Senpai Success Story #13: Yoshi, from JET to Digital Marketing

OSAKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 28, 2013: The famed advertisements of Dotonbori. With a history reaching back to 1612, the district is now one of Osaka's primary tourist destinations.

Welcome to the Senpai Success Story, where you can read about others who have walked a unique career path using their Japanese language/cultural skills. (Psst: Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

Quick Introduction about Myself

Big g’day to the Ikigai Connections users and followers out there. My name is Yoshi and I am the founder and CEO of IGNITE Digital Marketing Solutions, a bilingual digital marketing agency based in Osaka, Japan. I am a half-Japanese that was born and raised in New Zealand, and I have been living and working in Japan for just over 10 years. Despite being of Japanese descent I started to learn the language seriously only after arriving in Japan. In addition, I had no prior experience living in Japan.

My interest in Japan, the language, culture and people began when I decided to take up teaching English as a second language to young students from all around the world that were studying in my hometown in New Zealand. I enjoyed teaching so much that I then decided to apply to go to Japan as an ALT on the JET programme straight after finishing university. I was accepted and it was the start of my crazy journey living in Japan. I have had many amazing experiences, met some awesome people and had life-changing opportunities throughout my 10 years. Of course I have had my share of ups and downs and countless days and nights of grinding.

There is still so much I want to do and I learn something new every day, but I hope my story provides a little bit of insight, motivation and stimulus to readers out there with dreams and goals of living a fulfilling life in Japan.

Living, Working and Learning Japan

As I stated above my first step into Japan was as an ALT on the JET programme. I was sent to a small rural town in Kansai and for 4 years I taught primary and junior school kids. Through immersing in the community and the working environment I managed to pick up a lot more Japanese, began to adapt to the culture and learnt a lot about working in Japan. The job was definitely rewarding and even though I had my share of culture shock, in my 3rd year I made my mind up to change jobs and further my career prospects in Japan. I wasn’t certain at this point if I wanted to continue teaching, but I definitely wanted to be in a position that connected the Japanese people to the world. I wanted to have more influence on more people, on a larger scale and set myself goals to do so.

I was asked to stay the full 5 years of the JET programme, however I decided to cut my stint short and take on my new challenge. Armed with what I had learned from JET I moved to Osaka in pursuit of a new job. With only a few years of teaching under my belt I wanted to start slow and perfect as many jobs as possible. I first landed a job at an International kindergarten, where it was the first time I experienced ‘private’ English teaching of kids with parents with very high expectations. I also had a stint as an Eikaiwa teacher where I learned things like the importance of promoting myself (to get more lessons). Later, I found myself working as a HR manager for foreign workers, and here I learned how to deal with business situations both in English and Japanese (like making formal apologies lol). I also had a few goes at serving drinks at foreign bars, freelance translation and other odd jobs, pretty much anything I could get my hands on. To be honest some jobs were not always the best paid, but I was on a mission to absorb as much and take something away from each position.

The Turning Point While Working in Japan

After trying out a variety of different jobs in Japan, I felt I had reached my limit. I couldn’t do more to raise my salary, further my career and most importantly I felt like I still wasn’t contributing enough to the goals I set myself after leaving JET. I felt that I had to distinguish myself more from everyone else. There were tonnes of other foreigners better at teaching than me, more bilinguals that were better at translation than me. Heck, there were a bucket load of others that could pour a better drink than me. I was at a crossroads and I was having a hard time finding what only ‘I’ could do. Just being a bilingual wasn’t going to cut it in the large sea of talented and skilled foreign workers so I needed that extra edge.

It was at this point that I decided to go one step further, test myself and jump smack bang into the deep end. I decided to give up on jobs that required a bilingual and set off to work in a Japanese run-of-the-mill ‘salaryman’ job in an all-Japanese working environment. I chose to get into digital marketing, an industry in which I had zero experience or knowledge in but was extremely fascinated with.

In the company I joined I was the first and only foreigner they had ever hired and I started from ground up. Not just learning about digital marketing but learning about what it really is like to work in Japan. Learning about a new industry was one difficult thing, but on top of that I was grilled over and over again for my obvious lack of Japanese skills compared to a regular Japanese worker. It was a high speed job with high expectations but life changing.

Arming Myself with Skills and Being Unique

For 3 years I learned the vast world of marketing and used what I learned to help clients scale their business projects. When I wasn’t working I would spend every waking minute learning and putting in to practise as much as I could, also heavily investing in my own marketing mini-projects such as websites and so on.

The position was a massive learning curve for me and rewarding as in my 2nd year I had managed to make my way up to a position as a manager. However due to the nature of the company I was only dealing with local Japanese clients selling and promoting to Japanese users. I felt like something was still not fitting in my jigsaw puzzle. I promised myself that I wanted to be a bridge between Japan and the world, so I took it upon myself to find and take on as many private projects with clients that needed help with international customer acquisition. Slowly but surely, the number of private projects increased and projects got bigger and bigger to a point where I was earning more than my full-time position. I realized here that there are a lot of Japanese businesses that really had no idea what to do when marketing to foreign users (foreign clients marketing to Japanese too). I was ecstatic to be able to help businesses connect and scale their intercultural projects and I really felt that by doing this I was in a position that solved peoples problems using my skills and abilities. Another thing I realized was compared to Tokyo where ‘international’ and ‘multicultural’ is the norm, Osaka and the Kansai area still had business and industries that hadn’t had as much experience with it. This is where I made one of the most important decisions of my life and left my full-time job. I decided to start my own bilingual digital marketing agency aimed at helping clients with localized marketing, and especially focused on projects related to Osaka and Kansai.

The Bridge Between Osaka and the World

As of April 2020, IGNITE is in it’s 2nd year and I can say that my time now in Japan is the most exciting and rewarding, even though stressful. (A good stressful). I finally found a place where I can provide my experience, skills and abilities that only I can do. A hybrid of being bilingual and a professional marketer with a mission to help both foreigners and Japanese in Osaka.

With us at IGNITE, we are a one-stop agency with 7 main pillars of service. Our service is focused on marketing that includes branches of translation, content creation, advertising, web design, business strategy, system development and training seminars. Our internal staff is still very small but we have a partner-based team of more than 100 people (translators, designers, creators) located all throughout Japan and globally.

Our mission is to help our clients overcome the culture gap that occurs in international marketing and we really want to be the ‘catalyst’ and help ‘IGNITE’ businesses to release and scale new projects on the Japanese and international market.

Advice from Experience

To conclude, I will leave you with some things that I learnt while working with the Japanese and in marketing. I really believe these points played a big part in my journey to where I am now.

Note of caution, to some people these points may be common sense. Especially for those who have business, marketing and managerial experience. I thought so too, but knowing about them and actually applying them in your everyday life is a different thing and many people don’t. I found these points really helped me get through the difficult times and to overcome a lot of obstacles in my private and working life in Japan. This is my own opinion and if you could take them on with an open mind and use them as a reference!

1. Be Unique and Multiply

In Japanese, the term used is ‘Kishousei’ ‘(希少性) and roughly translates to ‘scarcity’. The way the Japanese use this is to mean ‘unique’ or ‘only one’. As a foreigner working in Japan or with Japanese projects, the general amount of jobs and industries that are available to us are limited compared to a Japanese citizen. This is natural, and it is also natural that because of this we are all in fiercer competition for jobs. Therefore you need to stand out. Unless you are a global authority on something there will always be someone more knowledgeable, more skilled and in general better than you. However by adding to your skills and abilities you can multiply your attractiveness as a worker. Not to mention it enables you to contribute more, leading to more opportunities. For example in my case, bilingual and marketing. It can be anything. Teaching and management skills could lead to a higher position in a school. Web design with accounting experience could lead to a web designer specializing in accounting firms. Don’t be satisfied with just one skill, scale out and be someone that can do something only a few, or even only you can do. When you do find that skill or ability you want to add to your repertoire, don’t be half-assed and go through with it, perfect it, and make sure that you are a worker that can not be replaced.

2. Earning Trust

In Japanese, the term used is ‘Shinrai Zandaka’ (信頼残高) and roughly translates to ‘Trust Balance in the Bank’. The way the Japanese use this term is to express that ‘trust’ especially in the working environment is like a bank account you have with individuals and the company. By doing things such as completing projects on time, providing results and simple things like just following through with things you say, the balance of each trust bank increases. Whenever you do the opposite of the above, the trust bank balance decreases. Many Japanese use this term and also say that you can deplete a balance in a flash, but increasing it again is extremely difficult. In other words, start small and work your way up. For example, just because a person can speak both English and Japanese it doesn’t mean that they can translate legal documents with no prior experience. This person may think they are the hot stuff but in reality the second you overestimate yourself and provide a product, service or work that doesn’t meet expectations, you will immediately lose funds in your trust bank. Don’t think that you are worth a high salary from the start with no results or numbers to show. Start with what you can do, meet expectations, then exceed expectations. This is when your rewards will come. For reference, within my private work I was taking on projects that took more time and effort than the actual payment. Sometimes dirt cheap and sometimes I would even be in the red, just so I could ensure that my clients got a result. It was stressful but by following through with promises and exceeding expectations, projects have scaled and I still have these clients today.


In Japanese the term used is ‘Kaizen’ (改善) and roughly translates to ‘improvement’. Another way this is expressed in the Japanese business culture is PDCA an acronym for Plan – Do – Check – Act. This is a globally famous marketing term but you may hear it a lot in the Japanese workplace and an aspect that should be applied not only for work but also in everyday life. To be very blunt, in a Japanese working environment or project there are some aspects that a foreign worker won’t be able to match a Japanese worker. This could be language abilities, work culture knowledge or experience. There will be times when employers or other employees will weigh which is better for a certain situation, a foreign worker or a Japanese worker. This is completely natural and I am not bringing it up to express racism or anything of the like. When you understand this you will realize that the only thing you can do is constantly improve yourself so you don’t lose out to a Japanese worker. For example, for a native English speaker, talking on the telephone in Japanese is difficult and very daunting. Many would give up right there and leave it to the Japanese. There is an issue that is apparent but many would turn a blind-eye, but by using PDCA, a foreign worker can get closer to the level of a Japanese.

A more detailed example:

Plan – write down useful phrases and refer to while on the phone

Do – follow through with the above

Check – rate how the call went and any issues

Act – find that phrases only go so far, so prepare simulations to refer to while on the phone

Making mistakes is not a bad thing. They become useless when you don’t act and improve on them.

In Conclusion

So that’s it about me, what I do and a rant about some of the things I think are important when working in Japan. Hopefully my story has given people out there another perspective about Japan and gives you the drive to really give Japan a decent go.

Once again I thank Kasia and Ikigai Connections for this opportunity to share my story. I have shortened a lot of my story and I could go on and on. If anyone out there is interested in learning more about careers, digital marketing or business in Japan feel free to get a hold of me. I would be more than happy to give you my 2 cents.

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