Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

In Japan, almost every aspect of life is different to home

There are more socialising options, but the Orwellian vibe can be weird, says Michael O’Brien

Fri, Aug 16, 2013, 00:01


Michael O’Brien

There were no concerns about the Irish economy when I started studying mechanical engineering in college but I always knew I would look abroad for work. Energy, particularly gas turbines, really interested me, but there is no heavy industry in Ireland where they are manufactured.

Japan wouldn’t have been my first-choice destination, but I was really happy to be accepted to a graduate programme with Mitsubishi there after I finished in NUI Galway, doing exactly the type of work I wanted. Myself and six other Irish engineers travelled to the industrial town of Takasago, outside Kobe, almost two years ago to join five others already there.

The gas turbines I work on now are the same machines as jet engines, in what is called a combined cycle power plant. The exhaust from a gas engine is used to boil water to drive a steam engine in order to generate electricity. It is the hot topic in power generation, so the experience I’m getting is great.

The group of Irish at the company has continued to grow since I arrived. There are 17 of us now, all aged between 22 and 31. We are the largest community of Irish professionals in Japan, according to the Irish Embassy. There are a lot of Irish people teaching English and working for tech companies, but it is rare to find clusters working together.

We all get on really well and most of my friends here would be the Irish guys from work. It would have been much harder if I had come over on my own, or if there had only been a few other Irish. I don’t know if I would have managed.

The outdoor life

There are a lot more options for socialising here than there would be at home – the climate means you can enjoy more of the outdoors. There are amusement parks, mountains to climb and beaches to sit on, and the public transport network is excellent, which makes it really easy to just hop on a train to another city without much planning.

Japan can be a difficult place to live at times. Almost every aspect of life is different from home, and it has taken all of us a while to adjust. There is a bit of a George Orwell 1984 vibe going on; I would often hear public announcements telling children to go home and do their homework or asking people to leave the beach at a certain time. I still find it strange.

The language barrier is a major issue, both in the workplace and in daily life. We get classes twice a week through the company, but it is a very difficult language to learn. Being surrounded by it helps, though – we continue to learn even if we can’t find time to study.

We work long hours and the job is very demanding, but I love what I do. I won’t be going home in a year, but I doubt I will be here for 10 either.

Before I left I thought the act of leaving Ireland would be really hard, and wondered what I would do to be able to live there again. But the longer I have been away, the less concerned I am about that. My priorities might change as the years go by, and perhaps settling in Ireland will become the most important thing, but for now, my career is my priority. I’ll go wherever the work takes me, I don’t really mind where.

I would definitely urge other young Irish people to move away to somewhere far away from Ireland for a few years at least. Experiencing such a diffent way of life makes you more appreciative and more critical of your own culture. It can be really difficult being so far from home, but the experience is priceless.

In conversation with Ciara Kenny

This article appears in the Life pages of The Irish Times today.