Is moving to Japan a good Idea?
Great place to live, not a great place to work. That said it’s probably a better idea to move here today compared to 20 years ago. There’s a lot more support for foreigners, jobs, and people are more accustomed to dealing with non Japanese people.
For example last year the Japanese government finally announced their desire to actually help keep the massive droves of foreign students in Japan. You’d think that they’d want the extra work moving into the labor force, but they didn’t actually make it an explicit goal to hire more foreign-graduates from Japanese universities until quite recently. I think it’s a good step.
My friend David wrote a book recently about the ins and outs of moving to Japan. He spent a long time studying Japanese and studied abroad as well, but wasn’t able to get a non-English teaching job in Japan out of college. He ended up starting his career in the US in marketing, but continued to study the language and kept ties to Japan. Eventually he was able to land a solid job in Japan, but clearly not without some effort.
It might not be easy to find the type of job you want. In particular working for a traditional Japanese company is probably a sure road to overwork and unnecessary stress for little pay. If you can find a good job (flexible, progressive, preferably foreign) then you get the best of both worlds (Japan’s life style + good work life balance).
Living in Japan is a Choice…and There Are Trade-Offs
One day I was making one of my regular visits to the convenient store in Tokyo. They are just so darn convenient that I find myself mindlessly walking in sometimes just to see if they have anything new in stock.
However, this time I was just trying to get a snack.
I made my way to the refrigerated section. Boiled quail eggs, katsu and rice, salmon onigiri, egg sandwiches, and spaghetti bolognese that I never buy because it stains the sides of my mouth too red.
I grab a “cold potato and tomato mix salad” that’s sprinkled with some green herbs. It looks healthy and filling.
But it’s not just a salad. It’s a new salad that I hadn’t tired before, so there is a hint of novelty that pulls me to reach for it.
After some more wandering around the shop to make sure I didn’t miss out on any awesome goodies, I finally make my way to the cash register.
The cashier has quick hands, scanning barcodes and exchanging money. He looks tired but his stance is unusually straight and somehow firm. He stands straight at attention like I was the lieutenant and he was an overly-enthusiastic cadet.
I don’t want a cold salad, so I ask him to warm it up for me.
They have microwaves behind the register at all of the convenient stores. My request is a pretty common one.
He picks up the salad, looks at it for a second, and with an unsettling matter-of-factness shoots my request down.
“Sorry, I can’t warm it up for you.”
“It’s a cold salad.”
Yes. That’s why I would like to warm it up.
“No, it’s a cold salad, so, it’s supposed to be cold. I’m not allowed to warm it up for you.”
Experience told me to stop the conversation right there.
I’ve apparently requested something that is going against protocol — breaking some cardinal rule of the salad’s temperature.
My option here would be to A) viciously battle this out with him, possibly involving the manager or B) walk away and thank him nicely. People were backing up behind me so I didn’t want to keep them waiting.
Perhaps the convenient store didn’t want to be liable for “altering” the food in any way and thus leaving them open to lawsuits in case I got sick. Oh, what terrible illness could befall me were I to eat a heated salad…
But I didn’t have a microwave at my apartment at the time, so it made this whole experience at the convenient store rather inconvenient. In most places like the US they’d throw it in with no problem.
Customer service in Japan is great, as long as you define ‘service’ within a narrow box.
There have been real estate agents who wouldn’t let me rent apartments, restaurants that wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t Japanese, and conversations that never happened because of the language barrier. There were cold salads that were never warmed up.
There are all of these inflexible rules and communication hurdles that you will certainly experience in Japan. Those issues don’t bother me so much. It’s all about trade-offs. Yes, you have all these rules and yes things might be a little bit more expensive and so on and so forth. It might be hard to find friends especially if you don’t speak the language.
But all things considered, the benefits far outweigh the costs. To date I have not found a country that has been able to provide the standard of living and level of personal connection like Japan does.
Teaching English and Beyond
There are tons of companies in Japan who need English teachers. Companies are getting all sorts of pressure from the government to improve their English. They have been for some time…but I suppose the Olympics or something has turned the heat up!
If you come here and find a flexible job at, say, Berlitz or ECC, then you can brand yourself as an English teacher + expert in some niche. That way you can pick up side gigs that probably pay more than your full time job. You can charge a premium and make a much better living, too.
For example, you could be an English teacher specifically for people who want go give business presentations. Setup a wordpress website, make a business card, start going to events and market yourself. My friend Tony (Tonari no Tony) makes fun Youtube videos teaching English and is doing pretty well.
Or maybe you brand yourself as an English teacher that helps prepare people for their trips abroad. Plenty of Japanese people would love to go abroad but are nervous because of poor language skills — help them through this fear and give them the right vocab and role play scenarios they’d encounter. It’s an actual problem, and there’s a market there.
Or, maybe you focus on something even more niche. Like how to date foreign women (or foreign men) as a Japanese person. Provide a bit of a lesson on basic manners, dating tips, common cross-cultural issues they might encounter. I guess you have to know something about this yourself :). This is more than just an English lesson of course, and moves more towards counseling and communication — but after all, communicating is the goal in all these scenarios, right?
Plenty of Options
I know people who have done the following to get to Japan:
- Transferred as expats with their current companies. From there they found other jobs locally.
- Those who started as English teachers went on to start careers in sales, graphic design, web development, and marketing with little or no Japanese
- A freelancer who found a Japanese business partner and started a business(with upfront capital of $4–5k USD), where they were able to secure a 1 year visa and then get it extended from there
- Foreigners who became translators, video game testers
- A foreigner who started e-commerce businesses exporting anime merchandise
Generally speaking once you are “in” the country with a 1 year visa, it’s a lot easier to look around for other work. Depending on your skill set and work experience would make this a mini goal. People will always respond with “language is a huge barrier.” While I do agree that things will be easier with the language — like in any country — this should by no means deter you from chasing your dreams.
There are plenty of people in Tokyo who have made it successfully into a range of careers. Some of them speak Japanese, some of them didn’t speak a word when they got here. Don’t let other people tell you otherwise.
How is this possible? Well, there are companies in Tokyo who run APAC marketing and overseas marketing from Tokyo. Meaning that you won’t be in charge of Japan as a market, but you’d be based here. While APAC HQ is typically Singapore, there are companies who base their regional offices in Japan. Google has some regional products they run out of Tokyo.
There are also companies who are marketing primarily towards foreigners living in Japan, so if you speak English and understand the market trends w/ a specific skill set to bring to the table, that can qualify you without language skills. Gogonihon is one example. Of course if you have technical skills like web or app development then this puts you in a different category.
Lastly, recruitment is another career to seriously consider — it can be extremely lucrative. There are over 3,000 registered recruitment firms in Tokyo and many of them deal with non-Japanese clients, so the language is not a necessity.
Oh, and did I mention Japan has a severe labor shortage? There are lots of jobs. If failure is not an option and you are determined to come to Japan, my suggestion would be to get a working-holiday visa and come here for a few months. Network, meet people, apply for jobs. You’ll be much more likely to get an interview if you’re physically here. You’re also more likely to bump into the “right” people. In the worst case scenario, you can become an English teacher, make your way up, and then start a side hustle.
Beware of the Black Companies
Companies with notoriously long hours are referred to as “black kigyou” (ブラック企業), which means “black company.” When I first heard the term I thought that it was some sort of racial slur, but it just means that the company has dark, or sketchy labor practices.
Japan released a list of “black companies” that currently includes about 300 of the worst. They update this list every year.
The top 11 are:
1.Dentsu Inc (株式会社電通): Advertising Company
2.Ajis Co Ltd (株式会社エイジス): Outsourcing Company
3.Don Quijote (ドン・キホーテ)：Discount Store Company
4.Print Pac (株式会社プリントパック): Printing Company
5.Kansai Electric Power Company Inc (関西電力株式会社): Electric Utility
6.Sagawa Express (佐川急便株式会社):Transportation Company
7.Sato Restaurant Systems Co Ltd (サトレストランシステムズ株式会社): Restaurant Groups
8.Ninna Temple (宗教法人・仁和寺): Temple in Kyoto
9.Disgrande Nursing Care (ディスグランデ介護株式会社): Nursing Homes
10.Japan Post Network (日本郵便株式会社): Post Offices
11.DWE JAPAN (DWE JAPAN株式会社): Restaurant Groups
Ad agencies consistently seem to be some of the worst offenders. This has always been known in Japan but got publicized a few months ago after a girl working at Dentsu (Japan’s biggest ad agency) committed suicide.
In 4 years of recruitment I have noticed a few companies pop up that seemed to work people to death:
Hikari Tsushin, McKinsey (most consulting firms are ridiculous but the only difference here is that people willingly join knowing it’s going to be tough), Japan Post, and Many retail companies – fashion and electronics stores in particular (Louis Vuitton and Yodobashi Camera, specifically)
Where you don’t see this as much is in foreign tech companies that have come into Japan…except for one’s that have become “very Japanese.” This is often an inevitable outcome.
When in Rome do as the Romans do. Amazon Japan is a good example of this. There are large pockets of the company which are even worse than their US counterparts, and unfortunately they’ve gained the reputation of being pretty tough on their employees. Amazon has been in Japan since the year 2000 so they’ve had plenty of time to assimilate to the local labor practices…This also goes for the foreign ad agency landscape. You would think that foreign ad agencies and foreign tech companies would be more Westernized and take best practices from overseas. Not so.
Many of the small ad agencies have to partner with Dentsu because they are a behemoth that controls most of the ad spend in Japan, as well as clients. Facebook had to partner with Dentsu when the entered and Spotify with Hakuhodo. No company can get away from it.
So they have no choice but to work with them. And the Dentsu guys are very demanding, so if you have Dentsu as a partner then you’ll be kissing ass and taking phone calls at 2am, and forced to drink with them 2–3 times a week. As is the custom. Compulsory schmoozing.
The sad part is that these large players like Dentsu and brands with poor hiring practices hold many of the jobs that new grads want. And Japanese kids think that they need to work there in order to have a good career (whatever that means), or from some pressure from their parents.
I’m hopeful that eventually this mindset will shift once we get more Japanese role models like Taizo Son and entrepreneurs who are creating great products and great places to work.
No Japanese Language Skills?
The truth is most jobs will require you to have some grasp of Japanese language. Most, but not all. If you’re a designer, developer, animator, then as long as you’re good, it doesn’t matter much. In fact, that applies to any profession. If you are great at what you do — a top marketing, sales, engineering– then companies will make room for you. Statistically speaking, though, 99% of people reading this won’t fit into that category, so you’re going to have to be more creative if you want to work in Japan. Look at it as a journey.
I got hired as a recruiter in Japan and despite having studied Japanese, they didn’t really care about my language ability. I barely had to use the language on a daily basis. I got lucky. But, that said, there are lots of recruitment companies in Japan and many of them focus on hiring for international firms. For example, you could be helping Amazon find a bilingual marketing manager for their new 4 product launch. The hiring managers and candidates (job seekers) likely all speak English.
However, many nuances are associated with Japanese business, so if you speak zero Japanese, then this will naturally make it harder for you to relate to some of your clients and communicate with them effectively.
On the other hand, if you want to use your existing Japanese (no matter how limited), then it’s an opportunity to learn proper business manners, how to negotiate, and market yourself in a different language. A skill arguably more important than the language used is learning about Japanese business practices (which you’d have to pick up after spending a bit of time here).
You will be faced with critical, practical questions that you didn’t even know existed, such as “where should I stand in an elevator?” and “what happens when I am about to hand my business card to someone and drop my business card on the floor? Should I pick up the card?”
Yes, in Japan, there’s a right and wrong way to stand in the elevator, and people do care about these seemingly minute details. Not knowing the answers to these questions could dock you points at the least, or cost you business deals at worst.
Micro Management, Work Culture, and Labor Laws
Many Japanese firms are notorious for taking a classic carrot-stick approach and micromanaging employees. Rakuten, the largest e-commerce company in Japan and competitor to Amazon, is a great example. They set targets/KPIs for their sales teams and have an extremely rigid top-down management approach, bosses are quite literally yelling at people in the office and making them pick up phones.
Unfortunately, many Japanese employees have become accustomed to this approach, so when they move from a Japanese tech company to a foreign tech company, there’s usually a big gap in expectations from both sides. I’ve had the experience of on boarding and managing Japanese employees on my team and while they are extremely loyal, there’s a lot more hand-holding you have to do.
Employees really like to spend time with each other in Japan — or at least, that’s how its been for a while. In the US when the clock strikes 530pm people go pick up their kids and spend time with their families, or perhaps do an extracurricular activity. In Japan building that sense of community with the company is very important, so you spend a lot of time drinking, socializing etc. with your teammates after hours (karaoke, drinks, baseball games etc.). While it’s cliche, a lot of the business deals get done after hours — it’s very Mad Men-esque in certain ways. That said, of course a lot of companies like Amazon Japan are metrics-based like HQ, but often you still have a sense of family and a pressure to spend time with colleagues (the downside, if you don’t, is perhaps you’re colleagues won’t help you as much in times of need)
Labor laws in Japan are very, very strict, and the law is on the side of the employee — this makes it difficult to fire people, and certainly doesn’t help with stagnating companies. Let’s say you are fired, though. For savvy employees, if you wanted to go down the route of demanding a higher severance package, it’s quite likely that you’d win in a court and could secure a pretty big pay out (although most people don’t have the effort to go down that route).
I recommend listening to Tim Romero’s podcast, Disrupting Japan. He interviews both Japanese founders and foreign CEOs in Japan, and often dives pretty deep into their corporate cultures. You’ll find there are some commonalities but it also is starting to diverge now as Japan is slowly opening up to different management styles (or being forced to, because of the labor shortage)
The Tech Scene in Japan
There’s a big tech and startup scene in Tokyo that you don’t hear about much in the US. Most of the businesses are for the local non-English speaking market, but this is starting to change. The recent IPO of C2C sharing app Mercari (the Japanese eBay) was a big win for Japan and I’m sure we’ll start to see more follow in their footsteps.
If someone doesn’t have a history in Japan and just says, “Okay, I’m going to start a company in Tokyo,” that’s probably not good advice. But for someone that has history in Japan or has a knowledgeable partner, Japan is a good place to start, specifically Tokyo for a number of reasons.
In order to have a good startup environment, you need money and a big enough concentration of people. You have one-fourth of the population of Japan based in the greater Tokyo area, and most of the big Japanese companies have some sort of headquarters in Tokyo. Public transportation is amazing and you can knock out lots of meetings in one day. It’s an efficient place to do business, there’s lots of people and big companies/potential investors.
It’s difficult to hire and fire, which makes assembling an all-star team difficult in Japan. But if you do have a great idea and get a solid team together, there’s basically no competition. Maybe there’s one other player that comes up or a big company that does the same thing, but in general, they’re very slow moving. Once you get that team together, the probability of success is much higher.
Tech Meetups in Japan
- Ad Tech Tokyo
- Slush Asia
- Tokyo Tech Festival
- Bars in Roppongi
Lifetime Employment Mentality
Lifetime employment is a relic of Japanese conglomerates who provide a job for life, stable salary, social network, and subsidized housing all in exchange for the lifelong commitment of “salary men.” The mentality is changing in Japan.
After the global financial crisis in 2008/09 many Japanese people lost their jobs and crushed the perception of a safe, cushy job that you could depend on. In fact now only about 9% of Japanese companies have retained a lifetime employment system.
With that said, changing your job in Japan is generally no longer seen as “bad.” I’m not sure if it was ever really considered bad, rather, if you were to leave a company people would question your motives as there isn’t an incentive to leave such as a stable environment. However, job “hopping” is not anywhere near as prevalent as it is in the U.S. Changing your job every 2-3 years is generally frowned upon. If you are within a high tech industry and highly specialized, or working for a startup, then it’s OK but still not really common.
Risk taking in general is still taboo but also changing with the rise of foreign startups and venture capital investment in Japan. One of these days Tokyo should make it on the top 10 or 15 list of hottest startup capitals…maybe.
Rakuten is the largest ecommerce site in Japan after Amazon. They’re going through a global rebranding as well as a massive hiring spree. They are hiring tons of foreigners and trying to make the company more global to compete with Amazon and about a hundred other companies. You should definitely look into them.
The CEO, Mikitani-san, has a good name in Japan. He’s known for being rebellious and for his globalization initiatives to take Rakuten overseas. It’s a massive company here in Tokyo and they’re doing well, at least in Japan.
Benefits are good. They have free/cheap lunches, a daycare center for kids, and a beautiful office. Pay is decent. The training is OK but not great. Everyone gets a cool nickname on their badge..Mikitani is Mickey. Tanaka is Ted. Or whatever you choose.
I would compare them to where Yahoo was a few years ago. Yahoo had failed to capture the search market to Google. They struggled to compete in other products lines so they acquired a bunch of companies, launched new products and hired Marissa Meyer. They started really well but ultimately she couldn’t figure things out, and they were bought out and she quit this year.
Yahoo worked because of great timing at the dawn of the internet age. Rakuten worked because of great timing in the dawn of the e-commerce age in Japan. Rakuten is similar in that they really can’t compete with Amazon in the same way Yahoo can’t compete with Google. I think that ship has sailed.
Rakuten is struggling to find their place in the tech ecosystem and I would describe them as scattered and disorganized. They’re trying to figure out how to merge many of their departments as they are very silo’d. There are pockets of the company which are more international in Japan but largely it’s still a Japanese company. This means it’s hard to get fired and they will promote you based on age — which can be a good thing, depending on who you ask.
All that said, I’m just being critical because I know their business, have helped them hire people (during my time as a recruiter) and have managed people who used to work there. Generally speaking I think it’s a great company to join in Japan if it’s your first time in the country. You’ll get the name brand, perks and experience of dealing with a “global” company that’s really more Japanese. It will be easy to spring board to another tech company (if you want to).
It also depends on what department you are working in. If you are working in the CEO’s office then you get to see a lot of the action. It’s largely Mickey’s company though and he calls the shots. If you work in other departments or managing one of their acquisitions the style could be really hands-off, but you’ll find that if you have expertise in your field you’ll probably be ahead of the curve. Many new grads move up the ranks from e-commerce consultants to other roles, and often lack the real expertise.
All in all, it’s a good company. You might will love parts of it and be frustrated with others, like everyone is when they first get here. Fortunately there is a strong network of expats here that you can tap into and Rakuten could give you a strong support network as well. Their job site here: https://rakuten.careers/
Don’t Get Complacent
Some people come to Japan and their careers flourish. They do things they would never be able to do in their home country, just because they’re ‘different.’ More promotions, more women, and a get out of jail free card in certain social situations. But that sort of environment can suck you in. It can make you … well, not a better person. It’s also easy to be find your little nook and get comfortable.
Let me quote my former boss, Romen.
…there are many benefits of being a foreigner here both socially and professionally. Generally there is less aggressive competition that’s in your face and the pride and despair that you see in western cultures as a result of success and failure is less prevalent here so being a risk taker alone in Japan can get you far I think just because you are a minority. You can also get caught in a trap, never never land and act like a 25 year old indefinitely. It’s dangerous because it is more acceptable to behave in a promiscuous manner here which feeds a lot of foreigners here for life.
I like that part about being 25 forever. There are people who might like that. It’s fun for a while, but eventually you have to grow up. I suppose if you’re already mature and ‘can handle it,’ then Japan could be fun. It’ll make you feel young again.
Job Search Sites
Here are some great sites to get your started in Japan.
- Wantedly → This is a Japanese site that takes a more ‘casual’ approach to job hunting. You can message companies directly and request a call or meeting in their office to hang out with the team for a few hours. It’s not really in an interview style and quite easy to get your foot in the door. If the chemistry is there then the next step would be formal interviews.
- Justa → They are geared mostly towards foreign/Japanese startup companies based in Tokyo. 70% of the jobs are more tech/dev related but there are some sales/marketing roles too.
- GaijinPot → They have a lot of jobs for non-Japanese speakers that generally fall into 3 categories: recruitment, teaching or translation
- Bizreach → This one is harder to navigate because it’s all in Japanese, but just translate the page using google translate and sign up. Apart from LinkedIn Japan, it’s one of the top sites for finding mid level jobs and upwards across various industries.
- WorkshiftSolutions → This is a freelance site that has the most registered non-Japanese people in Japan. It’s a good place to test the waters and pick up some projects that could potentially turn into longer term/perm jobs.
Random Tips About Japan
- Japan has a residence tax that you have to pay yearly. The price depends on where you’re living, but it comes to around 10% of your income. However, you don’t have to pay it the first year you’re here, so it’s easy to forget the following year. It doesn’t go into effect until the second year of living in Japan so be careful not to forget to factor this into your budgeting.
- If you’re working for a company as a full time employee and making under 20m yen per year, they will file your taxes for you, so you don’t have to do anything. However, as a US citizen you still have to file in the US, so don’t forget to do this. H&R block is the easiest as they have some competent international accountants that can do it for like $100, and what I personally use.
- When you go furniture shopping, if you’re price conscious you can get a lot of free stuff at Sayonara Sales. Plenty of foreigners leave Japan and basically give away their stuff for free or at a discounted price. I got my washing machine for like $50 here and delivered for $20. Not bad.
- If you can, I would ask for your company to pay your rent directly and deduct it from your monthly income. This would lower your tax burden, as your taxable income base would be less.
- Traditionally in Japan you have to pay some upfront costs when moving into a new apartment. This includes realtor fees, key money, and at least 1 month’s rent. But don’t fall into the trap when real estate agencies tell you that you “must” pay these fees. There are tons of new apartments being built now and a lot of available real estate. It’s a bit of a bubble and with a surplus of properties you have some leverage as a renter. My suggestion is to simply tell your real estate agent/apartment brokerage that you are adamantly looking for a place without these fees. I guarantee you’ll find something!
Depending on your level (if you’re a beginner) I’d really recommend spending time in the inaka, or countryside, where you can truly immerse yourself and get away from English-speakers in cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto.
If Tokyo is the only option or preference for you, one of the best courses in the country is nearby in Yokohoma at the IUC program run by Stanford. They have a 7 week summer program which I attended and it kicked my ass. They drill you hard.
Japan Related Podcasts and Youtube Channels
Check out these podcasts:
- Bilingual News Podcast, バイリンガルニュース (Bilingual News)
- Disrupting Japan https://www.disruptingjapan.com/
- Gaijinpot podcast GaijinPot Blog
- Tofugu Podcast Podcast
That said, there are a LOT more foreign Youtubers in Japan than there are good podcasters in Japan. Here are my favorites below, and the ones in bold are my biggest recommendations:
Abroad in Japan
Rachel and Jun
Sharla in Japan
What I’ve Learned
Simon and Martina
Max D Capo
Life where I’m from
Thomas and Tracey
Have questions about Japan? Drop me a message.