Disclaimer: I currently work for an employment agency called “Astmil Corp”, located in Shinagawa Tokyo. However, I have tried to be as impartial as possible and not to embellish anything. Still, I felt it prudent to mention this. Read on.
Depending on where you are from in the world, this might be common knowledge for you, but I am from Germany and I was not very familiar with the idea of private companies searching for suitable employees/staff on behalf of other companies. While such companies exist in Germany, they seem to largely engage in what is called “head-hunting”, which is not as badass as it sounds, unfortunately. They search for people to fill managerial positions and other high-ranking staff or staff with very highly sought after/rare qualifications only. Most normal people in Germany will most likely neither use this service nor do they really know what it actually is and provides.
In Japan, however, these companies are a normal part of the job-hunting process. They exist in many different forms, from one-man entrepreneurs, searching for staff on behalf of their friends, up to major companies such as the Recruit Group. If you are using an internet website, searching for jobs in Japan then chances are good that this website is operated by an employment agency. While this has become the preferred way of sharing information about available jobs with jobseekers, this is of course not the only service such an agency provides. They also provide agent and training services, for individuals and companies alike among other things.
The most common service, apart from the job search websites, will most likely be the agent service. In many cases, if you apply for a job on one of the websites, your application will not go directly to the company that is searching for an employee. Instead, your application will be screened by an agent beforehand. If they think that you are suitable, they will contact you via phone/email and set up a short meeting with you. This meeting will usually be over the phone and take around 30 minutes. They will share more information about the job in question and ask you a few questions, clarify information in your CV and so on. They then send this information, together with the CV and any other documents that you submitted, to the company where you originally applied. The company will only correspond with the agent, not directly with you, and you will learn only through the agent whether you passed the selection process or not. They will also handle the setting up of interviews, questions that might arise during the process etc. will give you hints on what the company is looking for in potential applicants and how to make a good impression during your interview. Some agents, especially those that specialize in hiring non-Japanese staff, might even provide continuous service after you are hired, helping you with visa application and relocation to Japan, translating and interpreting between you and your future employer if communication in Japanese is still difficult and so on.
A service that is free of charge for potential candidates
An integral part of this system is, that the introduction/紹介, e.g. the sending of your CV and other information that you might have provided throughout the interview, to the company is FREE OF CHARGE. Any costs incurred regarding the introduction will be borne by the potential employer. If you are being charged money by the employment agency, it is most likely a scam (unless you also took advantage of other services that they provide, such as education etc.). The fees that employers have to pay to employment vary, depending on the type of job and contract. But a common fee for successfully introducing a full-time employee (正社員) to a company is usually 30% of that employees first annual income. So, if you are earning 3 million yen during your first year at a company, the company will also pay 900.000 yen to the employment agency for introducing you to them. This means that there is an incentive for the employment agencies and their agents to ensure that they introduce you to a company that matches your profile, but on the other hand, it also means that they might push you to continue pursuing a particular job, even though you might be inclined to withdraw your application, for example, due to bad impressions during the first interview. When dealing with agents, it is usually best to treat them akin to staff in a clothing store I find. Listen to their advice and appreciate their services, but always remember that they are trying to sell you something. Make the decision that is right for you, not the decision that the agent wants you to make.
That’s it for now. In the future, I might also look at temporary staffing agencies (派遣会社) and other forms of employment in Japan, as well as a guide to the most common websites where you can find information on companies looking to hire non-Japanese staff. For now, this introduction to employment agencies is all. Use them. I have used them in the past and I currently work for one. I know, some people really hate being mailed or called by agents and prefer dealing with the companies directly, but employment agencies are an integral part of job searching in Japan, so ignoring them will reduce your access to a lot of companies searching for people like you and me.