Photo:Flazingo Photos on Flickr

Japanese Job Interviews: A Survivor’s Guide

As you all know by now, I’ve been living in Japan, on and off for nearly a decade. Unfortunately, the current global economic situation coupled with changing societal expectations, means that Japan is no longer the haven of life-time employment that it once was. Indeed some would argue that life-time employment was never really an option for foreigners working here anyway.

With this instability comes short term, usually one year, contracts, and often irregular employment. As salaries continue to slide more and more English teachers in Japan, who still make up the bulk of the westerner workforce in Japan, are having to take on additional extra jobs to make ends meet. Of course, before one can start any job, there is that all important hurdle that must be negotiated: The dreaded job interview.


Photo: One Way Stock on Flickr

For those new to Japan, or who may have previously only worked for foreign-managed companies in Japan, your first interview with a Japanese company or government body can be a terrifying experience. Thankfully, as a long term veteran of such things, and a current employee of a Japanese local city government, I am here, ready to share my knowledge and experience with you.

First, a few points to consider before the interview.

Japanese companies, it could be said, look for different kinds of worker than perhaps an American or European company may. Whereas in the UK for example, my initiative and improvisational skills were a huge asset in securing employment, in Japan many companies are more concerned with an employee’s ability to follow directions from management, adhere to rules and regulations and basically be a model employee. A friend of mine once lamented that this is why so many of the foreigners who ascend to middle-management positions in the English teaching industry in Japan are socially inept, and to be honest, he may have had a point.


Photo: Gvahim on Flickr

Anyway I digress.

Preparing the right application when you apply is also crucial. In Japan, never cold call a company looking for a job. Send them your resume either by email or by post. Remember that in Japan, your resume must also include a passport size photo of you, in business attire, in the top right hand corner of the first page.

Some people say it’s a good idea to also have a Japanese language resume. In all honesty, I would advise against this, for 2 reasons:

Firstly, Japanese honorific language, or Keigo to give it its Japanese name, is notoriously complex, and even just one or two words used out of turn could cause unintentional offence, or misconstrue the intended meaning.

Also, if like me, you can hold a basic conversation in Japanese but you don’t quite feel you’re at business conversational level just yet, then I would also say it’s a bad idea to send in a Japanese resume. This could give the mistaken impression that you are fluent in both written and spoken Japanese and will, as such, make your job interview exponentially more difficult.

Read the job ad carefully, and submit all the required documents in exactly the way and order you are told to. Just one small error could see your application discarded before it’s even read.


Photo: Flazingo Photos on Flickr

With that out of the way, it’s onto the interview itself. This is where, if you are a first timer, things can get really weird.

Whilst each of our own experiences is different, certainly in my own experience, every job interview I had back in Scotland was a small scale affair. Usually it was the candidate and just one or at most two people from a company’s HR department. Not so in Japan. In many cases you will find yourself sitting before a panel of 5 or 6, or perhaps even more middle and senior managers.

Each of these people will be looking at a different facet of your capabilities. They may be studying how you react under pressure, how clearly and concisely you speak, any potential difference in behavior when communicating with men or women. There are any number of things they could be looking at, but don’t waste your time trying to second guess the interview panel is this will only make your more stressed.

Some interviews may also involve a written paper. For example, I remember doing a grammar and writing assessment as part of my interview for my current job. This is not a purely Japanese phenomenon of course, but it does seem more prevalent here than in most other developed countries.

When it comes time for the actual sit-down interview itself, there are a few important points to remember. Some of these are just common sense, others are uniquely Japanese characteristics which must be carefully observed.


Photo: Steven Depolo on Flickr

First of all, be very careful when discussing your current job. Of course we all know that you should never bad-mouth your present company to a potential new employer, no matter how badly you want to get away from there. This is especially true of Japan, where companies’ notions of honour and loyalty are no laughing matter. Criticizing your current job won’t not only be regarded as disloyal, but also they may think it shows you have a habit of insubordination. As I said earlier, Japanese companies want staff who are compliant and malleable, so you absolutely do not want to come across as too opinionated.

Along the same lines, do not unless asked directly discuss your current contract. Whilst in some countries leaving one job mid-contract to take up a better offer may seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, in Japan this is seen as deeply disrespectful and would lead to both your honesty and integrity being called into question. Instead say something like: “I really enjoy my job but my contract isn’t permanent.”

Also, when they ask, “when can you start?” never say less than 2 weeks, unless you are currently unemployed. In Japan, employees are legally obliged to give an employer 2 weeks’ notice, should they wish to quit. Again, it is all about projecting the image of the responsible, obedient employee. Also bear in mind, that even if our current contract says you need to give one month of notice, this has no legal basis, and provided that you give at least 2 weeks, your former employer can have no legal recompense.

Overall, interviews in Japan can be a challenging experience, but as in all forms of negotiation, if you are professional, attentive and most of all plan ahead, then you have as good a chance as anyone of nailing down that dream job.

P.S: The article contains all views help by the author.

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