You've honed your CV. You worked your ass off to get your Japanese to JLPT N2 – maybe even N1 by now. You've studied how to take a Japanese interview, use the right keigo, and you even have some great anecdotes to share that directly tie your skillset to a position at the company. Whether you're applying to a company in Japan or anywhere else, though, the thing that matters most is the value you bring to the company. Without being clear about that, why would any company want to hire you anyways? Let's break this down.
First, a bit of business background to set the stage
If you've never critically thought about what must happen for a business to justify a new hire, this is a good time to start. You're engaging in a large "transaction", so you need to know the other party's motivations. (Good) businesses don't take a hire lightly. It requires planning, approval, more planning, budget, strategy, and effort – and that's all before they even start interviewing in person.
You are a cost before you are a revenue generator. Depending on the position you're applying for and the complexity of your industry, your onboarding period could be anywhere between 1 week to 6 months (or more). That's just the time where it's generally accepted that you won't be performing at full capacity. Then you start stacking real costs on top of that: salary, benefits, time used to train you, visa and maybe moving expenses if you're coming from abroad, etc. This is all a risk the company is willing to take on in order to acquire new talent and capacity.
Next, you need to know specifically where you sit in the company budget. Are you a "profit centre" or a "cost centre"? A profit centre is someone like a sales person or a marketing manager. Your activities directly correlate to bringing in revenue for the company. Pressure is high to perform, but it's very clear whether or not it's worth keeping you around. In a Japanese company, you'll typically be in the 営業 or マーケティング departments.
Cost centres are everything else. The admins, HR, accounting, R&D, and many other departments all fall under this umbrella. Your job is to support either the making-of, or the management-of, things and people that make money for the company. What's the best thing you can do? Minimize your departmental cost and create new efficiencies.
Speak the business's language
No, I don't mean Japanese. Well, actually, yes – that too, but the main thing I'm getting at here is that by understanding the above dichotomy between those who make money and those who cost money (both are necessary, don't worry), you can start speaking the right language in your cover letter, your CV, and your interviews. The best thing you can do to start is not miss opportunities for lack of basic business savvy.
If you step into an interview as a candidate for an accounting position and say, "I'm going to work really hard to make money for the company!" Well... you're not. You are an expense on the salary line, and nothing you do will add numbers to the revenue line short of uncovering stashes of hidden money around the office and pouring them into the company bank account. Your job is to minimize expenses and be really good at your job. You need to have the good sense to be able to support those who bring money in, in the best way possible. Minimize wasted time and inaccuracies, and provide solid reports that support decision makers.
I bring this up, because fundamentally, a lot of people don't take a step back and think critically about what their base function in a company is. You want a job and you plan to do it well – that's great – but you need to speak the business's language first.
There was a time when it was easier to get hired in Japan as a foreigner
In the 1970's and 80's, the Japanese economy was absolutely booming. You've hopefully heard of the Bubble Era, where companies were bringing in money hand over fist, and excess was the name of the game. America had Wall Street, and Japan had Ginza and hostess clubs. Part of keeping up appearances and competing with top international firms was bringing in top foreign talent to showcase how "global" the company was and rub off some of that Gordon Gekko magic on the company.
Fun Fact: Bubble Era Expat Packages
In the craziest of the bubble years, foreign hires (expats) got insane (by today's standards) comp packages that would set them and their families up for the good life. Typically included in a Tokyo-based corporate expat comp package at the time:
- Large salary with even bigger bonuses (think large multiples of base monthly salary)
- Membership at the prestigious and pricey Tokyo American Club
- Housing in a nice area of town, with multiple rooms for you and the family to stretch out in
- Meals and entertainment on the company dime in the name of impressing potential or current clients
You can still see a few of these types of packages floating around from time to time, even now, but they are few and far between, and mostly for high-end execs brought in to really move the needle.
Suffice to say, these hires were not fighting an uphill battle like you probably are. They were in demand, and highly desirable by the standards of the day.
Unfortunately for you, this isn't the Bubble Era anymore and the comp packages being offered aren't quite what they used to be. This isn't to say you can't do really well in Japan, but you'll likely need to work your way up the ladder and take some risks changing companies a few times. Speaking from personal experience, that is a much easier and more realistic way to get your foot in the door and on your way to a great living.
You need to be valuable and the company needs to know it
As discussed above, you need to be speaking the business's language – this is your chance to make a big value proposition! What can you bring to the table that other local hires can't? Now here is where a lot of foreigners make a mistake (especially for entry level jobs). They pin their main value proposition to their language ability, whether Japanese, English, or other.
If you are a foreigner and you pitch your value as being able to speak "business level Japanese", you are up against an entire country of people who speak native Japanese. No bueno.
If you say your value is native level English, best of luck to you – that's "permission to play" for most foreigners looking for work in Japan. You'll need to do better than that.
What you really need to do is position yourself as the person who just "gets it". You "get" the whole language thing and you're not dismayed by a keigo-heavy meeting. You "get" that native-level English is helpful but doesn't make you a unicorn. Above all, you "get" what the company is trying to do over the next five to ten years and you're on board to help them achieve that. When you can successfully peel off a pitch (自己PR if you're interested in looking it up in Japanese) about the above areas with confidence and an easy casualness like you've been in the room before, then you will be showing value to the company.
Every Japanese potential entry level hire does this. Don't.
I've sat across the table from hundreds of Japanese new grads coming out of university and applying for their first (and in many cases lifelong) big corporate job, and I can say without a doubt that every single one of them is prepared to go through the same boring interview questions. The interviewers have likely spent three days going through the motions interviewing young people and are in the same mode, slogging through the questions on the "hearing sheet" and jotting down answers.
"Why do you want to work here?"
"Your company is very big and impressive and my degree in engineering makes sense here because you manufacture things."
"What is your expectation from our company?"
"I want a place to work for my whole career, and to use my degree."
These answers are... fine. They're honest. But can you feel the energy in that room? I did, and I had to stab my leg with a pen to stay awake after 4-5 hours of this.
Make up a story. Be interesting. Bring some fire to the table.
Every Japanese interview website will tell you "follow this formula to get through the interview with top manners and pass to the next stage."
No! This is your chance to be memorable and showcase that you "get it"! Smile, lean in, and make the interviewer feel like he or she just stumbled on a unicorn. At the end of the day, when all the interviewers get together for the inevitable beer and (insert izakaya food here) later, they'll discuss YOU and that's what you want.
Be ready to deliver on your promises
You're going through the interview process, and you feel good about the job. You feel good about your chances. Do you feel good about what you can really bring to the table? You have a final chance, during this process, to upgrade yourself a bit before the ball drops and you're in sink-or-swim mode.
Upgrade your Japanese – learn the terminology of your industry and company if you don't already know it. Brush up on your office keigo if you haven't used it in a while (or ever in real life).
Hone your work skillset – whatever your potential position is, spend some time this week going through YouTube on it and be familiar with it for your final interview or for day 1 if you've got the job.
Most importantly, focus on being the best you that you can be. Ultimately when you take on employment, you are trading your time and skills for a paycheck, so make sure you are taking care of your health, fitness, and social life outside the workplace. When you are in tip-top mental and physical condition, people can feel your energy. Be ready to own the day every day.