Jiko-PR: How to sell your strengths in Japanese
“Why should we hire you?” Many a job seeker has had problems with the question. This article shows you how to respond to that question in a Japanese context.
Cultural Differences in Job Hunting
Let me start with a personal anecdote. When I did my internship in Japan two years ago, I decided to use the opportunity of a longer stay to look for a job. In the end, two main candidates remained: A company from overseas with an office in Japan and a Japanese company.
The interview with the non-Japanese company came first. While the main office was in another country, every staff member I had interacted with up to that point had been Japanese. Naturally, I assumed that the interviewer would be Japanese too. I continued to prepare what I was going to say in Japanese, in a way that I thought was appropriate for a job interview in a Japanese context.
You already know how this is going to go, though: I was wrong. As soon as I opened the door, there was a German person there –the interview was in English. While I still had some hope, as soon as I opened the door, I realized that my chances of getting the job had just dropped drastically.
Culture influences the way how people think and talk about themselves as well as the standards they are evaluated on. The job search process is no exception. At the surface, things might not seem so different, but if you look deeper, some things can quickly send you on the wrong path. So now that we’re done with the introduction, let me talk about Jiko-PR.
What is Jiko-PR?
Jiko-PR (自己PR, じこピーアール) is one part of a Japanese resume. The literal translation is “self-public relations”. The English loanword seems a bit out of place here, but it’s still close enough to the original meaning to make sense.
In a business setting “public relations” is the department that interacts with people from outside the company to establish and maintain business connections by creating a positive company image.
In the same sense, “self-PR” is about you presenting yourself as a desirable job candidate. You are supposed to explain why the company should hire you and not any other person.
Jiko-PR often comes in tandem with the question about your motivation to join the company, although the two are separated from one another most of the time. In a “western-style” application, you would combine both in your cover letter. In Japan, there are separate boxes, so be sure to not get off-topic.
What Japanese companies are looking for
The ideal candidate
A phrase that shows up in many Japanese job offers – especially those for fresh university graduates – is “people with no experience are (also) welcome” (未経験者歓迎, みけいけんしゃかんげい).
I don’t remember ever seeing something like that in my home country. Even for entry-level jobs, there are usually pretty clear requirements, like having a degree in a certain field or having some work experience (which leads to the well-known problem of “I need a job to get experience, but I also need experience to get a job”).
Of course, there are places where you need a relevant degree, experience, or both – even in Japan. Examples are the medical sector, law, or anything that has to do with traditional engineering. On the other hand, fields like marketing, accounting, sales, and even IT (coding) are seen as something that anyone can excel in as long as they put their mind to it.
To make things short, this is how I would break it down:
Western Company: Wants a “one-man wonder” – a person with as many skills as possible that can do almost anything that is asked of them right from the start and generate results TODAY.
Japanese Company: Wants a person with a strong work ethic and loyalty as well as a determination to commit, learn and improve themselves, even if they have few technical skills in the beginning.
What you want VS what the company wants
If you’ve ever read about Japanese culture, you’re probably heard of the words tatemae (建前, たてまえ) and honne (本音, ほんね). They are sometimes talked up as one of those mysterious Japanese things that foreigners can never understand. But in reality, they just mean “what a person says” and “what they really think”, respectively.
Just as everywhere else in the world, the interaction of employer and potential employee is often a delicate dance of tatemae. Both sides try to look behind the mask the other person is putting up. And even if one side isn’t trying to put up a mask, there is always a feeling of constant doubt: “Is that what they really think? Can I trust them?”
Being asked to do Jiko-PR is an attempt to get a look at the “real you”.
When thinking about self-promotion, marketing yourself, or whatever you want to call it, there are two entry points. You can either start thinking about your strengths and then connect them to what the company is looking for or think about what the company wants first and then decide on the things you want to emphasize.
Ideally, you’ll end up with a mix of both. If you only emphasize your strengths, you might end up with something too far removed from the company’s day-to-day operations. On the other hand, if you over-adjust to meet the company’s needs, your answer might end up sounding insincere and hollow.
How to write Jiko-PR
If you find it hard to think of something convincing, you’re not alone. A lot of Japanese students struggle with Jiko-PR as well. A common problem is that the texts end up sounding contrived (嘘くさい uso kusai) – like you just made stuff up to impress the reader. Another pitfall is giving a safe, but boring and unoriginal answer.
While it is true that Japanese companies tend to value soft skills (team player, hard worker, etc.) higher than their western counterparts, claiming them as your strengths will be useless unless you can back them up with something.
However, as long as you’re also able to provide a good reason for why you chose the company, the strengths you use for Jiko-PR don’t have to be directly related to your future job or the sector you’ll be working in. For example, to get a job at an IT firm, you don’t necessarily need to have created a website or taught yourself how to code.
The key is to avoid making broad statements and being as precise as possible, ideally using some numbers to further illustrate what you’re saying. A small, but well-defined strength is better than a big, but vague one.
“Being precise” also means that the text shouldn’t be too long (around 400 characters max). While it’s understandable that you may want to show off your Japanese abilities, using overly verbose phrases will make it seem like you’re all talk and no action or are trying to hide that you don’t have that much to offer.
In the end, you should be able to connect the thing you’re boasting about with your motivation for application as well as something the company does as a business.
When applying for a game company, just telling them that you love their games and are really good at them won’t be enough. But if you use that as a starting point to talk about how long you’ve played and how you’d like to use your strengths to contribute to the company’s growth, you may get somewhere.
Below are some things that you could use to build your Jiko-PR.
Previous work experience. Did you have a job or worked part-time in the recent past? Whatever it is you did, think about what kind of responsibilities your work entailed and how you acted to fulfill them. Even very basic things like “being attentive” or “never being late or sick” can be used as the base for an answer.
What matters most is to show that you have qualities that make you a good and responsible employee.
Study experience. This could be anything from teaching yourself Python from scratch to studying for the JLPT.
Many employers couldn’t care less about the JLPT as a test, but will still highly value the effort put into acquiring it. Being able to say something like “I failed the N1 three times, but, with careful study, was finally able to pass it with a good score on my fourth try” shows exactly the kind of determination many Japanese HR people are looking for.
Hobbies and personal projects. Talk about extracurricular activities or other personal pursuits – what you did and how you succeeded.
Many young Japanese think you need to have been the president of your university club or have some other kind of “leader experience” to impress HR. While it is seen a plus, it’s not something you need, so there’s no reason to awkwardly construct a scenario.
Instead, focus on your efforts and how you went about them, e.g. planning, scheduling, time investment, communication with others, goal-setting, etc.
Below is a short example for a Jiko-PR. If you didn’t grow up bilingually or studied something else than Japanese Studies in university, even getting to a level of fluency where you’re confident enough to apply to a Japanese company is quite a feat, so I used that as the base.
My strength is my ability to keep going persistently until I reach the goals that I set for myself.
I have been interested in Japan since I was little, but when I first came here four years ago on a holiday trip, I strongly felt that I wanted get to know the country on a deeper level.
After returning home, I immediately started studying Japanese in my free time. After two years, I was able to pass the N3 level of the JLPT and the N2 level last year.
At the moment, I am continuing my studies while doing an internship in Japan to achieve my set goal – passing the N1 level.
As I am also interested in your company’s web design business, I want to face my tasks with the same level of tenacity and my goal- and results-oriented mindset.
Regardless of where you are, relevant skills, real experiences and concrete examples are the best way to sell your strengths to get a job.
However, Japan offers a somewhat broader approach where technical skills and certifications are not necessarily the main focus and “soft skills” (if they are backed up with believable information) can be just as important and often even the deciding factor.