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!

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.

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.

Internships (and Summer Jobs) in Japan

Not really, as we are about to find out

If you are from a Western country, and it comes to getting your first working experience, doing an internship might be one of the first things that come to mind. In some cases, certain fields can be so competitive during the hiring process (requiring multiple years of working experience etc.) that people will spend the first year or so of their careers just doing internships until they can finally land that full-time job. Even when they are not necessarily required, we tend to think of internships as great opportunities to get our first working experiences, while companies get cheap workers that do the jobs that no one else will do in return. Especially when thinking about working in a foreign country, one would think that doing an internship or something similar first would be very beneficial, as it lets you not only experience the working environment but also the living conditions before committing to working full-time. 

Internships are not very common in Japan

Unfortunately, in the case of Japan, internships are not widely available. This is not only the case for non-Japanese, even Japanese will rarely do internships before they start working full-time. They are just not a part of the Japanese job market and hiring process. The Japanese ideal is to get hired right out of university, usually, students start hunting for jobs during their third year in university here. The aim is to secure a job offer from a company, who will then hire them as soon as they graduate university, with virtually no time in between to do something like an internship first (the student will be enrolled in university till the end of March, and usually start working by the start of April). That is not to say that internships are non-existent, some companies require their prospective new hires to go through training before they graduate university. But this training will take place after they have already received their job offers. Other companies provide 1-day internships, that are actually more akin to a seminar, where a bigger group of applicants will learn about company culture and workflow. Another form of internships in Japan is paid internships (as in YOU have to pay for it, not you will be paid).

Some opportunities are available for non-Japanese though

From a non-Japanese perspective, if you are receiving money for any kind of work you do while in Japan, you need a visa with a working permit. If you are lucky enough to find a company willing to hire you as an intern, you still need to get a visa first. One possibility would be a Working Holiday visa, as it allows you to engage in any kind of work with only very few restrictions. But there is also a visa reserved specifically for “Internships”. The problem with the “Internship” visa is, that it requires you to be currently enrolled in University, and for the internship to give you credit towards earning your degree. Also, you cannot apply for this visa on your own, it has to be done through your university, who will then most likely search for agencies in Japan, that will look for trustworthy employment opportunities on behalf of their students. Oftentimes, these end up being hotels or Japanese inn (ryokan), which often provide rooms and food for their interns. Knowing that any potential intern will have a place to sleep and food makes the process a lot easier for the universities, as well as the parents of the potential interns. Another short term visa is the so-called “Summer Job” visa, which allows you to stay and work in Japan for 3 months, but this one is also again only available through your university.

If you are interested in doing an internship or summer job in Japan, please feel free to inquire with Astmil Corp. through this Facebook page. Disclaimer: This is the company that I currently work for, so you would most likely be talking to me. I did not write this article to promote our internship program, however. I simply wrote it based on my experiences when I was an exchange student in Japan, thinking that an internship during the spring holidays would be a good idea, only to find out that Japan really does not provide a lot of those. I think I have been fair and objective, but if you think my article is disingenuous or misleading, feel free to point it out to me.

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:


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.