Hometown: Hasselt, Belgium
In Japan: 12 years
Identity: Works at the Apple Store, Fukuoka Tenjin
A trained Japanologist specializing in International Politics and Economics of Japan – Jean-Paul Wuyts (known as J.P) is not your average foreigner in Japan. Hailing from a small town in Belgium, J.P came to Fukuoka twelve years ago in 2001 to complete his postgraduate degree at Kyushu University, and never left! His time at Kyudai was followed by a ten-year stint working at a Fukuoka-based company providing automatic parking lot maintenance. After ten years, J.P was ready to tackle a new career in Japan. His native-level Japanese skills (one of six languages he speaks), together with a decade of customer service and management experience made him an attractive asset. Nowadays, J.P works at the Apple Store with a team of Japanese and foreign Apple Store staff and enjoys both the challenges and freedoms that come with the territory. In his spare time he continues his Japanese studies and plays some social futsal. Following his own mantra to “dream big”, he recognizes the importance of setting long-term goals, and has many big plans in store for the future.
Fukuoka Now sat down with J.P to find out more about his twelve years in Japan, leading to his current position at the Apple Store Tenjin. The conversation brought about some insights into Japanese working life, and lots of advice from J.P. Read on to learn more…
What originally brought you to Japan? And why Fukuoka?
Well, I am a Japanologist actually. I specialized in Politics and Economics of Japan. I studied that for four years in Belgium and after that, I did a post-graduate degree on International Politics of Japan – I did that here at Kyushu University in Japan. The program was called CSPA (Comparative Studies of Politics and Administration in Asia). To go into a little detail, my specialization was the influence of the 70’s and 80’s international relationship between America and China – when they started to open their relations again – and how that political environment influenced the Japanese national defense policy. I wrote a thesis about it and then I graduated here in Japan, at Kyushu University. I chose Kyushu University because there was one teacher who was very specialized in that area, who wrote a couple of books and theses about Japanese national defense. And he helped me write that document.
And that was the first time you’d been to Japan?
Yes, that was the first time… and I’ve never left Japan since. I moved here one month after September 11, in October of 2001. When my two years of study were over, as a Japanologist I was thinking “I have to stay here in Japan”.
So following your studies, what did you do?
I worked a couple of little jobs before I was hired by a company in Maizuru. It’s a company that specializes in automatic parking lot maintenance. Here in Japan, real estate is very valuable. Rather than having open parking spaces, they build everything into these multi-platform parking lots. The company I worked at did maintenance work.
That’s a big jump from Political Science…
Yeah, it is different. First of all it gave me, as a Japanologist, a great opportunity to study what a simple, small traditional Japanese company was like. The company had never hired a foreigner before, so it was a great opportunity to learn from the inside. I got a lot of very valuable insight. When I started, the boss of the company said to me “I will never treat you like a foreigner. You will always be just J.P here in Japan. We will only speak Japanese, and we will always treat you as a Japanese worker. So you will be rewarded as a Japanese worker as well as punished as a Japanese worker.”
So I did that for ten years. And I just worked myself up a bit in the company. It’s not such a big company – there are branches in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, but Fukuoka is the head office.
So after ten years at that company, what made you decide to leave?
I thought “ten years – that’s a nice round number”. By that point I’d had enough – the longer I stayed there the less opportunity there was to learn anything new. And I was quite lucky because the Apple Store is always looking for interesting and motivated people and I thought it was a great opportunity because after ten years, I was thinking about changing my life and career here in Japan. I was ready to move up. That’s why I decided “Let’s go for it”.
Have you always been a Mac user?
Actually, no. Before this job I was never a Mac user – I was very Windows-based. But, you know, I work now at Apple so I use Mac. I don’t regret using Windows in the past. Now I know a lot more about Mac and Apple, and given this perspective I can say that they both have their strengths.
What do you like about your job?
Well, it’s easier to talk in comparison to what I did before. When I was working at the Japanese company, I never had private time. I had to work on weekdays, Saturdays and Sundays. I had to work from 8:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night. And that was basically everyday for ten years. But it did give me a great opportunity to learn how Japanese companies are managed. Also – I learned how hard it is to work at a Japanese company. After that experience, I know how much everyone is suffering, how their private and family lives are suffering here in Japan, on account of their work lives.
So, coming from that background to the Apple Store… it’s like going from hell to paradise! You have a lot more freedom and they really support your private life. I think that’s a very valuable lesson for other companies: to make sure that you are enjoying your work, and your life on the whole, so that when you come to the office everyday you say “Yes! Let’s go for it again today!”
Are your customers surprised to hear how well you speak Japanese?
Yes, very much.
When did you learn?
Well, twelve years ago I came to Japan, and I studied for four years prior to that. So, if I were a Japanese person now I would be 16 years old. I studied Japanese everyday at the university. Not only talking, but also reading, writing kanji and scientifically analyzing Japan on the whole. And within that you have a couple of packages you can put together yourself. For example, I wanted to do more political and economical stuff from other faculties, together with my Japanese curriculum. With this backpack full of knowledge I came to Japan 12 years ago. What I had learnt at my desk, I just needed to use on the street. This gave me a big boost compared to other people who come here with less knowledge of Japan. When they arrive and start trying to speak Japanese, it’s more difficult. Of course, it takes time.
Also because I worked in that company for ten years and I had to speak Japanese everyday, I got a lot of practice. If I didn’t know something, they screamed at me “Why don’t you know this word?!” I had to do powerpoint presentations (back then it was powerpoint!) because I was the head of the business administration. If I wanted to say something in my presentation I had to know the word immediately. So yeah, it was on-the-job training, which gave me a really big boost to learn Japanese.
Because of that environment I had to force my mind and myself to do my best with Japanese, and I just learned faster and faster. Now, when I talk on the phone with a customer in Japanese, they don’t even realize that I’m a foreigner.
You have to know a lot of nuances, you have to know how to appease people. When you are dealing with Japanese customers you first have to know how to listen to them because they are very kanjō-teki (感情的), emotional. I learnt that at my first job too: how to deal with emotional and upset Japanese people.
Any advice for other foreigners who are considering working for a Japanese company?
Dream big. If you are not dreaming big, you are going to leave a lot of excellent chances untouched.
Also, study Japanese… and don’t think that you’ll be able to learn quickly. Japanese is a very difficult language to learn, especially in comparison with European languages. You need to study it theoretically for a couple of years and after that you can finally use your technical background to gradually work your way up here in Japanese society. You can gradually become better and better at Japanese.
Third advice: if you learn Japanese, you have to learn the patterns. That’s very important. You have to learn what to say on which occasion and you have to learn it by heart. That’s how we learnt Japanese in University, they gave us phrases to learn by heart. When you have that backbone, then you can finally start adding new phrases and everything. That’s my most important advice for people who want to study Japanese.
Fourth advice (I have a lot of advice!) and this is very important: you have to think about your life in terms of making making short-term, mid-term and long-term plans. Long term plans are the “dream big” plans. Short term plans are what you want to do right now, this week and this month. And these short term plans must have some impact on your mid-term plans. So, it’s very important to make your plans. If you don’t, you will either be lucky, or you’ll be bumping into walls here in Japan.
Do you know Bear Grylls – Man vs. Wild? He always emphasizes that if you’re stranded in the wilderness and you want to get out of there, you do not only have to think about the end goal of getting out of… you have to think about every mile you have to clear before accomplishing your goal of getting out. “Now let’s do 100m. Now let’s do another 100m.” You have to think about your short goals in the beginning and all of these little steps will connect in the end to achieve what you’re aiming at.
What’s your impression of Fukuoka as a place to live?
I can’t really compare it with another city, so it’s really quite difficult. I do have the impression that it is quite international. There are a lot of Chinese and Korean people living here. I’m actually surprised by the amount of French, German and Dutch people who visit the Apple Store too. There is even a Polish community here in Fukuoka. So I notice that Fukuoka is very international.
At what age did you move to Fukuoka?
At twenty-one… I’m thirty-three now.
How can Fukuoka become a better place for foreigners to live and build careers?
Well a lot of companies have to start thinking about hiring more foreign people. We have all kinds of people working at the store, not only Japanese, and everyone has their own unique background, their own opinion. The more diverse your staff is the more advice, the more varied frameworks, the more ideas and insights you get about something. So also here in Fukuoka, all those Japanese companies just need to hire one or two foreigners and they’ll get a new wind blowing in their company. Diversity, new ideas, new opinions, innovation and also an English skills boost up. Communication with a foreigner is something they need practice in. It’s very important because Japan cannot continue to be successful, in this globalizing atmosphere and economic reality, if they do not hire more foreigners.
Plus, change and how you can react to change is very important. Japanese companies are reluctant to change. They preferably want everything to stay the same, they want for the hierarchy to remain so that whatever the most upper person says is correct and whatever the lower person says is most of the times deemed as incorrect. They depend on the tate-shakai (縦社会) vertical structure hierarchy. Whereas Americans, for example, see change as an opportunity for growth. They see change as the only thing that is stable. The big difference is that in America, people react on change. You have all kinds of new companies reacting on change and becoming big… Google, facebook, Groupon. They see what is happening, what is changing, and they immediately jump on that. But in Japan, they are not reacting on change, they are just following after what is happening. And preferably, they want everything to remain the way it is now. That’s the difference, and what needs to… change.
How do you spend your time outside of work?
I do a lot of study actually. As a Japanologist I think that you’re never done with studying about Japan… studying kanji, reading books or learning about the history of Japan. I also do Futsal once a week. A healthy mind and a healthy body. But most of the time I am just thinking about and doing Apple related things.
What does the future hold – for you?
I’d like to work in Belgium. Belgium is a little country – as big as Kyushu – that only imports and exports. We import through the port of Antwerp, which is the second biggest sea port in Europe. Everything goes through Belgium, and in Belgium we either work on that (assembling things) or just put extra value on the goods and export to the rest of Europe – Germany, France and the Netherlands mainly. So Belgium is just taking that margin out of it. What Belgium needs now is something unique, more innovation. We don’t have any famous Belgian companies. We need a new wind coming into the country and a whole generation of people who can immediately react on change. We need more flexibility in people. And in order to get people motivated, in order to get innovation, in order to get this new way of thinking in Belgium, I think having an Apple Store would be nice.
Any final words of advice?
Never think that what is happening now is what is meant to be. Always be ready for something new, and make your life plan. Make sure you believe in your plan and go for it. Don’t be trying, just do it. As they say in Japanese, a walking dog that trots about will find a bone, sooner or later…
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn171, Mar. 2013)