THE WAY Returnees Edition introduces women who continue to shine and empower themselves even after returning to Japan by making use of their experiences abroad.
This time, we meet Takako Denkai who has worked in Vietnam for four months and Singapore for eight months. She runs a company focusing on food wholesale and human resource development.
Takako spent her school days not thinking about much but through her experience overseas, she was shaken by her working style and the underlying way she was living her life.
We wonder what Takako got up to in the two ASEAN countries closest to Japan. We hear about the Vietnamese and Singaporean lifestyles, ways of working there and the lessons she’s learned there.
Moving to Vietnam as a fresh graduate
Takako currently manages a total of four companies, she’s a representative director of three companies and an officer at one. She started her career with setting up a restaurant founded by her father who had connections in Vietnam and a joint venture with a local owner.
Up until then, Takako had never worked in the hospitality industry and had no experience in setting up a restaurant. She was persuaded by her father who said, “You can be a teacher just by being Japanese!”
The job assigned to Takako in Vietnam was mainly to provide customer service training to Vietnamese staff working in the restaurant. She couldn't speak Vietnamese but a local translated for her and she trialed and errored with cleaning and serving and made full use of body language while showing them what she was doing and doing it together.
However, when the restaurant opened, all the unexpected things happened.
For example, at the beginning of the opening, government officials invited by Vietnamese owners visited the store one after another and the owners were entrusted with greetings and customer service. The fact that they could serve customers with Japanese customer service was because the restaurant was set up by the Japanese.
"Every day was hectic since the restaurant opened. I remember each person with a tab in their ear but not being able to give instructions well because they couldn't speak and they ran barefoot on the stairs of a five-story restaurant from top to bottom.”
Takako was tired of the unfamiliar environment, it was her first job and her legs were always cramped. In her room geckoes crawled on the walls and she seemed to have fallen into a hell bed where a large number of ants had sprung up.
The one who saved Takako was the Vietnamese owner who said, "It’s because you’re Made in Japan."
"At that time, Made in Japan was the most reliable brand in Vietnam. I was worried about what I was doing, so I was very happy to be confident for the first time. I still remember what he told me sometimes and that always strengthens me. "
The warmth and resilience she learned from the Vietnamese
Many of the staff working at the restaurant are girls from the countryside far from Hanoi. They get a salary of about 10,000 yen (at that time) a month, and about 80% of it is sent to their parents. They look forward to returning to their parents' houses by bus every month with the money to send.
Many of them grew up in a poor family environment, some of them slept while standing on rainy days because their house had no roof and some didn’t know how to open a bottle of beer. Each of these small events made Takako realise that what was common sense for her was not common sense for them.
"I was very pleased to take one of the hard-working staff to get their nails done and the next day everyone bought sweets as a way to say thank you. If they deducted their pay by giving it to their family, you could never be luxurious but it wasn’t stingy at all. I thought it was beautiful. I wondered if I could do the same. "
Hanoi at that time was just like Japan 50 years ago, and all the staff supported each other like a real family, even if they weren’t family members. They shared the joy like the way an older sister protects the younger children like real siblings. Seeing such warmth between everyone, Takako wanted to be like them.
“I call it the ‘Southeast Asian power’ but Vietnamese people just say anything and when they get angry, they say, “Ok, let’s go with plan B!” (laughs). I’m trying to learn from them by trying to say it even if it’s not good.”
It's easy to think that you shouldn't bother people and that you have to do everything you can but Takako learned that it's important to rely on people and push your thoughts strongly.
The Singaporean way - Work Hard, Play Hard
In 2011, the food company where Takako worked found its way into the Singapore bubble and they decided to launch a new business of wholesaling Japanese food to local Japanese restaurants. Takako was sent to Singapore for a tour.
Singapore, which is about the size of Awaji Island, had a little less than 700 Japanese restaurants at that time and the number of foreign restaurants was by far the largest (the second-largest Italian restaurant is about 120). Therefore, many companies, including major ones, were all expanding into Singapore.
Takako and her colleagues started from scratch with no connections, no plans and no funds but they found a local partner company and managed to start trading with a long-established luxury hotel.
"In Singapore, where prices are high, there are 10 million cold storage cars that can be bought for 3 million yen in Japan. As I wasn’t able to beat large corporations with the financial resources, I was able to gain connections with individual people. I got people to introduce me which helped me a lot. "
Takako decided to return to Japan when she was able to open an account to start trading. She wasn't able to actually do business but was able to have a breakthrough of her own.
"In Singapore, I learned a lot about my private life. I made friends with local bankers, but they spoke several languages and had various experiences. For me, even though the barriers were high, I was able to overcome challenges without difficulty. While spending time with them, I was able to experience more and encounter lots of different types of people.”
They all worked and learned hard on weekdays and played hard on weekends. Takako also wore bodycon dresses on weekends and went to clubs. Even after returning to Japan, she tries her best in everything with the spirit of ‘Work hard, play hard’.
The ‘Physical Spirit’ gained abroad
From her overseas experience, Takako learned the strength to tackle everything with her body.
"Until then, I was often on the sidelines because I wasn't confident in myself, but after my overseas experience, I began to wonder, 'What can I do now?'"
In both countries, Takako realised the importance of taking on challenges while confronting things she was inexperienced in, struggling and overcoming them and testing her limits.
"For example, when I talked to people overseas, I was embarrassed, not confident and I didn't want others to see me as stupid so I hesitated to speak English which I wasn't good at. I’m still not great at English but I'd be happy if someone says they want to get closer to me.”
Takako says she still can't speak English at all but soon becomes friends with people from any country. That's because she’s not afraid of making mistakes or failing to communicate and has the attitude of wanting to just tell someone something when she talks to others. The trick is to "Do your best with your body language." (laughs)
A new business - Creating a safe place for technical intern trainees
Takako is about to start a new business this year. It focuses on creating a training facility that accepts technical intern trainees from Vietnam.
Technical intern trainees must spend one month at the training facility from the time they arrive in Japan until they work at their assigned company. This is a new life for them in Japan where Vietnamese trainees have a lot of anxiety. There are many trainees who run away from their assigned companies and some of them work illegally in dangerous places that make you want to cover your eyes.
Takako wants to create a safe place that they can come back to anytime so that even just one person won’t be reduced from the group.
"Now there are employees who stick with me and I feel like I'm taking care of their lives and dreams. Sometimes things don't always go as planned during COVID but that's when I look at what my next steps should be like working on obtaining qualifications and permits or maintaining the internal system of our company.”
Takako always hummed the song ‘It's Important’ by the MAN Brothers when she was having a hard time living abroad.
"Don't give up, don't throw anything away, don't run away, believe in yourself. The most important part is when things are about to go wrong."
The reason why Takako is trying her best to create a workplace where employees can work while feeling motivated and a place where technical intern trainees can feel at ease is because she has become stronger and kinder after her overseas experience. We’re looking forward to Takako’s future activities!
Thank you for reading this, and We are always here for you!
Women can fly.
Much love, xxx
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