From a host family in high school to Tokyo-based international ties for a major Japanese lifestyle brand, Sam Fitzgerald tells the AMC about his life as a non-native creative in Japan.
Like many kiwis landing in Japan, Sam Fitzgerald heard about the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program after graduating. “It was the only viable way to actually have a job in Japan,” says Christchurch-born Fitzgerald, who graduated from international relations two decades ago. âIn high school, I spent a week with a host family at a sister school in Osaka and I really wanted to return to university. One year turned into two, then three …
âEveryone else went to London, but I wanted to [the OE experience] in Japan. I did the same thing as my friends in Europe, except that I hiked through Southeast Asia instead. “
Teaching English as a second language, however, wasn’t Fitzgerald’s long-term career path. International relations were. He went along with that Peace boat, the Japan-based NGO that cruises the world to promote human rights and sustainability. Peace Boat sensitizes civil society to problems through workshops, education, music, art, sport and other ways. Fitzgerald volunteered around the world on a peace boat trip before returning to New Zealand for a year for Amnesty International. âThen I got another call from Peace Boat, they wanted me to come back. I said yes, but after that [second] Travel you have to give me a job when we are back in Tokyo. “
Living and working in Japan, Fitzgerald became connected to the creative community, which led him to meet the founder of That nonnative Production (TNP), centered around ‘nonnative’, a fashion / apparel brand. TNP makes and sells other brands in Japan and has retail stores, a coffee shop (roasters and cafes), and a publisher that produces a magazine called Transit. “The name is not a native speaker because the founder, Satoshi Saffen, is half Japanese and half American.” In Japan, where it is 98 percent ethnically homogeneous, People who are not ethnic Japanese by either parent – commonly referred to as “hafu” or half – are rare. “Nonnative is about taking pride in being an outsider, not just in terms of race or nationality, but also in terms of culture or subculture. It’s about not being tied to a single thing that defines you, be it ideas of race or nationality or a certain style of music on which you base your identity. “
At first he was the only other English-speaking person (besides the founder) to join the company, eleven years later Fitzgerald heads international relations at TNP. His job is to oversee everything related to the international branch of the business, from sales and marketing to collaborations with international brands – including those from New Zealand like Allpress Coffee, the coffee beans, expertise and assistance with the Establishment of the TNP coffee business delivered. âEleven years ago, the only viable job in Japan for a foreigner like me was teaching English and maybe working for one of the cowboy recruiting firms or international finance. It wasn’t the norm for a foreigner to work in the fashion industry or any other creative industry. The founder was looking for a native English speaker, so TNP was a natural fit for me as an outsider. “
Mastery of the Japanese language was key to Fitzgerald’s career advancement. âThis industry was new to me and I was talking about sales and marketing terms that I didn’t even know the English words for, much less Japanese,â he laughs. âLanguage is the key. If I didn’t learn Japanese, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. I knew I wanted to learn the language and it was really stressful to work in an environment with no full language skills, but over time it got easier. As you learn and acquire cultural skills through the language, you begin to acquire them. “
Fitzgerald has also enjoyed the unique experience inherent in foreigners in Tokyo, namely a part-time modeling career. “It’s funny because I wasn’t looking for it, I just got stopped in the street by a stylist assistant or a magazine editor assistant or something and I let it rip,” he says. This experience gave Fitzgerald a real glimpse into the Japanese fashion industry; an area that makes up a large part of his job today. âMost of the domestic brands here are exclusively geared towards the domestic market.
âThey make great clothes – Japan’s craftsmanship and incredible textiles make Japanese clothing manufacturing some of the best in the world. But the difference is that very little of it is flashy, avant-garde fashion like the one we see on the Paris Fashion Week catwalks, which most New Zealanders probably think of when they hear the word fashion.
âThe industry here is a completely different animal. The focus is less on hype and glamor, people are much more interested in authenticity and the quality or function or design of a product. “
Today’s inside knowledge and skills make Fitzgerald a go-to for other New Zealanders looking to thrive in Japan, especially in the music scene in which he is fully embedded. âThere are opportunities to become a kind of point of contact or a bridge between people who travel here or want to do something here and the local community.
“It has resulted in many connections and relationships, both professional and personal, not just with great kiwis but with people from all over the world,” he adds, an example of which is working with kiwi band Shapeshifter Two in Japan filmed music videos.
âTen or 15 years ago there weren’t many foreigners working in the creative fields here, but that has changed a lot in the last ten years. Many of my international friends here work in the film industry or as freelance photographers and similar jobs. These industries have been very difficult to crack for non-Japanese, mainly because of the language barrier, but that is changing a lot. “
– Asia Media Center