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!

About Studying in Japan

For many of us, our first real point of contact with Japan, apart from Anime and Manga, might be when we start studying about Japan at University. Many universities offer courses about Japan, be they Japanese language courses or courses on culture, history and the like. Maybe you major or minor in Japanese (or Japanology) and your interest in the Language, the country and its culture is what got you into University in the first place. Due to this, too many of us studying in Japan for some time seems like a very natural progression. Today I wanted to talk briefly about the different options that are available to you if you are looking to spend some time living and studying in the country of the rising sun.

If you are studying anything in Japan, it’s probably going to be Japanese

Language School

Your first option is going to be applicable if you are interested in studying the Japanese language. But you do not need prior knowledge to attend many of the Japanese language schools that you can find all across the country. There are many different kinds of school, some small, some big, some more focused on receiving students from western countries while others are focused on students from other Asian countries. If you are looking to attend a language school, Japan has visa agreements with many countries that allow you to stay in Japan for up to 90 days. If you are not from a country that has such a visa agreement in place, or you want to attend school for more than 90 days, you are going to need a student visa. These visas are sponsored by the school and usually allow you to stay and study in Japan for up to 1 year (although you are not allowed to work unless you get permission).

Exchange programs or language programs at Universities

Student exchanges are getting ever more popular and Japan is no exception, with many Japanese Universities sending their students abroad and accepting foreign students in return. If you are currently enrolled in a university, it is a good idea to check whether your university has any student exchange agreements with Japanese universities. Depending on your university, the application process for these exchange programs may be highly competitive, but if you are lucky enough to be chosen as a participant, you will usually receive scholarships and living assistance and thus you can enjoy your life in Japan pretty carefree. But in case you were not chosen as an exchange candidate, do not despair. For diversities sake, many of the big Japanese private universities offer language programs, which allow you to attend University and experience campus life in Japan for up to one year, while mainly focusing on studying Japanese. The caveat here is that oftentimes these programs can be expensive, but in many countries’ governmental bodies, organizations or educational institutions offer scholarships that you might be able to apply for. Inside of Japan, universities, local governments and other organizations provide scholarships as well, making studying in Japan for a year a rather affordable deal.

Enrolling in University

Last and least, we have the nuclear option. If one year is not enough for you, you could always decide to enrol in a Japanese university full-time. If this sounds appealing to you, you probably are already very well-versed on everything Japanese and don’t really need me to tell you anything. For anyone else, the big and obvious problem here is, that courses will almost always be held in Japanese. The number of people, who can understand enough Japanese when they are fresh out of high school and looking for a University, to attend classes in the Language will be pretty low in most non-Asian countries. Some universities provide undergraduate programs in English, but they are also few and far between. Just as with a work contract, committing yourself to a foreign country for up to four years without much prior knowledge can be a big ask, so many people are hesitant about attending University in Japan full-time. If you are from a European country with no tuition costs (I’m from Germany were tuition is generally free), you should also consider, that tuition fees in Japan can be pretty high (up to 10.000 Euro or 100.000 Japanese Yen per semester in some cases).

If you are studying the Japanese language, or are at all interested in Japan, then attending a University or a Language school can be a great way for you to experience life in Japan. If you are considering moving to Japan, then getting to know the country beforehand is also a bonus. Student-life in Japan is famously pretty relaxed, in stark contrast to working-life, but you will still be able to judge whether you could see yourself spending time in the country long-term.

Job Prospects in Japan: Working for a Hotel

“Job prospects” is a new miniseries of articles, where I will have a look at various types of professions that are commonly available to foreigners in Japan, try and look at whether the field is easy to get into or not, and subsequently discuss whether it is feasible to pursue a career in Japan in that given field.

After looking at Language Teaching in my first article, and Translation and Interpretation in the second one, I thought it was time to move away from the heavy focus on language. But when considering Jobs that are viable and available for foreigners in Japan, the language will usually play a big part. So, in the end, today’s topic is not so different. 

Bilingual reception staff is highly sought after

The Japanese hospitality industry is world-famous for its politeness, attention to detail and sense of “omotenashi”. Highly philosophical and the guiding paradigm of the Japanese service industry, this is a concept you ought to understand if you want to work in a Japanese hotel, as it is fundamental to the kind of service that is provided in Japan. Japanese Wikipedia tells us that “omotenashi” encompasses the following:

おもてなしとは、心のこもった待遇のこと。顧客に対して心をこめて歓待や接待やサービスをすることを言う。

https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/おもてなし

That roughly translates to: “omotenashi” is heartfelt treatment. It is to provide customers with wholehearted hospitality, entertainment and service. Apart from the philosophical debate on what 心をこもる・こめる or the wholehearted, heartfelt treatment actually means, this concept defines a pretty strict hierarchical relationship between the service provider and the customer, putting the customer squarely on top. And while a “the customer is king” attitude is common in many parts of the world, Japans hospitality industry has truly taken this concept to heart. No matter how small or unreasonable, if the customer has a demand or complaint, your first instinct should be to apologize and then go about solving their issue as quickly as possible. 

Putting in the effort? Or just appearing to be?

Now it can be said about Japan, that often, actually making an effort, and just appearing to make an effort can be regarded as the same thing. If a customer were to ask you to get him something that is physically impossible to obtain for you, instead of telling him that outright it would be considered more polite to give the appearance of trying and failing to get him what he wants. Reading this, it sounds a lot harsher than it actually is. Most customers will be perfectly friendly ones, and a few bad eggs that abuse their perceived position of power can be found anywhere in the world. But if you have ambitions of working in a Japanese hotel, best be sure to brush up on your “omotenashi” philosophy skills.

Unlikely to hire you: the famous Japanese capsule hotels

I feel like I went somewhat off-topic there, so let’s get to looking at your prospects if you are wanting to work in a Japanese hotel. To be upfront, I think they are actually pretty good, provided you speak decent Japanese. Japanese people love travelling their own country, so any given hotel is going to have Japanese customers and you are going to be expected to be able to communicate with them in the formal manner that is required of hotel staff. In other words, Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level N2 and a good command of the spoken language, especially polite language, is going to be the bare minimum for you to get hired in many cases. If you have ambitions of working in a luxury resort or for an upscale hotel somewhere in Tokyo, you will probably not be hired unless you are truly fluent in Japanese (and English most likely too). 

Other issues at play

There are some other issues to consider as well. If you choose to work for a hotel in the countryside, the locations will often be very isolated, so if you are a city-person it might be rough for you when it takes 15 minutes by car just to reach the nearest convenience store. Salaries are usually also not very good, as a new hire, you can expect to receive around 200.000 JPY a month, which will only rise very slowly over the period that you work. Hotels often provide cheap accommodation for their staff, for example, a staff-dormitory, but this is less than ideal if you have family or value your privacy. You also need to be able to work in a shift-system with irregular holidays and varying working times. Some hotels even might have shifts where they expect you to work four hours (let’s say 6:00 to 10:00) in the morning and four hours in the evening (18:00 to 22:00), which can be hard to adjust to. 

On the other hand, tourism in Japan is booming with visitor numbers quadrupling over the last ten years (let’s just forget about this year). The industry is highly valued and rapidly growing in Japan and staff that can provide service in different languages is highly sought after. In the end, if you want to work in a hotel, can stomach the issued outlined above and wrap your head around the concept of “omotenashi”, which probably is not as big of a deal as I have made it out to be then I would say that your prospect for finding work are: pretty good!

Job Prospects in Japan: Translation and Interpretation

“Job prospects” is a new miniseries of articles, where I will have a look at various types of professions that are commonly available to foreigners in Japan, try and look at whether the field is easy to get into or not, and subsequently discuss whether it is feasible to pursue a career in Japan in that given field.

Maybe a rare picture of the fabled Babel fish

Last time we had a look at language teaching, the profession of choice for people who want to work in Japan but do not speak any Japanese. But what if you do speak some Japanese? What opportunities suddenly become available to you? Even for someone that speaks good Japanese, finding employment is not a given. Japanese is a hard language to learn and master, spending significant time to study the language in University, for example, will often lead to potential hires only having their Japanese language skills to market themselves to Japanese employees. They end up competing with Japanese candidates for the same job openings, which more often than not leads to the Japanese candidate getting hired instead of someone from overseas, who has not even proven that they can adapt to the Japanese working atmosphere.

Being a foreigner can be an advantage

Of course, there are also plenty of jobs available, where your being a foreigner is an advantage. Invariably, these often tend to be jobs related to Languages. What makes Japanese such a hard language to grasp for many, is that it is so different from other languages. But this also works in the reverse, making many languages exceedingly difficult to pick-up for native Japanese-speakers. Add the fact, that the Japanese language education system can be pretty outdated, often memorizing grammar and single words are prioritized above actually speaking the language, and you end up with a country that has a great many people who can only really speak one language, Japanese. But we live in a global world, business and media cannot afford to be available in a single language anymore, or they risk getting left behind by the competition. Thus, there is a great need for translators and interpreters in Japan. 

Translation by humans is still favored at the moment, but for how long?

If companies are sufficiently big, they might hire foreigners to handle overseas clients directly. But in many cases, what ends up happening is that dispatch translators or interpreters are used instead, especially when it comes to less widely spoken languages. If you speak sufficient Japanese (at least Japanese Language Proficiency Level N2), you can often quite easily get hired as a translator or interpreter. Especially the videogame industry appears to be looking for translators and localizers quite a bit. Unfortunately, these jobs are often not very well paid and offer little incentive to people for staying on for long periods. If you end up working for a dispatch company, you will most likely have to work the weekend, public holidays or even night-shifts. As alluded to earlier, you will also most likely not make any significant career advancement as a translator, if you want a higher salary or more responsibility, you will most likely have to change jobs instead of waiting for a promotion. Similar to language teaching, I would also say that the profession of translation and interpretation is also significantly threatened by digitalization, with services like Google Translate becoming more and more reliable. 

Still better than language teaching, probably

On the other hand, you will most likely be using Japanese in a Japanese working environment. If you are hoping to work in Japan for the long-term, then there are worse choices that you could make for a first job. In the language teaching article, I said that it can be difficult to transition from being a teacher to another job. And while Japan is still a society that does not look too favourably to people who change their jobs often, getting started in translation to ultimately do something different is not the worst choice that you can make. If you have no other certifiable skills besides Japanese, then getting started as a translator will offer you the opportunity to acquaint yourself with Japan and the working environment and atmosphere, which is often way more important than whether you can code or have sales experience or similar. 

And there you have it. Being a translator or interpreter, while maybe not the best long-term career choice, is something that you can make work over the short-term while transitioning to something else. Job prospects may vary a bit, depending on your native language, but as long as you can speak English and Japanese (and have certificates backing you up), then you should be able to find a decent job quite easily. Just keep in mind that you probably do not want to stay there for too long.