Cindy Starts a Business in Japan

Lucinda Lohman-Oota and her husband Hiro

Many of the things Cindy says about the traditional workplace in Japan are also true in Korea: the cozy relationship of government and large corporations, which undermines small and medium-sized companies, the obligatory after-work drinking sessions, the mandatory early retirement, the ambivalence about having foreigners in the workplace and—particularly in Japan—the marginalization of foreigners. Fortunately, shortly after having been knocked down by early retirement, Cindy was on her feet again, making a new career for herself and finding more freedom and more satisfaction in trying new things). (Link)(Link)

Cindy’s story

On January 29, 2014, my life as I had known disappeared forever. My mother and I were very close. On that same day, she died in Maine. I was also downsized from my job as in-house legal counsel at a Japanese pharmaceutical company where I had worked for 4 years. I was 55 and had spent two-thirds of my professional life in Japan, quite often feeling excluded and marginalized. I felt unanchored and yet strangely liberated. It was a time of immense change, upheaval, personal growth and the beginning of a new adventure.

Fortunately, three or four months earlier I’d already started thinking of switching to something with more lifestyle balance—perhaps freelancing as a legal translator. Toward this end, I spent a year—April 2014 to March 2015—in an intensive Japanese language program at a YMCA. I was quite perplexed to have tested into the highest of 12 levels, since I had always been told by my Japanese colleagues that “my Japanese was not good enough.” I was put into a class of fifteen Chinese students, all aged twenty-five or younger. Being Chinese, they all knew the characters, the kanji. I had to study four to five hours a day outside of the five hours of class at the YMCA just to keep up. Week after week, I kept getting essays backed bleeding red, because I could not write the characters properly by hand. Prior to this, I had not even so much written an email, let alone full-blown essays! I would come home in tears of frustration because I couldn’t keep up. I’d fail a paper or exam and have to do it over. What I really wanted was the grammar and vocabulary to pass the first level of the Japanese level proficiency exam, which I eventually did.

I decided to leave the Japanese language program and said to myself, “Eh, I’m fifty-five, I’m not doing this for anybody but me. It’s okay  not to finish.”Passing the proficiency exam was good enough. I am sooo over doing things to please others.

Before all of this, I’d spent the better part of twenty-five years in Japan, ten at a very traditional Japanese law firm, four at the large Japanese pharmaceutical company, and the remainder in similar jobs. The pharmaceutical company hired me because they had a US company and decided that they should “globalize”. I was part of that initiative. Now, the problem for foreigners is that people may want to hire you because of those magic words, “globalize, globalize, globalize,” even though there’s no consensus about what “globalize” means. Or maybe there’s only one person who wants to hire a foreigner—your boss—but after a honeymoon period of three to six months, the newness wears off and you are judged by Japanese standards. You don’t go out drinking enough, you take too many vacation days, you are too loud, you ask too many questions…. You start to lose your self-confidence pretty quickly. You start to believe what you are told over and over.

At the pharmaceutical company, the head of the legal department told me that I needed to go out drinking more in order to set an example for other people. In Japan people don’t talk at work, ever. So this usually obligatory drinking or getting together is part of your work. It’s how you get to know people and make connections. My thought was that I was setting a good example, especially for women, by showing that your off-work time was private and that work-life balance was important. When I was being pushed out, they told me I wasn’t Japanese enough because I took too many vacation days. (I was allowed 20 in my contract and had taken 10.)Basically, you’re excluded, you’re marginalized and you start to internalize and believe what you are told.

On the other hand, I have had fantastic opportunities in Japan—exciting work with top companies, more responsibility than I would have had if I had stayed in the U.S., like the chance to teach law.

Anyway, I decided that I wanted more autonomy. That’s why I didn’t want to be just a freelancer; I wanted my own company. This decision came from desperation more than anything else. The greater Kansai area—Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe—has a large GDP, but for foreign women there are almost no jobs here. Whatever you want to do, you have to do it on your own.I was faced with a lot of things I’d never done before. I’m good at what I do, but I’ve never been the type of person who’s eager to acquire new skills.

I started by coming up with a name for the company. InScribe Language Consulting. Then I did a business plan for the services I’d provide initially—translation, editing and teaching Business English. I’d been an ESL teacher for a long time, and I thought teaching would provide me with a springboard to get into companies so once people got to know me they’d ask me to do some editing or translation.

I needed to have a sense of mission. It couldn’t just be about my bank account. So for my target clients, I decided to focus on small and medium-sized companies because the whole Japanese economy is set up to benefit the large multi-national companies, which are well connected to the government and the banks. The smaller companies really get squeezed. Over my years as a lawyer, I’d seen that the biggest risk for small and medium-sized companies came from lack of sophistication and the lack of a level playing field. Offering language would give small and medium-sized companies access to a good professional who could help them to do websites, give business advice for globalizing, and otherwise help them reduce the risk and increase their reputation. That would be contributing to a sector of the economy that was under-served. I am very passionate about helping the economic underdog.

Although I talk about autonomy, I need to give full credit to my Japanese husband of close to 25 years, who is a law professor at a prestigious private university. He has supported me emotionally and financially throughout this transition, including actually doing translation work. In June of 2015, he also found a wonderful month-long class offered by the city for entrepreneurs. It was four Sundays in a row, four hours each time, and it took you through setting up a business, all the way through registering the business and accounting requirement.

So, one year after losing my job and my mom, I had passed the difficult proficiency test and started down the road to being an entrepreneur. From that point, I was faced with innumerable challenges—doing things I had never done before—like setting up my own website. I spent hours and hours looking at websites of competitive companies-50 for translators, 50 for editors, and 50 for freelance English teachers. I spent a lot of time networking with people who were doing what I wanted to do, both in person and online. I was amazed by their generosity and encouragement. I didn’t have enough confidence to draft the web content myself, so I outsourced it to someone I found online. I paid her $500 for about six pages of text. When it came back, it was repetitive and needed editing. I began to suspect I was competent at more things than I’d thought I was!

I found a great office situation with 3 other foreign women entrepreneurs from Norway, Switzerland and India. One of my office-mates designs websites, and she showed me where I could find stock photos, which I’d never heard of before. I chose ones I liked, all Japan-based. Because I wanted to market us as a husband and wife legal professional team, I arranged for a photographer to spend the day in Kyoto, taking shots of me and my husband. Then I worked with my office-mate and her husband to get my website up and running. Before this experience I didn’t know what a web host was or a service provider was. Now I do.

We’re now coming up on the first anniversary of the business. We have business cards, a dedicated bank account for business only, the website, a virtual secretary and an accountant. I also invested in a new computer and downloaded some new translation software. I’m a member of five or six professional organizations for copy editors and translators in Japan and elsewhere. I just finished a year-long copy editing program at the University of San Diego. It’s one of three in the US that’s pretty highly regarded in the industry.

More importantly,I have clients who come back to me. There’s a song from The Sound of Music that’s going through my head. Julie Andrews is singing,“I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain, I have confidence that spring will come again. Beside which you see I have confidence in me.”It’s been a long time since I’ve woken up every morning knowing that it’s a new day and that I’m in charge of how it goes. I no longer feel marginalized or excluded. I often have a sense of joy and anticipation that I hadn’t felt in a while. It was always,“Just grin and bear it. You’re getting well paid. There is nothing you can do about it.”

My clients include a medium-sized law firm, where I work 2 days a week. I enjoy the people there. It’s very laid-back, I go in and do translation, editing and legal work. The job provides me with a stable income so I’m no longer in constant fear of being unable to pay my bills.

As for other clients—I just recently finished drafting an application for UNESCO patronage for a foreign scientist working at a national university; I have fun writing a monthly newsletter for a foreign real estate agency. I met this woman on LinkedIn. I put myself out there, made myself vulnerable, by sending her an email saying I also had a business, why not meet for coffee and see whether we could work together. When we sat down, she knew exactly what she wanted. She wanted me to help her with her website and also do a newsletter for her. The newsletter has turned into a golden opportunity for me because I need to contact people and interview them for the little articles I write, and that in turn helps expand my own network.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of English language websites, either from scratch or from a draft written in English. There’s a huge market for that in Japan right now because the economy is increasingly focusing on tourism as its one last hope. Lots of small and medium-sized companies are rushing to have English language features to their websites. As a result of the small jobs I get and the skills I discover I have, the focus of the business is shifting in completely unanticipated ways, like web content, grant writing, letter writing.

These small successes have given me confidence to tackle some larger projects—doing some direct marketing instead of doing the Asian thing and waiting for introductions. Some of my marketing efforts have failed, others produce surprising results. The success of the direct approach was a surprise.I assumed in Japan I’d need introductions.

I don’t. I am my own introduction.

I’m doing things I never thought I could do. I don’t think of myself as a lawyer anymore, but as a business owner. It’s scary sometimes because it starts with and ends with me. At the same time, that’s very liberating.

A reader writes:

I liked the article, very uplifting.