An expat life in Japan since the tsunami, with Brian Salsberg of McKinsey and Company
Behind each book there is a life, or lives, as is the case with the business title “Reimagine Japan.” In reality, many lives – more than 80 in all, including the publishers who brought the book to life and published it – during one of the most challenging times in recent Japanese history.
When the earthquake hit Tokyo on the afternoon of March 11, Brian Salsberg was busy transmitting the final manuscript of Reimagining to a printer abroad. That wouldn’t be the last time disaster and Salsberg’s book would intersect. As news of problems at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima began to surface and the crisis deepened, Salsberg and his team agreed to a comprehensive review and the results paid off. A book born in an hour of crisis was suddenly the book that many readers searched for answers.
Salsberg, not unlike the collection of essays he edited a year ago, has a natural gift for bringing Japan into sharp focus. A graduate of Cornell and Harvard Law School, Salsberg moved from corporate law practice to management consulting, and is the leader of McKinsey’s Consumer & Shopper Insights Center. And in his last five years, he has also accumulated knowledge about Japan, some of which he shared with AsianTalks.
AsianTalks: Brian, you are currently in McKinsey’s Tokyo office. Tell us how you got there.
Brian: I started in our New York and New Jersey offices, where I was doing a variety of different and interesting projects. In New Jersey I found myself making more pharmaceutical and consumer products. Then I moved to Japan after having been with the firm for six or seven years.
And given the number of years you’ve worked at McKinsey, is it safe to assume that you enjoy consulting far more than the practice of corporate law?
Brian: I do, I do. As a lawyer, it takes a long time to really get involved in strategy and decision making. As a young lawyer, you are called in after the big decisions have been made, to effectively put in writing the main terms of the deal, the transaction, while in consulting, even as a young consultant, you are front and center. center from day one.
I’m still at McKinsey because I love learning new things, helping individual executives reach their goals, and I get to work with a really smart group of very diverse people, which makes coming to work fun and exciting every day.
Was it a difficult decision to move to Japan in 2007? How did you feel about relocating your family?
Brian: Yes, you know it’s fun. So McKinsey really encourages young partners to stay away from their home office, because it’s really the company’s way of leveraging our best practices around the world.
I wasn’t even thinking about it, but after I became a partner in 2006, they always take the new partner somewhere as a little celebration, and they also start to explain some of the things we need to know as leaders of this firm. . And it happened in that year which was in Bangkok and Cambodia. We had just had our second child, but we heard some really compelling speakers talk about the benefits of moving abroad, so it really got us through a process of thinking about where to go. We looked at London, Shanghai and Tokyo, and after seeing all three, we fell in love with Tokyo, just as a place to live and raise a family. Two months later, we find ourselves here.
As a parent, what has it been like to raise your children abroad?
Brian: It has been a fantastic experience. The biggest compensation they have had to make is being separated from their family. That has been difficult, even in the era of Skype and FaceTime. But the benefits have been quite extraordinary. My daughter is five years old so she literally grew up her entire life here, my son is eight so they don’t know anything different, but it has been fantastic for a number of reasons.
They understand Asia, they know where all the countries are, they have been to all these countries. I joke with my son: he has been to many more countries than I have when he is eight years old, it took me until I was 38 to get there. And they have been everywhere, so the experience has been great. And even though they go to American school, there is a very diverse group of students there. If I look at his close friends, it’s a bit like the United Nations, which has been great too.
Also learning a different language and a different culture at that young age, even if they don’t retain it all, has been fantastic and you can even say it with their accents. The way they speak Japanese is much more native. So it has been a fantastic experience and one that we have never regretted.
Let’s talk about Japan. Would you say that Japan is different from the rest of Asia?
Brian: From my observation, I absolutely believe that there are differences. It is not to say that all Japanese believe that they are superior to others. However, I think that in everything they do, there is at least a very deep pride.
If you look at the quality of life, the appreciation for food, products and other sophisticated, courtesy, cleanliness, respect for the elderly, nature, all those things you hear about Japan are 100% true. You see it every day. And as a foreigner here you get the benefits of all that.
Second, I wouldn’t call it xenophobia, but certainly if you look at the Japanese stance towards immigration and letting others in here, I mean that Japan is still one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. I think only 2 percent of Japan is not Japanese. All these things end up being strengthened, and furthermore, this is an island nation, which speaks a unique language among its people that no one else speaks. So when you add all of that up, it’s not surprising that some of these themes persist.
Has the expat community in Tokyo changed since the earthquake?
Brian: There was absolutely – and the facts support it – a very large exodus after March 11, 2011. A large percentage of the people did not return. It also served a bit as a boost for the people who had been here for quite some time, to also use it as a small reason to finally pick up and leave.
And you can see this in school attendance. There was an article about the German school that was really struggling so much that they were thinking of asking the German government for help.
The foreign clubs and some of the foreign restaurants have closed. As for where they went, it’s a combination of returning to their home country and seeking refuge in places like Hong Kong and Singapore, which are two of the most popular expat havens. And indeed, it can be seen that entering the school for foreigners in those places has also become more difficult since the earthquake.
And what are your plans for the future to come?
Brian: My personal situation is difficult, because we love Japan and probably the only thing we don’t love about Japan is the aftershocks and tremors that have persisted, even more than a year later, which could be quite stressful.
However, I think it’s fair to say that if you look at all the places in Asia where an expat can live, coming from a person who is quite biased, I think Japan would win hands down, and Singapore, Hong Kong are probably very close. second, but it’s still hard to get out of here.
When visiting the United States from Japan, have you ever felt a contrast between the two countries? For example, do you sometimes find that facilities are missing in the United States?
Brian: Oh, absolutely. The example I use is the airport system. If you look at Haneda airport, or for that matter Hong Kong, Singapore, the new Beijing airport, these are the best world-class airports across the board in all dimensions.
Then fly as an American to JFK Airport in New York or Newark Airport in New Jersey, and it feels like you’re in a third world, a developing country with a crumbling infrastructure, long lines, and terrible customer service.
It’s a very strange feeling, feeling like this, and it’s a very strange feeling when you come back and land in Japan, and you see half a dozen workers in their perfect uniforms bowing to the plane at 6 in the morning. , and people smiling, welcoming you, courtesy. And you think, “Wow. I’m happy to be home.” It is a very strange feeling to have been away for so many years.
What have been your gastronomic experiences in Asia? Is there one that makes us a little envious?
Brian: When it comes to food in Asia, the dining experiences here have been very fascinating, and I think others would be a bit embarrassed, especially if they haven’t had a chance to try this, but when you’re with a bunch of Japanese Executives , after some sake, everyone is convincing you that some of the best parts of the fish are the fish testicles and the fish eyes, somehow you are convinced to try it. So I have eaten both and here are delicacies. I even got a chance to taste Fugu, the puffer fish, which if the chef didn’t cut the right part, it would kill you.
So I would say that you definitely get a bit adventurous here. But with that said, the cuisine in Japan is the best in the world, and it’s not just Japanese food that we’re necessarily talking about here. In that sense, if you like food, there is no better place to be than Tokyo.