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.

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.

The different forms of employment in Japan – What are you getting into?

So, you got yourself an interview, passed it and now your future employer wants you to sign your first employment contract in Japan. Congratulations on making it this far! But what is this, your contract says you will be employed as a seishain? What is that? A yuuki keiyakushain? Never heard of one of those…

As with many other facets of life, Japanese employment systems and contracts might be slightly (or very) different than what you are used to from back home. Understanding your contract – before you sign it – is vital, especially when it comes to working abroad. Do you really want to uproot your life, go and work abroad, only to find out that the work that you signed up for is completely different from what you had originally imagined?

Breaking down a standard Japanese employment contract would go far beyond the usual scope of my blog articles, so for now I thought it might be helpful if I describe the different forms of employment that are most commonly offered in Japan. With this, you will – hopefully – be better able to decide whether a position is suited for you or not.

The most common forms of employment in Japan

Seishain (正社員) – most often translated as “permanent employee”. Becoming a seishain for a reputable company is the aim of every Japanese university student. As a seishain, you are – in principle at least – hired for life (that is until you reach retirement age), which gives the necessary financial and emotional stability for providing for a typical nuclear family. You get your monthly paycheck, a hefty bonus once or twice a year, full social benefits and your employer might even pay part of your rent for you. This image has cracked somewhat in recent times, many seishain found themselves out of a job during the 2008 financial crisis for example, but a seishain position remains perhaps the most desirable form of employment in Japan. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, about 60% of the Japanese workforce are employed as seishain (source in Japanese).

Keiyaku shain (契約社員) – most often translated as “contract employee”. A weird one, since a contract is the basis for any form of employment, even part-time. The distinguishing difference to a seishain is that a keiyaku shain often has a fixed term contract. One to four year contracts are normal here. Some companies offer a so-called touyou (登用) system, where a keiyaku shain has the chance to become a seishain. In some companies, you can become a seishain simply by working for one year as a keiyaku shain, others might make it more difficult by requiring you to pass certain exams first. In principle, if you have worked as a keiyaku shain for a company for five years, the company is then required to offer you unlimited employment, even if they do not offer touyou. The idea is good, giving you incentive to “work your way up”, in practice many companies simply let their employees go after four years of employment.

Apart from contract length, a keiyaku shain will also often have less benefits than a seishain. No housing allowance or access to company-sponsored retirement plans, smaller (or non-existant) boni, and the fixed contract term all mean that being a keiyaku shain is generally viewed as being less desirable.

Haken shain (派遣社員) – most often translated as “dispatch/temporary employee”. Among the full-time employment positions, haken shain is generally viewed as being the least desirable. When you are a haken shain, you are employed by a haken gaisha (派遣会社), who will handle contract talks and pay your salary. The haken gaisha will then dispatch you to another company in need of employees where you are then expected to work. Since you are an outsider at your place of work, it can be quite difficult to find your way around, contracts as short as three months are also not uncommon. In the most extreme cases, you could end up switching work every couple of months, giving you almost no stability. While the haken gaisha pays your salary, this is only true as long as you are dispatched to and working at an actual company. If the haken gaisha has nowhere to dispatch you, you could suddenly find yourself without a paycheck. You will also only get the most basic benefits. If you are easily bored, this revolving-door-style of employment might be for you, most people only turn to employment as a haken shain if there is absolutely nothing else available. Especially for foreigners, there are many seedy haken gaisha looking to exploit vulnerable people that have no idea about Japanese labor laws, so be careful.

Arubaito/paato (アルバイト・パート) – the best catch-all translation here is “part-time work”. Arubaito comes from the German word Arbeit (work), while paato is literally just the English word “part” pronounced in Japanese. Legally speaking, there is no difference between arubaito and paato, both are part-time (up to 28 hours/week) forms of employment with fixed contract lengths. Culturally, there is a big difference between these two however. The word arubaito is used and understood as “someone doing work in addition to their principal occuption”. If a student works at a bar, while being enrolled in and studying at a University, that is arubaito. If a full-time employee works part-time at the convenience store on the weekend to make ends meet, that is arubaito. Paato on the other hand often refers to “someone doing part-time work while they have no other significant form of income”. If a stay-at home mom starts working part-time after the kids are in school, that is paato. In general, paato is mostly aimed at mothers and housewives, who often have difficulties finding full-time employment after childbirth. These definitions are by no means set in stone, but if you are a student and apply for a position advertised as paato, you might still get turned down and if a housewife in her 40s applied for a arubaito position, she might get turned down as well.

I hope that this has helped someone to better understand the different forms of employment that are common in Japan. Make sure you read every employment contract before you sign anything!

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!

A Question of Locale – How to Choose Where to Live in Japan

When it comes to moving to Japan, people tend to fall into one of two categories. On one side of the coin are those, that think about potential jobs first while being flexible about the location. On the other side are those, that have a specific area in mind where they want to live, while considerations about work are secondary. “I want to live in Tokyo not matter what, so I’ll do whatever work I can find” is a pretty common attitude among people that newly arrived to Japan or are still abroad, waiting for their chance to get in. As you can imagine, an all-or-nothing approach like that quickly leads down the path to disgruntlement and sooner or later you will find yourself at the HUB, sipping stale beer while you and your (foreign) colleagues rant about everything that is wrong in the world and specifically Japan. But I digress.

As can be understood from the above (very much tongue-in-cheek, but still accurate) paragraph, deciding on where you want to live is a very important decision to make when moving to Japan. As ever, this is not really a guide, rather I hope to give a more nuanced opinion on the whole issue and encourage you to do your own research to find somewhere that is actually livable for you.

The Problem with asking for advice

This is a bit more general, but bear with me because you will encounter this a lot when looking for advice on where to live in Japan. Whenever you ask someone for advice, be that online or offline, it will inevitably contain the opinion and bias of the person that is said advice it. When it comes to to our living environment, requirements vary from person to person so it is a very good idea to keep this in mind. One person might describe a somewhat run-down part of town as “seedy”, while another might praise it for the “urban vibes”. Another problem (mainly in online discussions) is the fact that people giving their opinion usually really love or really hate the thing they are giving their opinion about, so it is hard to find a balanced take.

Okay, but I still want your advice!

In that case, I am going to assume you have read and understood the above. I am trying my hardest to give the ever-elusive “balanced take” here, but it is still advice/my opinion so keep the above in mind.

I would recommend being more flexible with WHERE you work, rather than WHAT you work. Sure, you have seen all those glamorous or outright crazy instagram pictures from Shibuya, you spent two weeks in Tokyo on a holiday, absolutely loved it because you could still get Gyudon from Matsuya at 2 a.m. and now you absolutely HAVE to live here. But consider this, if you are willing to apply for absolutely any form of work, just to be able to live in Tokyo you will a) not make enough money to actually enjoy living here and b) will probably not have a lot of free-time to even use you meagre savings. I find that being content with and motivated for your work is a big contributor to personal happiness, so I would definitely prioritize it above where you want to live. Another more pragmatic reason is the fact that you need work to be eligible for most visa, so if you absolutely need to be in Japan as soon as possible, it is definitely better to figure out where you can work first.

Once you have a job offer, it is now time to think about where you want to live. If you are going to work in a bigger city, it is likely that you will have to commute by train. From personal experience, a commute that takes longer than 45 minutes is just awful, so I would think about that when choosing a place to live. If you like partying and going out a lot, then you might consider living in the city proper, but be prepared for the fact that partying in Japan might be different from what you are used to and rents can get pretty expensive in places like Tokyo. If you only go out on the weekends, then living in more affordable housing in the suburbs might be better for you, but be aware that you might need to take the train to go to a restaurant that you like.

Where should I live though?

You will have to figure that one out for yourself I am afraid. Apart from the above, the only other advice that I can give you is to not be overly dismissive of a place. Japan has 47 prefectures, which all have their own little quirks and characteristics that make them worth exploring or living in. People love ripping on Saitama or Ibaraki online, but I have found both of these places to be a lot nicer than their reputation suggests. When it comes to figuring out where you want to live, nobody but yourself is going to be able to give you a definitive answer. And if you get it wrong, do not be afraid to move somewhere else to try something new. You have already made a massive step in moving from abroad to Japan, is moving from Tokyo to Osaka really going to be such a big challenge?

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.

A few things you need to know before you apply to a Japanese company

Japan has a fairly unique hiring process, let’s get that out of the way first. Especially if you are fresh out of university and this is your first job in Japan, you can expect to come upon a few systems that might seem a bit alien. In this article, I would like to list a few things that you should keep in mind if you want to apply to and work for a traditional Japanese company.

  • Expect the application procedure to take a long time

Japanese people start the job-hunting process while they are still in university, usually in their third year. They submit applications starting in spring, then go to group seminars and interviews, and finally, they will have their final interviews. For a first job, three interviews are fairly standard, some companies will also hold seminars and other events in between. All in all, you can expect the whole application procedure to take up to half a year in some cases. Japanese companies like to think that they hire people for life, so the vetting process can take quite a while.

  • In most cases you apply for the company, not the job

This one is mostly true for new graduates again. In Japan, having a bachelor’s degree is often the only requirement to be able to apply for a specific job. Thus, people often end up working in fields that have nothing to do with their major. This can be an advantage, but it also comes with the disadvantage that the company might assign you something which doesn’t suit you. You might have applied as an IT-engineer, but the company currently needs more salespeople, so that’s the job you get.

  • Expect job rotation

Somewhat related to the aforementioned point, many bigger, traditional companies have a so-called “job rotation” system. Every few years, you will be transferred to a different department where you have to learn a new routine from scratch again. The idea is that companies want their staff to be knowledgeable about all areas of their business. But unfortunately, you rarely get a say in this and are simply expected to comply. Sometimes this might even mean that you will be transferred to work in a completely different city or area of Japan.

  • Expect a low(ish) salary at first

The standard Japanese model is to start on a low salary, that will then slowly rise as you stay with the company and rise through the ranks. This all depends on the company and your qualifications of course, but it is fair to assume that your starting salary will be lower than for an equal job in a different country. This is again to provide incentive to the lifetime employment that many companies envision for their staff.

  • Expect a different working culture

While the working culture in Japan varies greatly from company to company, you can almost certainly expect it to be different from the rest of the world. A good analogy would be to think of a company like a school class. You are expected to participate but have little say in how the whole thing is run. If a certain decision is made, even if it directly impacts your career, you will most likely not be asked in advance and the decision will be made over your head.

I realize that these all might come across as a bit negative. Obviously, there are many advantages to working for a Japanese company and working in Japan in general. Think of this as a sort of disclaimer as to what kind of situations you might need to be prepared for.

Jobs in Japan – About the Job-Hunting Process

When looking for jobs in Japan, first it is important to understand the job-hunting process and the entire culture that surrounds it. Finding your first job is always a challenge, but the job-hunting culture in Japan is very unique, as far as I am aware there are not many countries that have a similarly standardized approach to the idea of finding employment. In Japan, this process is called “Shukatsu” (from jap. 就職活動, shuushoku katsudou, roughly translates to job-hunting or job-searching) and is still the means by which a majority of Japanese find their first employment. I should point out, that this is something that mainly University students engage in. For non-Japanese, it is therefore often not very relevant, but still, an important aspect of the job market, that you should be familiar with if you want to work in Japan.

A uniform process

Jobs in Japan, Shukatsu
Uniformity is king during Shukatsu

Shukatsu has been around as a means to find jobs in Japan for a long time. It is one among many leftovers of the “old” Japanese business culture, that made Japan famous in the 70s of the last century. Many people attributed the success of Japanese businesses at that time to this culture. It is firmly based on the idea of lifetime employment, something that used to be very common in Japan, where people would enter a company after graduating from university, and then stay with that company until retirement. While this is changing, with younger generations being more open to the idea of changing jobs or even careers at a later point in life, the job-hunting process for newly graduated students has stayed roughly the same.

So what is Shukatsu exactly? In Japan, the idea that you can only find a decent job if you have a bachelor’s degree is pretty common. In fact, for non-Japanese, this is even more true, with many common working-visa being only available to those that have graduated University. If you look at job-searching websites, you will find that almost every job that’s listed requires you to have a bachelor’s degree. Accordingly, a very high proportion of Japanese high-school graduates will go on to enter a university to continue their education (over 70%, according to this data I found from 2018). The third year of university is usually when most are going to start Shukatsu. Rather than sticking out, uniformity is what’s important here. Students will all don the same non-descript black suits, Humphrey Bogart-style trench coats, start attending job seminars, company briefings (so-called 説明会, setsumeikai), group discussions, and other mandatory events in the hopes of securing an invitation to a job interview.

Jobs in Japan, Shukatsu
A Japanese student going to a job interview, circa 2020

Finding jobs in Japan – not an easy task

It does not stop there, however. For those that secure an invitation to a job interview, there are many more hurdles to climb. First, they might have to take what’s called an SPI test (or Web Aptitude test, there are different names around), a sort of test that supposedly assesses your personality, character, and general knowledge. Via these standardized tests, companies presume that they can weed out those candidates that do not fit into their hiring profile. If you pass, you have usually at least three job interviews to attend, starting with an HR member in the first interview and by the last, you will often end up sitting down with the company president. And all of that is just for one company, on average, a Japanese student will apply to 14 (!!!) companies during his/her Shukatsu (Japanese data here from 2014, by now that number is most likely higher). And even if they manage to pass the gauntlet and get hired, starting salaries are usually very low and hours are long. Salaries will then slowly start rising as the years go by. In the olden days, this system might have made sense when the expectation was that any potential new hire would be working for a company for close to 40 years. Now though, there is a growing trend towards younger people quitting their jobs and changing careers, so this overly thorough approach to hiring appears to be highly outdated. In some industries, almost half of new hires quit within the first three years (data on this in English was very hard to find, here’s an article from 2013 though).

All of this while also attending university

Traveling is another highlight of student life

Balancing studies and job-hunting can be pretty challenging, so most do not bother. Japanese university is usually pretty laid back (some call their time in university the “summer vacation of life), only getting in is difficult, graduating is often considered a given so many students do not actually study much in the first place. Club activities and earning money by doing part-time work are oftentimes more important than actually studying. But during the third year, everything else is put to the side and Shukatsu takes full precedent. Students will regularly skip classes in order to attend the aforementioned gauntlet of seminars and interviews. Many prestigious universities take high tuition fees from their students, with the students hoping to better their chances on the job market. Every university has a counseling office that is tasked with preparing their students for Shukatsu, by organizing events and holding 1-on-1 counseling sessions among other things. Some universities will even have agreements with some companies, where the company promises to hire a certain number of students every year. This leads to students and their families having certain expectations, which the university will then be pressed to fulfill. Since university is often just considered a stepping stone for a later career, nothing could be more damaging for a university’s reputation than their students being unable to find employment. While hardly a problem that is exclusive to Japan, universities being run as a business, rather than an educational institution is certainly something that might warrant it’s own article in the future.

But what about foreigners?

There certainly are foreigners that find jobs in Japan by doing Shukatsu. Most of them are exchange students or full-time students at a Japanese university. But generally, this is not the norm and I would even go so far as to advise against it. The first problem is language. As you can imagine, going through this grueling process can be difficult enough if Japanese is your native tongue, but doing it as a non-native speaker can prove next to impossible. There is also another problem. By following the process of Shukatsu to find jobs in Japan, you end up setting yourself up to compete directly with Japanese for open positions, which is often a losing battle from the start. You have to act like a Japanese but will in turn never be treated as such. If the deck is stacked against you from the start, my advice would be to avoid playing in the first place. There are many other ways by which you can find employment in Japan, following an outdated, almost arcane ritual like Shukatsu is probably not going to be your best bet.

My intention with this article was not to explain Shukatsu in detail (since I don’t think it’s something you should be actively pursuing anyway). Rather, I hope to have provided you with some background information on the whole culture and stigma surrounding it. If by the end of this article you still feel like doing Shukatsu, feel free to consult one of the many guides on how to give the perfectly standard answer to standard job-interview questions, and on how many inches you should bow when entering and leaving the room.

If you are interested in reading other articles about finding jobs in Japan, here is a selection to get you started. Also feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.

An article on working visa
An article on learning Japanese
An article on job-hunting websites

Working Hours in Japan

Are you interested in working hours in Japan? You want to work here, but are worried about overtime? Read on for my take on the issue.

One of the first things that many people associate with working in Japan is excessively long working hours. When Japan made its name as one of the worlds leading economies during the 1970s and 80s, recovering blisteringly fast from the aftermath of World War II, Japanese working culture became a broadly discussed topic. While some people were praising the collectivism and devotion to a single company, others also pointed out that Japanese workers were working exceedingly long hours.

Japanese working culture is known for being exceedingly strict

Until now, this stereotype still endures. Many people still believe that working for a Japanese company means that you will have to work until 10 p.m. every day. If we have a look at the Wikipedia article on the Japanese work environment, we can get a rough idea of the average working hours in Japan over the years. While this is certainly an awful article, even by Wikipedia standards, it serves to illustrate a point: the fact that people are perpetuating a stereotype, and like almost every other stereotypes there might be a morsel of truth to it, but it is blown so far out of proportion that any truth has long since been swept away.

The trend in Japan is also towards less working hours

In developed countries, there is a trend to shorten working hours. Automation, relative security, thanks to welfare and benefits, and the growing awareness of the negative effects that working long hours can have on one’s body, have led to people and companies placing greater emphasis on a good work/life balance. The same also holds true for Japan, with average working hours becoming much shorter since the 1980s. I am not writing a scientific article here, but let us have a look at two graphs. The first one shows us that monthly working hours have been going down consistently over the last decade. Another graph, provided by OECD data, shows us that that the average working hours per worker in Japan for 2019 are actually lower than those in the United States and other countries, and also below the OECD average.

If you are interested in a proper scientific article on the current state of working hours and overwork in Japan, read the following article by Mr Tomohiro Takami “Current State of Working Hours and Overwork in Japan Part I: How Has It Changed Over the Years? “. You can find the whole series of articles HERE.

Still, the stereotypes endure

Now, it is certainly true that the Japanese still tend to work long hours. But so do people in the US, Italy and other countries. One thing that is often brought up when talking about long-working hours is the term 過労死 (karoushi), which means death (usually suicide) due to excessive overwork. People will argue, that the existence of a specific term must mean that this is a real problem. But as the graphs in the above paragraph have shown us, overwork is no more or less an issue in Japan, than it is in other countries. The existence of a term certainly does not indicate anything, as in Japanese it is pretty easy to create new words by just sticking Kanji characters together. In the case of 過労死, you simply have the character 死, meaning death, stuck to the end of the word 過労 meaning overwork, which then results in the term “Overwork-Death” or the more broadly used “death due to overwork“. Overwork at so-called “Black Companies“, companies that are known for treating their employees poorly, is certainly a big problem. But the same is true for IT companies in Californias Silicon Valley, where the term “Crunch Time” is used to describe excessive overtime before the launch of a new product. But somehow it is still Japan, that seems to get a bad reputation.

“Black” companies are famous for their long working hours

This enduring of stereotypes is a phenomenon that seems to occur often concerning Japan. Another very common one is that suicide is a big issue in Japan, when in truth Japans average suicide numbers are again equal to or lower than those in many other countries. Japan is an intriguing but foreign country. But due to its foreignness, there exist many half-truths that people simply accept as gospel because it can be difficult to properly fact-check. There is a language barrier and an “understanding” or “cultural” barrier at play, that seems to make it hard for these stereotypes to be accepted as such. Do not get me wrong, overwork and suicide are big societal issues that need to be tackled by Japan, but the same goes for many other countries. However, giving up on your dream of working in Japan or “hating on” Japan because “the working hours are too long” is ignoring reality.

Read my article about working in Japan and prevailing stereotypes here. If you have questions regarding working in Japan, please feel free to contact me through the “Contact me” form, leave a comment below the article or contact me on Facebook.

Jobs Exclusive to Japan and do They Even Exist?

Recently, I came upon a query from someone asking for jobs that are “exclusive to Japan”, so I thought I would write a bit about this topic. When people from “the West” or a “more developed Nation” are wanting to move to Japan, the motivation for that rarely stems exclusively from wanting to work here. Rather, people have something that they like about Japan, maybe they like Anime, Japanese history, or simply enjoy being in the country due to the atmosphere, the people and so on. There might be the rare case of a person looking to work in a scientific field in Japan, maybe linguists or other researchers that want to work on-site, so to speak. But for the most part, people want to live in Japan and having to work here is a byproduct of that. 

More people come to Japan for the delights of Akihabara than for the working culture

On the other hand, some people might feel the exact opposite. South-east Asian countries, while slowly making progress and developing their economies still often look to Japan as their opportunity to earn a lot of money. Due to the Japanese Yen being a pretty strong and stable currency, going to Japan and working in – for Japanese standards – low-pay or even minimum-wage jobs and then sending that money back to their own country to feed their families continues to be a viable option for people from some Asian countries. In stark contrast to the group mentioned in the first paragraph, this groups primary motivation is to work and make money here and they have to live here to be able to do that. 

The Japanese farming Industry relies pretty heavily on workers from south-east Asia

Are There Jobs Exclusive to Japan?

Now, I wanted to look at a few jobs that are exclusive to Japan, though be warned that I am from “the West”, so my perspective will be biased of course. Exclusivity can have multiple meanings here, so I will talk about a few different categories of jobs. Further, it should also be mentioned that the global society that we live in today has eroded the concept of exclusivity pretty thoroughly, an office job is an office job, a factory job is a factory job, and while there are of course differences from country to country, they are not enough to make most jobs “exclusive”. There might be some almost exclusive jobs, like maybe Sake brewing or other traditional Japanese arts and crafts, but again, with how connected everything is today, you could probably attend an online class and then start a business in your home country. Another form of exclusivity would be jobs almost exclusively done by foreigners in Japan. Language teaching and interpretation or Translation come to mind here, you will rarely find an English conversation teacher that is native Japanese, more often than not it will be people from the UK or America. 

If you want to be lead designer on Nintendos next console, I would say that is pretty exclusive

If we are thinking about exclusivity from another angle, there are of course brands and companies that exist exclusively in Japan. If you want to work at Nintendo Headquarters, that would be pretty exclusive to Japan, same for Toyota or other Japanese conglomerates. These big companies obviously have branches in other countries as well, but company culture in Japan is different enough that I would say that working at Nintendo Japan is pretty different to working at Nintendo America, making both a pretty exclusive experience.

Real Talk

But let us be real for a minute here, after I had some fun in the earlier paragraphs, I do not think any jobs are “exclusively” available only in Japan. It is of course entirely possible that I misunderstood or misinterpreted the query. But I believe that rather than asking yourself what jobs are exclusively available in Japan, ask yourself if there is something that you exclusively can bring to a company in Japan. Too many people believe that just by them being foreigners and being able to speak basic Japanese, companies should line up trying to hire them. This might sound harsh to some, but unless you have a very good command of the Japanese language (AT LEAST Japanese Language Proficiency Test N2 Level and being able to have a normal conversation in Japanese), companies outside the aforementioned teaching and translation industries are probably not going to be too ecstatic about hiring you. Learn the language, learn to use the language, and then think about what you can bring to a potential employer in addition to that. If your only relevant skill is “being able to speak decent Japanese”, they might as well hire a Japanese person.

Japan and the Myth about “Just Working in IT”

Let me preface this by saying that I have not and will probably never work in the Japanese IT industry. But I have been in Japan for quite a while now and researched all kinds of ways which would me allow to work and live here. I have also spoken with many people, be it those working in IT themselves, job councillors for foreigners and so on. I feel like this gives me a good basis for writing this article, but as always, don’t take my words as gospel and do your research if you are truly interested in working in IT in Japan.

Whenever somebody with little to no Japanese language skills asks online for job recommendations in Japan, there will usually be two answers posted immediately: English teacher (which comes with its own set of problems, see my article here) or IT. Generally speaking, the common language of the IT world is English, and in many countries, companies will be willing to hire IT staff, even if they do not speak the local language. The industry has an image as being very global, also thanks to the interconnectedness of the World Wide Web.

You will occasionally still encounter monsters like these

Unfortunately, this generally does not hold true for Japan. There may be a few big companies in Tokyo, which are willing to hire staff even if they do not speak Japanese, but these openings are few and far between. Other English-affine companies will be young startups that will not have the capital to take the risk of hiring somebody from overseas. The vast majority of companies that can offer long-term gainful employment will be companies that conduct all of their business in Japanese, and often only for the Japanese market. Think about it, if you look around the programs installed on your computer, apps on your phone, websites that you bookmarked on your browser, how many of them are Japanese in origin? I’m willing to bet the answer is close to zero. Have you heard of services called Kintone, a cloud-based file sharing service, or U-Next, a Japanese streaming platform? Again, for most people, the answer is probably no.

People have this image of Japan being a high-tech and advanced country, and thus they assume that the same holds for the Japanese IT industry. Japan may make the best and most advanced toilets in the world, Sony and Nintendo may be exporting their gaming systems to the whole world, but the IT industry is still very self-contained, developing Japanese programs for a Japanese audience. If you are very highly qualified, you might be able to land a job at Google or Rakuten in Japan, but you will have to accept that your wages will be probably lower than if you just got a job in your home country. And if you are not able to speak Japanese, then living in this country is probably not going to be much fun for you anyways. 

So, there you have it. If you are deadest on working and living in Japan and you like the idea of working in IT, or already have some experience in it, then by all means try and go for it. Just don’t believe what some online commenters will tell you and accept that getting into the industry will probably require some determination and good Japanese skills. But I guess that is the case for almost any kind of job in Japan. There are no shortcuts (maybe only the English teacher niche, but then you are at risk of getting stuck there), if you want to live and work in Japan you have to be realistic and accept that fact.