Leadership Network cohort thriving in Tokyo

It’s easy to feel lost in a city of 30 million but connecting with a crew of like-minded Kiwis has helped five expats find their feet in Tokyo.
The group sitting around a table at a restaurant

The Tokyo coterie: Sam Pearson, Jessica Tisch, Christey West, Kaleb Uri-ke and Garreth Stevens

Wellingtonian Garreth Stevens works for Custom Media, a leading bilingual marketing agency in Japan, and he’s responsible for bringing in new business.

Japan got under his skin during a working holiday, and it’s been a dream to return and work in Tokyo ever since.

He’s one of five members of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network living in the Asian capital.

The group make an effort to get together regularly – in the calendar may be dinner or drinks, an All Blacks game to watch, or a chance to play tour guide on an explore of a new neighbourhood. For instant virtual connection, there’s a Facebook messenger group.

Living offshore has its challenges – he’s slowly and steadily learning a new language, navigating daily life and routines, and getting his head around work in a different culture – but Garreth says the network has helped him thrive both professionally and socially.

“You’re never fully orientated in a place like this so the more connections you have, the wider that web goes, the better.”

Fellow expat Sam Pearson is head of sponsorship for AIG. He was brought over ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, before Covid chaos removed some of the sparkle off the Olympic Games.

He’s been a useful contact for Garreth: “I know that I can pick up the phone and call Sam and he’ll lend me his ear for an hour if I have questions about sports marketing or something else for a project coming up.”

Sam reckons figuring out what you’ve got to offer is a satisfying and often overlooked component of networking.

“By doing that then you go in with a much more open mindset and the networking becomes, from my experience, more genuine because you really are trying to help other people and hook everyone up and, by that value, you present yourself in the best light as well.”

Sam’s travelled back and forth between New Zealand and offshore homes much of his adult life, but the pandemic has created some unease.

“I don’t know where home is, but it’s definitely become clear with Covid that we can’t have it all. We can’t just be New Zealanders living overseas and coming and going as we please. Having that taken away has definitely got me thinking more about identity.”

Jessica Tisch works for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise helping to support New Zealand exporting companies in the Japanese market.

She says the interactions she has with the other Tokyo-based members of the Leadership Network have become more vital as Covid travel restrictions have checked the ease with which she has been able to maintain connections with friends and family in Aotearoa.

“It’s really nice just to have other people in the same boat.”

Jessica Tisch with Prime Minister Jacinda Adern

Jessica Tisch with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Tokyo

It’s a similar feeling for Kaleb Uri-ke. He joined the Leadership Network while already based offshore, so the gatherings of the Tokyo chapter are his main interface with the network.

His love affair with Japan was sparked during a school exchange programme – he was motivated to learn Japanese to continue his relationship with his non-English speaking host family.

He’s created opportunities to come back since and connecting with like-minded people passionate about his adoptive homeland through the Leadership Network has been sweet.

When Christey West shifted from Singapore to Tokyo for her partner to take up a job, the Leadership Network gave her “people to hang out with and connect with from the start”.

She’s the co-founder of Just Peoples, a not-for-profit that lifts people out of poverty in Africa and Asia by supporting locally generated solutions to specific community needs - The charity doesn’t operate in Japan, so Christey works remotely.

“There was an instant rapport, no awkward silences. They feel like old friends, even though we are a professional network.”

It’s been a few years since Christey has graced Kiwi shores and her social circles are increasingly international, so the Leadership Network is an important tie.

“Without the Leadership Network, right now, I’d feel quite disconnected from New Zealand, so it feels like kind of a bridge back home.

“It keeps me connected to my Kiwi identity, which would possibly slip away a bit otherwise.”

The perspectives of offshore New Zealanders like Christey help provide an authentic base on which New Zealand-Japan relations can continue to build, so it’s vital they feel that connection to home.

Japan is a “very famous” country, Christey says.

“It’s got a lot of sterotypes: anime, samurai, sushi.

“Japan is either crazy extreme - like Japanese variety shows - or it’s too good to be true etiquette - absolutely perfect tea ceremonies.

“People pick up these sorts of soundbites, and that’s their picture of Japan.

 “But, when you get here, you realise there are many, many layers, as there is with any country.”

 Having Kiwis in-country experiencing all of the nuances and feeding back these experiences to colleagues and contacts in New Zealand provides a more well-rounded image of Japan and its people, she says.