Ask Yourself, “Can I work in Japan?”


can I work in Japan

No, I don’t mean you should ask yourself whether or not it is technically possible for you to work in Japan (after jumping through a series of hoops of various sizes and filling in an array of forms), but rather I mean that you should stop and ask yourself, ‘is Japan right for me?’.

If you decided to walk down the long winding path towards employment in Japan, make no mistake there will be many obstacles and challenges along the way. It will not be an easy path, and to keep ones ‘eye on the prize’ may test your resolve on more than one occasion. Therefore supposing upon running this gauntlet and then after reaching your destination you find that the reality is not what you expected, well (apart from wasting vast amounts of time and money) the disappointment would be immense.

So before we go ahead let’s take a few minutes out to step back and say

“Can I work in Japan”?

However fear not, all those interesting in working in Japan, for it is not all doom and gloom. Working in Japan (and even more specifically at a Japanese company) may not be for everyone, but then again not working in Japan may not be for everyone (essentially, it’s like Marmite…). But I digress…

Before we get started let’s take a look at the following Japanese saying;

十人十色 [ じゅうにんといろ・Jūnin Toiro ]

Which when translated literally means, ‘ten people, ten colours’ – Everyone is different!

If you get ten people together then they are not all going to like the same colour, march to the beat of the same drum, have the same opinions, and so on.

So which colour are you? Are you a shrinking violet when it comes to working abroad, or perhaps just green with envy at the thought of people already working in Japan?

Let’s take a look at some of the points which you should consider before deciding to set down that path towards working in Japan – in order to avoid any potential pitfalls along the way.

1. Do You Like ‘Japan’?

Ok, this might seem a little silly, but I am being serious.

Being a ‘Gaijin’ (foreigner) in Japan, you inevitably end up being invited to socialize with other ‘Gaijin’ or come across others working in Japan in your daily life. The one thing that really sticks out in my mind is the amount of ‘Japan bashing’ which sometimes spills out of such gatherings; generally an outpouring out of general frustrations about life in Japan, work in Japan, and so on.

However, I think there is a simple (albeit slightly harsh) solution to this problem – don’t work in Japan. No I don’t mean the ‘don’t come to Japan you smelly Gaijin and eat all our sushi’ vitriol so commonly spewed by the Uyoku Dantai(right wing groups), but rather I think that if you feel that you may not fit into Japanese society/you do not think you agree with some aspects of Japanese society, then perhaps it may be better to steer clear of actually coming here and working full time.

Japan is a wonderful country rich in culture both modern and ancient; but sometimes it may be better to keep the ‘mystique’ of Japan intact by keeping yourself on the outside, looking in. Or, if you are like me, you may not be content with only looking and are willing to dive in headfirst to try to understand its complexities and bewilderments. Neither stance is right or wrong, good or bad.

2. Are you willing to ‘work’ in Japan?

This may also seem like a rather strange question to ask somebody who is already thinking about working in Japan, as I presume you are.

According to OECD statistics the average Japanese worker clocked up on average 1,745 hours a year in 2012, which actually comparatively does not appear out of the norm, and is in fact lower than other developed OECD members such as the United States (1,790 hours), Russia (1,982 hours) and South Korea (2,090 hours, 2011). However, this should start to ring alarm bells with anyone at least vaguely familiar with Japanese working practices as Japan is not exactly famous for a lack of overtime and long paid holidays.

No, as the BBC points out in this article, the amount of part-time workers working shorter hours has probably skewed the figures into the mid-range and offset the effect of many Japanese fulltime workers working excessively. The real figure (for those working full time) is perhaps nearer or in excess of South Korea (as this Japanese blogger points out).

So, you should very much be prepared to ‘work’ (in the sense of ‘work more’) than perhaps you are willing to/expected to in your country of birth.

However, it should be pointed out that perhaps not all companies (especially those looking to hire foreign talent) will have the ‘culture’ of expecting employees to put in extra hours of work. Furthermore, (as strange as it may sound…) there is actually nothing stopping you from going home on time if you have finished all your work for the day, something which is in fact actively encouraged by many HR departments (but more often than not falls on deaf ears).

If you do not mind putting in a few extra hours, or alternatively if you think that you can easily go ignore the ‘anmoku no ryōkai’ (unspoken agreement) and leave work without waiting for your seniors to have done so already, then you have probably already cleared one of the biggest steps!

3. Is my Japanese good enough?

Now depending on what line of work you are looking for/what kind of company (domestic or foreign) you are looking to work for, this point may or may not be applicable. However, assuming that you are going to try to apply for a Japanese company in the same manner as a Japanese graduate (or with career experience), then this is something you most certainly have to take into account.

Japan is not known for its high level of English proficiency, recently ranking 26th out of 60 countries in the EF Education First English Proficiency Index, notably behind other Asian countries such as Singapore in 11th and even trailing South Korea at 24th. Even if you have only been in Japan for a short while, this may seem a little strange. Ride on any train and you will almost certainly find numerous advertisements for (rather costly) English conversation schools, English is a compulsory subject at all Japanese schools, English ‘loan-words’ pepper Japanese language – so why do many adult Japanese still seem to struggle with communicating in English? Well, that is a topic for another time…

The fact of the matter is that if you end up working in a Japanese corporation you will need a level of Japanese that is suitable in order to communicate and exchange ideas as well as read through e-mails, reports and other information that will be no doubt thrown your way. In recent years several high profile companies (Uniqlo, Rakuten) have declared English to be their ‘official language’ used within the company. However, speaking from the personal experience of dealing with a wide range of Japanese companies, the reality on the ground for 99% of most other businesses is far from the ideal painted by the above two. One of the most important recipes for success is being able to express oneself and convey information precisely and efficiently. English may seem ‘global’, but when it comes to the boardroom Japanese is certainly here to stay for the foreseeable future.

So, in terms of Japanese language ability, just how ‘good’ is ‘good’?

Well, I may be shooting myself in the foot slightly with asking the above question, as I actually do not believe that Japanese ‘ability’ can be quantified and calculated by taking tests and receiving a score. However, I admit that just by having certain ‘qualifications’ on your resume will make you more attractive to a potential employer, regardless of your actual ability to converse in the language. Namely, these are…

Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT)  – Level = N1/N2

–       If you have not heard of the JLPT and have been studying Japanese for a while, I will assume that you may have been living under a potentially rather large rock. The JLPT is hands-down the most famous test for Japanese language proficiency, held globally in 250 cities around the world each year. A valuable piece of ammunition if you are intending on fighting in a Japanese language forum flame-war any time soon, it is often seen as a badge of honour by many learning Japanese.

However, from purely anecdotal evidence, the ability to obtain the top grade ‘N1’ and the ability to converse in Japanese do not seem to correlate quite well. The main reason being that the exam does not test conversational or even writing ability. Quite simply, if you can memorize the vocabulary and grammar and have the ability to read through paragraphs of text without too much trouble, then you have a good chance of passing.

Also, N1 is obviously the most desirable in terms of having adorning your CV, but many HR departments also see N2 as an indicator of ‘business level’ proficiency.

Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT)

–       Less well known than the JLPT, the BJT is designed to measure ones Japanese language ability required for a business environment and may look nice on your CV alongside the JLPT or even alone. Again, the exam only tests reading and listening abilities and so is not really a true test of how one can communicate in a business setting, but this is Japan and so we need to remember to jump through the hoops to get where we want to go! An explanation of the different levels can be found here.

Going back to my earlier point, whist the above tests may show to potential employees that you can at least comprehend Japanese to a certain level, the most important thing will be being truthful to yourself about your ability to ‘operate’ without too much trouble in a Japanese environment. It may be slightly clichéd, but you will just ‘know’.

Also, it is important to keep in mind that Japanese employers are by no means expecting you to be fluent (i.e. to a native standard). Furthermore, whilst I was quite proficient before I joined my company, in the first year of being in a completely Japanese work environment day in day out, my level of comprehension and verbal communication (specifically in regards to business terms) proverbially shot through the roof. Finally, I am an advocate of total immersion language learning, and so even if you feel you may not be ready at this point in time – well that’s nothing that can’t be cured by jumping headfirst into the language straight away!

4. Can I ‘drink’? No, seriously.

Again, not something you would expect someone to ask when discussing a career, but then again this is Japan so it is preferable to expect the unexpected.

Regarding drinking, especially in regards to drinking culture within companies, in Japan, Luke wrote a great in depth article last year so I won’t go in to too much detail, but let’s just say that in certain industries drinking and working should be thought of one and the same in Japan.

Drinking provides the foundation for social communication and even the discussion of business matters across a variety of situations in the Japanese company. As an employee (especially as a new employee), there will be many times when you will be simply expected to accompany your senpai (seniors) and joūshi (superiors) for a drink after work. This is all in the name of ‘nominikēshon’ , a word which in typically Japanese fashion combines the words ‘drink’ (nomi) and ‘communication’ (komyunikēshon), resulting in a hybrid meaning ‘drink-communication’.

For many Japanese workers these after work drinks provide the ‘oil’ needed to open up and talk about things that they might not be so willing to talk about in the serious environment of the office, in order to strengthen bonds between colleagues and sort out any problems left over from work. Sounds great, huh? Well, on paper it does. In fact, I think on many occasions I think it really does provide this crucial role within inter-office relationships, providing a platform for sometimes even frank discussions with ones superiors and colleagues.

However, the picture is not all so rosy, as simple ‘drink-communication’ can easily turn into your boss’s one man sermon about all aspects of work and life and whilst if you are invited you can by all means ‘turn them down’ (as is the case with overtime) there will sometimes be an expectation that you will attend. Furthermore, these things are not confined to a nice little drink on a Friday night. I have regularly been invited along for drinks in the middle of the week which end up as all night benders commencing at 6pm and finishing with my head in my hands at 3am the next morning…(However this may be quite specific to my industry – trading companies).

The above, admittedly, may be somewhat of a worst case scenario, but it is worth keeping in mind that drinking remains (for good or bad) an integral part of working at a Japanese company. However, for those of you who don’t drink or can’t drink, as long as you make a point of this situation very early on and make it your ‘thing’ – you should be able to avoid having to go through the above and not be forced to drink .Furthermore, many Japanese drinking establishments now provide increasingly tasty ‘alcohol free’ beers so you can join in with the ‘drinking’ without the worry of having to spend the next morning with your head over the toilet bowl – success!


Whilst the above points are meant to highlight some problems you may have with working in Japan, it is worth remembering that just as in the proverb ‘‘ten people’ may have ‘ten colours’, Japanese companies also come in many shapes and sizes and the definition of what is acceptable and what is not can differ widely . For example, I have encountered companies that actively discourage drinking with customers, whilst on the other hand there have been companies that literally base their whole sales pitch around drinking with their customers to gain affection and win support. However, I believe points 2,3 and 4 (roughly) translate to the reality on the ground in many Japanese companies and so before setting down on the path towards employment they should be thought carefully about. Ready to take the plunge? Then strap yourself in, because it’s about to get interesting…

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