Unlike most other markets who use internal recruiters, a majority of companies in Japan actually pay external recruiters a disproportionately large amount of money to source and hire people for them. There are of course internal recruiters who work for companies, but I am specifically referring to external recruitment agencies that take on several different clients to help them hire.

Recruiters can be invaluable in your search for a job in Japan, whether that’s your first time looking for a job in the country, or if you’re looking for a career switch. There are recruiters that specialize in every industry imaginable, so you’ll be able to find one and ideally several recruiters who can provide different options for you.

The reason recruitment agencies are so prevalent in Japan stems largely from the historical challenges of moving people from company to company. For any of those who are unfamiliar with the concept of lifetime employment, this was essentially the de facto labor practice in Japan post-WW2 and largely remains, albeit starting to crumble slowly. That simply means that employees stay at one job for their entire lives, and in return for their loyalties they get company perks, retirement, and a stable job that they know they can move up the ranks as they get older (age based system not a meritocracy).

Another reason that it’s difficult to hire people in Japan is due to the strict labor laws. It’s expensive and difficult to fire people in Japan. While this may have made sense at some point in the post war era, right now it just makes things tough for the entire labor market. The law is always in the employee’s side. This means that even if Japanese companies wanted to get rid of their poor performing employees, its complicated and cheaper (at least in their eyes) to just keep them round as they suck the life out of the company like treacherous leeches.

All of the reasons above only exacerbate the existing labor shortage in Japan, which highly stems mainly for the declining birth rate and aging population. Low English literacy only makes it worse. Basically his means that companies are dying to hire the right people because there are so few of them, and the ones that are good often don’t want to leave their companies.

This has created a very interesting playing ground for recruitment agencies. Because of the laws of supply and demand, the low supply and high demand or qualified talent, recruiters can charge a lot of money to companies. This is important to note. Sure, it’s a nice time to be a recruiter in Japan, so there’s that to consider. But also, in the case that you have a bad experience with a recruiter (which could happen), sometimes you can get away with contacting the company directly, which would ultimately save the company money as they wouldn’t have to pay the recruitment fees. Keep this in mind, you can always get help from a recruiter, which is what I’m going to breakdown, but you don’t have to always depend on them.

Recruitment in a Nutshell

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Before I became a recruiter in Japan for 4 years and helped over 200 people find jobs across various tech-related industries, I had absolutely zero concept of what a recruitment company did or how they operated when I was applying for jobs. It all seemed hidden in some sort of black box and the only “headunters” that I had ever seen were in cheesy Swedish movies. I wish I would have known. Let me explain how the industry works so you have some context and can better understand their incentives.

Let’s say that Amazon is looking for a marketing person. They will advertise this job posting on their website, look for internal referrals who might be interested in the job, and they will also ask internally if people know anyone that could be suitable. If none of hose options pan out, then more likely than not Amazon is going to turn to a headhunter/recruiter (same thing).

The recruiters will then frantically scour their own existing database of people they have met or spoken to before. They’ll contact them with the job description and pitch them the idea of working at Amazon as a marketing manager. If the job seeker is interested, the recruiter will submit their resume to Amazon and even speak to the hiring manager directly to explain why they think you are a good fit for the job. Badass.

If you successfully get hired into the job, the recruiter will get a certain percentage fee (anywhere from 20-50% of your base salary!) from the company for their work. Usually this $ hits their bank account within 3-6 months.

Here is the most important point to understand: Companies pay recruiters.

Recruiters do not get any financial benefit from the job seekers they are helping. As a job seeker you use a recruiter for free. They will never charge you for anything. In fact, recruiters will often take you out for nice lunches and dinners and pay for it. Take advantage of that.

My point is that recruiters have no incentive to constantly stay in touch with you unless they are 100% confident you are a good fit for the job they have. So if you contact them and they are slow to respond or if you interview for a job they introduced, fail and they never suggest any other jobs – don’t take it personally.

Think about it from their perspective. If you are a recruiter and have 100 people contact you all looking for jobs, are you going to be able to equally help them? No way. There are only so many hours in the day. There are only so many jobs they are qualified for.

It makes more sense for the recruiter to focus and provide good service to a few candidates and put his/her effort into that, rather than spreading themselves super thin, which results in mediocre service.

Knowing all of this, you can use it to your advantage to pull on a few strings.

#1 Gathering Intel

Recruiters spend a lot of their time meeting new clients and getting updates from them about the business and organization. This means they often have direct access not only to HR, but the hiring manager that is responsible for the job you re interested in (your potential boss).

This means that they know the organization structure, what the paint points are of the company and what kind of projects they are working on right now. Sometimes they even know the CEO if they have a strong relationship with the company.

This means that you can get this information too.

All you have to do is ask. And if they cannot answer you, you need to ask the recruiter to get the info. Push them. Remember, they are busy doing “stuff” and you have to get their attention.

Questions you should be asking about every single company the recruiter introduces to you.

-What is the hiring managers name? What kind of person is he/she? Have you met them before?

-Will the company sponsor my visa?

-What’s their biggest pain point right now? What kind of challenges does the company have?

-What is their product/service roadmap?

-What is their yearly revenue?

-How many people are in the company?

-What’s the spoken language internally?

-What is the split of male/female and foreigner/Japanese employee?

Now if you have the answers to these questions, you have a lot of information on the company. In the best-case scenario, all of this information will help you when you apply and interview for the job, as you’ll have a well rounded understanding of what’s going on.

In the worst case, maybe the recruiter cannot get you an interview because the company is not responding to them. If the company is not responding to the recruiter, If the recruiter cannot get feedback for you, it usually means that they don’t have a strong enough relationship with the company.

Of course the hiring manager/HR can be quite busy so it’s not totally the recruiters fault.

But what makes you think that you’ll get a response from the company and do any better than the recruiter?

I mean maybe you could, but usually not.

At this stage if you try and go around the recruiter then you run the risk of damaging your relationship with them.

What would make sense is a dual approach, which I have encouraged to candidates before (yes, really) when I was a recruiter. I’d say, ‘Look, John, I’ve reached out to the hiring manager X number of times but he is not responsive. Why don’t you message him on Linkedin and see if he gets back to you?’

This way both of us are trying to get a hold of the person. If the hiring manager gets back to you then you can find out what is going on. Maybe they don’t like the recruiter, or maybe they have legitimately been busy.

As the recruiter has gotten you this far and has been trying to help you out, I would give back ownership to the recruiter and say something like “Thanks for getting back to me about the job. My recruiter Bob was the one that actually told me about the job opportunity, so he can coordinate the meeting…”

In summary, you can get a lot of great information from recruiters that you wouldn’t get otherwise. That’s why you should always speak to a recruiter when they reach out to you, even if they don’t get you the interview you’ll probably learn something.

 #2 Interview Preparation and Feedback

Recruiters have seen many candidates succeed and fail in interviews.

They know what the manager is looking for. They know if he is friendly, mean or nice. They know if he asks curve ball questions, or if he likes golf. You should know all of these things too, because they are going to help you in the interview. The more you know, the better.

Specifically:

-Ask the recruiter to send you a list of questions previously asked in the interview. Make sure you can answer all of them.

-Ask the recruiter what the “ideal profile” is according to the hiring manager. Ask for honest feedback about whether or not your background fits this, and if it doesn’t, then how you can make up for the gap.

-Ask them about your competition. Are there lots of people interview for this job? What are their backgrounds? Are there five people going to the final rounds already? If so, then you might want to set your expectations low. If the company has been looking for this hire for 8 months already, that should be a red flag. Why is that? Maybe the hiring manager is super picky and doesn’t know what he wants.

Interview advice is actually one of the most valuable things a recruiter can give you. I hear a lot of people who have friends working in X companies and use that to get an “intro” to the company, but they still often times fail. Why is that? Just because you have a friend that works for X company doesn’t mean they will be able to really prepare you for an interview…Your friend interviewed once and got the job, whereas a recruiter has helped dozens of people interview. Think about it.

#3 Getting Constructive Feedback

Sometimes you get crickets after an interview. Sometimes it’s not the recruiters fault, the companies can be incredibly slow. I can attest to this. HR is notoriously bad and that usually stems from the hiring manager also being slow because “they are busy or traveling,” even though they spend most of their time complaining about how they cant hire the right person.

If you’re going to blame anyone, you should blame the hiring manager. But really don’t get into a blame game. Chill out.

Feedback is so key. How else are you going to improve? Even if it’s just a few sentences or a couple of points about what the company though you deserve to hear it.

Tell the recruiter that you don’t care if the feedback is really negative and that you don’t want it filtered or watered down.

I mean, you could have it watered down but then you might be missing something very, very obvious or crucial. You might be missing one thing that if you were to change, could be the difference between getting the job and not in your next. Bite the bullet and take the negative feedback. It’s the only way to improve. 

#4 Get them to Work for You

Don’t just wait around for them to send you job descriptions. There will be crickets for weeks or months, until they send you a nice “hey how are things” catch up mail, by which time you’ve already found another job or been deported from the country.

It’s not enough to just send a recruiter your resume. You need to ask them specifically, “what jobs do you think I could get?” “What companies are you currently working with?” It’s absolutely fine to ask a recruiter to this and I guarantee 99% of people/candidates looking for a job just have one nice conversation with recruiters and don’t follow up. And then the recruiters don’t follow up. And then you get frustrated and complain how recruiters are useless. But remember, they don’t owe you anything. The companies, not you, are paying them.

If you are really actively looking for a job, make yourself known. Keep following up.

Ask for feedback, how you can improve your resume. Ask them what companies might be hiring in the near future.

The more feedback you eat and the more intel of get, the better chances you have of finding something you didn’t expect. If you only spoke to them on the phone, ask to meet them in person. Get their Line/WhatsApp account details. Message them. Get on a first name basis with them.

You have to invest in building a relationship with recruiters. The more they like you, the more they are going to help. While it’s not fair, it’s the truth.

The key here is to be proactive.

One approach you could also take is to find jobs online through your own research. Maybe you search on LinkedIn or Wantedly or whatever job board and come up with a list of 10 companies that are hiring. Rather than applying for the jobs and getting no response (job boards are slow), send that list to the recruiter. “John, I’m interested in these companies. Do you have any connections with them and could you put me in touch?”

You never know what people the recruiter might know. If you are lucky they will be able to connect you to some of them, and if they can’t, then they might know a friend of a friend, which is better than nothing.

Ask them to send you a list of potential clients that could be interesting your background. Don’t even look at the list. Apply for all of them.

#5 Apply for Everything

I was frequently shocked by people who were eagerly looking for a job change but then somehow remained extremely picky and never applied for anything because it wasn’t the perfect job. Just apply for the jobs.

Go to the interview. The worst thing that could happen is that you are rejected. But really, it’s an opportunity to practice interviewing. You have to get rejected sometime in your life. You wont know what its like until it happens. I can’t stress this enough.

Sometimes we need to throw spaghetti at the walls.

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Also, job descriptions are useless. They are usually not very good and created by HR managers who don’t understand the real pain points. Ignore the job description and stop getting bogged down in the details.

It’s interesting to note that anyone I dealt with that had over 10-15 years of experience in the work place knew that luck and opportunity wouldn’t happen unless you took some action, so while they were “set in their ways” to some extent, they were surprisingly easy to deal with.

The most trouble I had was with job seekers was with the younger new grads or people with 1-5 years of experience, who were so worried about job descriptions and finding the perfect fit that they ultimately fell pretty to analysis paralysis and significantly delayed their job hunting process and chances of actually being successful.

Perfectionism leads to stagnation, ironically.

Ok, if you want some numbers, I would estimate that about 30% of the job placements that I made in my recruitment career came from jobs that had no job description.

Candidates took an opportunity to meet the company on a casual basis for a meet and greet. That turned into something valuable.

Sparks flew.

The candidate gave their pitch and explained how they could add value to the company and the company liked them, so they CREATED a job for them. They did not fit them into some slot. Jobs are not slots, they are fluid and they change and are created and destroyed. Sure, there is an approval process for these things, but if you are talking to a decision maker who is in great need of X hire (your skills), then the approval process is quick. Remember this. There are jobs out there that you don’t know about.


As a next step, I would recommend building a relationship with a handful of 4-5 recruiters in Japan that can get you jump-started on your job search. There are independent recruiters out there that you can find, just type in “recruiter” in linkedin and start contacting them. There are also bigger recruitment firms like Michael Page and Randstad that you can contact directly through their websites, or call into their offices asking for a recruiter.

Start having those initial conversations to understand what jobs are out there and use the above guidelines to get most out of it.

Good luck and happy hunting.

 


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