Indian IT boom in Japan continues
The first time Asmat Mohamado heard about Japan was when he was in primary school in India. Back then, he did not know where exactly in the world the nation was located, though he did know that Japan was the country where the sun was said to rise, or more accurately, the land of the rising sun.
“The only imagery I had of Japan at the time were some pictures of the country, typically national symbols such as Mt Fuji, kimono and so on,” he said.
Ajay K Singh went through most of his childhood in India without knowing anything about Japan, but that would change in adulthood when he would be interviewed for a position by a Japanese client. “I didn’t know much about Japan in terms of work life when I was interviewed, but had a rough idea of what Japan was as a country,” he said.
Singh’s opportunity to move to and work in Japan’s IT industry came in 2001 through an Indian staffing company that was looking to recruit someone to work at a Japanese IT infrastructure provider. “I was keen to take on the job and relocation to Japan as a challenge,” he said.
For Mohamado, traveling to and working in Japan became a possibility while he was studying electronic engineering in India.
“In addition to looking at the significant developments going on in the electronics fields, I was also keenly interested in the global impact of electronic products that were ‘made in Japan,’” he said. “My overall impression of Japan at that time was that it was the home of electronics.”
Mohamado says he initially intended to move to either the UK or U.S. for higher education, but that changed once he started to explore other options available to him in Asia.
“I found that Japanese universities were also providing some of their courses in English, which was a very rare thing during the ‘90s compared to what is available today,” he said.
When Mohamado came to Japan to study his Masters in Electronics and Computer Engineering at the Nagoya Institute of Technology, he was immediately overwhelmed by the language barrier. “I was not able to communicate with anyone and this was frustrating in the beginning.”
While Mohamado says living in a country with reliable public transportation was nice, as well as having a comfortable apartment with all the latest “made in Japan” electronics that he was such a fan of, there was still one stumbling block to his initial stay. “It took me a while to get used to fact that people ate raw fish in Japan,” he explained. “I came from a country where all the food is cooked or grilled.”
In addition to sharing Mohamado’s concerns about the language and food, Singh was unsure what life would be like in Japanese society. “I was initially concerned about living in country that happened to have a conservative approach towards the outside world,” he said.
Mohmado and Singh are not the only Indians to have made the jump to Japan for work, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recording 16,988 Indians living in the country in December 2005. From that number, an estimated 10,000 Indians, or two thirds, were working in the IT sector.
With numbers such as these, it has prompted some people to comment that the tech industry in Japan is in the midst of an Indian IT boom, potentially fueled by growing IT infrastructure needs due to increased digitization of all facets of modern Japanese society and business.
Mohamado, who is now a sales director for the cloud computing business of a leading company, acknowledges that the last few years have brought a lot of Indian IT talent to Japan, but he says the genesis of the moment can be traced back even further than merely a few years.
“The Indian IT industry started to hit off around 1993, and even then they were trying to expand by approaching off-shore markets and outsourcing offers,” he said.
Singh, who now works in IT infrastructure and service management at a financial institution, said the boom is not as significant as people make it seem.
“The Japanese government is trying to change its policy in regards to this, but I currently think it is not enough,” he said.
Beaumont Group Japan Technology Practice Partner Mike Armstrong, who specializes in hiring of IT professionals, paints a more sobering picture of the IT economy in Japan, which he admits has had its fair share of ups and downs the past 10 years.
“I think it’s the same for Indian IT professionals working in Japan, as in the early 2000s there was a massive boom and we saw a lot of Indian IT professionals, many with low or intermediate Japanese language skills, getting jobs in technical sales and management roles” he says.
However, Armstrong said the bankruptcy of Lehmann Brothers in 2008 meant that Japanese clients have become more selective.
“There is still opportunity for Japanese speaking IT Indian professionals, but I wouldn’t call it an Indian IT boom,” he said.
In addition to the “Lehmann Shock,” the events of March 11, 2011, may have also dampened some of the enthusiasm of both existing and potential job seekers.
Mohamado concedes the triple punch of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident may have reduced some of the appeal of working in Japan for certain Indian IT professionals.
“Many of my Indian friends have left Japan or are thinking of leaving in the next few years,” he said. “I’m sure this in turn is also contributing to slow market growth and less opportunity here, though the Indian market is growing and the salary gap is narrowing.”
Singh, though, is more bullish on what effect 3/11 may have had on Indian IT professionals in Japan.
“Those who left due to fear of what happened immediately returned back,” he says. “The amount of jobs remains the same and I noticed no big change in the economy other than a small decline.”
Despite that outlook, Singh admits that the events of March 11, 2011, have caused him to reconsider his decision whether to stay and work in Japan in the long term.
Armstrong admits the shine of working in Japan, whether perceived or real, has dulled since the nuclear accident, whether it is short-term/contract Indian IT professionals or expat Indian IT executives with families. At the same time, he said most Indian IT professionals who have been working in Japan long term are still in the country, so it all depends on the individual and how long they have been in Japan.
“I had dinner with a friend recently who is originally from India and has been living and working in Japan for 15 years,” Armstrong said. “He has a good job with a global networking company and a family, and he has no plans to go back to India.”
While some of the Indian population may have left the Tokyo region in the wake of 3/11, two days following the disaster, Mohamado went to Sendai to assist with relief work, such as cooking hot soup for the victims in the area. He later went to Ishinomaki, one of the most damaged cities in the Tohoku area, where he helped with the preparation of food for approximately 3,000 to 4,000 people daily.
“I am a permanent member of Humanity First, a worldwide charity organization, and together with few members of Humanity First we built a camp for the victims,” he says. “It never occurred to me to do anything different than to be close to the Japanese people in the affected disaster areas and help them.”
Working in U.S., Europe is main goal
Despite all of Japan’s perceived charms, even before 3/11, the reality is that the U.S. and Europe remain the main aspiration for many of India’s IT specialists.
However, with Japan’s burgeoning IT needs, the Japanese IT market is doing its best under the circumstances to remain competitive and attract talent from places such as India. Mohamado said Japan has always been the largest market in Asia Pacific, with almost 10 to 15% of revenue generated from Japan for any global IT corporation.
“Japan has a high demand for always having the best of anything, so naturally there is a strong demand for very high quality output compared to any other part of the world,” he said. “Maintaining this highly demanding market will mean it will remain competitive and eventually attract talent to work in Japan.”
It is a sentiment that Armstrong backs up, pointing out that the Japanese IT market will always be an attractive place for Japanese-speaking Indian workers, simply because it is such a large market and there is a significant shortage of skilled bilingual workers.
“Compared with the rest of Asia, we see both supply and demand issues at their most severe in Japan,” he said. “Japan is suffering what could be considered a talent shortage crisis.”
The ongoing uncertainty in the global economy, especially in Europe, is also a factor, and this in turn has driven up the value of the yen. While Armstrong admits that this trend is not necessarily a good thing for the Japanese economy, he said it acts as a driver for Indian IT professionals who are thinking of starting or continuing their career in Japan.
Singh, however, has a more critical view of the Japanese IT market. “Working in Japan has the potential to put you in a disadvantage, as it tends to be a late adopter of best practices,” he said. “People are also reluctant to adapt and change quickly.”
As for what Singh feels the Japanese IT market could do differently to possibly attract more and better talent from India, he would like to see the language barrier mitigated. “Japanese businesses really need to get round to adopting effective and efficient practices that businesses worldwide are already following,” he said.
Singh also recommends “getting rid of the pride that forces the ‘Japanese way’ of doing things,” as he has seen it proven to be “inefficient and lack innovative,” and creative ideas should instead be promoted.
Mohamado said the issue with Japan is not in innovation but in the language barrier. “That is what is causing people overseas to hesitate to come to Japan and contribute,” he said. “There needs to be a positive environment that will attract Indian IT specialist to come, stay and contribute.”
The preference by Indians to go to the U.S., for example, can be traced to the language, so if Japan really wishes to maintain its IT domination, Mohamado recommends the creation of support facilities.
When it comes to existing Japanese speaking Indian IT professionals, Armstrong would like the Japanese government and IT market to institute improvement such as streamlining the work visa process and improving immigrations laws. “The way things are, we have a long way to go before Japan is a really attractive place for Indian IT workers,” he said.
He would also like to see Japanese and foreign IT companies be more proactive in attracting bilingual talent from India, such as setting up recruitment teams in Indian universities and technical schools, and then aggressively targeting top talent who are thinking of living aboard.
“Japan has an aging population and a declining economy, so identifying and hiring talented IT professionals, both Indian and other, should be an essential part of the new Japanese economic growth strategy,” Armstrong said. “It’s a global stage and every emerging economy in the world is vying for a limited talent pool.”