From academia to an international career: an interview with Kristoffer Bolsø

From academia to an international career: an interview with Kristoffer Bolsø

Using strategic thinking, Kristoffer Bolsø (26) from Norway combined his Japanese language and culture studies with International Marketing & HRM to better his chances at an international career in Japan. On top of exchanging to two Japanese universities, he has managed to have as many as four internships there, and still counting. Photo: Used with permission from Kristoffer Bolsø.

Japan is a country that has mesmerized many through the years. Numerous foreigners have let themselves be captivated by an unfamiliar language and culture, of which much can be owed to the country’s successful cultural exports, its marketing strategy, and involvement in other diverse industries and businesses on a world-wide basis. As such, it is many a foreigner’s dream to be able to live and work in Japan, but as with the student Kristoffer Bolsø, they undoubtedly soon learned that it was harder than it initially looked.

Bolsø’s earliest academic background is in Japanese language and culture from the University of Oslo (UiO) in Norway from 2009 – 2012, and during these studies he went twice as an exchange student to Josai International University located in Chiba, Japan. He elaborates that it was without doubt an invaluable experience, as language and culture indeed are important aspects needed in an international career, but that it was insufficient by itself:

I was told by my teacher that I’m going to have a tough time finding a job after finishing my studies; “You’re going to need more than language skills and cultural knowledge,” she said. She was right, because I didn’t really have anything else to present to make me an attractive employee in a company. I could have said a lot about myself as a private person, but talking about oneself as a valuable human resource is very different.

Fortunately, Bolsø had kept his interests in marketing and advertising since his high school days, and after ending his studies at UiO he enrolled at Nord university in Bodø, Norway. Here he studied international marketing for two years before he exchanged to Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology (TUMSAT) where he studied marine policy and culture, which focused mainly on export and international trade of the seafood sector.

I choose to educate myself in a sector that both Norway and Japan were active in; I think it is important to keep in mind that what you choose to learn should be relevant to where you’re from and where you’ll eventually work. I also had a mindset to study and learn before everything else, rather than worry about what salary I would get in my future job.

Up until then Bolsø had had no hands-on work experience in a foreign country, but following his own advice of always acting proactively in any situation, he asked his professor at TUMSAT to introduce him to a Japanese company wherein he could do an internship.

I did get a two-week internship at a company that bought, produced and exported food. It was tough; my main task was to investigate the access and sellers of snow crabs in Norway and then present it in Japanese to the company and its customers. There were also a lot of business trips I had to go on too, in order to see how the company did work and how they did business with other companies. In short, it was a lot of ‘learning by doing’.”

During Bolsø’s exchange at TUMSAT, he was also able to acquire himself a part time job at a Japanese business hotel through applying on a Japanese part-time-job website. He has no doubt that he would have gotten neither the internship nor the part time job if it weren’t for his language skills and cultural understanding in addition to his international marketing education:

You don’t fully understand language and culture by simply studying in your home country, but at least you have the basic tool for learning by experience first-hand. While working I learned Japanese formalities and working etiquette, keigo (honorific language), and the importance of being at the workplace on time. In Norway we’re very used to thinking of one’s own needs before others’, or that one’s absence “doesn’t matter very much,” so I think we got something to learn from the Japanese by being available for one’s co-workers when we should be, and not causing them any inconvenience.

Although emphasizing a 50/50 combination of culture and language studies and business studies in an international environment, Bolsø also adds that without language skills and cultural knowledge, it may be difficult to accustom to and carry out tasks in the workplace, and that it can also affect one’s private situation.

Language and culture can affect one’s social situation and relationships, and hence how one feels about living in that foreign country. Enjoying living there is an important factor in creating motivation. I imagine it would be quite a shock if you aren’t used to and don’t know that commuting by train eat up a lot of your free time, that you often have to meet up 15-30 minutes before your actual working hours to prepare your desk, and that hierarchy and status plays a big role at the workplace in Japan.

Though that may scare some people off, there are also some pleasant surprises according to Bolsø:

On the other hand, the culture of meticulously training trainees and new employees before giving them important individual tasks may be a welcome surprise. I feel that in Norway it’s sometimes a rush to create an independent worker that can do individual tasks.

Bolsø doesn’t think Norway is all bad, however. When he on the fourth try got his long-cherished dream fulfilled of getting accepted as a trainee at Innovation Norway Tokyo located at the Royal Norwegian Embassy, many great experiences was ahead of him.

I received many independent long-term work tasks, and it was very different from shorter internships with scrupulous guidance. Without excessive overseeing, I learned to be independent in formal situations by a ‘watch and learn’-technique rather than remembering a set of rules first and follow them. Also, although in Japan, it was a Norwegian working environment with flexible working hours – you were freer and more responsible for yourself and initiating work. In a Japanese company you would most likely be set to a definite task, which goal would probably be to help someone else with their task.

His time there also gave Bolsø numerous opportunities to expand his Japan-Norway network by being a representative for the Embassy on various arrangements. He learned many neat little tricks that will benefit students trying to venture from academia to a career life:

Business cards are underrated. Even for a student, it is a good way to promote oneself, keep in touch with people, and present the opportunity to keep in touch with you to other people. I also saw the value of sending simple ‘thank you’-mails; they’re short and pleasant to read and make a good impression of you stick with the receiver. I partook in networking sessions too, where I made it clear that I’m is available and flexible for future happenings.

About networking, Bolsø says that it is like a necessary but time-consuming job:

It’s all about being active; the key element of networking is the frequency of contact: if you let too much time pass the relation weakens, and you become less relevant for them in the future, and vice versa.

Currently Bolsø is doing a two-month internship at Wilhelmsens Shipping Service Japan, and when asked for some advice for students desiring an international career in Japan, he says:

Firstly, being physically in Japan is a hundred times better than being in your own country: you learn things you cannot learn in a classroom or reading a book, and you have better opportunities to network and show that you’re available. Secondly, have low expectations and patience – don’t be picky about choosing an internship. You’re there for learning and gain work experience in Japan, and you probably won’t be set to do the most interesting tasks at first anyway. Lastly, smile, be active and take initiative, – make the company see how you are a valuable human resource for them.

[ + ]