Updated June 20, 2024

“Into the Unknown” Interview with Eric Turner, founder of Japan Dev (Part 1)


Eri Ochiai

Japan Dev contributor


I still remember reading the viral blog post Eric wrote when he left Mercari in 2021. Today, Eric is the founder of Japan Dev, one of Japan's most renowned job boards catering to English-speaking tech professionals. I had the pleasure of interviewing him on the Your Next Chapter Japan Podcast where he shared his journey of how he came to Japan, the experiences and learnings he’s gained through not only his professional experiences, first as an ALT in Toyama Prefecture, then a software engineer, and finally an entrepreneur. The various challenges he faced during his transition phase give insight into how Japan Dev started and the future of the platform. In this article, he discusses the early phase of how he came to Japan and successfully made the transition to software engineering.

Key Takeaways

  • Starting in a smaller town before moving to a bigger city for foreigners in Japan can provide a unique perspective and appreciation for different aspects of a country.

  • Working as an English teacher can benefit some who are looking to find a way to come to Japan. It’s good to have a time limit so you maintain your technical skills.

  • While it’s ok to go for a job to get a higher salary, the impact and noble pursuit of one's work can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Eric suggests considering the ethics and morals of a company when choosing a job.

Introduction and Personal Background

Eri: Thanks for your time today. Where do you want to start? 

Eric: Let’s start from the beginning. I was born in the United States, East Coast, and lived my whole life there around Pennsylvania until college. When I graduated, I was a little lost. I had studied computer engineering, so I knew I wanted to do something in tech, but I also felt like I wanted a bit of a break. I'd always loved to travel and I thought maybe if I could live somewhere for a year or so and experience another culture, that would be really cool. I had this belief that if I didn't do it then, when was I going to? So when I found that I could get to Japan by working as an English teacher, I applied and started out as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT).

I was in a small town in Toyama Prefecture for a year. I was really serious about trying to learn the language because I knew I was taking time away from my tech career so I said I'm at least going to really focus on the language. Then after that year ended, I decided to get back to software engineering before there's too long of a lag between when I got my degree and when I got the experience, since I hadn't actually really worked as an engineer yet. At that point I moved to Tokyo and began my search for a software engineering position.

I struggled greatly. It was probably one of the most stressful parts of my life, to be honest. It was a three month period where I switched to a tourist visa and I had three months to find something or go home. 

In the end, I found a job at the very end of that period when it was looking like I was going to have to end up going home. Fortunately, one of the last ones that I had scheduled worked out. It was a small Japanese startup, which was awesome because I got to speak Japanese day to day and focus a lot on learning language while I was getting that tech experience.

From there I continued to work as a software engineer. I switched jobs a few times, and went to bigger, more international companies. Ultimately, I became a manager of a software engineering team at a company called Mercari. That’s when I had this idea to create a job board for people like me. It started as a side project called Japan Dev and now that's my full -time gig that I'm working on day to day.

Eri: If you were to use a metaphor of a book to summarize your journey so far, what title would you give it?

Eric: I think one thing that would characterize it would be not knowing what's going on and just figuring things out as I go. So maybe something like “Into the Unknown”. That's been true in my career as well. Thinking one step at a time and just figuring out what the next thing, I think, has been the biggest common thread.


The Initial Phase in Japan

Eri: Uncertainty is one of the factors that usually drive people to walk away. So when you say into the unknown, what made you go into it rather than away?

Eric: Early on, I had this belief that I really wanted to experience another culture and gain an understanding besides the one that I had just happened to be born in. I wanted to do this seriously and learn the language to talk to people that I would not have the chance to otherwise. Instead of getting experience as an engineer, I decided that I'm doing this instead. So in that sense, failure was kind of not an option. I told myself I need to make it worth my while. Now that I’m more established here that thought has become less true. In hindsight it was just to really prove that I could do it. That was probably the main motivation.

Eri: It sounds like you had some doubts about simply getting into a job that you studied in and doing the corporate life. 

Eric: Yeah, that was a big part of it. I could get a software engineering position in the US and then I could see the rest of my life unfold before me. The possible paths were prescribed. That was very scary to me, I'll admit. I wanted to see more of the world first and I was always interested in Japan. It has this great combination of being such a unique culture with a deep history and being so different from what I knew. At the same time, it's super easy to live here, a very carefree lifestyle. That combination was really interesting to me. 

Eri: At what point did you decide on doing the ALT job? What do you recall about that phase?

Eric: The last few months, before I had graduated from college, I started looking into both Eikawa and ALT. I applied and there was an interview process where I had to do a mock lesson. There were a few more interviews then I got accepted but for a while I didn’t know where I was going. I had the plan to leave anyway, but finally two weeks before the start they finally confirmed that I would be working in Toyama. It was not what I expected but I figured it would still be an interesting experience. And it was. It's actually a very beautiful area of the country. I was close to Kanazawa, which was nice, so I could get there pretty quickly as well. And I got to experience the smaller town version of Japan, which is quite different from somewhere like Tokyo. I was really glad that I actually was able to get that experience. It was kind of nerve wracking not knowing where you're going to be going, what your life's going to be like in a few weeks. That was an odd feeling.

Eri: Do you think that there's anything about that experience that shaped the way you work as a software engineer or even the way you run your business today and how you work with people? 

Eric: I think it gave me more of an appreciation for what the results are of my work. I think it's very easy as a programmer to just look at what jobs are out there and choose the highest paying one and not really think about what impact your work has. What I mean by impact are things like, for example, the nature of the business and their impact on society. As an English teacher, you help children learn about other cultures and that’s an incredibly noble pursuit. While I was job searching, I looked at the company’s mission and tried to prevent myself from going somewhere to write code for a morally questionable corporation. Actually, one of the companies that I worked for was an international language learning company. When I joined that company, I got to leverage what I did as an ALT and scale it up. Working on the code that runs these systems that are used in multiple classes at a time that last for a long time meant I could help tens of thousands of kids. I'm not going to be able to directly help with teaching then how can I do it as an engineer? And that's something that I've continued to think about each time I’ve transitioned. 


Unique Challenges of Working as an Expat in Japan

Eri: Being sensitive to ethics while job searching can be a pretty tough challenge in tech. Especially if you're in Japan as an English speaker since you're already starting with a smaller pool of opportunities to begin with. I work with expats who have similar challenges like,” I don't want to just get a job and a salary.” or “ I want to do something meaningful, but at the same time, I don't speak Japanese like a Japanese person. How do I deal with that?” What's your opinion on this?

Eric: I agree that the pool of companies that you're gonna be looking at where they're going to be able to support you to adapt to the culture is not gonna be very big, to be honest. There are a lot of IT companies in Japan. However, a lot of them are more legacy companies where they're not ready to integrate someone who is non-Japanese, especially if they don't speak the language. And if you were to join, I think a lot of them would have very different cultures. This might include potentially some negative aspects like long work hours that I think foreigners would find a lot less palatable. So it does become a question of how much am I willing to sacrifice to stick with my values? And that's a hard question. I don't necessarily blame anyone for just choosing that. You got to take care of your family. You want to grow in your career. I do believe that people with skills need to think about how those skills are being utilized by the companies they're working with. 

Eri: Wanting to make more money is also more complicated than it seems. It isn't just the question of making more money because you want to be rich, but often what I hear is how people feel like they’re behind because if they compare themselves to the success of friends back home it doesn't seem to match up. 

Eric: I think for anyone who wants to come to Japan, the question is, how much are you willing to sacrifice your finances to get the experience of living in Japan? I think you have to ask yourself, how much do you value that? You could choose to live in the U.S. and still come here to travel. When I came over as an ALT, I think my salary was a little above three million yen a year. The complication is that I had student loans, which are very common in the US and a lot of other countries. I mean, especially true for the US, but probably some other countries too. And so I had to pay monthly to cover those despite my Japanese salary. And that was fine because the yen was fairly strong. So I'm not sure it's a viable path for people at this point in time. That really saddens me because that was how I was able to get here and I've had a great experience here.


Advice for Job Seekers

Eri: You mentioned that the transition phase of leaving your ALT job and then getting into tech was really tough for you. What advice do you have for people who might go down that path?

Eric: What I would recommend as an ideal path is, if you have a technical degree, to work in your home country for a few years first, establish yourself first in the industry. Then from there, try to move to Japan with that kind of experience under your belt. Then you're more likely to have a company help support you through the transition. If you decide to come to Japan as an ALT, I recommend you time box to one to two years and then see what happens. I wouldn't do too much more than that personally if your ultimate goal really is to be a software developer.

Eri: I notice in the beginning of an expat’s journey, people accept the package as part of their experience of living in Japan but at some point, it becomes natural for a person to want to be themselves and be accepted for who they are. What are your thoughts on the balance between being yourself and being flexible in the work environment in Japan?

Eric:I think this sort of language and cultural mismatch is present for expat job seekers in Japan. It gets better from your first job in Japan but it’s still a challenge. Japan also has unique cultural aspects in the workplace like the douki, or work comrade, and nomikais, drinking parties, that make it more difficult for a person to leave that environment because it’s close knit. 


With 11 years of experience in Japan, Eric’s journey from the US to founding Japan Dev offers valuable lessons on navigating Japan's tech industry. Embracing the uncertainties that come with taking a job that’s different from his educational background and simultaneously relocating to the countryside of a place far from home truly captures the title he gave, “Into the Unknown,” to his own journey. His advice for anyone contemplating on moving to Japan is grounded in his professional experiences, especially through Japan Dev. In Part 2, we’ll explore Eric’s take on the types of tech companies in Japan, the industry changes in the past decade, and finally where Japan Dev’s future.


Eri Ochiai

Eri is an Expat Career Coach in Tokyo. With a background in HR at an IT startup and expat life in 🇮🇹, she's partnered with +300 expat job seekers in tech. Currently, she specializes in supporting expats towards fulfilling careers drawing on her unique insight and experiences. On a constant quest for good bread.