Wild Geese: Travelling solo after reaching Japan’s glass ceiling for expats
Niall Murtagh loves his life in Japan so much he even wrote a book about it
Niall Murtagh: “Salaries and rents would be similar or lower than those of Ireland,” he says
Niall Murtagh’s decision to move abroad was more to do with a desire to experience different cultures rather than the lack of jobs at home. Between graduate studies and jobs, he travelled across most of Europe and Asia and on to Australia and New Zealand and from top to bottom of the Americas in the 1980s.
“By the time I finished my secondary education in O’Connells CBS, I had only been ‘overseas’ once – to the Isle of Man. I wanted to go a little further. I chose a technical degree in university because it would enable me to work farther afield,” he says.
Murtagh graduated with a master’s in engineering from UCD in 1985. He was awarded a scholarship to study a PhD in computer science at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and arrived in that country when the Japanese economy was booming.
In 1991, after learning the language and eventually completing the PhD, Murtagh settled down as an employee of Mitsubishi Electric where he stayed for 14 years.
“There were several other westerners there before me, working on one-year contracts, but I was the first non-Asian to become a permanent (so-called ‘lifetime’) employee with conditions the same as my Japanese colleagues,” he says.
Although he was promoted to manager class, the same as his Japanese colleagues, Murtagh often felt there was a glass ceiling he couldn’t break through. As a result, he eventually left Mitsubishi to set up his own business.
In 2005, Murtagh also published a book about working in Japan. “There was no book describing the work culture in a major Japanese corporation from the viewpoint of a foreigner who had become a ‘local’ employee. I set my experience against my previous free-wheeling travels and found an agent in London,” he says.
Entitled The Blue-Eyed Salaryman: From World Traveller to Lifer at Mitsubishi, it was published by Profile Books in London and subsequently translated into German, Russian, Japanese and other languages.
Murtagh now provides patent and technology translation services, mainly for local Japanese firms.
“My business is called OM-Consulting; my wife is Japanese and her family name is Oshima and represents the ‘O’ in the company name. Our two sons are now at university in Tokyo,” he says.
He also teaches a course on information technology (IT) in modern society at Hosei University in central Tokyo. The college’s English department has an exchange program with UCD.
Separately, at Tokyo University of Technology, Murtagh teaches technical English.
He has clear advice for those considering moving to the Far East.
“While Japan is not the booming place it was when I arrived here in the late 1980s, it is still the world’s third largest economy and there is always demand for English speakers in different fields, in technology and academia, in particular,” he says.
However, few people outside of the main business areas speak English, and a newcomer would need to learn some of the language for daily living.
Japanese culture is conservative in many ways – decisions are usually taken slowly in business, and social interactions lack spontaneity.
“You have to email or phone someone well in advance for any meeting or event,” Murtagh says. “Even with close friends, you can’t just drop by when you are in the neighbourhood.”
The Japanese culture and language provide a constant challenge. Social interactions are more formal than in Ireland, but society gels overall, resulting in the lowest crime rate of any major country in the world.
“Salaries and rents would be similar or lower than those of Ireland – unless you are an expat requiring special conditions. Direct and indirect taxation is lower than Ireland at present but is gradually rising due to Japan’s aging society,” Murtagh says.
Cars are unnecessary if you’re living in a large city such as Tokyo or Osaka. Public transport is cheaper and more efficient than anything in Europe but at peak times, trains are uncomfortably crowded.
Some of the good things about living in Japan include the level of customer service.
“When you move into a new house or apartment, the utilities will normally be switched on the same day. Post and delivery services operate six days a week (and sometimes seven), with late deliveries up to 9pm for people who can’t get home early. The food is good and healthy, although you have to develop a taste for things like natto (fermented soya beans),” he says.
All in all, he says, living in Japan is never boring. And for younger people Japan could be a good entry point to the other big economies of east Asia.