An Intern's Apology

This was originally written around August 17th, 2018, in a stream of consciousness manner, on my last day in the office. I've edited it extensively to be a little more presentable, and a little less ungrateful. When it was originally written it was in present tense, but since the past is in the past, I (future I, relative to past I) wrote it in past tense.

I had the chance to work in Japan for the summer of 2018. It was a mixture of befuddlement and wonder. I don't understand how these people come into work. I truly don't. I'm looking around the office right now and some people seem interested in what they're doing, but a lot of them just seem to stare into space with a face of hopelessness. A face of just, waiting out their existence. I guess I'm kind of doing the same thing.

The First Day

Prior to my arrival, I was given a rough idea of what I would be working on, and had a brief email exchange with my future boss. However, I was clearly not prepared for what I could only describe as the most eccentric development and workplace environment I have ever experienced.

I woke up at 6 am to have enough time to eat the dorm breakfast downstairs and catch the 7 am train to head to the office. The route was two trains followed by a 15 minute walk to the office. Luckily, I had a friend from college that was also doing this internship program with me, so I was not alone. When we got to the office, we met an HR representative that we were communicating with over email. Before we could meet our respective bosses, we had to first change into our Mitsubishi uniforms. Then she mentioned that we actually had to go meet the man in charge of the building we would be working in.

This meeting with the floor boss was more of a diplomatic gesture than anything else. His office was in the spatial center of the building, on the central floor, in the center of the floor. As we walked up to this office, we could see that it was guarded by a large set of wooden double doors. We paused before the doors and she briefed us on what would follow. We were to bow as we said our greetings, say that Caltech was grateful to have this relationship with Mitsubishi, and then exit. The two doors opened simultaneously as if a throne hid behind them, we said our greetings, the floor boss said his, and then the doors closed.

The HR rep then gave us our "safety" manuals, which I discuss later in this post, and sent us to our floors. After finally meeting my boss, he gave me a rundown of my desk and some instructions on setting up my company email account. All of a sudden, a bell rings. I thought this was a fire alarm or something, but no one moved. It was 8:30 am. Work has begun.

I could not believe they had bells at work, just like we do in US schools. After a handful of hours, another bell rang at 12:00. Lunchtime.

The lunches were actually really nice. I enjoyed not being able to recognize what I was eating, and adventuring on each of the little sections of the bento. Throughout my entire time there, almost all of the unidentifiable (to me) compartments were delicious.

About five minutes into lunchtime, the ceiling lights turned off. I see many of the workers on my floor get out pillows, place them on their desks, and then just pass out. I thought this was a little weird, but maybe it's cool that they've normalized a workplace naptime. Then, around 12:25 or so a much softer bell jingle wakes everyone up.

At 3:30 pm, yet another bell rang, and everyone stands up at their desks. Me, obviously being a foreigner and not speaking Japanese that well, I did the same. Then some weird music comes onto the PA system and starts yelling a bunch of things that I could not understand. Everyone on my floor, throws their arms into the air. Okay I guess I'm doing that now. Followed by stretches, and some mobility exercies, jumping jacks, etc. Why did no one tell me about this.

Then at 5:00 pm, another bell rang, and that was my cue to go home. I was explicitly forbidden from doing any overtime, so home I went.

Things I had problems with

No headphones or music of any kind allowed while in the office. Everything is gray. Punctuality is more highly valued than output. That is, I felt like if I had worked twice as fast as the guy next to me, but showed up 30 minutes late every day, I would be fired.

Most of the time, If I was prohibited from doing something, it was nominally for security or safety purposes. I wasn't sure if this was a mistranslation of "safety", because there were some bizarre rules:

While some of these might make some sense (like blocking websites), what I didn't understand was how unserious it felt. For example, I was given a Raspberry Pi as part of my project, which had to be connected to the internet. The service I had to interface with was on a blocked IP, so my boss just grabbed the blue ethernet cable beneath the desk, as opposed to the gray one, and plugged it in. Apparently the blue cables were unrestricted, and the gray cables went through the neutered intranet.

Another incidence of this half-assed security infrastructure was a phishing email that I had gotten on my work email during my first week. I was confused how this was even possible since I hadn't posted this email anywhere, but I didn't think much about it. Especially so because I was very curious in seeing how well-crafted these Japanese phishing emails were. Upon clicking one of the links in the email, a page with many large red characters came up, and it was clearly some internal Mitsubishi page. After attempting to read it and translate it, it seemed that this was an internal phishing test to see who would fall for it. The page said I was supposed to report to my boss, but I decided not to since I could claim not being able to read the Japanese. My boss, however, never mentioned it to me, and I never got any further emails about it again. How could they run an internal phishing test like this and not follow up with the people that fell for it?

We were given a safety and security manual, that I have unfortunately since thrown out, that had some absurd sections:

It is not improbable that a colleague in the workplace may suddenly die, leaving permanent scars on family member and the workplace.

Unsafe Behavior: Example No. 10: Do not work long hours while sitting with your legs crossed... Your legs may fall asleep, and if you force yourself to walk under such condition, you may fall.

When discarding purchased items, destroy the item physically with a hammer.

Perhaps sensibly, I don't have admin rights to my windows computer. (I had to get permission to install Chrome, Sublime Text, etc). There was an incident where I needed to install some software to flash a piece of hardware. The entire hierarchy of bosses were at work, but the single sysadmin was not. Thus, I couldn't do anything that day. And no one seemed to have any issue with me not doing anything that day. However, I obviously was not allowed to go home early.

Borderline Absurd

Like many offices in the US, you had to tap your ID onto a reader in order to enter your building. However, here you also had to tap in order to enter your floor. I couldn't visit my friend on the 6th floor, and he couldn't visit me on the 7th. Even more absurdly, you had to tap to exit the building, and the ID system had internal state of where it thought you were. So, if you tap to exit a building, realize your shoe is untied, tie your shoe, and let the door close, you can no longer exit the building. Twice I had to tailgate someone to exit my building.

Another bizarre thing, was that everyone had two desktops. One was Windows and one was Ubuntu. The Windows one was for email and PowerPoint, and the Ubuntu one for software development. How this made any sense was beyond me.

Meetings would go on for hours without discussing anything. I was so confused. The meetings I was a part of would always start on time but would never end on time.

The Destroyer

There was no version control. None. The code was emailed around. During my last week, a coworker gave a presentation on git and GitHub. My boss said he didn't understand the utility behind it.

On my last day, I had to email my boss a zip file of my project. However, my project was on my Ubuntu desktop, but only the Windows one could send emails. I couldn't use a USB because the ports are blocked by stickers. How I did it, I don't remember.

Some Good Stuff

There were things that I was pleased to discover while working there though. One was that every Friday, everyone (the entire floor) would spend 20 minutes cleaning up. Things like taking out the trash, vacuuming, wiping the desks. This was really cool to see.

I really liked the dorm food. There was a kitchen on the bottom floor that would serve breakfast on the weekdays. While would be a different meal every day, they always had some kind of miso. Oh and no phones were allowed in the dorm cafeteria.

Lastly, of course the country was beautiful. I wish I had travelled more but the commute burned me out a bit. I'll be back.

I want to make it clear that I was, and still am, extremely grateful for the opportunity to have worked in Japan. It's an experience I don't think I'll ever have again.