Terrie's Job Tips -- High-level Skills and Finding a Market for Them

Maybe it’s that time of year, or perhaps the worsening financial situation overseas, but recently I have been getting a lot of email from foreign spouses (typically men) whose Japanese partner wants to move back to Japan. The reasons for moving are many, but several frequent ones are for the kids to get to know their Japanese grandparents, and to look after the spouse’s aging parents.

As I have mentioned in previous columns, it is hard to resist a Japanese spouse who is totally focused on going back to Japan. But the downside is that the foreign partner must quit a perfectly good and often high-paying job, then land in Japan with few language skills and the realization that finding an equivalent job here may be tough to do. Most people are quite surprised to find that although their technology, business management, or financial skills were highly rated at home, their lack of Japanese and awareness of the market means that they can’t integrate into most companies’ operations in Japan and thus their skills are severely devalued.

How devalued? Well, anywhere in the world, appropriate knowledge and effective communication are the two main factors that will cause you to receive a salary four-to-five times higher than newbies. So not knowing the market and how culturally things are packaged and delegated, as well as not being able to communicate your vision and needs to others, effectively reduces your value by four-to-five times (my personal opinion). In other words, take your US $200,000 a year job, and strip out effective communication and local market awareness – you might be worth US $40,000 a year in Japan. It’s a very sobering thought.

So it is only natural that local firms are reluctant to take on even experienced foreign managers and technical people. The exception to this is where your knowledge is so specialized, or your organizational skills so strong, that a Japanese or local foreign firm is willing to take a leap in faith and hire you for their vision of what you will become – versus your current worth.

Selling this kind of vision can only be done at the CEO or board level, because a hire of this sort will result in the company incurring much higher costs once they provide you with the additional staff needed just to get the job done. This sort of preferential treatment is usually reserved for CEOs turning around broken companies, and intra-company transfers within multinationals, rather than the rest of us.

Therefore, if you’re used to a well paid, intellectually challenging job, and you want to find something similar here, there are some very specific behaviors that you need to engage in.

1. Make sure that you have at least 12 months’ living expenses saved up before you come. In my experience, it takes around this long to find an opportunity and convince the people “gating” that job to take you and your significant financial costs on board. Make this a non-negotiable point with your Japanese spouse, so that they can stay focused on making the transition smooth and less stressful as you get turned down in your initial job applications.

2. Realize that recruiters will probably not be able to help you, because they are trying to find round pegs for round holes – whereas your background and ambitions are outside most HR managers’ expectations.

3. Instead, identify specific foreign and/or Japanese companies who should be able to employ someone like you, and go after them in the same way you would when trying to close a sale or tie-up back home. I have a friend who was a management consultant overseas and after arriving in Japan he narrowed his search down to just three potential employers. He went at those companies with dedication, getting to know the managers in the teams of interest, and finding out what kind of clients they had. He also got to know some of the clients well enough that he could talk to them about their challenges and problems. By spending some months doing this, he came to be trusted by both parties and was able to create an opportunity for himself and get hired. This wasn’t cheap, financing his own efforts – but it can work.

4. During your search period, cram down on your Japanese skills. I’ve mentioned this plenty elsewhere, just don’t be lazy – hit those books and start speaking broken Japanese with those around you as soon as you can.

5. Be prepared to cut bait and return home if things don’t work out after a year. I see international families that land in Japan outside the expat safety bubble, cutting all ties back in the home country. Instead, try to reach agreement with both your Japanese spouse AND your current overseas employer that you’ll give it one year, and if things don’t work out, then you can come back and pick up where you left off. Not doing this may lead to a career breakdown that could be bad for both your mental health and your marriage.

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