Working in Japan – Is it really that bad?

So, you are interested in working in Japan. With the world being what it is, if we are even remotely interested in something, chances are we are going to “google” it. And if you search for articles, posts, and comments about working in Japan, there is a high likelihood that most of them will paint a fairly negative picture. But why is that?

Working in Japan CAN be stressful

The common stereotypes about working in Japan

As with everything on the internet, people are quick to jump to stereotypes. Japan has garnered attention in the past for poor working conditions like forced, unpaid overtime, little to no holidays, mandatory drinking parties after work, and so forth. Salaries, especially if you are just starting out, are usually on the lower end of the spectrum. Dynamics in the workplace can be confusing due to hierarchies that are mostly based on seniority, rather than ability. Unflexible and rigid structures make change almost impossible and are even harder for non-Japanese to adapt to.

The truth about working in Japan

As with many stereotypes, while there may be a morsel of truth to them, mostly they are a gross exaggeration of reality. Workplaces that actually have poor working conditions often get called out and receive the moniker of being “black”. Forced, unpaid overtime may have been common practice 30 years ago, but now there are laws mandating that overtime must be paid at a premium. Japan has many public holidays, and while it is still uncommon to take longer than a week off from work, many people enjoy long weekends by using paid vacation days on Fridays or Mondays. Salaries might be low, but so is the cost of living and there is a decent social safety net of health insurance and pension, which means you do not have to worry about getting sick or having no money for retirement. Especially smaller companies appoint increasingly younger, well-educated staff instead of relying on seniority. And getting used to structures in a foreign environment is one of the foremost skills that anyone looking to work abroad should hope to master.

What does it mean

It means you should take everything you read on the internet (this article included) with a massive grain of salt. Yes, working in Japan can be pretty challenging and it is certainly not for everyone. But the same can be said for every country, even if it is your home country. There may be some truth to the stereotypes listed above, and some of them may be encountered even today. But even then it is exceedingly rare that a single workplace will combine ALL of the listed stereotypes. You may find yourself in a place that pays a lower salary, but the higher-ups are appointed due to ability, rather than seniority. But in the end, these are simply stereotypes and everybody will find themselves in their own, unique situation. Do not let people on the internet tell you how to think. If you are interested in working in Japan, there is only one way to find out if it suits you – just do it.

Can you Work Part-time in Japan?

Working part-time jobs is a big deal in Japanese society. While in the west, younger people might mow the neighbors lawn or wash your uncles car for a few bucks, in Japan it is customary to work part-time jobs at convenience stores and other locations. Especially university students, who have a lot of free time, or housewives, after the kids have reached a certain age, often engage in one or more part-time jobs to increase their own spending power or help out with the families finances. But what about us non-Japanese?

The Visa Problem

What kind of work you can engage in as a foreigner in Japan is entirely dependent on what kind of visa you have. If you are a student, you are supposed to focus on studying, not working and in principle should not engage in any activities that may impede your studies. However, you can obtain an exemption to engage in activities outside of your original visa’s scope from the immigration office that allows you to engage in part-time work for up to 28 hours a week. Typical jobs are often found at restaurants, as stores staff or other low-skilled labour.

If you are on a working visa, things are a bit different however. If you have a visa for teaching English, and want to tutor kids in English after-hours, then you are technically allowed to do that. But if you want to work as a waiter or driver for Uber Eats, then you need to apply for an exemption from the immigration office as well. While obtaining the exemption on a student visa is almost a given, on a working visa you might face a lot more scrutiny and applications might take up to two months to complete. If you start working part-time before then, it is obviously illegal. One thing of note is that this only applies for paying work. If you are a volunteer, working for free, then you do not need to obtain any kind of exemption.

The problem with your employer

When on a working visa, your current “main” employer might also have something to say about your working part-time in addition. In fact, about half of all Japanese companies outright forbid their employees from engaging in part-time work. I am not a lawyer, so I can not tell you what the ramifications might be if you get caught working part-time but please be aware of this and consult with your employer before engaging in part-time work. You need to pay taxes if you earn more than 200.000 Japanese Yen a year with your part-time job and your “main” employer will have access your tax returns, so it is hard to hide the fact that you have a side business.

Even if your employer technically allows for you to engage in part-time work, they are going to expect you to always put your job with them first. Going home without properly finishing up because you have part-time work is not going to fly. Similarly, if you always show up tired because you are pulling night-shifts for another company, your bosses are going to start asking questions. Also, do not get a part-time job at a rival or direct competitor to your “main” company. It might be considered disrespectful and if you are found to be leaking company secrets there could be serious legal repercussions for you.

So in conclusion, if you absolutely cannot live with your current wages (or lack thereof if you are a student), then you can always consider engaging in part-time work. Just remember that you will have to get permission from immigration AND your employer in most cases. Personally, I could not see myself working a part-time job in addition to my full-time job, but if you absolutely want to then why not give it a shot!

Some Tips on Learning Japanese – Teachers, Tools, and Attitude

As I keep stressing in various previous articles, Japanese is a very, very difficult language to learn. I’ve been studying for over five years, and while I would consider myself a decently fluent speaker I am still nowhere near-native levels and still constantly encounter unknown words, phrases or Kanji. Unfortunately, learning Japanese is essential if you want to live and work in Japan. Especially when it comes to the latter, you will find it very difficult to find jobs in Japan if you do not speak what’s considered “business level” Japanese. In practice, this most often means holding Japanese Language Proficiency Test (the most commonly recognized Japanese language test) N2 level, or JLPT N2 as it is usually abbreviated. This test is only held twice a year in Japan, and abroad it is often only held once a year, if it is held at all, and it’s considered fairly difficult as far as language tests go.

But if you are set on working in Japan, you will need to study the language and most likely also pass this test, Japanese love their test certificates after all, and this is also applied to foreigners looking for jobs. I am by no means an expert, but still, I thought I would share three things with you, that I consider essential if you want to become any good at Japanese. This topic is near and dear to me, so please excuse the length of this article.

The right teacher

Find someone that enjoys engaging with you

Nowadays, there are many, many different options for you to start studying the language. Most people are probably going to start by taking Japanese classes in university/college classes. Others might go to Japanese language schools, attend online courses or watch lectures on YouTube. But especially if you are just starting out, having the right teacher is very important. Having somebody point out all the mistakes, that you are bound to make as a beginner, is very helpful. This becomes less important as you become more advanced and able to notice your mistakes yourself, but at the beginning, it is invaluable that you have a teacher that takes interest in your progress. If you are at university, and your teacher just stands in front and reads from your textbook then you are probably not going to make any progress. But your teacher does not necessarily have to be someone that’s a professional. Maybe you have a friend that’s good at Japanese, or even better a Japanese friend who is willing to help you. Or maybe you are in an online community where people are giving out advice. Although you should take advice from strangers with a grain of salt, you don’t really know their credentials after all (the same goes for this blog then, I guess).

The right tools

Now let me preface this by saying that I do not believe that there is such a thing as the “right tool” or even “the right way to study”. Everybody will have different tools and methods that work for them. Finding what works for you is also part of the learning process. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, there are now more tools available than ever and finding the right one for you is becoming increasingly difficult. Here are some tools that I used, or still use when studying Japanese.

1. Anki

Anki is an app that lets you create flashcards. And it is very competent at that. You can create large decks of digital flashcards and take them with you, wherever you go. When reviewing your flashcards, you can then choose how difficult a given card was for you. If you had a hard time remember the meaning of a given word, you can let the app know and it will show you the same word when you review again tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and so on until you’ve managed to remember the word. But even if you let the app know that a word was easy to remember for you, it will still occasionally show you that word so that you don’t forget. This method is called SRS, or Spaced Repetition System, and is scientifically proven to work to help with language studying. Anki has a web version, desktop versions, as well as an Android and an iOS app (all are free except the iOS version. I just use the web version on my iPhone). 

2. Wanikani

Now, to be honest, I have not used Wanikani a lot. It’s a website for studying Kanji and comes highly recommended by various people across the internet so I thought I would best include it. You are taught Kanji across different levels and it comes with many useful hints, mnemonics that help you remember kanji and it also teaches related vocabulary. From what I have seen, it seems like a great little website. The reason I have not used it, is simply that there is no option for advanced students to skip the easier Kanji. When I came across the website, I had already been studying for multiple years and repeating all the beginner Kanji from the beginning was not very appealing to me. But if you are a beginner or more patient than I am, then Wanikani seems to be a great tool to use. The first few levels are free but be aware that you are going to have to pay money (subscription) to unlock higher levels.

3. Bunpro

What Wanikani is to Kanji, Bunpro is to Japanese grammar. You can select a JLPT level and are then given grammar points and example sentences to memorize. Afterwards, you can review what you’ve studied and quiz yourself. Just be aware that grammar explanations can be pretty barebones, so do not consider this an adequate replacement for a textbook. The best approach, in my opinion, is to study grammar with a textbook, but then use Bunpro to review and truly memorize the individual points. Basic functionality is free, but to really use the website to its full potential you need to subscribe.

4. NHK News Web Easy

Now, all the studying in the world is not going to make you fluent, if you do not use what you have learned. If you are studying English for example, there is a lot of material aimed at people picking up English as their second language, magazines, books, YouTube channels and so on. But Japanese is a rare language, and therefore material aimed at students of Japanese is scarce and hard to come by. One of the easier resources to access is NHK Easy News, a news website aimed at Japanese children. Usually, there are multiple articles a day, written in a less formal style than normal news. Further, you can toggle Furigana for all Kanji, meaning you do not have to look up every word and can often read articles in one go. There are even some words that you can hover over, to get an explanation of their meaning (in Japanese). Just remember that the service is aimed at Japanese children, i.e., native speakers, so it is likely not going to follow conventions that you are used to from your textbooks. Still, a great website to get yourself started on actually consuming Japanese content.

The right attitude

頑張ろう!Do your best, but don’t overdo it

I have saved the most important and most difficult point for last. Having the right attitude is incredibly important when studying Japanese. You have to accept that this is going to be difficult. You have to accept that there are people out there who are better at speaking Japanese than you. You have to accept that you are probably going to keep studying regularly over a long period of time to see any results. It can be incredibly frustrating. I have studied Japanese for five years, lived in the country for three. I have probably never invested more time and energy into a single activity. But still, I come across words and Kanji that I’ve never seen when I read the news or watch TV. It can be tempting to say, well if I just study for four hours every day, then I will be fluent in no time! But in my experience, obsessing about studying often has the opposite effect and you will instead burn yourself out and maybe even grow to hate the language, and by association everything Japanese. I have seen it happen to other people. Learn at your own pace. Do not compare yourself to others. The internet provides us with great tools for language studying, but it also shows us success stories of other people. You will come across people saying they studied eight hours every day and became fully fluent in a year. Do not listen to these people. Find your own way, your own pace. If you have the drive and energy to spend eight hours a day studying something, you should probably use it to make the world a better place.

The Working Holiday Visa

Chances are, you have already heard of the Working Holiday visa. Working Holiday has become a catch-all term for a temporary visa (usually one year, though it depends), that allows visa holders to work in a foreign country. As the name implies, the idea is that you only work to finance your holiday, and not use the visa for work as the main purpose. But after you’ve received the visa, there are usually no checks on whether this is actually and if you are free to pursue working or holidaying in any capacity that you see fit. To be able to obtain a Working Holiday visa, there has to be a mutual agreement in place between your home country and the country that you wish to go to. At the time of writing, 26 countries are holding a Working Holiday agreement with Japan. 

I do not know about other parts of the world, but if you are from a European country (I am from Germany), then Working Holiday, Work & Travel, Au pair and many other similar offerings exist, allowing for a temporary stay in a foreign country. As more and more people take gap years between high school and university, the popularity of these offerings is also rising. Getting some experience in a foreign country will always look good on your CV (regardless of whether you actually work or not), and it may also give you a new perspective on life. Where I am from, many people go to Australia, America, New Zealand or the UK for their Working Holiday/Au pair experience to improve their English skills. If your English is already good enough, or you are simply not interested in any of those countries, then I can not recommend Japan as a Working Holiday destination enough. 

Japan is a highly developed nation that is similar enough to other “Western” (whatever that means) cultures that you will not feel completely lost, but still unique enough that you can experience living in a different culture firsthand. If you are fresh out of school and know nothing about Japan apart from Anime, it might be sometimes hard to adapt, so this is definitely a destination that will require some preparation beforehand. First, you need to check whether you are from a country that is eligible for application (as stated earlier, at the moment there are 26 countries from where you can apply). You can check here -> Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan: Working Holiday

If you are from an eligible country, there are a few more restrictions that apply if you want to obtain a Working Holiday visa. These include but are not limited to the following:

1. You must be between 18 to 30 years old (varies by country).

2. You must be a citizen AND resident of the country that you are applying in.

3. Your primary goal should be the holiday part of the visa, not the working part (though again, this is not checked or enforced past the application process).

4. You must hold a valid passport and possess sufficient funds to purchase a round-trip ticket to Japan, as well as enough money to finance your first few months in the country (usually around 300.000 Yen).

5. You cannot be accompanied by your spouse/children/other dependents.

6. You must be in good health.

7. And finally, it must be your first time applying for a Working Holiday to Japan (it’s a once per lifetime deal)

Depending on where you are from there might be other restrictions that apply, so please make sure to check with your closest Japanese Embassy to verify what conditions you have to fulfil. In some countries you might be required to submit a doctor’s statement, stating that you are in good health, while in other countries you might not even be asked about your health when applying. Some countries only permit a limited number of people to apply each year (as low as 30 and as high as 10000), while other countries have no limit at all. If you are from a country that limits applicants, remember that the Japanese fiscal year is from April 1st to March 31st, so applying in early April might be your best bet. In general, the application process is not too hard and should not be too competitive, as Japan is still a niche destination after all. As long as you make sure to give the impression that you have no intention of using the visa as a steppingstone to aim for a career in Japan (regardless of whether this is your true aim or not), you should be good. The only real deal-breaker that I have heard of is having a criminal record. Depending on the severity of the crime, it may still be possible to obtain a Working Holiday visa, but if you have a criminal record it might be best to be prepared for being rejected. Again, confirm with your nearest Japanese Embassy regarding the details. 

A working holiday is a good opportunity to take your first steps in Japan and get to know the country. If you are considering moving to Japan in the future, I highly recommend doing a Working Holiday first and figure out whether you actually like the country or not. Moving here on a full-fledged working visa, without knowing the country and being thrown into the Japanese corporate world right away is a good way to lose motivation quickly and become one among the many disgruntled ex-pats, drinking and complaining at HUB on a Tuesday night.

I have done a Working Holiday to Japan myself, so expect more to come on the Working Holiday visa in the future.

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.