How to Work in Japan Without Speaking Japanese
Can you work in Japan without being able to speak even a shred of Japanese? It’s not easy – but possible. This article introduces you to the main options.
Jobs for non-Japanese speakers
1. English teacher
Teaching English is by far the most common and easy-to-get job for foreigners with little to no knowledge of the Japanese language.
With Japan’s young population shrinking and market internationalizing, companies teaching English conversation (commonly referred to as Eikaiwa 英会話) are looking for staff members all the time. Most of them want motivated native speakers. Previous experience in teaching/education is certainly a plus but rarely required.
As long as you can speak English on a “native level” (definitions of what exactly that means vary), finding an English teaching job shouldn’t be difficult. It may be anecdotal evidence, but a British acquaintance of mine got accepted at the first Eikaiwa company he applied to.
If you just want to “get your foot in the door” and live in Japan for a while, an English teaching job can be a good option. However, don’t forget to think about the long term. Is there any other work you’d like to do – maybe more so than teaching? Do you want to continue teaching for longer than a few years?
If you already have some ideas, it’s best to start planning ahead before you come to Japan. For example, you could look through English-language job portals and getting an idea of the requirements for the job you’re aiming for. With a clear goal in mind, it’s much easier to level up your Japanese and other skills while teaching.
As mentioned before, Japan’s working population is getting smaller, and people with engineering knowledge are in even higher demand than English teachers. Especially the demand for IT staff (web engineers, software engineers, etc.) has been increasing dramatically.
As a general rule, the better your technical skills are, the less Japanese you’ll need. It’s even possible to find jobs that don’t require any Japanese whatsoever! Having a degree in Computer Science (or similar fields) or some other certificates makes it easier for you to convince companies that you have what they are looking for.
However, with some Japanese skills, it is also possible to get trained completely from scratch! This is a great option for people who didn’t major in “something useful” in university (with a master’s degree in Japanese Studies, I’m one of those specimens).
Getting a job with a company that does traditional training on the job enables you to live in Japan, acquire new skills for your future career, and improve your Japanese – all at the same time and while getting paid.
3. Internal Transfer
The third option is to start working at a company outside Japan first and then getting transferred to the company’s Japanese branch office (or main office, if it’s a Japanese company). That way, you will become what is called an expat.
Being transferred probably is the most lucrative of the three options given here – since you’ll already have acquired some experience working in your field and abroad (from the Japanese perspective), your pay is likely to be higher right from the start, oftentimes significantly so.
However, being transferred to Japan isn’t something you can easily plan for, nor is it possible in short periods of time. You’ll have to search carefully and plan long-term. Are people being sent to Japan? Are they being sent for longer periods of time? How long will it take until you’ll be able to be transferred?
Questions like this often can’t be answered clearly – there are simply too many eventualities. It’s this uncertainty that makes planning for a transfer right from the start difficult.
Other employment opportunities for English speakers
As mentioned above, even a little to medium knowledge of Japanese will increase your options.
If you don’t know any Japanese right now, you could always start learning today, give your best for a year or two and come here equipped with some language abilities. A lot of companies aren’t expecting you to be perfectly fluent, especially if you show that you’re willing to continue to learn.
1. Specified Skills Visa
The Specified Skills Visa (特定技能ビザ) has been newly specified in April 2019. The types of jobs you can do on his type of visa usually only require a basic knowledge of Japanese around the JLPT N4/N3 level (sometimes even just N5).
To receive the visa, you are required to have knowledge of or experience in work-related tasks. The applicable sectors (14 in total) cover a wide range from Food Service and Hospitality over Construction, Electronics, and Automobile Maintenance to Nursing Care.
The first classification of the specified skills visa (including all sectors) will enable you to stay and work in Japan for five years. If your sector doesn’t offer the option to transition into the second classification (which comes without a time limit), you will have to leave Japan after your work contract ends.
The language requirements may be low but be aware that these types of jobs typically pay less than ones at the corporate level. Collect as much information as possible about the working conditions in advance to make sure that you’ll not be coming here just to be completely overwhelmed right from the start.
2. Corporate and other jobs
Most Japanese companies require JLPT N2/N1 for a regular job. If you’re reading this article and don’t know any Japanese at all, reaching that level isn’t realistic. However, Japan has been opening up to foreigners in the last few years. It’s easy to get the impression that you shouldn’t even bother searching for jobs without fluent Japanese but there are a lot of hidden opportunities – especially when you search in Japan.
Even if you don’t know much Japanese right now, you could come to Japan for an internship, a language school course, or on a working holiday visa. Once you’re here, job fairs and career forums are within arm’s reach. There, you can talk to people directly, and depending on the company or person you run into, your chances can suddenly increase. Keep your eyes peeled for startups or companies with an international outlook.
Another good thing about job fairs is that you’ll see companies that weren’t on your radar before. that might just offer you the good place to start. If you’re still a student, you should keep your date of (expected) graduation in mind when going to job fairs and similar events.
The last option is to run your own business or self-sponsor your own visa. The caveat here is that it’s very challenging to do right from the start.
Depending on what you want to do, going freelance may already be difficult enough in your home country, but in Japan, you’ll run into visa issues on top of that. You can’t get a regular working visa unless there is someone, somewhere (usually a company) guaranteeing that you’ll be actually working here. Find out more about visa types and issues.
Consequently, freelance work isn’t really suited for non-Japanese speakers looking to start their career, but just like corporate jobs, it’s useful to keep in mind as a long-term or future option. For example, I know of a foreign artist who started out at a Japanese production company and has now transitioned into full-time freelance work.
Work in Japan with your Japanese
Above we’ve covered available options to work in Japan with no or little Japanese skills.
Basically, if you just want to live in Japan for a few years to get a more in-depth experience of the culture while being able to pay your own bills, a job in English teaching or “specified skills” will be sufficient and won’t require you to know the language all that much.
Engineering and other corporate positions, on the other hand, offer a higher ceiling. Especially Engineering (IT) is attractive here since the language requirements can be relatively low.
However, for optimizing your future career path after moving here, learning Japanese goes a long way. As already stated, there’s no need to be perfect from the start – you’ll just have to keep on learning and improving continuously.
Japanese study resources
In this day and age, there are a lot of ways to learn new languages. Taking a class or an intensive course at your local university, school or community college is probably a good place to start.
Once you get the gist of it, you can also start learning on your own – there is an overwhelming amount of resources.
Usual recommendations include the Anki flashcards app for vocabulary, Tae Kim’s Guide To Japanese Grammar, services like WaniKani or Kanjidamage for Kanji (there’s also Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji” if you prefer your mnemonics-based learning system in book form).
For listening practice, consuming various Japanese media is the way to go.
Yes, I’m going to say it: Watching Anime is one form of studying Japanese – as long as you manage your doses well and actually try to understand instead of just reading the subtitles (arguably a difficult trap to circumvent). Other options are Japanese news sites (like NHK Easy), podcasts or Youtube channels.
When reading online, add-ons like Rikaichan (Firefox) or Rikaikun (Chrome) make sure that you can understand without having to know a lot of Kanji. Whatever you do, make sure your input comes from a wide spectrum of media!
Getting a job in Japan without being able to speak Japanese may seem impossible at first, but in fact, there are a number of ways to circumvent the initial language barrier.
If you really want to come to Japan long-term, choose your preferred option now and start preparing! Go for it and make it happen!
Learning from the pros – in Japan
If you want to get ready for finding a job on your own, going to a Japanese school in Japan is the fastest option. Not only will you be taking classes, but you’ll also be immersed in a Japanese-speaking environment almost 24/7.
Linguage Japanese Language School, based in Shinjuku, offers a business-focused curriculum with added job hunt support. In addition to regular classes, you can have your CVs and other documents checked and get advice on how to find the job you’re looking for. If that sounds like something for you, check out our in-depth article here or go to the school’s homepage by clicking the link below!
Let others do the work
If you’re not in Japan right now and don’t have time for a language course, another option is to let others search for a position that fits you. Diversity HR, an IT job placement service from Zenken Corporation, specializes in matching engineers from Asia with companies in Japan. After registering, you’ll be sent offers based on your personal profile. Find out more in our article below!