Three years ago, Toru Miyano didn’t think he would ever leave Japan — he had finally found his groove in Kumamoto and was quite comfortable there.
Living solo in a house that his parents had bought some time ago but only used on occasion, he had a steady job as a semiconductor engineer and an old pickup truck to get around in.
On his days off, Miyano would listen to rap and having studied music at university, he would do his own composing. He lived close enough to his sister’s family to help with picking up and dropping off his nephews at day care. He wasn’t a loner and, though still single, enjoyed family life. Miyano had no complaints and was settled.
Then in 2016, a series of earthquakes, one with a magnitude of 7.3 hit Kumamoto.
Miyano found himself in a difficult position. The semiconductor manufacturing plant he was working for as an engineer had to close down “until further notice,” due to earthquake damage. Initially, while waiting for the factory to resume operations, Miyano volunteered for local post-quake relief work. Several weeks went by. Then months.
Just as Miyano began getting a little anxious about the future, his company made a proposition. What if Miyano worked in another of the company’s outfits? The transition would be seamless in terms of job description and he would even get a small raise. There was one caveat: it wouldn’t be in Japan.
The new job entailed migrating from factory to factory, mostly scattered across East Asian locales, on two- to three-month cycles. It meant living out of suitcases and in hotels situated in industrial cities. Though he would be able to visit Japan three or four times a year, he could stay there for no more than a week at a time.
“I was told that this would be a two to three year stint,” says Miyano. “I wasn’t crazy about leaving my family, but I wanted to keep my job and, if I’m honest, I had a tiny hankering to get out of the country. The company also said it had operations in the U.S., and I thought, well, it would be nice to go there again.”
It wasn’t Miyano’s first experience living overseas. He went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, and, as an aspiring composer, he then spent another two years in New York before he decided to return to Japan.
“It would have been great if I had found work as a musician but it didn’t work out that way,” he says, recalling his life in the U.S. “But I figured that music would always be a huge part of who I am. I don’t have to make a living out of it.”
At Berklee, Miyano had studied musical composition and hoped to compose scores for feature film soundtracks. One of his heroes is Joe Hisaishi, famed for collaborating with film auteurs Hayao Miyazaki and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. Still a voracious reader with a wide range of interests — his favorite authors include Claude Levi-Strauss and Haruki Murakami — Miyano says he now keeps his artistic inclinations completely separate from his work as an engineer. “I just don’t feel comfortable about making money from something I actually like doing,” he explains. “I find life more enjoyable if I keep my interests separate from my work.”
Miyano’s typical workday starts at 9 a.m., stretching out until 10 to 11 p.m., six days a week. His company pays for the hotels and the taxis that shuttle him back and forth to the factories. Often his days, he says, are reduced to just that — the hotel where he sleeps and the factory where he works.
It’s a grueling schedule that also requires him to wear protective coveralls at all times. “We get breaks, but once I’m wearing the suit and inside a decontaminated ‘clean room,’ it’s difficult to step outside for a bit of fresh air,” says Miyano. “I’ve gotten used to it.”
Having experienced different locations, he describes the working conditions in East Asian factories being very different to the company’s U.S. operations. When Miyano was sent to Maine and Indiana, he lived in short-term rentals with a kitchen and was able to free up most weekends.
At the time of this interview, Miyano was working in Taiwan and had recently been switched from the night shift to a more manageable schedule.
“It’s still 12- to 14-hour days, though,” he says. “We were saying that the company could get into trouble over this, because Japan’s recent ‘work-style reforms’ stipulate that no one is supposed to put in so many hours. But it’s getting better. The company is trying to improve its image and I’ve sensed that management is making changes. As a result, I have high hopes that we’ll be able to work normal hours like everyone else next year.”
Miyano assembles devices for making and cleaning silicon chips, and it’s an arduous, difficult job that requires fierce concentration.
“It’s really artisanal work,” he says. “And, as with many artisanal workplaces, you’re likely to get yelled at by your superiors for making mistakes. That took some getting used to, but I figured I would stick it out. My policy in life has always been, to go with the flow.”
Not everyone, though, can take the hours and the intensity of the job. In the past three years, Miyano says that he has seen fellow engineers quit one by one.
“We all move from factory to factory, so even if I get friendly with someone, after a couple of months everyone has to move to different locations,” he says. “Then I hear through the grapevine that so-and-so quit and returned to Japan. I don’t blame them. The food’s not what we’re used to, hotel life sucks and the hours are long.”
Yet Miyano himself hasn’t thought about throwing in the towel.
“When the time comes, I’ll want to do something else. Maybe I’ll find a nice woman and get married, perhaps in South Korea,” he says. “But I don’t really care about returning to Japan anymore.”
The experience, despite everything, he explains, has given him a new perspective and world view.
“Before this, I had never been to other Asian countries. For me, ‘overseas’ meant the United States,” he says. “But now that I’ve been traipsing around East Asia, I feel like I’ve become more open-minded and diverse in my way of thinking.”
He returns South Korea again, saying, “Japan’s reputation in South Korea right now is really bad but I’ve never run into trouble. I’m now confident that I can live anywhere, talk to anyone and accept most fates that come my way.”
Compartmentalizing his factory life has left Miyano optimistic about working overseas and his own personal future.
“Who knows, maybe one day I’ll write an awesome rap song,” he says. “A year from now, I could be doing something completely different.”
The future, he says, is a clean slate and he’s felt surprisingly more liberated and hopeful than he did living in Kumamoto.
Name: Toru Miyano
Profession: Semiconductor engineer
Hometown: Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture
Key moments in life and career:
2004 — Graduates from Berklee College of Music in Boston and moves to New York
2006 — Leaves New York and returns to Japan. Moves to Tokyo and begins working for Cafe & Meal Muji in Yurakucho
2014 — Moves back to Fukuoka, then to Kumamoto, and begins working for a semiconductor manufacturer as an engineer
2016 — The Kumamoto earthquakes force his company’s plant to shut down. Takes his company’s offer to work as an engineer for overseas factories in East Asia and the United States.
Words to live by: “I just went with the flow and went with the flow, and now I’m here” — translated lyrics by Killer Smells, from the song “A Wanderer.”