers – are all non-Japanese, so you our primary language is English. But one of the big projects I'm doing right now is I'm working with the sales team to develop a business intelligence analytical dashboard for them, and in Japan you need to be a master of the language. To deal with these [salesmen], most of them are Japanese so to deal with these people, you need Japanese. So that part of my project is still allowing me to use the language.
That's awesome. Totally off topic but I'm also working on building a BI dashboard right now and it's... I've taken on the project in like year 3 or something and it's this thing that's going up and down. “It's going down the toilet! Oh it's back to life!” Building a BI dashboard sounds really simple, but it is not!
Specifically, what are you doing at your job right now?
I'm no longer with Marketing. I mean, you could label it as “corporate strategy” but honestly I'm doing about 5% corporate 95% market strategy so I work with the senior management too a lot on the short-term / mid-term strategy and ensure that we are moving in that direction. One of the big things right now we're doing with this COVID situation, is we have to pivot and refocus our efforts in areas that can actually still function and then reprioritize things that are not working. But with that comes a lot of complexity in terms of “how does that impact the business? How does that impact your budget? How does that impact your resources?” etc so that kind of balancing work...I'm trying to facilitate with the senior management. Obviously the decision makers are in senior management, but a lot of my work involves working with individual functions: trying to understand the problems they are facing and try and identify directions they can go in and then align at the senior management level and get direction on that.
Oh! So, it’s easy, you know, “just a normal day at the office” (haha)
I'll be honest it's a lot easier than people who actually have to execute that stuff, so…
Sounds like it's right up your alley based on our previous work together.
I don't know if it's right up my alley but, it's interesting work! So yeah, not complaining.
How long have you been with Philip Morris at this point?
I'll be finishing four years this October.
So coming to Japan as a foreigner, Philip Morris can obviously hire anybody they want to – you know this huge company, well known – they can get the best talent from anywhere. How did you manage to get into a job like Philip Morris?
So for me, right when I was looking in Japan, especially for a foreigner... I'll go on a tangent a bit because I think to get a job here you can broadly put what is available into four to five categories.
One, I would say, is the jobs where the government is bringing you into deliver special skills. It could be English teaching, or being an ambassador with foreign companies, so that's one. The other one, is obviously I'm in, is M&C (marketing & consulting) with a global presence. The third one is a typical Japanese company which I think is the most difficult out of them all. The fourth will probably be a boutique firm set up by people who have a lot of experience abroad and then they want to bring in special services that they think there's a there's a vacancy here like that thing that Cairo and Sam are doing right now. The fifth option is, if you're lucky, it's a start-up that's run by a young Japanese person in Japan.
Again, the startup environment is not as aggressive as it is in the west. It's I would call “low key,” but it's picking up. It's picking up slowly... So those are the five routes I could see people coming from outside can get into. Family businesses and small/medium businesses, they're very difficult.
Yeah you're not going to come over and be like a hairdresser.
(Haha) no no no... So for me I think I took the M&C route after having tried internships at traditional Japanese companies like Dentsu the advertising giant, then at a small scale ethnography company, market research company.
I got those internships from my university and Ii got offers from them, but I decided not to take those primarily because of a lack of confidence at that time in my Japanese ability and a lack of confidence in my ability to cope with a traditional Japanese environment. I was still on the lookout for other options at bigger firms or bigger companies with a bigger international presence within their resource employee base and luckily I found out about Philip Morris through an alumni member of my university.
At that time Philip Morris was hiring MBA grads to join a program called the “Sales and Marketing Training Program” where you would come in learn the business, and then you would be on a management path. So I took a shot at it – the first time we did it, it didn't go well but I took another shot at it after a few months and then I got the offer. The terms were very good as well, and it was an opportunity to learn how business is done in Japan but in an environment where you still have a bit of control. I decided to take it.
Is this the type of work where you think being a foreigner is an advantage or it's a type of disadvantage for you?
You could you could you can look at it both ways. There are advantages and there are disadvantages. The advantages of being a foreigner with work experience overseas is that with companies in Japan that are trying to diversify their employee pool, you want people that come in with different perspectives and throw a wrench in the typical way of thinking and working. That obviously plays an advantage where you can come in and offer your viewpoint and way of looking at things that they don't normally see. The disadvantage is that being an employee from abroad, you are constantly required to prove yourself more than the local Japanese. You have to spend a lot of time polishing your skills learning new skills and you're competing not against the Japanese employee, because they're secure. You're competing against the other foreign employees, so it's a rat race.
I think in a lot of ways you're lucky that the company you’re at is accepting of those types of things. Like, “change things up,” “throw a wrench in things.” Being vocal in Philip Morris is not a bad thing. Being aggressive at the table, from what I've seen, that's always been kind of a virtue there for employees, which is great.
That's true – it's very good. I mean, you can get your voice across. You can get your message across by taking a very non-Japanese approach is what I'm gonna say. You can see it all across Asia but Japan is super super high context, so it's definitely an advantage. But also the caveat to that is there's a lot of friction between people, and then being such a big organization, you have to be able to maneuver through situations and it's very political.
Very “meritocracy” – like you need to say your piece and own it and then deliver on it.
The thing is at a company where it's so diverse, it is not a bad thing but... Diversity isn't always a good thing in the sense that people from a certain country don't necessarily know how to manage people from every other country. So that's the downside of diversity that a lot of HR people don't realize! You're not going to get the best out of your employees until you understand contextually where they're coming from.
I didn't realize this myself until I read this book by Erin Meyer called “ The Culture Map”. In that book she gives so many examples and then I realize, “OK, actually you know what? I've experienced the same things A) as an employee and B) as a manager myself, so it's very different but the thing here is with this being in such a big organization, you need to be aggressive. But sometimes people over promise. There's a risk of over promising and not being able to deliver. It’s either because you don't have the resources or maybe because contextually the people in your team don't get the message.
What's the biggest faux pas that you think you've made at your company?
I think one of the things you need to be careful of, in Japan especially, is being overly aggressive because I've experienced it myself, and I'm watching other people go through the same thing right now. Coming from outside, we have this tendency to be aggressive or we have this – I wouldn't call it a chip on our shoulder – but we have to prove ourselves here right? As non Japanese we have to prove ourselves here and one way a lot of people tend to approach that is by being aggressive, proactive – super aggressive right? But what they don't get is by being super aggressive, yes, you're projecting an image of “yes I'm willing to do this! I'm going to take the challenge!”
But the way you go about it needs to be planned out and careful, because with over aggression there's also an expectation that you will fail right and then the message is, “OK I told you! I thought so. I thought that would happen right?” Now they won't say it. And I wouldn't say this is just a Japanese, having been here for four years now. If I look at somebody who comes in with that aggression and I look at him and say, “OK you know what, I'm gonna tell you take it down a notch but then look – let's see what happens.”
You tend to become that way yourself having gone through that. So confidence is a good thing but definitely being overly aggressive to the point where you come in [looking like a] know-it-all and come across like this, or the message that comes across is, “OK I know” or “I know better than you… you don't know anything. Let me tell you what to do that's not how you [do it]”
It almost seems immature in Japan to come across that way.
Yeah, yeah. Like if you've been there, done it, you know that you can stand back and kind of let it run a little bit. You don't need to be so fast right? “I think it's going to happen. We’ll get there, but it's gotta be a cohesive decision like we get there at the same time.” It's not as if the people who've been here don't know, it's just that they tried to do it and they know the difficulties in their approach.
Another big thing that I think everybody who wants to try and work in Japan needs to know is that you need to understand the genba (現場). Genba is a word they use in Japanese to define the floor where all the action happens. If you don't understand the action – if you're just looking or if you don't understand the floor where the action is happening – and you look at things from above and think you know everything, it's not going to sit well because there is so much complexity. And this is not just in Japan, it’s true everywhere.
You need to understand what’s happening at the ground level because your problems are not going to be super huge problems that will help you get mega gains. Sometimes the problems are tiny minute problems at the floor that you don't realize sitting above, and then when it's brought up because [Japanese employees] have been trained to bring up small problems, you know it's all incremental gains and development. If you don't take those seriously –if you brush those aside, then you're setting yourself up for tough times because then you're creating friction with the people on the floor and they are the people who actually get the job done.
I didn't think of it from that perspective!
Earlier when I was talking about the typical Japanese company, the way they work is that independence. It’s very interesting in the US you hire a lot of specialists, or in the west you stay in one “lane.” They're trying to hire specialists. But in Japan when you're young they don't do that. When you first join the company they rotate you like you're general. If you're going to be in sales, you will be in HR.
One of the big things is you work on the floor. You understand how the operation works. You understand your customers, etc. and then you move up so late. That's a very unique thing I've observed in Japan and that's why I think they get the complexity of business and why things don't move at a very radical pace.
So if you come here and you there are some companies that, you know, they're looking for specialists, even those companies when I say, “they're looking for specialists,” the truth is they're looking for somebody to come in for two years, fill the gap, and then move on.
Tough it out here for a long time and grow and then become a senior manager, director, or CEO one day. Because that's the nature of things here. They place a lot of value on people who've gone through the “floor,” through the ranks, because they understand the business inside out.
Absolutely. That was even true at Hitachi. It was slightly different paths whether you were an outside hire (like you had started somewhere else and then came in mid-career) or if you were there from day one. You were just at a higher level immediately if you'd been there from day one. This was kind of perplexing but I came to understand it later on, especially in the traditional corporate Japanese companies you don't switch jobs. It's just not done. Well, it's changing a little bit now but…
Let's just kind of switch over to some kind of high level life in Japan stuff. So I guess you’ve been in Japan now for six years, you’re married, your wife is Japanese. Would you consider Japan home for you guys now?
It’s definitely home away from home! At least I'd say half my family is here – my wife's side of the family, they’re all here. My family's back in India so I would call India home because I grew up there, but Japan is – I would definitely call it a second home.
That’s awesome. You feel comfortable and settled and you can see yourself here for a long time?
I can actually see myself here for a fairly long time because other than the damn earthquakes there's nothing that frightening! Nice country.
I enjoyed living in Japan. It was nice except for the humidity I found, but being from India that’s probably less of a concern for you.
Yeah, weather wise I've adjusted well here because I think about – you get the five seasons properly. You get winter, you get spring, you get monsoons, you get summer, and then you get the autumn right. Also you're not stuck in sweltering heat as you would be in India or freezing cold like in the northern part of Canada right, so yeah it's good. It's comfortable.
What are some challenges you think non-Japanese face when they're starting to live in Japan?
The stupidest thing I've experienced is opening a bank account. You need a phone number to open a bank account, but you need a bank account to get a phone number. So then without either of those you can’t register your address, you can't do anything!
It's almost like it's almost like they never planned the system for non-Japanese!
I mean having been here for six years, little things, they're not as challenging anymore right now so it's uh finding it hard to come up with examples but one big challenge is going to the hospital. yeah it's a huge challenge because the doctors, they don't necessarily speak English and if you're not able to explain to them what the problem is you're not going to get a proper diagnosis. Japanese have a tendency to take medication for everything.
You have a fever, you get a medication. They're very rigid when it comes to taking medication to keep their health right, so with that rigidity if you're not able to explain what your ailment is in a very easy to understand way, then you're probably not going to get the best results. I've experienced that because I popped a ligament in my knee playing a soccer. I couldn't explain what was wrong to the doctor so they took a scan and because of all the the internal bleeding they couldn’t diagnose what was wrong. I couldn't explain what was wrong, so they just brushed it off as, you know, just a bit of internal bleeding – it'll be fine in two weeks! But it was actually three months to heal!
No matter how good your Japanese is, there are situations where they would still try and speak in broken English to you.
Oh all the time! I was on the phone one time. I was making a reservation at a restaurant and part way through my reservation I've been doing in Japanese with the guy, he just flipped into perfect English. I was like, “how did you know?! That was that was pretty assumptive of you to decide that I was an English speaker, but OK you're not wrong…”
If this video is to help your viewers who are interested in moving to Japan get all the information they need, one thing I would stress is don't ever get in trouble with the police here! There are cases where you are on the street you get bumped by a drunk Japanese person, and the fault is yours.
Even if they ask you to apologize too, and the fault is not there, just apologize and get out of that situation because the legal system is not kind. That is one big thing I still don't like about this country is the legal system, but if you stay out of trouble then you have nothing to worry about.
Another thing is etiquette. Etiquette – you need to follow Japanese train etiquette.
Yeah like if you're on the train and nobody else is talking there's a reason they're not talking.
Exactly! I mean we had recently, six months ago, we had the Rugby World Cup which is a good thing. And you could see there was a lot of uproar when establishments in Shinjuku started refusing entry to foreigners right? But you need to understand why they started doing that with all the drunken boisterous and rowdy people there.
There are people, they caught this on camera, people going down the back alleys of Golden Gai, shutting off the gas or shutting off the water of establishments.
Right? Pissing on the door to the bar, fighting outside... There were people on the train just bothering other passengers by trying to play rugby in the train. So it was just disrespectful.