So you want to work in Japan? Great – let's learn how to get you from where you are now to working in Japan. Getting a job in Japan can seem like a daunting task, but like anything worth doing, you should put in the time and plan your strategy now to set yourself up properly for the future.
Basically, there are a few possible scenarios you could potentially be approaching this from. Obviously this list is not exhaustive, but it should suffice for the majority of non-Japanese people looking to find work in Japan.
A) You have more than 3 years experience working in or out of Japan, but you live in Japan with a work/spousal/PR/working holiday status of residence
B) You have more than 3 years experience working in or out of Japan, living outside Japan
C) You are a new graduate or less-than-3-years work experience person living outside Japan
D) You are a current student or less-than-3-years work experience person living in Japan
Let’s begin with A: You have more than 3 years experience working in or out of Japan, but you live in Japan with a work/spousal/PR/working holiday status of residence.
A) Mid career job search in Japan, with a work-eligible status of residence
Congratulations, you are going to have the easiest time out of the above getting your next job. (Note to everyone who falls under B, C, or D – once you have your first job in Japan and your status of residence, life gets a lot easier and you have pretty much all options available to you). Your status of residence is key, and if you speak business Japanese in addition to English, you're already way ahead of the game. The key here for you will be learning to "sell" yourself to potential employers, the same as you would have to do in any other country.
The only things holding you back are likely lack of a) network b) language skills or c) career skills. The only way to improve any of those is to get busy and treat your job search like having a second full-time job. There’s no secret sauce to getting a job, except maybe get out and meet lots of people and build a network, but honestly that’s the same anywhere in the world.
In this scenario, you already have a bit of career experience built up, and you can start working without waiting for a visa to come through, so let’s assume you know what type of job you want to do. Check out indeed.jp and find 10-100 listings for that type of job you want to do. List up the “requirements” you find in each ad, and narrow down until you have a short list of key requirements that every listing seems to have. This is your list of key skills you'll want to bring to the table when you start interviewing.
Want to act like a local and play their game? Be my guest.
I recommend Indeed, as it serves as a bit of a filter for the type of company you'll want to work with. Now, I don't know you personally, and maybe you enjoy the uphill battle of entering mid career as a local hire in a traditional Japanese megacorp. You do you. In that case, you can use the local job search tools in the 転職 space. Typically these would include MyNavi Tenshoku and RikuNavi Next by Recruit.
The warning I will give you, but you're probably already aware, is that when you act like a local and go through the same steps a local hire would, you come up against some fairly major limitations.
1. You are playing in the same (relatively) illiquid job market as the Japanese populace, where employers hold all the cards and you give up your leverage. Salary negotiation expectations should remain modest.
2. If your Japanese is "just" business level, you likely won't even be considered for the majority of positions available, even at international companies. Native level requirements are everywhere.
3. At the really traditional Japanese corporations (eg. Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Nissan, etc.) you will be labeled as a mid career hire quite explicitly in their HR system, and the likelihood of moving far up the career ladder goes down. These old companies still love the "one job for life" types and favor them for internal opportunities. I say this with confidence, as my first corporate job in Japan was in the HR department at one of these firms.
Get a recruiter. Like, a good one.
There will be an article about recruiters in Japan. Oh boy will there will most definitely be an article about recruiters. I've met some absolute characters working in that industry. But that's not really the point of this post. What I do recommend is finding, through your network of trusted professionals, the contact info for a good recruiter. They're out there.
Your "good recruiter" will indeed help you open doors on opportunities that you didn't know existed. These will be jobs that are not posted publicly on job search sites, and the person your recruiter will introduce you to is probably (hopefully) at the higher end of the food chain and can get you in quickly if you look like a good fit. The real benefit is you're more likely to be encountering forward-thinking Japanese or international firms that give a damn about the quality of their talent. They'll pay top dollar for the right person, and it's the best way to career ladder into a better standard of living.
B) Mid career job search in Japan, without a work-eligible status of residence
You’re in an interesting category. Companies in Japan probably see you as a high liability hire if you're not coming in through a recruiter. They need to get you a visa, get you over to Japan, get you up to speed on life in Japan, and then once you're in the company you likely have different culture and habits than their fresh-out-of-university hires (at the more traditional organizations). You need to bring a lot of value to the table for a company to consider going through all this hassle.
In my experience, you are best off going 1 of 2 routes to get a job in Japan.
1) Work for a company outside of Japan that has a Japanese office or strong Japanese connections, and make it very clear that you have what it takes to work in Japan.
You need to show them that you will be an asset in the Japanese office, ready to carry on the mission of your company in a foreign location without being babysat (pro-tip: business level Japanese is a great start). Your best bet is to make it obvious very quickly that your aim is to work in their Japanese office, and you are passionate about what the company does so you want to spend the first year or five in the home location, to support the company and learn the culture before you ship out.
2) Come over to Japan on a visa-waiver (enter as a tourist) for 3 months, or on a working holiday visa (select countries, under age 30), or marry a Japanese national and get a spousal status of residence.
Basically, get to Japan however you can because applying from outside of Japan is going to be an uphill battle for you. Japanese companies will see you as an unmitigated risk as an “experienced hire” from abroad who is already showing a tendency to quit their job. Local international firms likewise don't necessarily see your benefits over someone local, so you'll increase your chances by showing up in person and making a good impression.
Get to Japan physically and then network every day in order to meet somebody with a connection that can get you your first job. A good recruiter, as mentioned in the previous section, is a great start. You need somebody who believes you are a talented candidate worth hiring, who has the right connection to get you into a company.
**NOTE: Don't show up on a visa waiver and expect to get to work right away, even if you get a great offer. Be up front about your situation and go through the correct process with Immigration to make sure you get your status of residence and can work legally.
You could also apply for one of the many English teaching positions available that hire from abroad (Nova, Berlitz, ECC, Aeon, Gaba, etc.) if you are a native English speaker (and willing to take a pay cut, likely). I don’t recommend this option unless you're serious about the job, because if your goal isn’t to be an English teacher, you’re just wasting everyone’s time. If you aren't going to give it your 100% effort for at least a full year, you are just doing the students a disservice, so consider that before you apply at these companies.
C) You are a new graduate or less-than-3-years work experience person living outside Japan
This was me, when I first came to Japan for work – traditional Japanese firm, hired as a new graduate as though I was a local student.
Really, this is a fairly simple process (all things considered), but probably takes the most dedicated effort and cost to achieve if you don’t want an English teaching job.
First, let’s cover the basics.
You need a degree or a working holiday visa (select countries only) unless you happen to be married to someone working in Japan or a Japanese citizen, or you’re an entertainer or something niche. I’ll assume you’re similar to me, and you have graduated with a bachelor degree (3 or 4 years, depending on country), and maybe a year or 2 of work experience. This early work experience can count against you chances being hired, so you're actually better off describing it as intern work or part time while you were in school – read the air between you and your interviewer and decide how you want to approach that.
You could certainly teach English if that’s a goal of yours. It gets a rough reputation as kind of a wild-west industry with low-ish pay, but it can be a good first step for some people. The JET Programme is open to you (select countries only), or you can look at any of the previously mentioned English teaching companies (eikaiwas) / dispatch companies. The requirements are universally low, but if you’re really serious, a TEFL/TESL/TESOL certification will help. It doesn’t particularly matter which one.
Almost every English company has an online portal for job applications from abroad, so fire away! Obviously, put yourself in the best light possible by talking about how you are passionate about bridging cultures, inspiring students, etc. and be honest. Be aware of what you are getting into – the salary will be liveable and the hours could be anywhere from “I have too much free time everyday” to “I literally have no time to have a social life outside of weekends,” but that’s part of the experience of teaching English in Japan.
For those of you who would like to work an office job.Put simply, you are going to have to really stand out and put effort into your Japanese to make this happen. If you can somehow get to Japan, everything from D (below) will apply to you, so beware. Foreign companies may be more lenient, but otherwise you need to match the hiring process for new hires, because until you’ve worked for a solid 3-4 years in an industry, and job-switch effectively puts you at “new graduate” rank again.
This is the secret sauce to applying from outside of Japan:1. Learn Japanese
2. Earn your JLPT N2 (at least)
3. Practice interviewing in Japanese
4. Get to an international career fair
Disco lists their international “Career Forums” here: https://careerforum.net/en/event/ and the most famous/largest one is the Boston Career Forum.
[For the record, I am in no way connected with Disco or any of their career fairs. I attended the BCF and got my first job in Japan that way.]
See how simple this is? But hold up – the devil is in the details. Let’s look at challenges you will need to overcome to make this a viable option:
- Getting to JLPT N2 or N1 while living outside Japan requires considerable effort and time.
Not having Japanese friends to talk to, Japanese TV on in the background, perhaps a Japanese significant other, and not seeing Japanese written all around you everyday means that your exposure to the language is limited to the time you have your textbook open – maybe 1-3 hours a day. “How to study Japanese” is a whole rabbit hole you can fall into, but really don't waste too much time thinking about it. Just start.
- Getting to the event location can be expensive.
If you’re like me, and you live on the other side of the continent (or further!) from the Boston Career Forum, you’ll immediately see how expensive it can be to participate. Between airfare, hotel, and food for 3 days, I came out around at around $1500USD in expenses just to attend interviews. This is a huge expense when you’re actively looking for work so you can start earning a living! (In retrospect, this was totally worth it because I ended up getting hired, and the company eventually paid to fly me to Japan and send my belongings from Canada for me for free).
- You’ve likely never taken a Japanese interview before.It’s a lot different than a non-Japanese interview.
While the interview process at a career fair is a lot more lenient than the ones in Japan, it’s still intimidating. Your grasp of keigo (formal Japanese), sense of etiquette (do you know how they want you to sit?), and demeanour (do you look like you’ll work there for life?) are all key factors. These skills are, again, hard to hone outside of living in Japan. Even big international companies will typically run traditional Japanese interviews, so be prepared.
All of the above make it necessary to prepare for the event well in advance. If you are thinking of trying to get a job in Japan from outside of Japan with less than 3 years of work experience, you need to have:
- JLPT N2
- Keigo skills in addition to JLPT
- Money to get to a career fair and if you do get the job, money for your first month in Japan before you get paid
- A well crafted CV and rirekisho
In my experience, the year leading up to the Boston Career Forum was a year of preparation. I worked to earn money, studied Japanese every day, researched companies, and watched as many Youtube videos about Japanese interviews as I could. By the time the event rolled around, I was acceptable. Not great, but not terrible. While this obviously worked in my case, my best advice is to work to your limit and strive to be amazing.
The most important thing at an event like that is to convince your interviewer that you really want to work at that company for reasons x, y, and z, and you intend to work harder than anyone else they hire. Have a position in mind that matches your degree from university, but don’t be surprised when they say they may want you in a totally different role.
D) You are a current student or less-than-3-years work experience person living in Japan
When I was in human resources at a Japanese company, I hired people in this situation more than anyone else – this category of job searcher forms the base of the Japanese economy. If you are a foreigner in this position, you are very new demographic of foreigners getting their education or first work experience in Japan and moving into Japanese corporations. For a long time, Japan has ignored this segment of foreign talent, but in the last five or so years, it has become imperative to capture candidates who have intimate knowledge of both Japan and their home country.
You have an interesting advantage because you either a) study at a Japanese school or b) somehow got your first job here and have a valid visa, but you are eligible as a new graduate hire due to short work experience. The expectations are (relatively) low on you, and there are numerous support mechanisms.
"Follow the herd" and attend the same events as Japanese university students
You will start your job search process in March, the year before you expect to start working at a company. Between then and the following April, you will go through a series of steps called shukatsu (formalized job searching) and progress from interview, to unofficial job offer, to first days and opening ceremonies. Here is the breakdown:
March ~ June
Japanese companies such as Recruit and Disco begin hosting career fairs throughout Japan, mostly for the benefit of companies to start seeing the talent pool and collecting candidate data. At this stage, you have no chance of being hired, as those decisions simply won’t be made until much later in the process, but it’s an important step for you to start meeting the HR people who will likely be making those decisions later anyways. Get to as many sessions as you can and get as much company material as possible. Your new full time job, aside from being a student, is researching which companies you would consider working for.
When companies you are interested in hold “information sessions” you should definitely try to attend. These sessions are where recruiters will get to know your face, get your resumé or rirekisho, and you will likely have a chance to speak with current employees to get a sense of what the job entails.
Throughout this whole period, you will be filling out what are called “entry sheets” on sites like Rikunavi and Mynavi (the two biggest Japanese job-search sites) plus Kyaritasu (newer, operated by Disco). These are not your resumé. They are a way to tell a company you are considering them, and that you would like to continue being contacted by them with information over the job hunting season. For reference, many students submit upwards of 30 entry sheets, with some students submitting up to 100.
Filling out your entry sheet is not difficult, because most students’ entry sheets will be very similar. Things that stand out are which school you went to, which field you studied, and if you have any special achievements (ie. Submitted articles to journals, did special extracurricular activities that helped your leadership skills, etc.). Just be honest, and (you’ll be filling these out in Japanese) have a native Japanese speaker sit down with you and assist to make sure your documents read well.
If you attend enough company info sessions, submit enough entry sheets and resumés, and generally make yourself known to company recruiters as a high-value candidate, you will likely make it through to at least the next stage – interviews.
June ~ October
Depending on the company, the timing for this stage can vary. This is when “interviews” start happening. Basically, if you went through the previous steps with enough companies, you’ll likely make it to this stage with some of them.
Japanese companies cannot call these meetings “interviews” (mensetsu) and instead they call them mendan, or “meeting sessions.” For all intents and purposes, these are interviews, but a Japanese company will never admit that. I’ll explain why soon.
If you go through the mendan process with a company, you may get through 2 or even just one, and then you will be issued a nai nai tei (内々定). This is your un-unofficial job offer. Congratualtions! If you do nothing else from this moment onwards, you have a job with that company that will start on April 1st the following year! There will be some more ceremonies where you later receive your naitei (unofficial job offer) at the beginning of October, but all you have to do is show up and smile.
Most large Japanese companies that adhere to this schedule are part of the Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) which sets internal rules that members must follow.
Therefore, they began this game of having mendan and giving out nai nai tei in June, which is their way of locking in talent until they can give out the naitei document in October. Companies such as the one I was with actually expect that students will receive multiple nai nai tei and naitei, and the company will lose around 65% of their original intended hires between June and the following April.
However, in recent years, a number of tech startups and other desirable companies have entered the arena and they don’t follow these rules. As a result, large Japanese companies are at a severe disadvantage in acquiring the best talent first. Because of Keidanren rules, they can’t begin interviews until OCTOBER, but if they don’t start in June they will lose all the candidates to other companies.
October ~ April
There will be a ceremony to officially give you your naitei if you made it that far with any companies, and some smaller career fairs etc. will still be held. You should be concerned if you haven’t had any interviews at this point. You may be on the path to missing out on a successful hiring season, and forced to start fresh the next year. This DOES happen to some people who start too late or fail at their interviews, and it sets you back by an entire year. Japanese companies also won’t see you as a prime candidate the following year.
Once you get your official naitei, just sit back and enjoy life until your job starts in April. You’re going to be very very busy from that day onwards, so this is a good chance to get out and do some things you want before your company owns your time.
Whether you’re A, B, C, or D, getting a job in Japan is a challenge that you will have to work for. There are millions of willing and talented people living here with native level Japanese who will have an advantage over you in many ways, but don’t let that stand in your way. Japan needs foreign talent, and many companies have come to realize that. You have a better chance at having a decent career in Japan now than ever before, and though it may feel daunting to start, once you realize there are simple and relatively clear steps between where you are now and getting the job you want, you’ll be fine.
Study Japanese, bring value to the table, and have a positive attitude!