Internet Technologies and Social Networks have brought global brands closer to their target customers than ever before. But cultural barriers cannot be overcome using technology alone.

Supriti Sethi, our next pathbreaker, works across two culturally rich nations, India and Japan, using her Japanese language skills to break down the barriers of language and help brands communicate with customers through a culturally sensitive lens.

Supriti talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about her experience living in Japan and the challenges she faced in her career that helped her understand cultural sensitivities, which she applies to her role as Japanese speaking consultant.

A great read for students interested in language as a career!

Supriti, tell us about your background?

Hi. I am Supriti Sethi, presently working in Singapore with a Japanese consulting firm. 

I was born in New Delhi and immediately taken to West Germany in the early 1980s since my father got transferred there. So I grew up in a foreign country; I did not understand what my class teacher at my kindergarten spoke and why other students looked so different from me! 

I came back to India at the age of 4 and studied upto 5th standard in New Delhi. My father was transferred again to Myanmar (Burma) where I studied in an American school with students from all over the world. This time, (since I was older and in 6th standard), I could communicate with my classmates in English. The experience opened the door to a fascinating world of different languages, cultural values and communication styles. I knew in my heart, I would want to live or work in a very unique country once I grew up. And…the chance came when I just finished my high school and my father was transferred to Japan! 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

The chance to live in Japan for 3 years, right after I finished my high school was a crucial period in my life. I was in the science with maths stream, so I had to decide my career path then and there! I am from a family of doctors, where almost all my uncles were doctors. So, to keep up with the family tradition, I sat for some medical entrance exams too! However, I soon realized I wanted to do something in the `cross-cultural` sphere. With very limited guidance from around and with no internet in those days, I just followed my family to Japan and decided to learn the Japanese language. Simultaneously, I pursued B.Com via correspondence from Delhi University. I enrolled myself in a local Japanese language school. To my happiness, it was a small class with one student each form the Netherlands, France and Russia. It was fun learning about Japan and sharing knowledge about our cultures with each other. 

What made you opt for such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I wanted to do something in the `cross cultural` sphere and something very unique. I starting learning the Japanese language and day by day my conviction to live and work in Japan grew stronger.

While growing up in India, there was very less awareness and information about Japan. Some of our distant family members were living in the U.S , Canada, U.K or other western countries. There was absolutely no information source on Japan. Driven by curiosity, an urge to do something unique and finally the privilege to be able to live and learn in Japan all culminated into my choice to taking my learning the Japanese language as a career choice. 

What were the challenges? How did u address them?

Learning the Japanese language at school, studying for my B.Com side by side and working as part time English tutor to Japanese kids to support my school fee was pretty challenging. Thankfully, with my family staying with me and encouraging me every day, I never let my hopes go low. I passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level 1 (highest level) in less than two years. (The Japanese language Proficiency Test, also known as the JLPT presently has 5 levels. During my times, JLPT exams used to have 4 levels where students typically passed one level every year.). So, with a B.Com degree and a Japanese language proficiency certificate, I started looking for jobs in Japan. And that is where,  I faced real challenges, biases and hurdles. 

Getting the first job as a fresher in Japan was the most difficult task. 

The main challenge was not having a degree from a Japanese university, which also meant I could not avail the campus recruitment option. The recruiters would not understand or recognize a degree from outside of Japan. The Japanese degree program is of 4 years and Indian college degrees are typically of 3 years, except for engineering. All these complications made it difficult for me to even apply for the many jobs. I kept on trying and applied to all the companies I was interested in, I did not give up!

Part time jobs and internships are not counted as `work experience` by majority of large Japanese companies. (Though things are changing over recent years)

Yes!! Surprised?? So was I!! In most cases, having some work experience as a fresher can go against you and such candidates are not seen `fresh` enough to be trained or molded in accordance to the company culture once recruited. Taking cues form here and there, I modified my resume over and over again. I practiced interview answers over and over again. 

Lack of clearly defined career path, evaluation system for promotion and appraisals were some of the other challenges. 

Tell us about your career path

Finally, after getting rejected from almost all companies, I secured an offer from IBM Japan in accounting division. I was elated! I had a B.Com degree with accounting as a subject and I was to work for a global brand. The dream came true for me finally. However, yet again I got to learn that in Japan the freshers are given very easy and simple tasks which they are expected to perform to perfection for some years! This is a very unique feature of the Japanese work culture. Freshers are hired in hundreds and thousands all at a time and then they are trained by the company over a long period of time. The Japanese workers aim to be generalists where one is expected to know a little of everything. This helps in gaining a lot of knowledge about a particular department or a company. On the contrary, achieving a specialization takes years and years. Japanese company employees usually never change jobs and remain in one company forever! ( However, this cultural practice is also weakening in Japan now ). The Japanese are known for their perfection and quality. However, to work in a Japanese company one needs to be perfect all the time and that can be quite stressful at times too.  I remember being asked to staple a couple of pages `two-three times` to be able to achieve the `perfection` in stapling the papers. 

After working for an year at IBM Japan, I started getting bored of my routine job. There was very less interaction and mostly desk job. My family had moved back to India and for the first time in my life, at the age of 22-23, I was living all alone in Tokyo. I cooked, cleaned, paid my own room rent and utility bills, managed everything on my own. I started getting home sick and missed the fun of `learning something new`. So to pursue my Masters in Japanese language from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), I moved back to New Delhi. 

Despite already knowing the Japanese language and having already worked in Japan, the decision to join JNU was driven by 2 factors; to be with my family and be a part of the Japanese language network of alumni and faculty. And of course, to enjoy campus life where I developed life long friendships.

After I finished my Masters, my heart was set into academics and now I wanted to become a professor in the university in future. I qualified for the all India exam for eligibility for lectureship called NET. And since I stood first, I qualified for the prestigious fellowship from the Indian government to pursue higher studies. I went on study M.Phil and taught at JNU for 3 years. 

While studying and teaching at JNU, I did a lot of freelance work as a translator and interpreter. I translated animation scripts, most famous is Shin-chan. I used to get the scripts written in Japanese along with the full episode on a CD. My role was to translate each and every line and dialog into English, which would be later translated into Hindi and other Indian languages in future. I translated other Japanese animation series like YUGIOH, Amdriver, Kochikame, Ninja Httori, Tensai Bakabon etc. 

As a freelancer, I also interpreted for conferences, small meetings and Japanese delegates who would visit companies in India and needed help in communicating with the Indian counterparts. 

For the love of learning new things, I applied for the Japanese government scholarship and I went back to Japan for the second time. This time, I gained my Masters in classical Japanese language from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. 

Learning at the university was fun. Interacting with international students was fun. However, I missed interaction and the feeling of `being on the stage` when I used to teach in JNU. I missed `spontaneity`. While I was still in my masters,  I got to know about a vacancy at NHK World Radio Japan (Hindi service). NHK World is like the All India Radio of Japan! I worked as Hindi language radio announcer and content translator. The job was thrilling. My role was to translate program or news scripts form English or Japanese into the Hindi language. I also used to present Radio programs in Hindi too. I could once again enjoy the `cross cultural` experience and the nature of spontaneity of the job. 

My job at NHK made me realize my true passion; to work in the `cross cultural` sphere and work in an industry or environment where I get to do new things every day! 

With some research on the internet (yes! Thankfully, this time internet was commonplace), I thought consulting firm would be a best place to work where I can work on variety of projects, use my Japanese language skills and also contribute with my cross cultural communication skills. 

After finishing my masters, I found myself job hunting for a full time job…again …after 10 years ! Lady luck smiled this time. I got an offer from a Japanese consulting firm which was looking for a Japanese speaking Indian person to join their team to help them with India based projects. The experience was very fulfilling and thereafter, I went to working with the Ministry of Home Affairs, also in the cross cultural sphere of India-Japan diplomatic and economic relations. 

Where do you work now? 

Presently, I work in Singapore in a Japanese brand consulting firm. Brand consulting firms help companies to create products under a particular category ( brand) which are recognized by people based on the values people believe in. For example, if you believe in “just do it” then you will like the brand NIKE. When you want instant and tasty food you go to McDonald`s and say “I am Lovin` it”.

I help my clients to get a clear idea of what their brand represents and how they can get their message to the users of their products. Some ways to do this are through advertisements, billboards or via social media or events. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

People who work in consulting firms are called consultants. The consultants help the companies solve business problems which in turn helps companies to run their operations smoothly and increase their profits. When companies make more profits and increase their size, more jobs are created! The work of a consultant may not benefit the society directly, but the impact is nevertheless quite significant. For example, once a consultant defined the term BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to represent rapidly growing economies in the late 1990`s and early 2000s. This term is closely followed in the world and thanks to this term `BRICS`, especially India has benefitted by gaining attention from countries all over the world.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I had a memorable moment quite recently, thanks to my present  work profile. As a part of my project, I had taken a team of 10 Japanese to India to study about Indian lifestyle, food, housing, beauty and health. We visited some homes and interacted with the families. 

It was a very proud moment for me to be able to explain Indian culture and lifestyle while providing the historical and traditional background context in the Japanese language. My knowledge in Japanese literature helped me understand the perspective of Japanese people, their life and their culture. So, I knew why exactly Japanese were asking those questions, what they wanted to know. My deep understanding of the language and culture makes it very easy to explain my culture and traditions very well.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

1) Be a sponge, learn and absorb new things. School is the best time to try out new things, new sports, participate in debates, competitions. Push yourself harder. Academic studies is something you will do all your life. But the experiences, are precious. These experiences will guide you to what you will really enjoy and what you will enjoy excel in.

2) Seek a good mentor: This is something I lacked in my journey. I wish I knew more people who could guide me. Do not hesitate in asking questions to your teachers, relatives and all the grown ups around about their career journeys, expectations and challenges With the internet and loads of information available, make use of all the resources and be proactive in requesting people for their time to share their professional experiences 

3) Not everyone knows what they want to become when they grow up. (And it is Okay!). This is true for all of us. Life is a continuous learning process. Learning doesn`t stop after finishing board exams! 

4) Dream big. I am sure you are told this one quite a lot. But, there is valid reason why this is an important point. Dreams are very important. They motivate us and drive us to the goals we want to achieve. The timing of achieving your dreams can vary, but rest assured, whatever you wanted in your life, you will almost always get it! 

5) Life is much more than just classroom marks and percentage. School is a very protected environment, where everything is almost `fair`. Real life is much different. More than your marks, it is your hard work, your commitment to your dream, good interaction skills ( I really mean it!) which will help you in your life ahead. 

Future Plans?

My future plans are to develop more skills and excel in my present job. I want to be the best at whatever I do but also enjoy it at the same time. In future, I want to start my own company where I help Japanese companies to do business with India. 

I also strive to lead a healthy and stress free life, as stress is nothing but tasks remaining to be done. With easy planning, step by step approach, we can achieve our goals and not worry too much.

My final plan is to be happy and spend as much time as possible with my family and friends. Jobs and careers can change, but our support systems are our families. I look forward to a balanced and a happy life ahead and wish all of you the same!