Going Outside Your Domain and Enjoying Traveling Without a Goal #LeadersVoices Vol. 2: Ichihara

At Mercari, we promote various initiatives with the aim of providing equal opportunities and appropriate support so that anyone can demonstrate our company values, regardless of their background.

Gender equality is one of the SDGs, and the realization of a diverse organization based on our Diversity & Inclusion Statement is deeply interwoven with the mindset behind Mercari Group’s mission, “Circulate all forms of value to unleash the potential in all people.”

In the second installment of this series, “Creating New Value: Amplifying the Voices of a New Wave of Leaders,” we welcomed CISO Naohisa Ichihara (@ichihara), who leads the Security & Privacy Team, a particularly multicultural team even among Mercari’s diverse organization. Naohisa spoke to us about how the thrill of diving into new things has motivated him from childhood all the way through his career, as well as his mindset in leading a diverse organization.

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  • Naohisa Ichihara

    Naohisa completed a master’s degree while enrolled in the Department of Industrial Administration, one of the departments comprising the Graduate School of Science and Technology of Tokyo University of Science. After that, he was involved in security-related work at NTT Data Communications Corporation (now NTT Data Corporation). In 2015, he joined LINE Corporation, where he worked to remedy various security issues. In May of 2022, he became Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) of Mercari, Inc.

The thrill of working in a constantly evolving field with no goal

── First, I’d like to start off by asking about your personal background. Rumor has it that you’ve traveled the world playing the guitar. Is that true? What was your life like growing up?

My father ran a restaurant business, so my parents were out of the house a lot, leaving me free to do what I wanted. Since my years in middle and high school, I’ve had a pretty strong sense of curiosity, and I loved diving head-first into new things. Including business trips, I’ve traveled to more than 50 countries and counting.

My older brother got me into playing string instruments, which instilled an urge in me to play music. I have fond memories of jamming with local street musicians as I traveled with my guitar when I was in university. I even had people I met through music invite me to their homes and feed me meals. (laughs) I really enjoy putting myself in unfamiliar environments and taking everything in with all five senses.

When I was in university, I majored in AI, and I devoted myself to research through graduate school. Looking back on it, my travels, music, and research all shared a common theme: I wanted to dive into new worlds and discover unknown things.

Naohisa traveling the world with his guitar

── In your security-related work, what do you find most interesting or most meaningful?

I think there’s a thrill in staying one step ahead.

── Staying one step ahead?

Right. For example, when releasing a service, there’s always a possibility that it will be used in ways no one would expect. But we need to think of all of those unexpected ways as we develop the software and put together our business logic. In order to do that, it’s important to always be on lookout, like by keeping up with the latest technology and security news. The field of security is a deep one, and it’s always evolving. It’s like traveling without a goal. That makes it difficult, of course, but it’s also fun.

Keeping options open to accept the unexpected

── In a past job, when you worked in systems integration, you worked with a partner company in France for ten years. How did working with people from a different culture and background change your mindset? Was there anything you learned?

Something that left a major impression on me was the way they used their time. It was completely different from how Japanese people generally do it. I think this is common across all of Europe, not just France, but many people prioritize spending time with their families, so after 6 PM on weekdays, there’s practically no one in the office.

In Japan, it’s not uncommon to work on weekends or late into the night to meet tight deadlines, and I was used to that mindset myself. So I was surprised that the partner company in France would tell us, say, “We’ll be two weeks late with this delivery,” like it was nothing. It happened so often, too. We constantly found ourselves trying to be accepting while negotiating new deadlines. In Japan, my manager and team members didn’t really know how to react. (laughs)

Another example: when summer rolls around, a lot of people take long vacations, all at the same time. Work is basically on hold for a whole month. This is almost unheard of in Japan. I really came face-to-face with culture differences from the first year.

──That sounds like a lot of culture shock! How do you think you were able to make it through in an environment like that?

My experience traveling to unfamiliar places with my guitar may have helped me accept cultural differences more easily.

Working with the partner company in France wasn’t all easy, of course, but I wanted to develop the mindset necessary to work at a global company, so I took actions to adjust, like building relationships with coworkers so that we felt comfortable speaking honestly with each other and working ahead of schedule to account for potential delays later on. I also make it a point to keep multiple options open, so that I can handle unexpected situations when they arise.

Naohisa Ichihara (@ichihara)

Tackling cultural differences with a positive mindset and creating a foundation for diverse team members to thrive

──You lead a team that’s particularly diverse, even by Mercari standards. Is there anything you find challenging about that? What do you think is necessary to overcome those challenges?

In a multicultural team like ours, communication can be challenging. In Japanese, we use different levels of polite language based on the relationship between and relative positions of the speaker and listener. These formality levels affect the nuance and tone of the words we use. But English has different ways of expressing politeness and nuance, so when something said in English is translated into Japanese too literally, it can come off as harsh and hurt someone’s feelings.

In the past, I had a case where I was in a meeting with both Japanese and non-Japanese coworkers, and a Japanese coworker came up to me after the meeting was over. They said that they were worried about their ability to work with one of the non-Japanese members because they felt that that person had spoken to them rudely. I understood the context and intention behind the non-Japanese member’s remark, so I reassured this coworker that they hadn’t meant it like that. The non-Japanese member spoke in a way that—to them—conveyed a positive and cooperative message, but because they used direct expressions, it came off as blunt and harsh to someone used to the type of indirect communication common in Japanese. It’s really easy for this kind of misunderstanding to happen in multilingual communication.

When it comes to problems like this, there are many aspects that you can only really understand once you experience it for yourself. But that also means that the more you experience, the more you can refine your communication, and the fewer misunderstandings you’ll have about tone and intent.

Every time you come into contact with a different culture, you’ll run into cultural differences, but those differences help you learn about the kinds of cultures out there in the world, and realize how little you really know. This comes back to the mindset of accepting the unexpected that I mentioned earlier.

“Be a borderless player”: Having a broad perspective and collaborating with those around you

── One last question: What do you think is most important in creating an organization that enables people of all different backgrounds to perform at their full potential?

In the Security & Privacy Team, I like to use the phrase “be a borderless player.” When you encounter challenges in your work or communication with other team members, relying on only your own experience or the experience of the people around you will only lead to a limited set of solutions—it won’t help you come up with something that will have a large impact.

In the Security All Hands meeting we have every month, I make sure to talk about the importance of networking with talented people in the field, both inside and outside of Japan, and always having a broad perspective. The field of security is vast, and requires a broad range of knowledge, so it’s particularly important for individuals to collaborate with those around them rather than try to handle everything on their own.

For example, an issue faced by someone in the domain of privacy could be similar to an issue faced by someone in the domains of legal or compliance. Going outside the boundaries of your own domain and diving into an unknown world not only helps you solve issues in your work, but also encourages you to widen your perspective and become borderless. By becoming borderless and seizing opportunities to take on new challenges, you’ll find yourself with more and more experience and knowledge before you know it.

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