Okay, well a common question I get when I meet people currently living in Japan as well as traveling through Japan is “do I need to speak Japanese to get a job in Japan?” To answer this question, it really depends on what exactly you mean by a job. Are you looking for something fun that will provide you with a salary and some freedom, or are you looking for something more, such as a career, something that will provide you with a nice salary and potential growth and career advancement?
If the answer to this question was the former, then there are plenty of these jobs, but most involve you teaching English, being a recruiter, or bartending at a bar. These are the most common jobs held by individuals living in Japan that cannot speak Japanese. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, as there are other jobs available, but these are the most common. Now, as with any country, if you possess a skill or trade that very few people can match, there is always a job for you and you will always be sought after; whether you speak Japanese or not.
Let’s say something very specialized, like a scientist that studies and creates new drugs. I’m pretty sure these people have jobs here in Japan and are required to use very little Japanese, if any at all. But if you were one of these people you would already know this. Another example is an amazing American football player. There is an American football league here in Japan and there are several teams here in Japan that have recruited and paid talented American football players to play on their team. They give them an imaginary job at their company (like Toshiba, Panasonic, etc.) with a real desk to sit at and a salary of over 100k USD to play football. Their teammates even learn basic plays and calls in English so that they can communicate on the field, all because he is a valuable asset and can run faster and throw the ball farther. So if you have something to offer that can’t be beaten, the rules that apply to Joe the plumber, don’t apply to you.
Okay, so let’s not get off topic too much. Where are these jobs available and to who? Well, the above list I gave you, the only job that applies to areas outside of Tokyo, Japan are the English teachers. You could easily get a job teaching English anywhere in Japan, or any country for that matter, and it’s pretty much the only job you could get anywhere in Japan without speaking Japanese. But, you are probably reading this article, or at least I hope you are, to find ideas and answers on how to find a rewarding career in Japan in a industry with upward and outward mobility. Hence, you are probably not looking for ways to find an English teaching job in the mountains of Japan, so let’s move on.
Now, that leaves us pretty much with Tokyo as being the only area to really find work in Japan. This is not to say you couldn’t find a job in Osaka, Kobe, or Yokohama, some of the largest cities in Japan outside of Tokyo. But, it would be extremely difficult, as most of the jobs are in Tokyo. It’s the same reason most Japanese relocate to Tokyo for work. For example, rather than you having 300 companies to choose from in Tokyo you will have something more like 2 when outside of Tokyo. Opportunities are just more limited and the number of jobs and the industries outside of Tokyo are simply scarce, especially for the foreign worker. For the most part, everything happens in Tokyo. The Japanese relocate to Tokyo from other prefectures to get a job, because good jobs are far and few between in other cities and unless you want to work in a factory, retail store, restaurant, or sell potatoes out of a street vendor cart, you will need to look towards Tokyo for a job.
If you wish to be a headhunter, there are plenty of opportunities in Tokyo to do this as well. The payout is nice, so I hear, but it’s not really a job that offers you much career growth, and it’s definitely not a job for everyone. You will and should end up being a fantastic sales person and reader of people, but other than that, there is not much to further expand upon. However, this might be a good career path as a jumping point. You can meet many people, network, see what jobs suit your tastes and then at the right time interview out to these companies and start your career.
Another industry in Tokyo often found to be filled with many foreigners that cannot speak Japanese, is the financial industry. There are plenty of people in Tokyo working for the Merrill Lynch’s and Morgan Stanley’s of the world. But of course most of these people come from backgrounds in finance and have been relocated to Japan on expatriate packages, so you are not probably reading this article if you are currently working at one of these companies. However, if you are just starting out your career in the states and you wanted to work in an international setting, this is one career that you can look into, as financial investors are able to work pretty much anywhere in the world that has a market and typically the local language is not really a prerequisite. I would say your best fields of study that will allow you to work in most major cities in the world are Finance, IT, and Sales.
The Typical Industries in Tokyo Catering to Non-Native Japanese Speakers
So I have stated several times that most of the non-Japanese speaking jobs are located in Tokyo, but what are these industries? You can think of Tokyo being the central hub for the following industries, IT, Consulting, Finance, Design, and well, pretty much everything. Tokyo does it all and is it all. The country has concentrated most of it’s business world in the heart of Tokyo with small business centers located outside of Tokyo in Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, and Yokohama, but Tokyo is really the heart that fuels this island.
Yes, you can get a job in any of the following industries, IT, Consulting, Finance, and Design but you will need to be bringing skills to the table to get these jobs. Otherwise, they will just hire the Japanese guy speaking to the left of you in the interview room, regardless how ridiculously unqualified he/she is. To be honest, most Japanese companies prefer to simply hire Japanese people over foreigners. And on that note, I highly recommend you to work for a foreign investment company or a Japanese company that is very western in their thinking (i.e. Rakuten or Uniqlo).
You will most likely be frustrated day in and day out working for a traditional Japanese company, they just aren’t for us. Japanese have grown up their entire life with Japanese culture and thinking they way they do, and that mirrors the culture in Japanese companies, if you think things are strange or difficult now, do you really want to experience that 8 hours a day Monday to Friday as well? They simply think differently and don’t value their employees in the same way YOU would expect a company to.
I have spoken to many headhunters and recruiters in Tokyo, and they have told me that their clients, Japanese companies, will explicitly tell them that “This job requires a Japanese person”. Not a non-Japanese that is fully bilingual in Japanese, not a person that was born in Japan and went to Japanese school from the age of 4 to 21 and speaks fluent Japanese, but a JAPANESE PERSON. That’s a requirement and not just a request in a candidate search. So once you have fully understood this simple fact, then you can proceed with looking for a job with a Japanese company.
But I would only recommend working for a Japanese company if you wish to have the experience to help you understand how the Japanese think and act so that you can compete with them in a future company. But for a long-term career, I recommend to look towards the foreign investment companies for a job, they will understand your needs and goals better and should result in a overall better quality of life. But whether you are looking for a Japanese company or foreign one in these industries, a conversational level or above in Japanese will most likely be required.
To go back to English teachers briefly, this is their main struggle with getting out of a teaching job in Japan. Most of them have no work experience or any tested skill or trade outside of English teaching and a college diploma (some don’t even have this). But they want to change jobs and have a more rewarding job/career. Most of these English teachers came to Japan immediately after college and haven’t gained any real world work experience, which also hinders them. Usually their limited work experience and lack of a technical or specific skill hinders them from ever leaving the English teaching industry. For those of you reading this before graduating, I highly recommend you get a part time job to gain experience before coming to Japan if you plan to come here via teaching English. This will allow you to have more options and set you apart from your peers.
So given this bit of information, we must focus on getting a job that we will be adding value and be a valuable asset to our employer. Given that you have experience, it is possible to get hired as an Engineer by an IT firm or as a designer by a Design company. But the challenge you will now face is your ability to speak Japanese. This is where having the Japanese ability can make or break getting the job. I can’t express how important it is to speak Japanese, at least at a comfortable conversational level. Business level isn’t really a requirement, as long as you can get through the interview and convince the hiring person that you will be an asset to the company.
You have to think about what your potential employer makes his/her decisions based on. Not all people think like me, but when I am interviewing for my staff I give percentages to categories I have predefined.
These categories depend on the job I am interviewing for, but here is one for example:
1. Customer Service skill/ability
2. IT knowledge
3. Japanese language ability
4. Eagerness to advance and grow
5. Initiative and ability to handle tasks with little to no supervision.
Now, for a staff that will take on an engineer role 100% of the time, I would be most concerned with his IT knowledge, ability to handle tasks with little to no supervision, and then his Japanese language ability. However, if I have two candidates I am interviewing and one of them has a much better speaking ability in Japanese but a little behind in the technical skill than the other candidate I would probably go with the less skilled technical person. The reason being, he should be able to easily and quickly pick up the IT skills he is lacking and at the same time be able to use Japanese with his clients and make them feel more relaxed and comfortable.
Remember, it’s always about making the other person happy and comfortable, number one rule to customer service. A good engineer can make a mistake but since he cannot explain himself in Japanese, the customer is left upset and feeling he/she has received bad service. Whereas, a less experienced engineer can screw up several times on very basic things but because he can speak Japanese, apologize and make the customer feel cared for, the customer walks away feeling confident that the engineer thoroughly cares about them and he/she is trying his/her hardest. And in Japan, customer service and the amount of effort you give is 10x more important than the actual ability of the person to do the job.
So in conclusion, yes, you can in fact get a job here in Japan without speaking Japanese, but if you’re looking for a job that you can enjoy and grow with career-wise, you will want to invest in a Japanese language book if you have not already done so. Start reading, studying, and interacting with the local Japanese, you will only benefit from doing this and enjoy your Japanese experience only that much more.
Good luck on your career and job search! All the best! Ganbatte kudasai!