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Is it better to be an Assigned or Self-Initiated Expatriate in Japan?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2779 words Published: 23rd Feb 2017

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Research Question: Is it better to be an Assigned or Self-Initiated Expatriate in Japan?

Technology is the backbone of this ever-evolving generation. Japan is not only one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, but, is also an internationally recognized hotspot for people who are looking to expatriate, and to make a promising future in this culturally un-paralleled location. This report will examine the benefits and disadvantages of being either a Company Assigned Expatriate (AE/CAE/OE) or a Self-Initiated Expatriate (SIE) in Japan. Aspects such as; motivation, job satisfaction, cross-cultural adjustment, family factors, compensation, and success factors will be taken into consideration, in this report.

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To begin the report, it is important to understand what some of the primary differences between assigned expatriates and self-initiated expatriates actually are. First of all, the “assigned expatriate” refers to a person who is sent abroad to another country, by the company they are working for, or are sponsored by. While, the “self-initiated expatriate” refers to a person who goes to another country of their choosing, in pursuit of a better life, often trying to find work on their own. A study done by Torsten Biemann and Maike Andresen, found that SIEs “start their international careers at a younger age, have a higher organizational mobility, and expect higher benefits from international experiences for their future careers” (2010). This implies that SIEs may often be recent graduates, or other young people who do not see much of a career opportunity in their home country, and seek bigger and better things abroad. These expatriates are also more likely to change or rethink their career paths, as compared to AEs, since they have more freedom to do what they would like to, as they were not brought into the country from an employer. Also, from leaving their home country, they would have a notion of achieving more, and have a broader list of goals than AEs, as again, nothing is set-up for them to feel like they are limited. They do not feel like career growth only stems from the company that they are linked to, unlike AEs. However, assigned expatriates seem to be more driven by the career factors in accordance to the company that sent them there, and may have more experience than SIEs – which seems to be more attractive to employers.

Self-initiated expatriation, in most cases, is not an easy task. It requires much motivation, determination, and the ability to take risks. A SIE has to commit to the idea of leaving everything behind and going off to a foreign country – with some level of uncertainty pertaining to their future. The research done by Jan Selmer and Jakob Lauring discovers that SIEs may be motivated to expatriate because they are either; escaping from unfavourable conditions in their home country – “the refugee”, seeking financial stability – “the mercenary”, travelling to a favourable destination – “the explorer”, or finally, in pursuit of career success – “the architect” (2012). Furthermore, another study by the two, Jan Selmer and Jakob Lauring, finds that; younger SIEs “were more motivated by adventure, career and money when choosing to expatriate” (2010). What this means, is that the SIEs that belong to “the refugee” role, are most often older, may have already started a family, and most likely already have adequate work experience, prior to expatriating.

However, self-initiated expatriates still consist of more young people and recent graduates on average, as compared to assigned expatriates. Japan is known for having a relatively low average fertility rate, as compared to the rest of the world (Boling, 2008). This may negatively impact young SIEs that are trying to start a family in Japan. More often, AEs, on the other hand, will go abroad with families they have already started in their home countries. AEs are also less likely to start a family in Japan, as they are aware of the fact that they are only there for a finite amount of time. Therefore, it may not be as big as a problem to AEs, on an average. Assigned expatriates are motivated to go abroad for career driven objectives, and will often not look as the new country (Japan) as “home”, but rather, a stepping-stone in the projection of their careers. SIEs would more often, treat Japan as a new cultural experience, and will end up staying longer than AEs, or even indefinitely – unless they do not find success or happiness in Japan. For AEs; “career-related factors appeared significantly more important to their decision to move abroad, indicating that their desire for an international experience is explicitly coupled with career development and progression” (Doherty, Dickmann, & Mills, 2011). This implies that, AEs might not have the same level of appreciation for Japan, as a SEI would, and it may contribute to a significantly less level of enjoyment and fulfillment while abroad.

It is also important to understand which roles assigned expatriates and self-initiated expatriates often tend to fill in organizations, upon expatriating. These roles can end up defining or being the highlight of these expatriates’ careers. According to Phyllis Tharenou, the five main purposes of assigned expatriates is to:

First, to set up a new operation and establish foreign operations in their early stages; second, to fill a skills gap; third, to develop managers’ international skills; fourth, to transfer company culture and knowledge to a foreign operation and gain feedback from it; and fifth, to supply the top manager and control the operation and coordinate with headquarters. (2013)

This entails that assigned expatriates are given great responsibility and a high position within the organization when expatriated, which also implies that self-initiated expatriates would have to spent more time in the company to work up to that same level, since; “SIEs are most likely to be: an unsuitable alternative to CAEs for roles requiring firm-specific knowledge” (Tharenou, 2013). This might be the case, even if the AEs and SIEs may have the same or comparable level of education; “AEs possessed no significant difference in levels of education than SIEs, but were more likely to be in greater positions of authority” (Andresen, Biemann, & Pattie, 2015). Unsurprisingly, the greater hierarchical position, leads to greater compensation for AEs on average (Sims & Schraeder, 2005). Thus, SIEs are also more likely to be underemployed, since, managers would not be confident enough to trust in the SIEs abilities. This would inevitably cause SIEs to be dissatisfied with their jobs and be alienated from the others in the workplace (Lee, 2005). However, with regards to Japan, it seems as if SIEs obtain more skills that compliment them to have an easier experience of cross-cultural adjustment.

Japanese language proficiency seems to be the most important trait in expatriates finding success in Japan. Self-initiated expatriates are much more competent with this skill than assigned expatriates. There may still be language training sessions for AEs, but it is seen as a drag to the management in Japan (Peltokorpi, 2008). This entails that AEs, most likely spend time before expatriating to learn about Japanese culture and the language, and are also likely to spend more time living in Japan than AEs. Thus, they find an easier experience of adjustment to the new culture, since they are prepared for it, in hopes of quickly establishing a successful career abroad. AEs on the other hand, have the sense of security that they will be working immediately upon expatriating. So, they would most likely not go through a lot of preparation for the new culture. However, SIEs would still have to work up to the level of AEs – as mentioned earlier, and would likely contribute to a decreased rate of job satisfaction. A study conducted by Fabian Jintae Froese and Vesa Peltokorpi, about expatriates in Japan reaffirms this; “SIEs suffer from lower job satisfaction because they tend to work more often under HCN (host-country nationals) supervisors regardless of their hierarchical level or the nationality of their employing organizations” (2013).

The same studies also found that assigned expatriates and self-initiated expatriates react to cross-cultural adjustment very differently. As established before; AEs see expatriation as an important step in their careers, while, most SIEs take it as an opportunity to appreciate culture and absorb knowledge. SIEs’ increased proficiency in the Japanese language allows them to communicate more with locals, mesh within Japanese culture, and even talk to other expatriates in Japan. While, AEs will remain mostly isolated in their personal lives; “During their fixed expatriation period in Japan, OEs might be more inclined to interact with other expatriates” (Peltokorpi, 2008). As SIEs interact more with locals; “they receive information about behavioural norms and the rationale for why people behave in a certain way. The ability to act in an appropriate way and predict the behaviour of others tends to reduce uncertainty and increase psychological comfort” (Peltokorpi, 2008). This basically means that SIEs will be happier outside of the workspace, as they can enjoy Japanese culture and appreciation for their journey. While, AEs, will be happier in the workspace, as they will have higher positions and be perceived as more successful that SIEs, in the workforce.

Another report – by Nancy Napier and Sully Taylor – finds that, expatriating to Japan is a much different experience for women. Due to some of the social patriarchal structures still in place, female self-initiated expatriates will have a harder time to reach the level of, and make as much money as male SIEs – let alone AEs – in an organization. However, female AEs on average, do not face this discrimination, since, they are given and briefed of their position, in their native country, before expatriating. In some cases, women AEs are also offered optional additional cross-cultural training, in order to familiarize themselves with the social contracts and customs of Japan, as they can vary widely from genders and from the constructs and customs of their home country. One problem for female AEs, or AEs in general, can be of repatriation. This report highlights that; “In one survey of American expatriates, 40 percent said that, on their return to the United States, there was no specific job for them”, furthermore; “another study found that 26 percent of the American expatriates surveyed were actively looking for a different job within one year of returning to the United States” (1996). It is also important to note that this report was a little dated, as it was compiled in 1996; many things could change in a timeframe of almost two decades.

To conclude, and to answer the initial research question, both assigned expatriates and self-initiated expatriates have their own unique benefits and setbacks. Preferring to be either an AE or a SIE, depends on what each individual expatriate values in their life. In review, AEs will most likely come to Japan in the pursuit of an increased repertoire and are more driven by career factors. AEs will most likely also start off in a high position (higher than that of a SIE), and in turn, will earn more money, while in Japan. SIEs, on the other hand, can come to Japan for varied reasons, but in order to succeed, they all have to have some skills to help them prepare for this unique culture. Many SIEs have great Japanese-language proficiencies and have a tendency to appreciate the culture and the locals more, as, they will most likely want to stay longer in Japan, than AEs. However, they will usually start off in lower positions, compared to AEs, even though they may have the same level of education. This may lead to them being underemployed and contribute to an overall job dissatisfaction. Women looking expatriate on their own to Japan, also need to consider that they will be facing additional challenges due to the patriarchal structure over there, and may not be happy about their compensation. Thus, may consider expatriating to Japan, through company sponsorship from their native countries. With all of the pros and cons weighted and in consideration, it seems as if being an assigned expatriate may better suit most people’s characteristics. Not many people would like to shift to Japan for life (or most of their lives), thus, assigned expatriation provides a great opportunity to experience Japanese life and culture, while making more money than SIEs, on average. AEs are also given the chance to expatriate elsewhere, and see more of the world after their experience with Japan. SIEs may choose to repatriate to their native countries, but most would choose not to be a SIE again, as they may find it to be too much of a commitment.


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