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?

Living and Working in Japan – Then and Now

I am now getting close to completing my fourth year of living in Japan, and recently I have been thinking about how this might have changed me and my perspective. Living in a foreign country is obviously a huge challenge and if you go in with the expectation that everything will go according to plan you are bound to be disappointed. So your perspective, your plans, your very idea of yourself and your life might change and it is up to you to figure out whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for you. However, in order to not get too philosophical and write a more relatable article, I will try to stick to a single topic – my expectations before coming to Japan and how they are holding up.

Expectations are there to be subverted – that does not have to be a bad thing

My expectations before going to Japan

Not to toot my own horn here, but I feel like I had pretty realistic expectations before coming to Japan for the first time. I did not expect futuristic skylines or real-life anime characters walking around in the streets (they do in Shibuya though). I expected people to be friendly and customer service to be top-notch. Also, I expected people to be pretty tech-savvy – high-tech and Japan supposedly go hand-in-hand after all – and generally very interested in the goings-on outside Japan. My expectation was that people were cooking Italian food while listening to rock music from abroad. I had read many of the books by Murakami Haruki and his characters definitely influenced my perception.

My impressions upon arriving in Japan

The one thing that I completely underestimated before coming to Japan is the sheer amount of people (especially true for Tokyo). I grew up in a town with a population of around 600.000, which is not exactly small by European standards. But coming to Japan and seeing the masses that flow through airports and train stations here was definitely a big shock. Another impression that I had immediately upong landing was that there are a lot of restaurants and other food-related shops. Advertisements seemed to be either women in short skirts, some exotic travel destinations or, more often than not, somehow food-related.

My Expectations – Four years later

But the point of the whole article was to reflect a bit about what has changed. I often hear that people are bothered by being treated differently due to being a foreigner, even after they have been here for a long time. For me, this is not such a big concern. I recognize that I am different from all the Japanese people around me and being treated accordingly does not bother me (for now, at least). I try my best to fit in, of course, I speak fluent Japanese and try my best to observe rules and customs, but at the same time, I recognize that I am different from those around me just by virtue of having lived somewhere else for 25 years. As long as people do not treat me like an idiot, I am generally fine. But if I am to be treated differently, then I expect to be given some slack when I behave differently in some situations. Sure, when in Rome, do as the Romans do are wise words to live by, but for me at least there are limitations – you can only bend so much without breaking.

As for my expectations, I think it is fair to say that I was pretty off-base, even though I did not picture an anime-fairytale wonderland. While customer service is polite, there can also be a robot-like quality to it, which makes it hard to deal with unforeseen situations. People are generally friendly, but distant and it is just as hard to make meaningful connections as it is anywhere else. Also, the high-tech image is a complete hoax, many people are so stuck in the past that they are still using Windows XP on their work computers. And while there are a lot of people interested in the goings-on outside of Japan, I am reminded of a zoo, where the visitors represent the Japanese, the animals represent everything and everyone non-Japanese, and there is a big sheet of glass that separates them which represents their Japaneseness. There are a great many people here that think that they are different – although not necessarily better – from the rest of the world and I guess if you imagine something for long enough than it will eventually become true.

As for me, I still enjoy living and working in Japan. Sure, it is different from what I expected but I adapted and made it work for me. I enjoy the challenge of communicating and finding my way in a different culture and while it can sometimes be very frustrating, I feel like I am growing and learning so much that it is all worth it. Never stop dancing is the message of one of Murakami’s best books, and living in Japan is definitely a quickstep.

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.

News From Japan – Week 10

I had originally said that I would post more regularly in February, but one thing led to another and I was very busy with other work-related stuff so in the and I could not really live up to that promise unfortunately. Somehow the month went by really quickly and now it’s already the final non-holiday. Anyways, let’s finish it up with a nice bit of news and hope that next month will see more regular posts again.

We start off with an article about a website. Not mine, unfortunately. Instead, the article is about a website where people can make anonymous noise complaints, which will then be shown on a map. The idea is to create a space where people can vent, as well as create a resource for people that are looking for a new home. Nothing can be more frustrating than moving into your dream home, only to find out that the neighbors are unbearably loud. As someone that lives beneath a family with two kids, who seem to play basketball in their living-room, judging by the noise that they sometimes make, I can relate. The article goes on to give voice to parents, citing their concerns that society does not have enough empathy for kids. In my opinion, this is a two-way street. Sure, people complaining about kids being noisy when outside in the park might lack empathy. But parents who think that living on the top floor with two kids (in a 2-room apartment, mind you) is a good idea, lack empathy just the same in my view.

JapanTimes – You can read the full article here

Next up, we have an article on Tesla, the electric car manufacturer. While wildly successful in other parts of the world, Tesla seems to have some trouble getting their cars to sell in Japan. Even a reduction in prices has not seen sales figures rise. The article then goes on to mention, that Tesla faces homegrown competition in the Nissan Ariya. What the article fails to mention, however, is that Japan also produces the Toyota Prius, which is one of the first eco-friendly hybrid cars that were widely available and commercially successful. So people that are ecologically aware are more likely to drive a Prius than to fork out for a Tesla. From personal experience, climate awareness is not a big thing in Japan, another factor that might contribute to low electric car sales. When Greta Thunberg was campaigning a few years back, most people in Japan were more concerned with whether she was a boy or a girl, rather than the message she was delivering.

MarketWatch – Read the full article here

The Coronavirus has claimed another victim, this time it is the Hadaka Matsuri (The Naked Festival) according to the following article. The festival, which has taken place consecutively for 500 years (or so the Temple, where it is held claims), will still be held, just in a more corona-appropriate manner. Instead of loads of naked men, jostling for twigs and sticks that a priest throws at them, only a select few were allowed to gather and pray for fertility among other things.

CNN Travel – Read the full article here

That’s it for this week, and indeed that’s it for February. I hope this month has treated you all well. See you in March!

Importing Holidays – Valentine’s

Since last Sunday was Valentine’s Day, I thought I ought to post at least something about it, since it is a pretty unique aspect of the Japanese culture. Be warned, I’m not the biggest proponent of customs like this one, so here you will probably not really find a rosy telling of how everybody gets handmade chocolate.

While in most other countries, Valentine’s is decidedly for couples only, and even then mostly just used as a justification to go on a more expensive date, in Japan everybody participates. Sure, couples might go on fancy dates on Valentine’s in Japan as well, but generally, the day is all about chocolate. Specifically about women giving men chocolate. Smells of a marketing campaign? Well, you would be completely correct on that one, according to Wikipedia the act of giving chocolate was promoted by confectionary makers in the 1950s, and apparently, it caught on (not the most reliable of sources, but I’m not writing an essay). It must have been some pretty impressive marketing because Valentine’s day in Japan is now not only about couples, women will give chocolate to all sorts of men in their life, not only their significant other. Family (I got chocolate from my Japanese sister and mother-in-law, yay), friends, even co-workers, everybody can expect to receive tasty treats. Starting around the middle of January, department stores et al. will start selling large quantities of chocolate. Only on very rare occasions will somebody actually go through the trouble of making chocolate treats by themselves.

The true marketing masterstroke, however, is in the fact that they simply did it again, just a month later. Enter “White Day”, a Japan-exclusive custom observed on the 14th of March. While on Valentine’s Day, women are supposed to give chocolate to men, on White Day the roles are reversed. Now men are supposed to give chocolate to women. Originally, you were supposed to give white chocolate, marshmallows, or other white sweets – hence the name – but by now that custom seems to have been eroded and men will give all sorts of chocolate. If they give any at all, I have lived in Japan for around four years now and I can’t remember ever seeing a man giving chocolate to women on White Day. My best guess would be that it is a generational thing, with younger generations not really following this particular custom while maybe older generations still do.

Anyway, a rather short post about the odd way of celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan. While it is most certainly an odd holiday everywhere in the world – couples should not really need a special day to celebrate their relationship – the pure commercialization of the Japanese variant has always been off-putting to me. If I give chocolate to my sister and mother-in-law (as I am supposed to, per the White Day marketing campaign), it’s because I like them and want to thank them, not simply going through the motions.

Traveling to Japan – A Post About Hiraizumi, Discover The North

Back in January, I announced that there would be a new category about traveling to and around Japan added to the blog. Since then, keen readers will have noticed that I have not actually posted anything about travel. My original intention when adding this category was to give myself something to write about, in case I run out of ideas for other blog posts. Constantly finding new topics to write about can be exhausting, especially if your target audience (people wanting to work and live in Japan in my case) is relatively small. I thought writing about travel would help me tap a broader audience, who then would maybe also take interest in my other content.

But then I ran into an issue: would it be okay for me to write travel-posts about places that I haven’t actually been to myself? While I like traveling well enough, I am far from an enthusiast and would not count myself as a “hobby traveler”. I like to travel as a means of escaping routine, so if traveling itself were to become routine it would lose most of its appeal to me. All that is to say, that I haven’t traveled around Japan nearly as much as many other travel bloggers have. For example, I have never actually visited Kyoto, which would probably be considered sacrilege by many a Japan-fan. Anyway, for now, I have decided to stick with posts about places that I have actually been to, few as they might be. Hopefully, I will still be able to offer a nuanced view, from somebody that actually lives in Japan.

Travelling to Japan – Hiraizumi

Today’s topic is Hiraizumi, a small town located in Iwate prefecture in the Touhoku region, a pretty long way north of Tokyo. It used to be a pretty big deal in the past (read 1000 years ago), but now it is just a very small rural community, that seems to be living entirely off the tourism that its past significance brings in. Hiraizumi itself offers historic temples on wooded mountains, making you feel like you entered some kind of enchanted fairyland, good food, and stunning views. The area surrounding Hiraizumi can also be very interesting if you are into temples and nature. There are flowing ricefields, temples with beautiful gardens, mountains, lots of woodlands, Genbikei and Geibikei gorge (which we will get to later), and caves to explore. If you want an experience that is a bit different, where you have to somewhat choose your own adventure instead of following tried and true guidebooks then Hiraizumi might be just the place for you.

Base of operations: Ichinoseki

Actually getting to Hiraizumi can be a bit of a hassle, the Shinkansen only stops in nearby Ichinoseki. From there you have to take a very small, very slow and very infrequent local train that will get you to Hiraizumi proper. While the area certainly has lots of charm, staying in Hiraizumi itself is probably not the best idea. If you are planning to spend multiple days exploring the surroundings, Ichinoseki will offer a much better base of operations, since there are regular busses departing for all the tourism spots outside of Hiraizumi as well. You will however have to accept, that Ichinoseki is not the nicest place. Boarded up shops, the sort of destitute, gray atmosphere that many smaller Japanese towns can have, where most of the young population has left for bigger cities. But if you are planning to be on the move, exploring around, then getting a cheap business hotel here will be the most economical solution, both money and timewise. If you want a more immersive and relaxing experience, then looking at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Hiraizumi itself might be a good idea, but basing yourself here will certainly make exploring the surroundings a lot harder unless you rent a car.

Onto Hiraizumi itself – Straight outta Ghibli

The main attraction of Hiraizumi is the aforementioned fairyland temple, Chusonji temple. It sits on top of a heavily forested mountain and is famous across Japan for the Konjikido, a hall that is almost entirely covered in gold and was built in the 12th century. Considering that traditional Japanese architecture is almost entirely based around wood and paper, there are actually not many buildings that are even more than a few hundred years old (many castles that you can find across Japan today are modern-day replica for example), so having a building survive for almost a 1000 years is pretty noteworthy. For protection, the Konjikido is housed inside another structure and you can not enter the golden hall itself, only gaze at it from the outside (also no photography allowed). The Buddhist monks of the area are nothing if not industrious, so you can find lots of souvenirs, whole restaurants if you are hungry, and small food stalls if you just want to snack. The whole area could almost feel like a theme-park, but somehow it manages to still retain the whole fairy tale atmosphere as if you had walked into a Studio Ghibli movie. A note of warning, if you are not good on your feet then the hike up to the temple can be pretty exhausting.

Apart from that, there is unfortunately not a whole lot to Hiraizumi itself. At the bottom of the mountain, there is the grave of Benkei, who is a pretty famous figure from Japanese history and often appears in various Anime or Movies as a Character. Surrounding the train station, there are a few restaurants and more souvenir shops, but if you have not rented a car you will most likely have to return to Ichinoseki if you want to do any exploring beyond that.

Nature in Action – Genbikei and Geibikei Gorge

There is of course lots to do Hiraizumi and Ichinoseki, but listing every single activity would take forever. As I said earlier if you are looking to travel to Hiraizumi it’s probably best to explore a lot by yourself, and not follow any sort of itinerary. So instead of giving you one, I will just briefly talk about two other landmarks that were the most memorable to me – Genbikei and Geibikei Gorge. The names might sound similar, but it’s actually two very different places with a very different atmosphere and charm to them.

Geibikei Gorge can be reached by train from Ichinoseki station (though again, trains are very infrequent, get used to that when traveling the Japanese countryside). The main attraction here are the boat rides. For a small fee, you can enjoy being staked around the gorge by a boatman with a pole in a flat-bottomed boat. The boatman might even sing some traditional Japanese songs for you, while you enjoy eating snacks that you bought before departure. The ride takes around an hour or so. If you are now having visions of a romantic boat ride, like gondolas on the channels in Venice (they never tell you how stinky the channels actually are), you will be disappointed however as you will be sharing a boat with roughly 20 other people. If you can get over that fact, then there are many beautiful views to gawk at and once you return you can buy some traditional grilled fish.

Genbikei Gorge, on the other hand, offers a different view of nature in Japan. Where Geibikei Gorge is more a calm and serene place, Genbikei Gorge can be a more rough experience. When it rains, the water in this jagged canyon can become a torrent, reminding everyone of the power that nature holds over Japan. There are not boats this time, only a walkway that you can follow which will take you around the best views the gorge has to offer. There will be small pavilions where you can rest, wobbly hang-bridges that you have to navigate, if you are lucky you might also spot some pretty big and funny-looking mushrooms. Once that’s done, you can enjoy some Dango (traditional Japanese sweet) and tea at the nearby snack-shop. They even have a system where you can order Dango from across the gorge, which involves only a rope and a basket, showing you do not need an app for an efficient food-delivery system (take that Uber).

I will leave it at that for now. Again, this is not meant to be a guide or anything of the sort. Rather, I hope that by reading this I have managed to pique your interest in simply going to and enjoying Hiraizumi, maybe even without planning too much in advance! I might add to this in the future but for now thanks for reading.

You can find some of my other content below ->
Interested in working in Japan? Read an introduction to the visa that are available to you
Want to know what’s going on in Japan? I post a weekly news roundup
Maybe you want to do an internship before committing to working full-time? Find out more

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.