Job Hunt in Japan: A Professional’s Perspective
What kind of non-Japanese applicants are Japanese companies looking for? What are common hurdles you’ll have to overcome as a foreign applicant? To get an overview, we talked to a Japanese teacher and career consultant at a language school in Shinjuku.
Name: Okada Etsuko
Profession: Japanese Language Teacher and Career Consultant at Linguage Japanese Language School
Qualifications: Nationally Certified Career Consultant
After working as a business Japanese teacher for new graduate employees, she became one of the founding staff members of Linguage Japanese Language School, as the school’s main career consultant. Additionally to teaching at Linguage, she holds job hunt seminars for international students at various Japanese universities as well as seminars for Japanese companies that aim to increase mutual understanding between domestic companies and foreign applicants.
Florian (F): Thank you for taking your time for the interview today. Let’s start right away! As a career consultant at a business-focused Japanese language school, you have been supporting a lot of foreigners during their job hunt. First, can you tell me what kind of foreigners are in demand in Japan right now?
What companies in Japan are looking for
Okada-Sensei (O): There are mainly three kinds of people that companies want. First, communicators – people with the ability to fluently converse with other employees in Japanese. Second, promising candidates. And finally, people who understand the internal workings of Japanese companies and how work is done here.
Let me go into the details a bit more. The first group – people who can communicate in Japanese – is important because many businesses who hire foreigners do so because they simply can’t find enough Japanese workers. In many cases, being able to communicate with Japanese coworkers or customers is a minimum requirement.
The “promising candidates” category is pretty abstract, but here’s what I mean: Promising fresh graduates are people that stand out in some way and have especially high potential to benefit the company in the long run. For example, even if a candidate has no skills or experiences to speak of, their past actions might show that they’re an eager learner or have a very logical way of thinking. It’s those things that companies look for in new graduates.
Mid-career hires enter the company in a specific position. They’re treated as immediate assets and for them, whether they’re viewed as promising comes down to their skills and how well they can perform their tasks.
For the last point, it’s all about the long term. Someone who understands Japanese business culture is more likely to work at the company longer and can probably get along better with their colleagues.
Of course, people can fall into multiple categories. The ideal candidate would have qualities of all three, but only one or two can be enough to get you a job.
Why companies take foreign applicants
F: While not always the case, chances are high that there’s at least one native Japanese person applying for any given position. Online, a common point of advice is that knowing Japanese is not enough, you also need something else. What do you think about that? And what are the reasons for companies to specifically pick foreign candidates?
O: I agree that it’s important to have additional skills. On top of that, you need to have a clear understanding of what the company wants and what the job requires.
There are skills that you can prove objectively, with certificates, for example. But in some cases, that’s not possible – for example when you say that you’re a good communicator or understand a specific country’s business culture. Here, you have to convincingly present concrete episodes from your past that connect to those points.
Also, there’s one more thing … innovative thinking. Companies aren’t looking for complete oddballs, but many of them do want people who look at things from a different angle or think about them in slightly unusual ways. When I talk about this, I always think back to one of our former students. They went for a job in an industry that didn’t particularly favor foreigners and faced strong competition from Japanese students. Compared to them, their Japanese level wasn’t nearly high enough, but they did get the job in the end.
At our school, I checked the entry sheet that the student wrote. They presented their background and story in a way that was clearly different from the average Japanese university student. It really showed their enthusiasm for the job, and I think that was a key part of why things worked out for them.
When companies hire foreigners, they don’t want to hear answers that could be found in a “How to Job-Hunt” manual from a Japanese university book shop – they want people that express their passion in a unique way.
Routes to a job in Japan
F: There are a lot of different routes to a job. Among your students, what has been the most common?
O: There really isn’t one that’s clearly most common. For example, we’ve had students who contacted recruiters that specialize in jobs for international students, students that went to job fairs, and students that just searched for jobs and applied online. In some cases, we could also directly recommend students to companies that we have connections with.
F: So it’s not like everyone follows the traditional schedule, starting with one-day internships in June, officially applying in March and so on…?
O: No. Our courses take one to one and a half years, so there’s simply no time for following the same schedule that the regular university student goes through.
Our students start their self-analysis and company research right after entering the school and fill our classes with as much job-hunt related content as possible – for example, writing resumes and preparing for interviews. We do practical exercises and encourage students to go to company seminars, starting in May to June.
We’re also connected to some recruiters who specialize in international students. Once the students finish preparing for writing their application documents, we introduce them to each other, and in some cases the connection to a job can be made right there.
I personally always look out for recruitment information and do personal counseling with students where I share the info with students and help them with writing their entry sheets.
How to apply as a young professional
F: Figuring out how to make the schedule work can be a challenge, but things are still pretty clear if you’re a student who has never had a full-time job before. You just go for the new graduate positions. But what about people that already have some experience working in their home country. When they start applying, are they all treated as mid-career hires?
O: We’ve talked about this with recruiters, and according to them, people like that can start the hiring process at either entry point. If you’re too high above the age of the average Japanese fresh graduate – around 22 – or have experience in a very specialized field, then you’ll most likely be treated as a mid-career candidate. But aside from that, you can apply at both entry and mid-career level, based on your experiences and preferences.
F: So you’re not automatically a mid-career hire just because you’ve worked before, I see.
Common difficulties faced by foreigners
F: Job hunting in Japan isn’t easy. Are there any common hurdles that young foreigners who job-hunt here have to deal with?
O: There are so many, I don’t even know where to start! (laughs) Let me narrow it down to three things.
First, there’s an experience hurdle. This one is typically faced by foreigners with engineering or creative professions – developers or designers, for example. Many of them already have a few years’ worth of work experience back in their home country and think of that as a big asset. But when applying for jobs and doing interviews, it often turns out that two or three years of experience aren’t considered sufficient for starting at a mid-career position. And on top of that, some companies have Japanese language requirements. This is a point where people who thought they’d have no trouble with finding a job tend to stumble.
Next, there’s a decision hurdle. There are students who simply don’t know where to go. They want to live in Japan but have no special skills or experiences, sometimes not even a or central idea for their future. Those students tend to have a hard time job hunting.
In the past, I had a student who could communicate fluently on a very high level but didn’t have any goals beyond that. When job hunting season came, they started applying for jobs in popular industries, but it didn’t go well. It’s really important to make clear what it is that you want to do. Based on that, you can then think about what companies are looking for and analyze what parts of your personality and skill set match the requirements.
Finally, the job hunt process itself can be a high hurdle to clear as well. It’s very drawn out, and more often than not, things tend to not work out well. Some students tire out after a while, even if they were very motivated at the beginning. Foreigners are under additional pressure because if they can’t find a job by the time their visa runs out, they have to return to their home country. So there are points where they just want to give up. Mental preparation – to maintain a strong will paired with a positive way of looking at things – is very important.
Typical job hunt mistakes
F: Now, you were talking about the broader problems that job seekers tend to have. How about the micro-level?
O: For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to limit myself to three points here as well.
First, group interviews. One of our students took a type of interview where three applicants face two company representatives. We had gone over it in class, but for some reason – maybe because of nervousness – the student lowered their eyes when they were done talking and overall acted in a way that made it seem like they weren’t listening to what the other candidates were saying. That left a bad impression, and they ended up failing the interview.
There also was a similar instance where a student dozed off during a company seminar. This is a very obvious mistake that everyone knows to avoid, but if you’re still learning Japanese, being confronted with lots and lots and information can be overwhelming.
Another point is preparing interview answers that don’t mesh well with what the company is looking for. For example, I know of a case where two students remained until the last interview. As the last question, the interviewer asked them where they saw themselves in 10 years. Student A answered that they would still be working at the company, having ranked up and taken on more responsibilities. Student B answered that they wanted to work for 5 years, get some experience, and then return to their country to start a business. Who do you think got the job?
F: Typically Japanese companies are looking for people who will stay with them for them for a long time. So student A?
O: Exactly. Japanese company culture is slowly changing, but that change hasn’t yet reached a lot of mid-sized and smaller corporations.
F: I see. I think there are also companies that would’ve preferred student B, but the answer student A gave is the safer option and more generally suited for Japanese companies.
O: Yes. This is why company research and knowledge about business culture is so important.
Japanese – essential?
F: Do you think a high level of Japanese is essential for job-hunting in Japan?
O: From what I’ve seen, the Japanese language requirements are on the rise. For example, about three years ago, many companies were OK with foreign IT staff at N3 level, but now, more and more are asking for N1 or even native level.
Advice for planning your job hunt
F: What advice would you give to people who want to plan out their job hunt in Japan?
O: If you’re enrolled at a Japanese university, attend the career and job hunt seminars. It’s a very basic thing to do but will help you to stay on track and not lag behind. Doing one-day internships during your third year in university is essential as well.
If you’re only here for one or two years and your institution doesn’t offer job hunt support, it’s important to start as early as possible because you’re on a tighter schedule. Start preparing in early spring so that you can get a tentative job offer as early as June.
But even if you can’t make it by then, you don’t have to give up. Companies are still holding entry seminars in October and November, some of them even in December. There are always chances left! One of our students graduated in March and got a job offer a few weeks later.
F: You mean they graduated in March, and then started working in April of the same year?
O: Yes! They kept at it until the very end and it paid off.
F: That’s pretty impressive!
The most important thing
F: Now that we’ve gone over a variety of topics – what do you think is most important when searching for a job in Japan as a foreigner?
O: I’m sorry for the boring answer, but I think honing your Japanese skills is one of the top priorities. The goal is to be able to apply with JLPT N2 or N1 under your belt. That kind of official proof is what prevents you from dropping out right at the beginning of the screening process. At Linguage, we cover all of the four basic skills – reading, writing, speaking, and listening. For your job hunt, you will need all of them!
Another important point is one that I already touched upon earlier is having a clear idea of what you want to do. In Japanese, it’s called having an “axis” (軸, じく), which all of the things you present and talk about revolve around. Once you have that figured out, all the other parts of the job hunt – researching companies, writing applications, appealing to your strengths – become much, much easier and people at the companies you apply to will have a clearer idea of what to do with you.
At Linguage, you’ll learn how to self-analyze and express the results in a way that matches the expectations of companies in Japan. Learn how to write a cover letter and appeal to your strengths and get your job!
Get in touch!
Interested in learning business Japanese and working in Japan? Then Linguage might just be your choice. Their one- to one-and-a-half year course doesn’t only teach you Japanese, but also includes all the support you need to find a job in Japan! For more info about the school, details about the curriculum and other things, check out our article here or visit the school’s homepage directly by clicking the link below.
Read about other’s experiences
Interested in how the job hunt went for others? Check out our interviews with Linguage graduates!