Written by: Danni Yang, Gabi Moreira, Niveda Kumar, and Luis Sante

Mastering the 0.5 selfie in Japan (1: Chureito Pagoda, Mt. Fuji; 2: Sea of Clouds at Hotel Chinzanso, Tokyo)

袋いりますか? Instant fear. The awkwardness of the moment extends as you ask whether the cashier can repeat what they said in English, the line behind you continuing to grow as you fumble over unfamiliar coins. Language barriers were a constant presence during our 2-week IBD project in Japan with Z-Works, a startup developing a sensor-based IoT monitoring solution for senior care facilities. Taking us from a local senior assisted living facility in Oakland, California to a high-rise tokuyo (nursing home) in Yokohama, Japan, our work with Z-Works brought us around the world as we toured different facilities and interviewed facility managers, caregivers and IoT distributors. Even with the help of our friendly Z-Works translator, Kodama-san, there was a big learning curve in our initial Japan interviews as we adjusted for extended timings due to translation time, struggled to understand responses like the “samurai soul” of a hardworking care manager and even faced language barriers within our multicultural team (rest assured, Gabi now knows the many ways to use the phrase “gassing up”).

IBD team meeting Z-Works team at Berkeley Faculty Club during Oakland pilot program installation

IBD team and translator Kodama-san on the way to tour a senior care facility in Soka, Saitama Prefecture

Despite our lack of mastery of the Japanese language and the limitations of a few weeks of inconsistent Duolingo lessons, our confidence increased as we began to master common phrases, like sumimasen (excuse me) and arigato gozaimasu (thank you). This sense of belonging only grew as we were warmly welcomed by the Cal/Haas network in Tokyo. In our first week, we presented at their Bar of the Month event to engaged alumni, who were interested in learning more about IBD, Z-Works, and the work we had been doing with them over the past 5 months.

IBD and Z-Works team presenting at Tokyo’s Haas/Cal Bar of the Month in Ebisu

The next week, we were invited to lunch with Seiichiro Yamamoto (Haas ’92) at his club in Roppongi Hills. We had an insightful discussion around global trends and changes across MBA programs and universities over the last few decades, while enjoying the stunning view overlooking Tokyo. This was one more reminder of the strength of the Haas community – Haasies remain warm and welcoming, no matter how long it has been since they graduated or how far they have gone since their time at Haas.

Lunch on the 51st floor of Roppongi Hills Club with Seiichiro Yamamoto (Haas ‘92)

As we learned more every day about living and working in Tokyo, we adapted to better leverage our skills and tools to meet people in the middle. Using Google Translate and Chat-GPT, we created a Japanese version of our workshop slides at the last minute, because we felt it was critical that attendees had a complete understanding of the background behind the questions we were asking. When we ran into a Japanese coworker during our commute one day, we were able to have a full conversation using a mixture of the basic Japanese we had picked up, English, and a generous amount of gestures.

Although we couldn’t communicate well with many of our officemates in a traditional sense, we felt their gratitude and appreciation through other ways. After our final presentation, the CEO surprised us by organizing a farewell depa-chika party, bringing us to a depa-chika (department store food court) to choose a sweet and savory food we wanted to try. We had a friendly competition to see who chose the “best” food by having everyone in the office taste test and vote on the 3 foods they liked the most (somehow the wine almost won, with 5 votes compared to the 7 votes of the winning shu mai!). As we laughed over cream cheese potato salad and red bean buns, we felt like we had truly bonded with the office community and people in Tokyo. Thank you to our wonderful Z-Works hosts for welcoming us so completely into the company and to IBD for facilitating this opportunity! Arigato gozaimasu!

Depa-chika farewell party at Z-Works office, Tokyo

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