Perhaps because Japan has found it difficult to accept and support the presence of foreign businesspeople, it has largely ignored them and left them to their own devices. Back in the 1980's this meant that there were very few independently run foreign firms here, and anyone wanting to set up a business pretty much had to do it though a Japanese partner.
In my mind, two companies have contributed greatly to break the image of that foreigners can't stand alone here. The first is in the technology space - Microsoft. Back in the early 1980's Microsoft was represented by a Japanese "corporate minder" called ASCII Corporation. Microsoft bravely decided to break with the status quo and create its own operation. Of course ASCII eventually disappeared and Microsoft has gone on to become a multi-billion dollar operation. The second is in banking - Shinsei Bank. Shinsei was born in 2000 after the buy-out of the bankrupt LTCB bank from the government by New York-based investment fund Ripplewood. Shinsei went on to revolutionalize ATM banking and home mortgages, and did one of the largest IPOs in Japan's history in 2004.
Apart from these individual efforts, the first wave of serious amounts of foreign money started arriving in Japan during the bubble years (1989-1990) and created unprecedented access for foreign investors into the Japanese market. This money never really went home, and instead just got smarter and bigger. Think of the massive real estate investments of Morgan Stanley and the innovative but equally massive private equity investments of Goldman Sachs.
Along with a number of other large foreign investment bankers here, most notably Citibank, these companies have proven that Japan could be just as profitable as any other country. My guess is that today Microsoft Japan employs more than 2,000 people, Shinsei more than 1,000, Morgan Stanley around 2,000, Goldman Sachs around 2,000, and Citibank more than 5,000.
Foreign tech firms, banks, freight forwarders, pharma companies, and many others have created a micro-climate for job seekers, not just within the companies themselves, but also from companies that receive their capital and have to perform accordingly, as well as many of their competitors.
This means that two notable employment trends relevant to foreign job seekers:
1) There is a strong job market in Japan for people with shear technical expertise, be it in banking, electronic devices, or project management techniques. If the purveyors of such technology are not bilingual, that is not necessarily a hurdle to their employment. It simply means that they need bilingual Japanese colleagues to work with. This is expensive on an individual employee basis, but the if the overall value of the technology is high enough, then the added labor costs are quite justifiable.
2) Foreign investment is now seen as being as acceptable as that from Japanese sources, and indeed is often considered smarter and safer since it's more clearly defined. As the demand for larger and more complex forms of funding increases from Japanese entrepreneurs, this has lead to a corresponding rise in sophisticated foreign bankers to service them. Where the owners of these credit lines need language skills, they hire assistants to provide a local interface.
But not all of us can be bankers moving millions of dollars, or project architects for the next generation of telecoms operating systems. Thus, operating in or near the micro-climates created by foreign firms and their competitors, I have tried to identify five different categories of language-independent success models that might provide some inspiration to those unable to learn the language first. I think you'll see that the common theme in each model is that the person has to have great strength of character, highly evolved management and/or technical skills, and excellent bilingual helpers around them.
Successful models for overcoming a language handicap:
1. Rising corporate hired guns who possess the drive and technical knowledge to do business at a world class level. Unless recruited overseas (a la Carlos Ghosn), many of these people are spouses of Japanese who were able to get in as local hires.
2. Self-employed entrepreneurs who go out and hire in a team of bilingual supporters with each new project they start.
3. High-level executives in major multinationals, who have been sent to Japan as part of the rotational culture that is part of climbing the corporate ladder. They do business on an international level and being located in Japan is incidental to their overall career (other than taking care not to mess up while here!). The trick is how to get in at the ground floor here in Japan.
4. Intentional department personnel of large or entrepreneurial Japanese firms. These people typically travel often; their boss is bilingual and values their trustworthiness and business acumen more than their ability to speak Japanese.
5. Technology gurus. This is probably the largest category of non-Japanese speakers. You will find them at all levels of Japanese and foreign firms, particularly in the R&D departments of some of the world's most famous brands.