How I Got to Japan

The PA system at work announced that I had a call. It was from Dr. Steve Butner, my graduate advisor at UC Santa Barbara. He was very excited. “John, I got some information here about this program that was just made for you.” As I listened to him speak, I could feel my destiny shifting from what it had been just moments before. This would turn out to be the greatest singularity of my life.

Dr. Butner explained that the American Electronics Association was sending electrical engineering and computer science graduate students to an intensive Japanese language course at Cornell University, and then on to work as an engineer in Japan. The goal of the program was to balance the exchange of engineering students between Japan and the US.

I was in my third year of Japanese classes. I dreamed of applying the language at work in Japan, but I had no way to actually make this happen. The American Electronics Association Japan Research Fellowship was the opportunity of a lifetime to realize my goal. I applied, and was accepted. Had the program never found me, my dream would have just quietly faded away.

The fellowship was a full ride: airfare, room and board, tuition at Cornell, and a job as a chip designer at Intel Japan. All of this was a tremendous gift for which I am eternally grateful. Only the power of a major industry association could make something like this happen.

I too was going to pay. This episode of my life was like a card game in which I held a great hand, but nonetheless discarded graduate school, my girlfriend, job, friends and Santa Barbara, retaining only my electronic engineering card. Then I was dealt new cards I could not even recognize. How would I assemble them into a winning hand?

The program started with the Cornell University FALCON Japanese language summer session. This was superb. I was very serious and studied hard. When I started, I had an understanding of Japanese grammar, writing and vocabulary, but I could not really hold a conversation. Just nine weeks later, I could carry on relationships with people entirely in Japanese. I have never learned so much so quickly.

“Japan—there it is at last,” I thought as I caught my first glimpse of the Japanese countryside as my plane approached Narita Airport.  All this preparation, and I had never been there.  I hired a taxi and chatted with the driver in Japanese along the way to my destination. Using a new language in country for the first time is the most exhilarating of experiences.

I arrived in Tsukuba, where a tiny apartment awaited me. It had a murphy bed, a basic kitchen, a bathroom and a television, which was to be my language teacher and only friend for quite a while. Still, my private apartment was a palace compared to the barracks provided to the other AEA Japan Research Fellowship participants. Intel even gave me a brand new Toyota Corona to drive.

My job at Intel Japan was verification and circuit simulation for the 8253 counter/timer portion of a microprocessor. As you might expect, many signals described a count. Engineers and programmers usually abbreviate this common word as “cnt”, but the Japanese designer chose to delete only the “o” in “count”. It made for the most profane RTL and netlist I have ever seen.

Intel Japan is based in Tsukuba, a “Silicon Valley” created artificially by the government. These are the same people who brought you Narita Airport, located an hour away from the city it serves. Tsukuba is in Ibaragi-ken, which is famous for backwardness. The nearest train station was 30 minutes away by car. In Japan, a city without a train station is nowhere. I hated living there, and so did many others. All the foreigners at Intel Japan were plotting their escape to Tokyo. Some Tsukuba residents escaped in a more tragic way. The suicide rate was so high that Tsukuba had its own trademark method of suicide–Tsukuba diving, throwing oneself off Tsukuba Tower.

Instead, I threw myself into improving my language skills, the goal for which I had sacrificed so much. This meant using exclusively Japanese. It also meant extreme isolation, as I was not a particularly engaging conversationalist. Still, I was good enough to carry out my duties at Intel in Japanese.  My colleagues would have preferred to practice their English, but I steadfastly refused, speaking English only to my boss.  In an EE Times interview I declared, “I’m known as hardcore about not speaking English in the office. I am definitely looking at getting very good at Japanese.” Ah, such youthful bravado. But it worked.

My colleagues at Intel were more sophisticated than the locals, and they were kind to me. I was invited to the weekly tennis game.  In the winter, we went skiing almost every weekend. I made some good friends at Intel Japan. After about six months, the loneliness and culture shock started to subside.

Originally my internship was six months, but I was just starting to get the hang of things, so I extended to one year. Intel Japan was good to me, but they only had engineering work in Tsukuba. As the end of my year came to a close, I conducted a job search, and landed a position in Tokyo. After a few years, I returned to finish graduate school at UCSB, then set out for Japan again. The AEA Japan Research Fellowship had succeeded in its goal of turning me into an engineer who could navigate Japan.


Did you participate in the AEA Japan Research Fellowship?  Join the AEA Japan Alumni Forum group on LinkedIn.


This article was originally published by John McGehee, Voom, Inc. under the CC BY 3.0 license.  Changes have been made.