How to Become a Recruiter in Japan
I believe a career in recruitment, whether that’s internal, agency, or otherwise, can be extremely fulfilling. Japan has one of the most interesting and unique recruitment markets in the world, and is full of opportunity for those who are both starting out in their career or have several years of work experience. I’d like to share a bit about my experience as a recruiter in Tokyo and demystify some common misconceptions about the industry.
Like a lot of people in the industry, I kind of just “fell into” it. My main goal after graduation was to come to Japan — after years of studying the culture and language, I just knew I had to be here. That said, my Japanese wasn’t fluent, so my job prospects weren’t too promising. I was accepted into a government program called JET where they send you to teach children in some far flung town in the countryside.
While JET is a reputable program, one of my goals was to build a strong network and I felt that would be easier done in Tokyo. After several interviews at the Boston Career Forum, as well as direct applications, I received a few offers and chose to join W&C right out of college.
At the time, I had a vague idea of what recruitment was. Even after having several conversations with recruiters in Japan, I still didn’t really get it as I had no prior working experience. The abstract concepts and scenarios being detailed to me were hard to grasp, and I couldn’t really imagine what an average day was like. I suppose your first job out of university is always going to be shrouded in some mystery — it’s almost impossible to know exactly what it’s going to be like to work there.
I had a good feeling about the firm I was interviewing with, W&C. I liked everyone I met and they were pretty international, and the clients seemed cool. The CEO and I share the same alma mater, so I probably felt some connection there.I went for it and took the leap, signed the offer and moved to Tokyo the summer after graduation.
The first year was a huge learning curve. I was in the office in the mornings talking to prospective candidates on the phone and LinkedIn, and in the afternoons I’d be out to meet new clients (like Amazon/Spotify/Expedia/Facebook). But I was full of energy and high off the adrenaline. It was exciting meeting global tech companies and helping people find jobs there. Because I was motivated, and the people around me supportive, I didn’t mind staying until 9 or 10 pm some days.
I spent a four years there helping global tech companies and startups hire for the Japanese market. Most of my clients spoke English, so I didn’t have to use much Japanese, although I had studied abroad for one year in Japan so I did use it occasionally in more casual settings. My boss was great. He was there to push me where necessary (get on the phone!), but at the same time gave me a lot of direction and autonomy to make my own decisions. Having a good boss that cares about your career is essential to your success in any company.
The first year I was doing really well, but I worked too hard and inevitably got burnt out. So I took a two week vacation and then came back with a more realistic schedule, prioritizing my life over work. I found that recruitment went in phases. The start of the quarter (it’s a cyclical business) would be very busy, but then would taper off. I would make sure to plan lots of trips and holidays towards the middle and later part of the quarter, and to manage my stress levels throughout. I found that I was able to shut off completely on weekends and still produce great results. I had found a good balance.
And then after the first year, something clicked. Once I had made a few successful placements, got the basic process of it all, and figured out my work life balance, it became even more rewarding! Of course there was a still a lot more to learn; I shifted my focus from “making money” to “continuous learning.” I was promoted to consultant, senior consultant and eventually made my way up to manager where I was responsible for a small team of four.
Five reasons I enjoyed recruitment
If I had to choose just five…
- Autonomy. You are usually free to plan your week, apart from a couple of meetings you have to attend with your team. This means you could experiment. You’re your own boss in many ways. This was a double-edged sword, of course, because if you didn’t plan well then your results would suffer. Your success was in your hands. With great autonomy comes great responsibility!
- Impact. You’re helping two groups of people here; companies to hire, and job candidates to find jobs. The person you hire can literally go on to change the trajectory of the business, and the candidate you help can start a new life thanks to you. I remember when I had introduced the head of Amazon’s Audible (audiobook) business to launch in Japan — it was really motivating to see him start the business, and then I could use their service as a consumer, too!
- Great connections. You’re meeting people every day, many of who will become your friends, future business partners, and part of your extended network. Even when you leave the recruitment industry, you can take this with you wherever you go
- Transferable skills. Sales, marketing, business development, writing, customer support, contract negotiation, relationship building, research, networking and so much more. Many recruiters start their own businesses. Others join companies like Google, Expedia, American Express, Amazon, and Facebook. While most of them continue to do recruitment (“internal” recruitment), some of them moved into a different function. A strong background in HR can set you up to be a CEO.
- Salary. There’s a lot of money to be made in any sales job, depending on how hard/smart you can and are willing to work, as well as the salary structure of the company you’re at. The first year I doubled my salary. The second year I tripled it. And the third year I quadrupled it.
Also, here are 7 things I learned in the recruitment industry.
Why recruiters exist
Recruitment seeks to solve a fundamental problem — how do you hire and retain the best people? Let’s say that Apple wants to enter the Chinese market and setup a branch tomorrow. They need to find a country head to start it up. If it takes Apple 6 months to find that person, what is the opportunity cost of waiting? Well, the country head also has to hire a sales team, partner with distributors and get through legal hurdles. In reality it could take them a year before they start selling their iPhones.
If Apple would have found that hire in 4 months, or 1 month, instead of 6, they could have started selling millions of iPhones, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars. For every second they don’t have the person to do this job, they are losing out on a lot of money. This is the value you can add as recruiter, and this is exactly why companies are willing to pay so much money to recruitment agencies to find people. That’s the client side, and “client” here (Apple) refers to the company that is paying a recruitment company to hire for them.
On the other side, we have candidates. Candidate is just a synonym for job seeker. Why would someone looking for a job use a recruiter rather than just applying for the job directly? That’s simple. First of all, recruiters have specialized knowledge about the company, the job, and the interview process that you couldn’t get access to otherwise. They can manage the interview process as well as your expectations and the clients expectations. They know what skills it takes to actually get the job, and often times can put you directly in touch with the decision makers rather than just dealing with HR.
They know what the market trends are and they can tell you whether or not a company has a good or bad reputation, divulging information about what it’s really like to work there, not just what’s written online. A great recruiter can give you more objective advice about whether it’s actually a good career move based on what you want to do. Good recruiters will help you negotiate your salary and favorable job terms. They will be the difference between you getting the job versus sending your applications to the company job page and never getting a response from HR.
The business model
As an agency recruiter, a company (“client”) will pay you a fee for successfully hiring a candidate (the person looking for a job). You get paid by clients, not the candidates. A very important point to remember. The fee is calculated based on a percentage of the candidates yearly salary. For example, if Amazon hires an engineer with a salary of 8,000,000 yen, then the recruitment company will receive 35% of that yearly salary as your fee = 2,800,000 yen. Now, that doesn’t go into the individual recruiters bank account, but is rather added to your overall “target” for the quarter. Your actual salary will depend on the bonus and incentive system that your company has set up.
Two types of recruiters:
- Internal recruiters, also known as “corporate” recruiters, work inside the employer’s organization and usually collect a paycheck (salary) from the employer who has the jobs open. Their office will typically be on the employer’s premises, and their email and phone will typically be part of the employer’s email and phone system.
- External recruiters, also known as agency recruiters, do not receive a paycheck from the employer who has the open jobs. They work for someone else, a recruiting firm or agency, which issues their paychecks. Some, of course, work for themselves. None are on the payroll of the employer with the open jobs.
There are essentially two areas that all of your activities will be split into, and it should be help to think about it this way — the candidate side (job seeker) and the client side (company).
The model looks something like this:
No day is the same in recruitment. That’s the fun part. The goal is to find the best hires for your clients, so most of your time is spent with that goal in mind. That entails everything from finding the candidates, helping them with interview preparation, negotiating contracts, exchanging feedback with clients, and influencing the hiring process.
You manage several clients, who have several job openings, and you could be helping anywhere from 10-20 people find jobs at any given time. You will spend a significant amount of time understanding the market, meeting candidates, meeting clients, interviewing, screening, negotiating, building relationships.
The candidate side includes but is not limited to the below activities:
- Scouting new candidates on linkedin and other job boards
- Meeting new candidates to discuss potential job opportunities
- Remeeting previous candidates to discuss job opportunities
- Preparing candidates for interviews
- Scheduling interviews for candidates
- Negotiating offers and compensation on behalf of candidates
The client side includes but is not limited to the below activities:
- Finding new clients (business development calls, going to marketing events)
- Attending new client meetings
- Negotiating contracts and fees with clients
- Attending/catching up with existing clients (“account management”)
- Updating clients on the status of a search
- Scheduling interviews on behalf of candidates with the client company
Not to mention, you will have your own internal meetings to deal with like team meetings or catch ups with your boss. Technically, then, you have three main groups of activities to manage — the candidate, client and internal.
What’s the recruitment market like in Japan?
After WWII Japanese companies developed the lifetime employment system which still exists to some degree today. Every year companies round up students right out of school and push them through a soul-killing “job hunting” (shukatsu) process, where they often get jobs at big stable companies and are then employed for life. The employee gets a nice stable job, subsidized housing, and modest salary increases overtime. In return, the employer gets a loyal employee for decades.
The bonus system in Japan is usually annual or biannual, and has traditionally not been based on individual performance, but on company performance. Company profits = everyone gets a bonus. No company profits = no one gets a bonus. In other words, it’s not really merit based, although this has certainly started to change in particular amongst the tech-related companies.
Leaving your job, or changing your job frequently was simply less common in Japan up until the past few years (in particular the 2008 financial crisis shook things up and people realized their jobs weren’t safe, as did many people in the world). Large Japanese companies put employees on a conveyor belt, requiring them to change their functions every couple of years (from HR, to sales, marketing, operations and so forth!). This results in employees who never get really skilled at one area, becoming generalists rather than specialists, further exacerbating the labor shortage, as finding specific skill sets is trickier.
The mentality of “company comes first” rather than “the individual comes first” is deeply ingrained in the psyche’s of middle-aged men that are running Japanese companies — that won’t disappear overnight. Forfeiting your individual rights (work is family) has led to all sorts of issues, namely a sort of self-flagellation in the name of the intangible thing known as “company,” and a ton of overwork. Despite what the labor statistics say, most of the overtime still goes unreported.
In his widely popular, witty and controversial book, Straightjacket Society, Dr. Masao Miyamoto wrote extensively about the inefficiencies and mindless bureaucracy back in the 80’s and 90’s. He describes a “voluntary” company trip that he took to a hot spring (onsen); the weekend trip was work-related and counted as “unpaid overtime.” It consisted of getting madly drunk, watching porn in the hotel room, and singing karaoke songs together (mind you, these are middle-aged bureaucrats spending tax-money and responsible for running the country).
Speaking to several of his colleagues, Miyamoto realized that, like him, most of them didn’t actually want to be there. They would have rather spent the weekend with their families, but social-pressure and the need to appease bosses wouldn’t allow it. This highly group-oriented system worked for Japan during a time of economic-catch up post war, but from even before Miyamoto’s time, started to lose its edge.
The system further disintegrated after the 2009 financial crisis when more and more people were laid off, crushing the long held belief that a company will have your back for life. Miyamoto was highly critical of the group-think mentality, but he didn’t tout Western individualism to be the silver-bullet. Like most things in life, he believed that there was likely a middle path; teamwork and respect for the elders espoused by Japanese, mixed in with a sense of individuality and freedom of expression from the West.
The labor laws in Japan are notoriously strict; even amidst lay-offs, the law is on the side of employee, which means it’s very difficult to fire people. The expression “to get fired” translates to “クビになる,” which literally means to get necked. This has direct origins from the 17th century Edo Period practice of beheading criminals or samurai who betrayed the clan. The structural, legal and cultural barriers around firing makes labor movement slow and less liquid. Everybody loses.
One solution Japanese companies have taken is to hire more contract workers on a yearly basis (rather than permanent employees), thus giving both sides more flexibility to go their separate ways. Google Japan, for example, hires almost all of its employees in contract positions. This approach has worked to an extent — it’s a good, incremental push in the right direction. Prime Minister Abe’s goal to increase female participation in the work force seems to be making strides. Individually this is not enough to address Japan’s labor shortage or rewind Japan’s demographic time bomb, but it’s addressing one piece of the puzzle.
In 2013 there were over 3,000 registered recruitment agencies in Japan. Five years later, the number has more than doubled to over 7,000 firms. There is a severe labor shortage in Japan, an increase in foreign investment, and a growing need for high quality recruiters. Since many of the recruitment agencies work with international companies, it’s a job that you can do with relatively little to no Japanese language ability. For someone looking to move to Japan, it’s a great choice.
The salaries for sales, marketing, and engineering jobs within foreign tech companies in Japan are continuing to rise because of the labor shortage (low supply of bilingual, skilled talent and high demand). Compared to 5 years ago, companies like Amazon, Google, and Expedia are more willing to pay top dollar in Japan. This was the sector I was focused on, and it was exciting to work with companies that I was actually familiar with as a consumer.
From English Teaching to Recruitment
There are plenty of ex-JET and English teachers who moved into recruitment, my ex-boss being one of them (who now runs two startups in Tokyo). Many have excelled and made a name for themselves, doubling, tripling and even quadrupling their salaries from 4 million to 10 million yen and above.
A quick search on LinkedIn for the query “recruiter” and “JET” will bring up several results of teachers who moved from English teaching to recruitment, and from there onwards to other industries. This quick search can serve as a starting point to give you some ideas of the sorts of career possibilities and transitions that you could take — but you don’t have to limit yourself to that, of course. Since recruitment is at the core a sales and marketing job, moving into a client-facing role where you financial targets and goals to achieve can set you up for success in a range of industries. It’s a real job.
Ultimately, it’s a very different type of job than English teaching. Your success will come down to your willingness to learn, mental toughness, and interpersonal skills. There are also lots of factors to consider, like the type of firm/industry/your personality/experience level/your boss, and so forth.
But the point is, the opportunity is there. Some English teachers fail, some do exceptionally well. For many, the step into recruitment provides a way to learn professional communication skills, save money, pay off student loans, learn about a specific industry in depth, and even gain management experience.
How do you find a good recruitment firm?
Everyone will have a different style and values, so determine what is right for you. Then use this as a lens to assess different recruitment companies during the interview process. I would always give companies the benefit of the doubt when interview, so if you find one aspect of the job you don’t like through the interview, don’t cancel the rest of your interviews. It’s almost always worth seeing out the interview process to the end to get a fuller picture of the company, not to mention for interview practice!
Here is a checklist of areas that you should assess:
- Culture: What are the values of the company? What kind of people do they have working there now? Do people work as a team, or is it individual-based? Who is the CEO, and what are their goals for the company? How fast is decision making? Is the company fast-growing or is it closer to a “lifestyle” business? Is it a Japanese recruitment firm or foreign firm?
- KPI’s: Key Performance Indicators. These are the metrics that the company/manager will use to assess your performance. You will live and breathe these, so it’s important that you are crystal clear on these. If you have to make 50 calls per day, is that the sort of environment you want to be in? Find out what these are and what the expectations are for consultants. KPI’s could include the number of resumes you sent per week, the number of candidates met face to face, the number of job interviews per week, and the number of clients you’ve met.
- Company Size: Larger recruitment companies have better training programs, smaller ones don’t — although there are exceptions. I would ask the recruitment company exactly what their program looks like and even request a schedule to see how in depth it looks. If they say they don’t have one and it’s more “on the job training (OTJ)”, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you already know how the recruitment industry works and are comfortable stepping into that sort of environment. Also, ask them “how big is your database?” A company with a small database of candidates is going to make it really tough for you.
- Industry: Are you passionate about the pharmaceutical industry? Finance? E-commerce? IT? Startups? Fashion? How much Japanese do you need to use? Is it easy to switch industries and teams within the recruitment company once joined? Often times it’s not, especially if it’s a smaller company. You can narrow down your search of recruitment agencies based on the industries they cover, although this information isn’t always accessible online and the specific openings are going to depend often on timing.
- Function. Similar to industry, the function you focus on is going to heavily influence the sort of network you build as well as the types of people you’ll talk to on a daily basis — this can also reflect on your own personality. For example, I was working in mostly sales/marketing recruitment, so a majority of the people I met were easy going and good communicators. This was a great fit for my personality because although I’m personally more interested in marketing and have done some sales work in part time jobs. However, if you’re working with engineers or operations/finance for example this might (not always) require you to take a different approach to everything from how you communicate to how you search for people.
- The Team: Who will you be working with everyday? If you were stuck on a plane with these people for 12 hours, would you gouge your eyes out? You can do some digging on LinkedIn to see who works at the company and their backgrounds. I recommend spending as much time with the team and people in the company before making a decision to join as you’ll often learn more about the business from informal meetings than you will in a stuffy interview room.
- Your Boss: Your direct manager will make or break your success in recruitment. Do not underestimate this. If they are supportive and provide hands-on training, you can shine. If not, then you will become another statistic — most people leave their jobs because they’re unhappy with their bosses. You want to ask them what their management style is, their best and worst hire, what they think makes someone successful on the job, how their management style has evolved, and make sure to spend at minimum 2-3 hours with them to get to know them.
- Compensation package/salary: What is the base and bonus structure? How is the bonus determined? Is it a quarterly bonus, bi annual, yearly bonus? What is the expectation in the first 3 months? What is the worst case and best case salary scenarios for a 1st year hire in the company? Is it a team-based bonus pool, a draw-system, or 100% commission? If you are starting out, I suggest aiming for a company that has a relatively generous base salary. If you are more confident in your existing network/abilities, then you can target a higher bonus/commission structure (great risk, higher reward).
You won’t be able to assess most of these criteria until you actually meet the company, but you should start gathering information beforehand to the best of your ability.
When I first interviewed for recruitment jobs in Japan the advice I read was spread across online forums, shrouded in negativity on reddit, and was questionable at best. There are a lot of bad recruitment firms — no doubt. But there are also dozens of progressive recruitment companies.
The worst recruitment firms have aggressive, cut-throat environments. They have high targets, toxic workplaces. Or, maybe they have people who simply don’t care and the pace is extremely slow. You can find out pretty quickly if this is the case by being proactive and doing a bit of research.
Most people are pushed through the interview process and don’t know the right questions to ask. Here are some tips and questions to ask to avoid the bad apples:
- What are my probation targets (the first three months on the job?). How are they going to measure your performance? Do you have to make 100 phone calls a day? That would suck. Request a detailed breakdown of the tasks that you actually have to do.
- Your bosses management style. If you really click with your boss, a lot of the rest will take care of yourself. If you don’t, you’ll be miserable. Ask him/her what their management style is. Ask them what they do to help people who are underperforming. Ask them to share their most successful hire.
- Transparency. If they are not upfront about the salary structure and bonus structure, this is a red flag. What are they hiding?
Another way to do your due diligence is to simply speak to people who have worked at the company before. You can easily find people on Linkedin. Reach out to them, ask them how it was working there, why they left, and get multiple perspectives.
Lastly, spend time with the interviewers, not just an hour with your prospective boss. Really get to know them. Be honest to yourself about your meetings with people; if you had a bad gut feeling about someone, follow that instinct. The process goes something like this:
Gather information about company → Assess information → Assess gut feelings → Follow up on gut feeling by gather more information → Confirm/deny whether your gut feeling was accurate → Repeat process.
Talk to them again, clarify big questions you have. Don’t get too flattered because a company offers you and feel pressured to accept. It’s your career.
The compensation in recruitment is going differ in structure from firm to firm. You’ll find that the larger recruitment firms usually have a more stable, reasonable base salary and good bonuses. The small, boutique firms, though, can often have structures with much lower bases but high incentive bonuses. In other words, your overall earning potential is higher.
But in a smaller firm you’ll also usually have to bring your own network and resources will be more limited, so achieving that upper earnings potential might pose a much higher barrier. The general rule of thumb is that if you have zero experience in the recruitment industry in Japan, or any work experience at all, it’s best to start with a firm that has a guaranteed base salary so you don’t have to worry about putting food on the table. It consists of the following:
- A guaranteed base salary
- Bonus (quarterly/bi annually/yearly) depending on your performance and/or team/company performance
- Perks (expense account, paid-for trips, prizes and free stuff)
- Commuting expense (almost always guaranteed)
- Health insurance (kokumin hoken, deducted from monthly salary and required by law)
- Japanese Pension (nenkin, deducted from monthly salary)
Every company will have a different bonus scheme/incentive scheme, so it’s your job to find out exactly how much your earning potential is your first year. More often than not, you will not make a bonus your first 6 months as you’ll be on “probation,” or a test/trial period with the company. It’s standard to have a clear bonus system where you’ll be able to understand how much you would make exactly if you hit your targets. Make sure you are 100% clear on that before joining.
Getting paid in whole or in part on a commission basis (or bonus, same thing) means that your performance and success on the job will have a direct impact on your paycheck. Being paid using a commission structure gives you control over how much you earn during a specific period. In many cases it offers you unlimited earning potential based on how good you are at what you do and how successful you are. It’s important to remember that the fee that a recruiter charges for a placement isn’t exactly the same as the amount of money a recruiter earns for making that placement (if they work for a recruiting firm). If you work for a corporate recruitment firm, your fees will count towards your monthly or quarterly revenue target, and your bonus or incentive payment will be based on your performance against that target, just like any other sales job.
You’ll encounter companies who have one of three systems: 1) a very clear bonus system (make X revenue and make X bonus), 2) a discretionary bonus, or 3) a draw system.
Typical perks in recruitment include an expense account, which means that you will be given a stipend every month that you can use to take out candidates and clients. Wining and dining. Since you’ll be out and about meeting people for drinks and dinners, you will be the one paying for them. You simply save your receipts and are reimbursed at the end of the month, and it’s a great way to eat nice dinners every day…virtually for free.
Some companies allow you a specific number like 30,000 yen, increasing the limit once you’re promoted. You don’t typically get any money up front and it’s just a matter of being reimbursed, so keep this in mind for your own budgeting purposes. Other firms are a lot more generous, though, and simply say “keep your expenses within reasonable limits.” My first and second years of recruitment I would spend 30,000 to 40,000 yen in expenses per month, and once I became a manager these expenses doubled and tripled as I was engaging with more senior clients, candidates, and had to take out entire teams for celebrations and so forth.
Companies doing business in Japan typically expense the full amount of your daily commute, and some even will pay a portion of your rent if you live extremely close to the office. Other perks include trips, holidays, and incentive prizes that you might win during your time as a recruiter. It’s not a huge deciding factor but it’s nice to get free stuff from your company.
So, is recruitment for you?
Recruitment as an industry (internal included) has one of the highest turnover rates, meaning that many people leave after a short time, usually within 6 months to one 1 year. It’s an unfortunate statistic but one that can be avoided if you take the time to properly assess the culture of each recruitment firm you’re applying for as well as understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into (as it will differ from company to company!). All this is a bit ironic because you would think recruitment companies would be good at hiring. Case in point, hiring is tough.
But why is it so tough? They say that recruitment is the business of rejection. You are always getting rejected by someone — whether that’s a potential client, or a prospective employee who doesn’t want to talk to you, or someone failing an interview. Everyone fears rejection to some degree, and that’s ok, we’re only human.
More important is your ability to bounce back from failure — in other words, your resilience. If you don’t have tough skin, you’ll certainly build it in the process. If you want to gauge your level resilience and your fit for recruitment right now, a good measure is to look at other areas of your life which required tenacity. Have you ever had to work hard over a long period of time? It could be anything — running a marathon, playing piano, competitive team sports, weekly volunteer work, dance, you name it. If you’ve been able to spend a big chunk of time committing to an activity while juggling other parts of life, then you probably have at least the basic mental toughness to get through tough times during recruitment.
A List of Recruitment Firms:
- Korn Ferry
- Heidrick and Struggles
- Egon Zehnder
- Spencer Stuart
Large Contingency Recruitment Firms
- Robert Walters
- Michael Page
Small/Midsize Recruitment Firms
- Morgan McKinley
- Wahl & Case
- Optia Partners
- Robert Half
- East West Consulting
- Robert Walters
Online Recruitment Platforms
If you’re serious about getting a job in the recruitment industry in Japan you can find more in my book: How to Become a Recruiter in Japan. I cover in depth interview strategy, tips to avoid common pitfalls, and salary negotiation tactics. I also provide a 1-1 consulting service to discuss your job search process in Japan. You can find out more here.
My name is Misha and I’m a Tokyo-based ex-recruiter, author and blogger. In the past 5 years I’ve helped companies like Amazon, Facebook and Netflix build their hiring strategies, started (and shut down) my own company, learned Japanese, and quit my job. My goal is to share what I’ve learned in hopes of providing something useful to those around me. Follow me on Quora and LinkedIn.