How to Work in Japan Without Speaking Japanese
Living in Japan doesn’t have to be a dream, even if you don’t know any Japanese (yet). This article shows you the options for moving and working here while circumventing the language barrier.
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.
So as long as you can speak English on a native level – which basically means you have spent a significant amount of your life in an English-speaking environment – 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.
Because English teaching jobs are so easy to get, they are sometimes looked down upon by some groups of the larger foreigner community in Japan. Don’t mind them! If you want to start living and working here, teaching English is a great stepping stone to get you started.
However, once you’ve arrived here and have become accustomed to your new environment, it is advisable to think about your further career goals. Do you love teaching English or just want to live in Japan for a while? Well, that’s great! By all means, continue on your path.
If you came here with the goal of eventually doing something else, start planning ahead and search for your next opportunity, e.g by using job portals.
While teaching English is a good starting option for a lot of foreigners coming here, it isn’t for everyone. You may run into problems if you’re not from an English-speaking country, aren’t otherwise fluent enough or simply don’t like teaching people.
Luckily, there are also some other options.
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.
Because the tasks require you to have the relevant technical skills, a certain amount of practical experience is often required for applicants with little to no Japanese ability.
Having studied computer science (or similar/related courses) in university or simply being well-acquainted with the matter, for example through personal projects, will secure jobs more reliably.
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.
Especially in multinational companies with offices and branches in all parts of the world (think of the big automotive manufacturers, for example), being sent to Japan specifically if you don’t have any or just the most basic knowledge of the language might prove to be challenging.
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.
Upon applying for the visa, there will be tests to check your skills. Please note that for most of the sectors, these tests still have to be set up. As of April 2019, only tests for Nursing Care, Food Service and Hospitality have been implemented. The other sectors are expected to implement their tests until March 2020.
The first classification of the specified skills visa (including all sectors) will enable you to stay and work in Japan for five years. After that, 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. Collecting as much information as possible about the working conditions is also advisable to make sure that you’ll not be coming here just to be completely overwhelmed right from the start.
When searching for jobs, analyze the information to determine whether the terms are right for you and make sure you’re not dealing with what people here call a “black company” (black kigyo ブラック企業) – a company that exploits its employees. This is also true for jobs on the corporate level and English teaching!
2. Corporate and other jobs
Most Japanese companies willing to hire foreigners demand JLPT N2/N1 level. If you’re reading this article and don’t know any Japanese at all, that level of fluency might be difficult to reach even if you start investing all your free time in studying Japanese from now on. But it may become an option later, so it’s useful to keep this in the back of your head.
Getting a job on the corporate level is easier than many think because more and more companies in Japan are looking for international employees and are trying to reduce entry barriers. The reason – again – is the dwindling Japanese workforce. So, keep your eyes and ears open!
If you’re in Japan for an internship, a year abroad in university or on a working holiday visa, I can only recommend attending job fairs/career forums and just getting in touch with as many people as possible.
Depending on the company or person you happen to meet or run into, your chances can suddenly increase. If you’re really motivated and succeed in showing that motivation, maybe someone will make an exception for you – who knows?
At job fairs, you’ll also able to see companies you didn’t know or think about before that might just offer you the right place to start. Most Japanese companies require you to have a university degree (any will do) to work. 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!
If you’re really serious about your goals, going to a Japanese school in Japan is one of the final and most promising options. Not only will you be taking classes, but you’ll also be immersed in a Japanese-speaking environment almost 24/7 (assuming you don’t just hang out with your international classmates or people from your share house all the time).
Depending on your curriculum, your effort and the things you do in your free time (and, again, with whom), your language skills can develop at a really fast pace. Learning a language while having to use it every day has undeniable benefits – who would’ve thought.
There are lots of schools, so I’m just going to name one as an example: Linguage Japanese School, based in Shinjuku, offers courses aimed specifically at people that want to work in Japan. Their proposition is taking you from around N4 level to business level Japanese (and a job) in one and a half year.
Of course, whether that goal (especially the job bit) can be reached will depend on the effort you put in, but if you choose a good school, the environment and methods for success will be provided.
In conclusion, 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!