So You Want to Work in Japan

In the current digital age, it is easy to glance all kind of news and information about a foreign country simply by visiting the internet and websites such as this one. But, as in most other cases, the real thing is a lot different from what you can see on a computer or smartphone screen. If you are studying the Japanese language or simply have an interest in Japan, you might start thinking about visiting Japan, to experience the country that has piqued your interest for real. For some people, visiting for a couple of weeks on a tourist visa might be sufficient, but especially if you are trying to learn the language and understand Japanese culture, you will soon find that just a couple of weeks are simply not enough to get a good grasp of either. There are several options available that allow for a longer stay. You could apply to a Language school in, or student exchange to Japan. If your country has a Working Holiday agreement with Japan (at the time of writing 26 countries have such an agreement with Japan), you might be able to get your hands on a Working Holiday visa. Both of these usually grant you a one-year stay. But, I hear you say, that is not enough! If you want to stay longer consider the following: living in Japan is not cheap and if you want to stay long-term you will need to find work.

A working culture that is certainly plagued by many issues – but stereotypes is one of them

The internet is full of people that have very strong opinions on working in Japan. Be it on websites like Reddit or Twitter, even the comment sections on news articles (reading those is a bad habit of mine), if Japan is mentioned you can almost guarantee that someone will bring up the working culture. Inevitably, a grizzled veteran will chime in, claiming that he has worked in Japan or a Japanese company for five years and that he hated every minute of it, how the working culture is abysmal, working hours are unreasonably long and that the Japanese even have a specific word for people killing themselves due to work-related stress (過労死, karoushi, lit. death from overwork). Other commenters will react with surprise and point to suicide as a big issue in Japan and that Japan ought to do something about their working culture to stem the tide of suicides and to attract foreigners to work in Japan.

There are several things wrong with the above statements. While it must be said that Japanese working culture can indeed be very overbearing, it is usually not the slave-driving hellscape that people on social media like to paint it to be. More often than not, the reason people work long hours is due to simple inefficiency. From my own experience, workers seem reluctant to make decisions by themselves and will instead consult their direct supervisor. If they are working in a more modern company, they might get an answer at this step (or simply be told to figure it out by themselves), but in one of the bigger and traditional companies, the supervisor might, in turn, defer the decision to the person above him. This process will then repeat itself until it reaches someone high enough in the chain of command to make a decision. By this point, a lot of time may have passed and the worker that is waiting for the decision may have simply been sitting on his thumbs the whole time, doing nothing. Another issue is excessive record keeping. Let’s say you work in a call centre and it is a busy day. You are expected to make a record of EVERY call that you take, but you are also expected to answer the phone as quickly as possible. So, what ends up happening is that you constantly answer the phone until your shift is over, and then write your call reports after your shift is over. Yet another pattern (especially observed in older people) is that people simply do not want to go home or are specifically looking to stay longer to collect overtime pay. 

Do not get me wrong, overtime and related stress are big issues in Japan, but just as there is a word for death from overwork, there is also a word for companies with these abysmal working conditions with people calling them “black” companies (ブラック, burakku). Awareness is slowly but surely rising. Due to an ageing population (though this is another problem that is blown out of proportion by the internet at large, Japans population is ageing at a similar rate as many other first world countries’), there are 108 job offers for every 100 people seeking work, and companies have taken to lure potential candidates with promises of little overtime, maternal/paternal leave among other things. Change is slow but happening.

Another issue that gets raised is the so-called karoushi, death from overwork, and suicides in Japan in general. First, the existence of the word itself seems to surprise many people, but that simply shows that they most likely do not have an understanding of the Japanese language. If you are familiar with the language you will know about Kanji (characters that were imported from Chinese script). If you want to create a new word in Japanese, you simply pick the appropriate Kanji, stick them together and you have a new word. New words and phrases are coined all the time in any language, but few make it as easy as Japanese (or by association most likely Chinese, though I cannot speak to that), so there being a specific word for a specific issue or phenomenon does not necessarily speak to the severity of said issues or phenomena. Further, let me say that every suicide no matter the issues that led to it, is a serious and sad issue and should be treated as such. I do not mean to downplay the stress that some people have to endure and the mental issues that might lead one to end one’s own life. But looking at the bigger picture ( figures on suicide rates per country, released by the WHO in 2016), we see that Japan is lower on the list than countries such as Russia, South Korea and Belgium, and only marginally higher than for example the United States. Especially so-called “Westerners” (as a German I would count myself under this label, whatever it’s worth) often think suicides are only a problem in the eastern hemisphere, but looking at the numbers, rising suicide rates are a global problem that every country needs to address and are not isolated to Asia or Japan.

If you made it until this point in the article, お疲れ様です(otsukaresamadesu). All that is to say, that many people with strong opinions about working in Japan might not be fully informed about the bigger picture or are basing their opinion on outdated or incorrect information. There is a lot of that out there so do not rely on information from the internet to make your decision about whether you want to work in Japan or not (I appreciate the irony of telling you not to listen to me, but hopefully you know what I mean). My recommendation to anyone looking to work in Japan would be: do a language exchange and maybe try to do an internship, though those are far and few between, get a Working Holiday visa if your country allows for it and get some work experience, or maybe even come on a tourist visa to do some volunteer work (as long as you are not paid for it, you are allowed to work on a tourist visa). Of course, do your research as well, but do not let your opinion be swayed too far, be that either by promises of anime delights that await in Akihabara or by the threat of death from overwork that might kill you as soon as you set foot in a Japanese company building. Experiencing the real thing for yourself will give you a much clearer picture and will let you make an informed decision on if you want to work in Japan or not.

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