Practical Reciprocal Transformative

Five participants describe their experiences in the Canada-Japan Co-op Program, which has been deftly matching Japanese companies like NTT, Rakuten and Tokyo Gas with eager young Canadian talent for over three decades.

Canada has a world-class record of practical education at the postsecondary level, offering significant benefits to students, employers and society. The Canada-Japan Co-op Program, with over 1200 placements so far, is a model example. While students from STEM disciplines have long been the focus, the program is opening up to students in the social sciences, humanities, tourism and business disciplines—including Indigenous, disabled and low-income background students.

For Peter Scholtens, the primary appeal of the program was the opportunity to immerse himself in Japanese culture. “From watching anime, I found myself captivated by the Japanese way of life, so the prospect of living and working there was too enticing to pass up. Participating in the CJCP has been a life-changing experience.” 

 Scholtens worked in Wakayama City, Wakayama Prefecture at Taiyo Industrial Co., Ltd., which develops flexible printed circuit boards. “I was in the Board Test System Department, designing and enhancing the machines used to test the boards. I believe my contributions had a meaningful impact on Taiyo.”

He says the warmth and friendliness of the locals in Wakayama really stand out. “Genuine curiosity about a foreigner residing in a secluded area often leads to spontaneous conversations that evolve into friendships. This open-heartedness has allowed me to experience Japan more, from joining a local volleyball team to cultural festivities like firework festivals and karaoke.” 

Living and working abroad has allowed him to step back from the fast-paced North American environment. “Taking part in the CJCP also improved my technical knowledge,” he adds, “and provided me with firsthand experience of a new and exciting way of life.”


Branching Out

Gurleen Bhatti, who works for J Morita Manufacturing Corporation in Kyoto as a communications and marketing assistant, had had an interest in working in Japan since high school but always figured it would be as an English teacher for a year or so. “When I saw the UBC Arts Co-op promoting a CJCP info session, I signed up immediately,” she recalls. “The most exciting part of the program for me is to live and work abroad, since this is my first time living on my own.”

One aspect about Japan that stands out to her is how well culture and history are preserved here. “There are many museums, temples and historical sites to enjoy,” she says. “My company even has a room to display over a century of product history, which helped me understand its core values.”

How does she plan to use this experience in her life and career? “This has been a truly enriching experience to me as a geography student, and expanding my global perspective will supplement the remainder of my studies. I plan to leverage this experience in my career as a testament to my ability to adapt.”

Troy Chong, half-Japanese and fourth generation, grew up not knowing much about his own culture, and could not speak Japanese. “I always wanted to learn about my roots, so I was ecstatic when I found out about the CJCP,” he explains. “It was the perfect chance to work in a foreign country that was my home country. I was excited to learn about my cultural roots and practice my Japanese, and I got to meet family I’d never met before.” 

Chong works at Toagosei Co., Ltd., a company that specializes in manufacturing polymer-based products such as Krazy Glue. “My job was to assist in R&D on new polymer products. My team was in charge of creating medical polymers, specifically polymers with good antithrombotic properties to prevent complications in medical devices.”

One cultural aspect that stands out so far, he says, is the emphasis on pride and respect, in and out of the work setting. “Japan takes pride in its environment and keeps everything clean and garbage to a minimum. People are respectful in lining up for transit, and you can see how much love workers put into what they do.”  

Obviously, the biggest learning experience is being able to speak some Japanese, which I’ll improve so that I can connect with more Japanese worldwide. Career-wise, working in a foreign country is invaluable because it shows I can adapt to working in completely different environments.” 


Big City Appeal

What got Silvano Todesco interested in and excited about the program? “I grew up in Tofino and Ucluelet on Vancouver Island in BC, rural fishing and tourism towns far from urban life,” he explains. “While at UVIC I saw Coop job postings for Japan. I wanted to work abroad, live in a massive city with millions of people, and see how I could benefit a Japanese company.” 

He accepted a job at what is now called EMC Healthcare Co., Ltd. “My work there focused on hardware design for medical devices—designing PCBs, testing electronics and integrated circuits, troubleshooting hardware issues, basic mechanical design/3D CAD, and so on. My direct boss was a Canadian who’d spent part of his childhood in Japan. I ended up staying in his basement while I was in the CJCP.” 

The CJCP totally changed the course Todesco had envisioned when he started university. Intending to work in the green energy industry, he found hardware design more appealing. “They offered to hire me full time after I graduated in November 2019. I ended up helping to design a portable VR headset that can measure your eyes’ blind spots and range of vision, and uses eye-tracking technology to map those areas.”

What’s his biggest takeaway from the program? “I feel that everyone involved—the Japanese companies, the Japan-Canada relationship, and the students—receives something worthwhile. Companies get talent from abroad, new ideas, outside thinking, etc. And students experience other cultures and improve their social awareness and communication and work skills.” He also met his future wife. 

In November 2022, Todesco moved to Axelspace Corporation, a Japanese company that builds and operates small satellites based on Beyond 5G technology. He still does side work for EMC Healthcare as well, and last year assisted his old boss in mentoring a CJCP student, something he plans to do again. 


A Life Unexpected

David Sleeman was coincidentally studying Japanese as part of the arts requirement for his engineering degree. “My project teammate participated in CJCP and told me about it. It sounded like a good opportunity to use my developing Japanese skills while working overseas in a job related to my field of study.”

Sleeman worked for J Morita Manufacturing Corporation for three back-to-back terms on the Research and Development team as a software developer for medical device user interfaces.

“Without exaggeration, the program completely altered my life,” Sleeman says. “I wanted to return to Japan after graduation due to the positive experiences I had both working and living there. My former colleagues at J Morita offered me a contract to continue my R&D work, and I became a full-time employee in 2012.”

His biggest takeaway from the program? “The opportunity to work in an unfamiliar environment in a completely different culture,” Sleeman responds. “It gave me new insight and a profound respect for the immigrants coming to Canada and the struggles they face with both cultural integration and day-to-day communication. If you approach the program with an open mind and patience, you’ll gain a perspective on the world and a culture that you cannot get any other way.”

Sleeman now lives in Kyoto and works for J Morita as a section manager in charge of international service. “I moved into a field that directly supports our customers while allowing me to rely on the engineering skills I developed,” he notes. “I’ve enjoyed meeting the new challenges of supporting customers and managing a team of Japanese staff. Not what I imagined my life to be, though, when I first sat down in the Co-op office to apply for a brief internship in a company I knew nothing about.”