[From May Issue 2012]
American Renee KIDA is the HR manager at the Kohoku IKEA in Yokohama, Japan. Her job requires Japanese every day, but despite having majored in Japanese, she could say little more than sumimasen (I’m sorry) and daijoubu (okay) when she first arrived. Getting to where she is now took skill and perseverance in the face of numerous obstacles.
Usually talkative, Kida says her lack of Japanese left her feeling rather lonely at first. She tried taking language courses, but her real breakthrough happened on the job. Early on she found herself supporting a team whose members spoke no English. “Up until that point, I was around a lot of people who spoke some English, so as soon as I didn’t understand they would just switch to English and I never seemed to progress. Working with that team … I got over the psychological barrier about worrying about making mistakes.”
Similarly, there was a period when Kida found herself responsible for the phones during the lunch break. “I remember my hands being sweaty, and not being able to eat my obentou (pack lunch) as I was so nervous,” she says. So she wrote a script and memorized it. “I learned to handle the phone through practice … Now I often find the phone easier than email.”
Another obstacle Kida faced was gender roles in Japan. The HR director at her former employer even said once that if Kida planned to stay in Japan long term, she would need to find a Japanese husband. “I had to really monitor my way of communicating to not come across too strong, and had to struggle to be taken seriously.”
Still, as she saw things, “I chose my job, so I had to figure out a way to still get credibility and make it work for me.” And the status of women was changing, too. “When I first got here it took a qualified woman 15 years to get her first promotion, and there were no women in sales. Not a single one!” These days, though, even the company where the HR director told Kida to find a Japanese husband has a female president.
Kida’s final challenge was herself. Working in marketing at a medical device company, even with promotions, she felt stuck. So she quit her job, went back to school, got an MBA and also studied more Japanese. All the while she worked a part time job at a friend’s training company. Eventually, though, she began working at IKEA and has moved up over time to her current position. It’s a good company for women. “We have many women managers – close to 50%! And I feel our company culture is very women friendly, allowing us to contribute and grow in many ways.”
Ultimately, Kida says, “Finding your right profession and, or, place to work is an art or refined skill, regardless of country.” And she seems to have mastered that art; in her heart, she loves her life here and says that she is grateful for it.
Text: Gregory FLYNN