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An Expat Life in Japan Since The Tsunami - With Brian Salsberg of McKinsey and Company

April 18, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 131

Behind every book is a life, or lives, as is the case of the business title "Reimagining Japan." Actually many lives, over 80 in total, including the editors that brought the book to life and published, during one of the most challenging eras in recent Japanese history.

When the earthquake reached Tokyo on the afternoon of March 11, Brian Salsberg was busily transmitting the final manuscript of Reimagining to an overseas printer. That wouldn't be the last time the disaster and Salsberg's book would cross paths. As news of trouble at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima began to develop, and the crisis deepened, Salsberg and his team agreed on a comprehensive revision and the results paid off. A book born in an hour of crisis was suddenly the book that many readers sought for answers.

Salsberg, not unlike the collection of essays he edited a year ago, has a natural gift for bringing Japan into sharp focus. A graduate of Cornell and Harvard Law School, Salsberg switched gears from corporate law practice to management consulting, and is the lead for McKinsey's Consumer & Shopper Insights center. And in his last five years, he has also accumulated insights into Japan, some of which he shared with AsianTalks.

AsianTalks: Brian, you're currently based at the Tokyo office of McKinsey. Tell us how you got there.

Brian: I started in our New York and New Jersey offices, where I was doing a range of different, interesting projects. In New Jersey I found myself doing more pharmaceutical and consumer products. Then I moved to Japan after having been with the firm for six or seven years.

And given the number of years you've worked at McKinsey, is it safe to assume you enjoy consulting far more than corporate law practice?

Brian: I do, I do. It takes a very long time as an attorney to really get involved in the strategy, and decision-making. As a young attorney you are called in after the big decisions have been made, to effectively put in writing the major terms of the deal, the transaction, whereas in consulting even as a young consultant you are front and center right from Day One.

I'm still at McKinsey because I love learning new things, helping individual executives achieve their goals, and I get to work with a really smart bunch of pretty diverse people, which makes coming to work fun and exciting every day.

Was it a difficult decision to move to Japan in 2007? How did you feel about relocating your family?

Brian: Yeah you know it's funny. So McKinsey really encourages young partners to move away from their home office, because it's really the way the firm sort of leverages our best practices around the world.

I wasn't even thinking about it, but after I became a partner in 2006, they always take the new partner somewhere as a bit of a celebration, and also begin to explain some of the things we need to know as leaders of this firm. And it happened in that year that was in Bangkok and Cambodia. We had just had our second child, but we heard some really compelling speakers talk about the benefits of moving abroad, so that really led to a process of thinking through where to go. We looked at London, Shanghai and Tokyo, and having looked at all three, we fell in love with Tokyo, just as a place to live and raise a family. Two months later, we found ourselves here.

As a parent, what has it been like raising children abroad?

Brian: It's been a fantastic experience. The biggest trade-off they've had to make is being apart from their family. That's been difficult, even in the age of Skype and FaceTime. But the benefits have been pretty extraordinary. My daughter's five so she grew up literally her whole life here, my son is eight, so they don't know anything different, but it's been fantastic for a bunch of reasons.

They understand Asia, they know where all the countries are, they've been to all these countries. I joke with my son - that he's been to so many more countries than I have by the time he is eight, it took me until 38 to get there. And they've been everywhere, so that experience has been great. And even though they go to the American school, there's a very diverse group of students there. If I look at their close friends, it's a bit like the United Nations, which has also been great.

Also learning a different language and a different culture at that young age - even if they don't retain all of it - has been terrific and you can even tell it in their accents. The way that they speak Japanese is much more native. So it's been just a fantastic experience, and one that we've never really regretted at all.

Let's talk about Japan. Would you say Japan is different from the rest of Asia?

Brian: From my observation, I absolutely believe differences exist. It's not to say that all Japanese believe they are superior to others. However I do think in sort of everything that they do, there is at minimum a very deep pride.

If you look at the quality of living, the appreciation for sophisticated foods, products, and others, the politeness, the cleanliness, the respect for the elders, nature, all those things you hear about Japan are 100 percent true. You see that every day. And as a foreigner here you get the benefits of all that.

Secondly, I wouldn't call it xenophobia, but certainly if you look at the Japanese stance towards immigration and letting others in here - I mean Japan is still one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. I think only 2 percent of Japan is non-Japanese. All these things end up being reinforcing, and on top of that, this is an island nation, which speaks a unique language amongst its people that nobody else speaks. And so when you add all of that together it's not surprising some of these themes persist.

Has the expat community in Tokyo changed since the earthquake?

Brian: There was absolutely - and the facts support this - a very large exodus after March 11, 2011. A big percentage of people did not come back. It also served a little bit as an impetus for people who had been here for quite a long time, to also use that as bit of a reason to finally pick up and leave.

And you can see this in the attendance of the schools. There was an article about the German school really struggling so much that they were thinking about asking the German government for support.

The foreign clubs and some of the foreign restaurants have closed. As far as where they went it's a combination of going back to their home country and seeking shelter in places like Hong Kong and Singapore, which are two of the most popular expat havens. And you can actually see getting into school for foreigners in those locations has become more difficult since the earthquake as well.

And what are your plans for the coming future?

Brian: My personal situation is it's tough - because we love Japan and probably the only thing we don't love about Japan is the aftershocks and tremors that have persisted, even over one year later, which could be quite nerve-wracking.

Nevertheless I think it's fair to say that if you look at all the places in Asia where an expat can live - coming from a person who's quite biased - I do think Japan would win hands down, and Singapore, Hong Kong are probably a very close second, but it's still tough to leave here.

When you visit the United States from Japan, have you ever felt a sense of contrast between the two countries? For example, do you at times find stateside facilities lacking?

Brian: Oh absolutely. The example I use is the airport system. If you look at Haneda Airport, or for that matter Hong Kong, Singapore, the new Beijing airport, these are world-class, best-in-class airports across the board in every dimension.

Then you fly in as an American to JFK Airport in New York or Newark Airport in New Jersey, and you feel like you are in a third world, developing country with crumbling infrastructure, long lines, and terrible customer service.

That's a very strange feeling, to feel that way, and it's a very strange feeling when you come back and land in Japan, and you see half a dozen workers dressed in their perfect uniforms bowing to the plane at 6 o'clock in the morning, and people smiling, welcoming you, the politeness. And you think, "Wow. I'm happy I'm home." It is a very strange feeling having been out this many years.

What has your food experiences in Asia been, are there any that would make us a little envious?

Brian: As far as food in Asia goes, food experiences here have been very fascinating, and I think it would make others cringe a bit, especially if they haven't had a chance to try this, but when you're with a bunch of Japanese execs, after a bit of sake they're all convincing you that some of the best parts of the fish are the fish testis, and the fish eyes, you actually somehow are convinced to try it. So I've had both of those things and they are delicacies here. I have even had a chance to try Fugu, the blowfish, that if the chef doesn't cut out the right part, it would kill you.

So I would say you definitely get a bit adventuresome here. But that being said the cuisine in Japan is the best in the world, and it's not just Japanese food that we're necessarily talking about here. In that sense if you like food, there's really no better place to be than Tokyo.

Elizabeth Shim joined as editor-blogger in 2011. AsianTalks' mission is to inspire our readers to discover the transformative potential of living, working, and thriving in the Asia-Pacific region. Created to fill an information void for forward thinkers about living and working in a cross-cultural environment, the blog places equal emphasis on the challenges and rewards of globalization. Visit our blog and subscribe to our newsletter today!

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