Working as an Indonesian Software Engineer in Japan

Photo of Anzhari Purnomo

Anzhari Purnomo

Contributor to TokyoDev

Even though I love Japan, I had never planned to work there. Like many Indonesian children, my first exposure to Japanese culture was through anime on Sunday morning TV broadcasts. At that time, I didn’t even know it was called anime, let alone that it came from Japan since it was dubbed.

But as I grew, the more I realized that there are so many Japanese influences around me. Automobiles, music players, rice cookers. It is all imported from Japan. I enrolled in a vocational high school, and my school even provided a mandatory Japanese language class.

I always thought that working in Japan would be very cool, but I didn’t make a concrete plan to work in Japan.

So, how do I end up working here?

Before Working in Japan

I was a CTO for a startup in Jakarta. We grew our team of engineers, but when COVID hit, it exposed that our business model wouldn’t work well, so the higher-ups decided to pivot and work on something else. I decided to take a break and work on freelance software engineering projects.

Six months in, one of my relatives was working for a Japanese company, and offered me a remote freelance job as a software engineer there. They focus on AR/VR/XR-related products like Apple Vision and HoloLens. They already had several key software engineers specialized in computer vision and needed someone who could work on their web-technology-related projects.

It seems like a good fit. I said yes to my relative, and we set up a meeting with the company’s owner. We discussed what kind of projects I would work on, the technology stacks, the deliverables, and our communication method. Everything clicked, and we started the freelance contract right away.

I worked on several projects, and before long, I had been working for a year with the company. I was comfortable with their internal processes and getting along well with the other engineers. I even started working on my Master’s degree during this time.

One afternoon, I took a break, ate my lunch, and watched YouTube videos. I got a Slack notification on my phone. I just finished a PR and figured they wanted to clarify some of the changes in my PR. I opened my phone, and I noticed it was from the CEO. It is not unusual that I received a message from the CEO, but not that happened so frequently either. Usually, it was when he asked for my input on a new project or for my opinion about potential partners in Indonesia.

I opened the message, and it went roughly like this:

“We have been working together for around a year this month, right? And I believe you have started working on your Master’s? Do you have any plans to work in Japan? “

It didn’t click right away where this conversation is going, so I just casually replied:

“Yeah, sure. But I don’t have any concrete plan right now. Ideally, I would like to keep working while also doing my Master’s degree, and I will think in more detail in the future… “

But then it hit me, and I quickly sent another message:

“But if there is an opportunity, I would be very excited to take it.”

After the Offer

We set up a call to discuss the offer and flesh out the details. It was very casual, but at the same time, practically a job interview. So, I changed my usual conversational tone to a more professional one. At the end of the meeting, I said this is an exciting offer, but I will need to consider it.

I tried to think about the offer more deeply, and three factors will affect my decision: the benefit of working abroad, the cost, and my family.

Working in an international company, and even more so, actually working abroad, would be a very positive move for my career. Ideally, it would allow me to explore many exciting career paths abroad. Even if it didn’t work out, and I needed to return to Indonesia, that additional experience would be attractive to recruiters in Indonesia.

As I said, my knowledge of Japan was only about popular culture. I didn’t know what it would be like to live in Japan. Considering the living costs in Indonesia, I had a comfortable income from my freelance projects. I found resources online about living costs in Japan, and realized my new salary from the full-time contract would be enough to cover them. I couldn’t save as much as when I was living in Indonesia, but living in a country with a larger economy than my home country would provide the potential to increase my future income.

Lastly, I already had a family in Indonesia. My son was 6, and just getting ready to be enrolled in elementary school. If we all moved to Japan, he would need to attend an elementary school there. This was both exciting and scary for me. If I went abroad, I would really like to take my family with me, and especially show my son how people live in different places and expose him to international culture. But I was also afraid he would not be able to adapt well to the Japanese school. I couldn’t afford to put my child in a Japanese International School, so our only option was the local Japanese school. My son was fluent in English and Indonesian, but he would need to learn Japanese at the local school.

I asked my wife about her opinion and explained the details. She replied, “It would be stupid if you reject this offer.”

I accepted the offer the next day. The first thing we did was prepare the papers and documents. He introduced me to a legal scrivener specializing in Japanese working visas, and we started the visa process.

I submitted all the necessary documents for the visa application process, and the scrivener confirmed that everything was in order. However, due to the COVID-19 related border closure, the scrivener cautioned me that the visa processing might take longer than usual due. As a result, the scrivener suggested that I reach out to the Japanese embassy in Indonesia for further details and clarification.

I called the local embassy, and they told me the visa registration process was on hold, and to watch the news for the latest updates. In the meantime, the legal scrivener kept working on the CoE while waiting for the information on the border opening.

The CoE was finished by November 2021, and I received the physical copy in December 2021. I waited another two months until the border was open, and the immigration process restarted at the end of February 2022.

First Few Months in Japan

By mid-2022, I had finally secured my apartment and flight ticket to Japan. It was an exciting and scary prospect, as it was the first time I was going to live abroad. Not to mention, I needed to be responsible for my family, too.

I was under a housing program from my employer, where they handled all the contracts related to the apartment. By the time I arrived, I already had a key, and everything was already set up, like the electricity and gas.

I spent more time in the office than before, and less on other activities like child-rearing and pursuing my degree. This was challenging, and I needed to be super disciplined to keep everything in check. This included staying healthy, since getting sick would take away precious time to do essential things. Also, I wanted to maintain a good appearance with the company, especially in the first few months. I considered myself a new employee under probation, even though I had been working with the company for over a year.

One significant factor that boosted my confidence was that I had a relative who also lived in Japan, so if push came to shove, I could ask for their help. Luckily, there turned out to be nothing significant that would cause inconvenience for them though.

After moving to Japan, the work hours and assignments did not change much, other than I now commute to the office regularly. I discussed this with the CEO, and we decided that I would go to the office two days a week in principle. I also only had a little overtime, which contrasts with a common stereotype in Indonesia: if you work for a Japanese company, you are expected to work crazy hours.

I used English with my immediate team in my daily work, while I used Japanese with the other employees. Most of the time, technical documentation came in Japanese, and I relied heavily on translator applications for complex explanations. Considering the language gap, I also clarified a lot with my fellow engineers to minimize misunderstandings. It helped that my coworkers were very supportive and respectful, which was a huge factor in my adapting in the first few months.

Working for a small team, I had a lot of freedom in making engineering decisions. While the language was usually already decided since I was continuing existing projects, the library and tools I use were mostly up to me to decide.

I had close to zero networks in Japan, so I started to get to know the local tech ecosystem by joining meetups around Tokyo. Considering my limited Japanese, at that point, I only joined those arranged primarily by expats. I also discovered a small group of students who shared the same alma mater working and living around Tokyo, which helped building a network.

Outside of work, I spent the first few months taking care of the documents at the local city office and elementary school, and getting used to the local dentist, post office, and doctors. Conversations with the regional offices were tough, and I relied heavily on the translator app. It helped that the people from the regional offices were very patient. I also found a local group organized by the city government and volunteers called Yokohama International Lounge, which helps foreigners living in Yokohama, where I live. They provided:

  • A general consultation service.
  • Almost free Japanese language lessons.
  • Regular events that mostly involved mothers and kids.

I visited the local elementary school and felt very lucky that several faculty members were fluent in English, as my limited Japanese and translator app wouldn’t have been enough to bridge the communication otherwise. We are fortunate to live near such a school. Yokohama also provides a Japanese language learning program for children who just moved to Japan. All the support systems really relieved my stress and anxiety about navigating the beginning of my life in Japan.

Living my whole life in a tropical country, I was not prepared to live in Japan. When I first arrived, it was summer, and slightly hotter than Indonesia. Still, it was something that I am familiar with and can bear. Closer to fall, the temperature and humidity dropped, and caused many problems for me. I have never experienced dry skin before, but now using moisturizer and lip balm was a must, or I will have a terrible day.

Clothing was also something that I was not well prepared for. I visited the local Uniqlo to stock up on sweaters and heat tech for Fall and Winter. The first few weeks of fall were awful, especially when the temperature dropped under 15 degrees. But somehow, I could adapt well. It also helps to have an AC with a heater mode, which I just knew existed since I moved to Japan, and an electric blanket at the end of your day. By spring, I was already accustomed to the climate, and stocked with appropriate clothing.

What I Would Do Differently If I Had a Chance

Looking back, there are a few things that I could do better. My significant oversight was the language, especially related to my child. Having a support system from the local government and school was pure luck.

When I chose an apartment to live in, I only cared about how close the local school was to the apartment. I brushed off other factors, assuming I could rely on my company and relatives if things get complicated. There was also a child-rearing subsidy from the government, which I discovered after I moved in.

If I were to do it all over again, I would research what support is available from the municipal government before deciding on an apartment. In contrast, one of my friends from Indonesia who also moved to Japan a few months after I did was not so lucky. They also moved in as a family with children, but unfortunately their local government and city didn’t have much support for them.

From a professional perspective, I would spend more time discussing the contract with my employer. I was also offered a housing program where my company would make the contract under their name, and I would have the rent deducted from my salary. In general, I received a lot of benefits from the agreement and the program my employer offered me. But given another chance, I would research more into the implications of the contracts and make a more informed decision before signing the offer.

By now, most of my stress and anxiety about navigating life in Japan is gone. Work is progressing smoothly, while I continue to grow a local network from local meetups and my alma mater. My child started to study at the local elementary school with great support from the school and local government, and my wife went to local events and made some friends she could rely on. It is not perfect, but somehow, it all worked well, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

More about the author

Photo of Anzhari Purnomo

Anzhari Purnomo

Contributor to TokyoDev

Anzhari is an Indonesian living in Japan. Was previously building an email-tech startup, currently a software engineer handling backend and DevOps for a Japanese company, and operating a meteor detection station in Japan along with the Global Meteor Network. He used to practice parkour many years ago, lately spending the weekends doing light calisthenics or playing Minecraft with his child.

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