The tale of the invisible man - a conference story

Ruby Kaigi is a Japanese technology conference for Japanese people that does great work to make sure that their talks are available in both English and Japanese.

The tale of the invisible man - a conference story

This has been my third visit to Ruby Kaigi, the definitive Ruby Programming Language conference in Japan. This year it was in the beautiful Kyoto International Conference Centre. The huge venue is in the middle of a beautifully landscaped grounds that blend seamlessly into a park. It's honestly breathtaking

The organising team and the other staff put in a heroic amount of work to make sure that the hundreds of people who come to the conference from all over the world (but mostly Japan) are fed and watered and generally well looked after.

Unfortunately, this year is going to be my last attending Ruby Kaigi. I’ve attended because I love going to tech conferences in general, and because it’s the best and biggest around that I’m able to go to.  I can’t say it’s always left me feeling as buzzed and enthusiastic as other Ruby / Tech events I’ve been to though, and it’s finally taken me 3 conferences to realise why that is.

I'm not Japanese.

I might live in Japan. I might speak Japanese. But it’s rarely been more clear to me how “outside” I am  than when I attend Ruby Kaigi.

I don’t know if perhaps I’m over-sensitive to this because I live in Japan. Because I understand the culture surrounding the assumptions people have regarding “inside and “outside” in Japan, maybe I notice it more.

When you’re visiting from abroad, it’s easy to get sucked into the strangeness and allure of the different and exotic, but it doesn’t change the basic premise of the conference.

Ruby Kaigi is a Japanese technology conference for Japanese people that does great work to make sure that their talks are available in both English and Japanese through awesome real time translation by a small staff of professional translators. Seriously. It’s like you’re at a UN summit. It’s pretty cool.

Outside the talks though, you’re a foreign guy making up a small percentage of the conference attendees.

Nobody talks to you. Except other foreign folks (which is lovely - don’t get me wrong).

You end up being in the perverse situation of feeling socially isolated while being surrounded by people.

This is, for sure, a cultural difference.

From my experience of speaking at, organising, and attending conferences in Europe;  I know they’re as much (if not more) about the “corridor track” - chance encounters and conversations with interesting people, and making new friends, than they are about the actual content of the talks themselves.

People in conference in Europe actively seek out conversation and socialising with anyone who’s around.

In Japan, they do too. But only with other Japanese people. With the notable exception of Japanese people who are confident in their English language ability, unless they know in advance that  you’re a safe foreigner who can understand Japanese, they won’t talk to you.

Last year, I pre-empted this by writing “日本語が大丈夫です” on my name card. People spoke with me at the parties and in the corridor - but most were still surprised when I introduced myself and tried to socialise.

This year, I didn’t bother. Even through my Japanese is markedly better than it was a year ago. I figured if I walk up to someone at the party or in the corridor, whether they are a speaker, or someone I know from Twitter, I can just strike up a conversation and things will be fine.

Unfortunately, this year I was invisible to my Japanese peers.  These are people that might be colleagues in the future. These are people who I have so much in common with, that we could probably talk into the wee small hours of the morning on a range of topics.  These are the people that decide I can’t be spoken to because of the colour of my skin.

The problem is that it’s not really a racial issue. Like I mentioned before, it’s a cultural one. Annoyingly, it’s one I understand.  The idea of risking losing face or causing offence in Japan is so terrible that Japanese people will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.

To that end, there is nothing more quintessentially Japanese than simply ignoring a difficult situation. Speaking with foreigners is certainly difficult.

This post isn’t meant to be an attack at all on the conference or the fantastic, dedicated staff that work hard to make sure that people have a safe and happy time.

Really, this is just me sharing my experience and why I won’t give up my time, nor ask my employer to give up their time to go to RubyKaigi any more.

I go to conferences to socialise, to learn new things and to basically rebuild my buzz and enthusiasm for my chosen profession.

RubyKaigi really only satisfies the “learning new things” part for me. It’s not a social place if you’re not in the “in” group.  Nor does it particularly feel enthusiastic about building new things with Ruby in the same way conferences elsewhere in the world are.

There’s more to making a conference “international” than solving the language problem. Finding common ground across cultures is important too. Making everyone feel genuinely welcome is paramount.

This invisible man doesn't think that need has been served.