All About Japan

Working in Japan: 6 Expats Spill the Beans

| Life in Japan , Working in Japan
Working in Japan: 6 Expats Spill the Beans

What is working in Japan REALLY like? We asked six foreign residents about their experiences and tips for making a living in the Land of the Rising Sun. Get the lowdown on the good, the bad and the weird of working in Japan, from those who have experienced it all first hand.

Mizhelle, Digital Marketer from the Philippines

Mizhelle, Digital Marketer from the Philippines

How did you get your current job in Japan?

I first came to Japan as a graduate student. I am currently in my second workplace since graduating, and I applied through a job site for bilinguals.

What are the good parts of working in Japan?

I get to live in the country where I feel most comfortable in. I also hang out with my coworkers a lot, both Japanese and foreign alike. I also like working in an environment where doing your best or working hard is a given, as opposed to my country, where it is rather common to slack off.

What are the challenging parts of working in Japan?

Japan, how doth thou torture me? Let me count the ways.

Even in companies that attempt to be global, seniority still weighs more than merit. Management who are of older age are generally not open to new, innovative ways of doing business, and in my case, I have felt the sinking despair of knowing that the world is moving at a fast pace but Japan remains stubbornly immobile.

I have also found that some Japanese people are confounded by the thought of a person being a native speaker of more than one language. Similarly, I have reminded people on more than one occasion that being a native speaker of a language is not a measure of one’s proficiency.

Being an Asian in Japan, I am also expected to fit in the Japanese mold. I find that Japanese people are less forgiving of social faux pas when the nail that is sticking out is Asian. On the one hand, perhaps I should be happy that I am not seen as atrociously ill-mannered as Westerners tend to be portrayed; yet on the other, I sometimes feel that my foreignness is invalidated. People tend to forget my being foreign when it is convenient, and equally emphasize it when the situation benefits the company.

You can read more about Mizhelle's adventures and check out her videos at Tokyo Past Three.

David, English Teacher from Northern Ireland

How did you get your current job in Japan?

I actually recently quit my full-time eikaiwa (English conversation school) job and moved towards a more freelance lifestyle. Now I’m working part-time for a couple of English teaching companies and doing some freelance writing. Online job listing sites like GaijinPot were super helpful, and of course doing a bit of networking where possible tends to open up new doors to opportunity.

What are the good parts of working in Japan?

Well for starters, you’re in Japan. I still have to pinch myself every now and again to remind myself that I actually live in Tokyo. I love Japanese culture, and getting to work with Japanese people (especially students if you’re a teacher) is a great way to get an insight into all aspects of the culture—not to mention the off the beaten path recommendations that they enjoy sharing.

What are the challenging parts of working in Japan?

Apart from the obvious things, like the language barrier, there are a couple of other challenges that can be difficult for some people to overcome. Personally, I was working every weekend before I transitioned out of my old job, which was challenging. If I was to give advice to anyone interested in entering the eikaiwa industry, I would tell them to really consider if they’re okay with sacrificing weekends (as many companies will expect this of you). In the UK I think weekends are a little more sacred than they are in Japan, and it can make it difficult to maintain equilibrium in your work-life balance while working here.

You can read David's articles here.

Ingrid, UX Designer from the United States

How did you get your current job in Japan?

I am a UX designer at a design agency that works with a variety of clients. I got my job through a networking event that I participate in (and actually now help facilitate!). During the event, we have a "job boards" section, where employers share positions they're looking to fill with the group. I spoke with the person in charge of a position I was interested in, and was able to set up my first interview through her.

What are the good parts of working in Japan?

The design industry is still relatively young and new in Japan compared to other places in the world. So there are a lot of chances to teach others about the value of design and what designers can bring to a business. As a designer, you have the opportunity to make big changes in companies that are used to outsourcing design work and can act as the resident expert.

What are the challenging parts of working in Japan?

Since the field is still relatively new, there's a lot of distrust. It feels like being a foreigner adds to that distrust in some ways, and a lot of people don't want to understand the value a designer can bring, even to old, long-standing companies. Designers can bring a lot of valuable opinions and insights to business structure and planning, but if upper management is resistant to change that can be difficult to accomplish.

Miss A, Accounting Specialist from Australia

How did you get your current job in Japan?

My company in Australia sent me to their Tokyo affiliate on a short term secondment. When I subsequently asked to transfer to Tokyo as a local hire they kindly supported me in doing so. It’s great to still be part of the same affiliated network.

What are the good parts of working in Japan?

As a non-native (and pretty poor) Japanese speaker, my clients are by necessity very international. I am therefore exposed not only to the Japan-specific aspects of my job, but also many interesting international issues. This also has enabled me to expand my industry network worldwide (you never know where your next stop might be!).

What are the challenging parts of working in Japan?

Honestly, working in Japan can be very frustrating and challenging. In my industry long hours are required, and work-life balance is generally poor. Internal and external meetings are often long and inefficient. There is also a significant gender imbalance from the manager-level up, and entrenched gender biases are evident.

Johnny, Operations Manager from the United States

How did you get your current job in Japan?

I initially taught English in Gunma after graduating university with a major in Japanese, before I moved to Tokyo to work as a recruiter in IT for a few years. Prior to my current position, I also worked briefly as an account manager for an IT solutions company.

My experience in the recruitment industry and the technical knowledge I picked up as an account manager—dealing with various office tools and systems that IT companies use—lent itself well to my current role. As an Operations Manager for a mid-sized executive search firm, I am involved in vendor management, systems improvement and employee training. I also act as a point of contact between my company, domestic management and finance teams of our parent company.

What are the good parts of working in Japan?

Recruitment itself was very eye-opening, and was my first time working in a corporate environment. The high-pressure sales environment of being a recruitment consultant really helped to expand my base of knowledge within an industry I hadn’t previously imagined being involved with. By the nature of the job I was able to meet many amazing individuals I may never have met otherwise. I believe the experience of being thrown into the deep end in an otherwise unfamiliar field also helped me to realize some of my own potential, and did wonders for my professional communication skills.

Having stepped away from consulting, being able to have an impact on my company and assist the sales team from a more strategic standpoint has been extremely fulfilling.

What are the challenging parts of working in Japan?

As a corporate recruiter there were constant targets to hit, and it is an industry that tends to have a high turnover. The change of pace can be quite jarring if you don't have experience in sales, and a lot of people seem to quit or move into different fields after a year or two working for an agency. Beyond that, for the past years Japan has been widely considered the most difficult country for recruitment around the globe.

Many people also seem to have a somewhat negative image of recruiters in Japan. This is perhaps in part due to the sheer number of recruiters you will bump into working for agencies in Tokyo (which has a huge concentration), who seem to constantly have an angle. They're all struggling in their own way to chase those targets, and the competition within a relatively small geographic area can be pretty fierce.

Miss K, Travel Specialist from Italy

Miss K, Travel Specialist from Italy

How did you get your current job in Japan?

Getting your first job in Japan is always the hardest part of the process, especially if you are not from an English-speaking country. I was fortunate enough to get an offer when I was in Europe, and worked in several different companies before settling into the travel industry.

My recommendation to anyone who wants to work (and live) here is simple: becoming as skilled as possible in Japanese. It opens many doors and paths to advancement.

What are the good parts of working in Japan?

Japan is currently in the midst of a huge tourism boom, so there is plenty of work available and lots of opportunities for those who want to get a foot into the travel sphere. There are not enough travel specialists who speak both Japanese and their native language, so you are likely to get promoted pretty quickly if you fulfill those requirements.

Other positive aspects of working in Japan are having full medical insurance and full coverage of commuting costs. This is not necessarily common in other countries, so I appreciate those perks. Also, it sounds bad, but the fact that Japanese companies try to avoid firing people, even in times of economic distress, is another good point. Of course, this doesn't mean you can slack off and not do your job, but knowing that you will not be made redundant with ease is reassuring.

What are the challenging parts of working in Japan?

This may be particular to the travel industry, but the gap between what Japanese companies believe visitors want and what they actually want is huge, and there seems to be little interest in closing that gap. Local governments and companies want to push certain aspects of Japan, despite the fact that people visiting aren't interested and have actually found other parts that are more interesting to them.

I am probably not unique in finding the bureaucracy and boys-club atmosphere of management quite annoying, and the casual racism directed towards tourists who aren't from the United States, Europe or Oceania constantly puts my teeth on edge. The expectation of overwork and machismo of repeated "omg-I-was-at-work-until-midnight" humble brags also makes me roll my eyes.

Finally, the fact that men routinely bring up the looks of women—both towards their colleagues and counterparts in other companies—continues to astound me even after all these years. Italy is considered a "flirtatious" country in Japan, but in a business situation no one would dream of calling a colleague or associate "cute." It would be considered extremely inappropriate.

What has your experience of working in Japan been like? Let us know in the comments!