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Interview with Sibylle – a Swiss expat living in Japan

Updated 6 Oct 2010

expat interview with sibylle itoSwiss expat Sibylle Ito moved to Tokyo after a lengthy stint in Los Angeles. She's passionate about supporting and creating growth within companies that relate to Japan and has the professional experience and the multilingual ability needed to accompany such a bold motivation.

Read more in the Expat Arrivals Japan country guide or read more expat experiences in Japan

About Sibylle

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I'm originally from Switzerland, but before moving to Japan, I lived in Los Angeles, California, for seven years.

Q: Where are you living now?
A: Currently, I'm living mostly in Tokyo, additionally about a year in Yokohama.

Q: How long have you lived in Tokyo?
A: Almost nine years.

Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
A: I moved alone from the US to Japan.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: My personal goal is to increase my global understanding of life science/biotech/chemical business after gaining work experience in Switzerland and US. I work in market development or sales, mainly for foreign companies in the area of life science, biotech and chemical products.

About living in Tokyo

Q: What do you enjoy most about Tokyo? How's the quality of life?
A: For sure, the top quality of food – not only Japanese food but also other styles. I can get whatever I might need. Warm-hearted friends and an interesting local community. Apart from the long working hours and work pressure, for sure top quality of life.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Long vacations, otherwise nothing.

Q: Is Tokyo safe?
A: Very much so, because I always have to remind myself when leaving Japan that I need to be careful about security again. In the real countryside, most homes do not need any locks.

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in the city as an expat?
A: You should choose where you'd like to live depending on your Japanese language capabilities. Not all areas are home to English-speaking Japanese people, and therefore some expats prefer to live around areas where there are – like Roppongi. Personally, I prefer those areas of Tokyo or Yokohama where only a few foreigners live.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Tokyo?
A: As with every dense, large city, rent is not cheap, but not as expensive as in New York or Zurich for the same space.

Q: What's the cost of living in Tokyo compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Again depends on what scale you compare it to. From personal experience, I'd say cheaper than in Los Angeles, but not as expensive as in Zurich. Good food is cheap even on a global standard, and prices of previously high-priced items – like apparel – have come down.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: I call Japan my home. Since moving to Tokyo, I've mainly had contact with locals, but recently I've started to meet with a few long-term expats.

The community you choose to create really depends on what your reason for being in Japan is. If it is just for the short term, like 2 to 3 years with limited Japanese, then local contact will be more difficult.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: Very easy, and I experience a more supportive network than I experienced in the US or Switzerland.

About working in Japan

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: No, it was rather easy.

Q: What's the economic climate like in the city, is there plenty of work?
A: Depends really on your professional background and your Japanese language knowledge. From my professional experience in Japan, 95 percent of the contacts or meetings I have are conducted in Japanese. Therefore limited language abilities can be a big problem.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: Compared to my working experience in the US and Switzerland, the working hours are longer, and due to the workload, potential work on the weekend is not unusual. The interdependence and level of teamwork is higher in Japan than anywhere else I have experienced. As a consequence, taking more than three days at a time off really disrupts the workflow and has effects on the working environment.

The biggest challenge I have seen between locals and foreigners is that the shorter working hours and the additional days of leave taken by expats create a perception of less commitment among the Japanese.

Family and children

Q: What are the schools like? Any particular suggestions?
A: From what I have heard, it can be challenging to go to local schools if Japanese language skills are not good enough. So, international schools are often an option, but this can depend on financial status.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: I definitely fell in love with Japan. From personal observation, it seems that the expats who compared Japan to other countries faced the biggest problems adjusting. The people who tried to change the style of doing business in Japan, or those with a lack of desire to learn Japanese, struggled the most.

– Interviewed October 2010

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