How Much Japanese Skill is Enough?
Over the last year or so, I've been hammering home the message that any non-Japanese wanting to get a job in Japan can significantly increase their salary and promotion prospects by learning the language. However, I don't think I've ever said just how much language skill is enough.
Of course, it depends on the type of job, so let's take a look at a couple of examples; first the network engineer, where opportunities are basically either working for a foreign company as an internal support person, a foreign IT company as a customer support engineer, or a Japanese IT company as a general employee. For such people, the major language requirements of the job are the ability to talk to the customer to such an extent that you can understand their problems and make them feel at ease, to educate them politely when they have simply done something incorrectly (80% of network support problems boil down to user trouble), and also to function adequately in a group of Japanese engineers who will want to talk "shop" and swap war stories. Of course, you'll also need to be able to read enough Kanji to understand error messages in major software - particularly Microsoft applications and operating systems.
In the recruitment industry we typically talk about this level of language skill as being "Ni-Kyu", in reference to the written and spoken requirements of the Japanese Language Proficiency tests held in December each year. Ni-kyu is the second highest testing level and assumes that you know about 1000 Kanji and can hold a moderately advanced spoken conversation. We have found that people doing intensive study IN JAPAN can reach from zero to Ni-kyu level in about 9-12 months.
Another commonly sought after position by foreigners interested in working in Japan is in sales. Needless to say that selling is all about persuading the listener that what you have to offer is worth the investment. In this case, yes, you can depend on the "shock value" of being a foreigner to get in through the front door, but you really do need to be able to deliver a proper pitch in order to get the results.
Sales generally needs someone with "Ikkyu" spoken Japanese, though in this case you can often get away with almost no written ability (simply ask a Japanese colleague to prepare the actual quotes, etc). Of course, most people do study written Japanese along with speaking, so this is not such an issue. We do however get a surprising number of people who are second or third generation Japanese and want to come back to Japan to work in such positions, in which case the task is rather different. Even though they are usually more proficient in the language they have learned at home, they are of Japanese nationality and are therefore expected to have a very high level of Japanese proficiency and be able to use Keigo (polite sentence forms and address).
I also get contacted by a lot of senior managers who have been in Asia for some time and who wonder if they really need language skills to get jobs in large corporations. Unless it's a very unique situation (such as a foreign takeover - where there is going to be a general push from the new foreign owners to increase the amount of English spoken by middle management), the answer is that you definitely do need language skills if the job entails running a team here in Japan. However, for someone with really specific skills (such as a senior financial officer with international pricing and controller experience), lower Ni-Kyu spoken Japanese, allowing you to interact with a patient CEO and other board members, is probably adequate. Gaining Ni-Kyu level in terms of spoken Japanese would require about 6-9 months of intensive effort.
The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is administered by the Association of International Education Japan (AIEJ) and respective administrative organizations around the world. The application period in Japan is from July to September, during which time application forms can be obtained from major bookstores..
As always, my contact details are simply: firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to getting some enquiries...