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Some techies are ditching Silicon Valley for Japan's manga, anime and video games


SOFTWARE engineer Carlos Perez Gutierrez was in the enviable position of being able to choose between job offers. Ride-hailing company Lyft Inc wanted him for its hip San Francisco office. offered to cover his moving expenses to Amsterdam, including the cost of getting his dog through quarantine.

Instead, the 30-year-old ended up travelling much farther from his native Mexico, to a country where few speak English, let alone Spanish, to work for a business whose name most people back home wouldn't recognise: a Japanese company called Line Corp. And Mr Perez says he accepted less money to do it. The reason: a love affair with Japan's comic books (manga), anime and video games. "My parents tell me I was playing Nintendo games since before I could speak," he said. Corporate Japan has a reputation for long hours, small salaries and no Silicon Valley-style stock options for the rank-and-file, but the country is also having a kind of renaissance that's making it easier to recruit global talent.

Tourism is booming and, for the last few years, Japanese cities have been ranked routinely among the world's most livable. For some tech firms, Japan's pop culture cache is also providing an edge when it comes to hiring engineers, who tend to skew a little nerdy. "We're seeing more skilled migrants coming to Japan than before, especially in the technology space," said Marc Burrage, managing director for recruitment firm Hays Plc in Tokyo.

"The barriers have also come down because the government has acknowledged that companies just can't get enough skilled IT people." It's true that an ageing society has forced a rethink of immigration in Japan, but even after the government instituted a point system like the one in Canada to fast-track permanent residency for skilled workers, the numbers are still minuscule. After 51/2 years, the programme has attracted only about 6,000 people, says Japan's Ministry of Justice.

The fault lies with Japanese companies, many of which remain stubbornly monolingual and have built work cultures that don't accommodate people from different backgrounds, according to Naoko Ishihara, a Tokyo-based researcher at Recruit Holdings Co, the country's biggest human resources company. "Even in firms that bill themselves as global, executives couldn't hold a meeting in English," she said. "Japanese companies are 30 years behind in terms of diversity." Still, for businesses that do try to lure workers from overseas, the buzz around Japan helps.

Mercari Inc, operator of a hit online flea market in Japan, this spring was able to hire 33 new graduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology, a top-notch network of engineering schools whose students tend to have their pick of the world's tech employers.

Alumni include Silicon Valley celebrities such as Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai and Sun Microsystems' co-founder Vinod Khosla. Mercari, which went public in June, plans to expand its 100-plus engineering force by 1,000 in the next three years and needs foreigners to fill some of those roles.

To make sure recruits feel welcome, the company has been holding sensitivity training to help people learn to work together. Mercari founder Shintaro Yamada in April made the grand gesture of flying to Mumbai to shake hands with his new hires and meet their families.

Tomohiro Ikebe, the Line executive who opened the Kyoto office and conducted hiring interviews, said video conferences via Skype revealed something interesting about many of the applicants. "You could see that a lot of them had bookshelves full of Japanese comics," he said. BLOOMBERG

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