Working in Japan without Experience

Two years ago, right after I re-enrolled at UT Austin after my leave of absence to extend my study abroad program in Japan, one of Japanese language professors sent me an email asking me to talk to her class about opportunities in Japan.

I remembered the feeling of not really being able to see a light at the end of the tunnel as far as getting myself rooted in Japan after my study abroad at Sophia University.  I had never had a job even in the United States aside from helping with my father’s business.

Luckily for me, I had burned through all savings, scholarships and grants on partying with my new friends and anything that seemed slightly exotic. I started browsing around online for financial opportunities while living off of approximately 10 dollars a day for a couple weeks.  That soon turned to 5 dollars a day, and after a week of 3 dollars yen a day I really got moving. I was getting a little tired of Rice, Kimchi and Nattou for breakfast and dinner every day.

I lined up an interview  with one of the leading English Conversation Companies: GABA. I did my research, tried to think of anything that I have done in college that would count as “teaching experience” and pulled out my most formal clothes from the bottom of my suitcase.

Everything was going great until I was asked at the end of the interview to wear a suit to the second interview. I was more terrified at the thought of spending 300 dollars that I don’t have than I was excited at the fact that I passed the first interview. Thanks to UNIQLO, I was able to throw together what looked like a suit for about 100 dollars. I didn’t even have dress shoes so I had to throw down at 60 dollars at ABC mart for a decent pair. (I wish I knew then that you could get a seemingly decent pair in Shibuya for 20 bucks).

I made it to the second interview looking pretty sharp and it went pretty well. They asked me to wait two weeks while they considered my application.

Then, while taking a shower in my dorm on March 11th 2011, I started to feel really strange and found that I couldn’t stand up properly. After my shampoo bottle and everything else fell on my toes, I realized that an earthquake had struck. I ran out of the shower room in a towel to get to my room on the third floor. Once I made it to the staircase, I realized this was a big earthquake and just ran outside in the towel to meet all my dorm-mates and some of the Warabi-shi neighbors.

About a week later,  completely forgotten about my interviews at GABA, I got a phone call that went a little bit like this:

“Hello, is this Joseph?” , “This is he” , “So you’re still in Japan?” , “Yes…” “You’re still in Tokyo?” “Yes…” “Oh wow! Okay, well if you’re still interested in the position at GABA…”

And that’s one of the methods for getting a non-specialized job in Japan.


There’s a brief bit on my bio about how I ended up working at the Japanese manufacturing company, Akebono Brake

Teach English

No, getting a job as an English teacher in Japan doesn’t require timing your interviews right before an earthquake. If you have some teaching experience and a good personality, this can be one of the easiest ways to work in Japan. In some cases, you don’t need any teaching experience. The income generation from this isn’t the best, but it will get you in Japan and I know many people who absolutely love being an ALT. Japanese language ability is optional and in some places they are looking for teachers who don’t speak any Japanese.

Why is the demand for English teachers in Japan so high?  If you’ve ever been to Japan you will know the answer to this question right away. Almost any book store you go to in Japan will have a massive section JUST for English. No, it’s not a nice chunk in the “Foreign Languages” section – it’s its own section and it rivals the size of something major like “Science”. Japan puts so much emphasis on learning English that kids usually begin learning it from Elementary School and continue having it as a required subject until college when it isn’t mandatory. After all this, why is the typical Japanese person’s English so mediocre? We can get into that later.

There are a lot of major English teaching companies and schools that you can apply to, some of the main ones being BERLITZ, NOVA and GABA. A quick search on google will provide you with many more you can apply to. Look around for ones that will hire people who aren’t in Japan yet. If you don’t have any luck with any of those companies, you can always take a 3 month tourist visa in Japan and start applying and taking interviews once you make it there. Getting them to sponsor your visa is then another question. Then again, getting your visa while you are in Japan is not technically following the rules, but it has been done.

Become a recruiter

This is the other popular second choice for people who don’t have a particularly marketable skill. A recruiter (also known as “head hunter” or “hiring consultant” etc.) is basically someone who finds people for a company that is looking to hire people.  This job typically has a pretty bad impression because the typical image that comes to mind is someone who is lying to get a hold of people in a company, aggressively calling people at work , pressuring people to take jobs they aren’t necessarily fit for and other ‘evil’ things like putting sauce on their rice at dinner. These things depend on the firm you join, of course – every firm has a different style. This job is competitive and high-risk, high-return. If you’re doing well then you can make very decent salary, something many times over that of a Japanese company’s salary. However, if you aren’t doing well you can in most cases make a mediocre salary and get fired depending on the company.

Working as a recruiter has been my third job in Japan after teaching English and working HR in a Japanese company. I was really excited about doing headhunting because I had been looking for an opportunity where I would have a reason to work my ass off and meet with a lot of people at the same time.  After working at a Japanese company for just a couple months, this kind of environment was becoming more and more attractive. I did a couple interviews and some research and I was pretty turned off by the bad reputation of one particular firm. Some companies make it the recruiters’ first task to cold call companies to get the names of the people working there. A lot of people are turned off by cold calls considering you can wind up with some very harsh people on the other end. If you aren’t comfortable with cold calling, don’t worry – not all firms are like this.  If you are interested in recruiting but you are concerned about what you will be doing, make sure to ask about what kind of KPI’s you will have when working there. While cold calling  can have a bad image considering some people receiving the call get irritated, those who take your call and end up in a better job or end up with a great candidate  are going to be very happy you called.

One of the reasons that recruiting is the second most popular choice for people without much experience is that you don’t necessarily need any experience depending on the firm you’re applying to. You could of course get into some more well-known firms if you have a good resume that shows you are very active and have been successful in your endeavors. The interviews can be very important as well, considering your personality and the way you sell yourself will be much more important than what’s on your resume. The resume will just be what gets your foot in the door. There’s something like over a thousand different recruiting firms in Japan so you’ll have a good chance of getting into at least one if you can express your motivation and confidence.

Two things I would recommend when trying to get into recruiting firms are: Practice interviewing at firms you aren’t that interested in and use LinkedIn to get your foot in the door.

Again, your personality and attitude will be a big deciding factor on whether or not you’re going to be hired so get as comfortable with the interviews as you possibly can. Saying all the right things could easily make up for a crappy resume. After you practice at the firms that you aren’t interested, make a list of the firms you really want to get in. Rank them from neutral to most positive and interview at the most positive ones last.

Since almost any recruiter will be on LinkedIn and they are typically more than happy to connect with most people, LinkedIn could really help you get your foot in the door and put you a step ahead of just applying through their hiring website. Send a connection request to recruiters with a short message explaining you are looking for work in Japan and you are hoping for some introductions.

But I want to work at a ‘real’ Japanese company!

Entering a Japanese company just like any other Japanese person does out of college is different from the typical application process. There is a quite lengthy process for getting into a Japanese company if you intend to enter through the traditional method. This would entail submitting an application while you are still enrolled in university around a year before you are supposed to graduate, then you do at least 3 interviews and wait for the results. They completely prefer someone just out of college rather than someone who actually has experience. So, this is a more of a  viable option if you have very good Japanese and you are still in college. However, lately Japanese companies have become more and more focused on globalizing themselves, so your chances of entering a Japanese company with work experience are on the rise, but it’s still a little more difficult.

This is a bit of a hefty topic, and as we’re eager to helping more people passionate about Japanese culture into the country, feel free to send me a message if you have any concerns. In the mean time, check out Luke’s articles regarding Job Hunting in Japan: (Job Hunting in Japan) (Job Hunting in Japan 2)

3 thoughts on “Working in Japan without Experience

  1. August

    Dear Sir,

    I got so sleepy before lunchtime that I couldn’t bear to copy any more katakana, so it was nice to take a break and read this article.


    -August L.


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