You realise very quickly upon arrival that Japan does things differently from the rest of the world.
From the vending machines dispensing cans of hot coffee to the realisation that a room in a Japanese-style hotel doesn’t come with a bed, the country is a uniquely special place.
This makes Japan the most incredible place to explore and discover. Skiing on Hokkaido and in the Japanese Alps matches anything Europe or America can offer, while in the south the tropical island chain of Okinawa is Japan’s very own Hawaii. And in between there are mountains, lakes, forests, monkeys in hot springs and, of course, Tokyo: a city that truly never stops.
Like London, Tokyo is really a collection of villages, each with its own personality. Areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku capture the neon-lit chaos we would usually associate with modern Japan. Shibuya claims the busiest street crossing in Asia and Shinjuku station is the busiest in the world. Yet nestled in among the skyscrapers you can find tiny Japanese bars and restaurants which haven’t changed for generations.
There is always something new to see in Tokyo, and the best places are often found by opening unknown doors!
Freshfields’ Tokyo office is made up of a mixture of foreign qualified lawyers and bengoshi (Japanese lawyers), who will often work together on transactions and cases involving Japanese companies with an international dimension. Japanese lawyers tend not to specialise to the same extent as solicitors in the UK, and one bengoshi might split his/her practice relatively evenly between corporate, finance and competition work. This, combined with the fact that the Tokyo office is much smaller than London, means that you work wherever you are needed.
The concept of a trainee is also alien to Japanese law, so you’re treated much more like a ‘junior junior’ associate than you would be in London, which can be great preparation for qualification if your secondment is in your final seat.
The hours can be long, and the Japanese working culture is challenging at times. Japanese companies tend to have quite rigid internal approval structures. This can sometimes make progress on matters slower than might be the case in London.
That said, working in Tokyo can be a hugely rewarding experience, as you learn a great deal about the truly enormous Japanese trading companies, the dynamics of the Asian economy and how China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and others interact on a global scale. Combined with living in the world’s ultimate metropolis, this means a secondment to Tokyo is definitely not to be missed.
Craig Abbott is a Freshfields corporate trainee, currently based in Tokyo