I frequently get email from readers overseas who have set their hearts on coming to Japan and who are trying to figure out how to find a job in their chosen field. But to get to that job they first need a visa. Now if you’re in technology, then getting in and finding a job isn’t so difficult to do. Ten years of appropriate experience, and/or an appropriate 4-year college degree, and you can be reasonably sure of getting a visa. Then it is just a matter of language, time, and luck before you get a meaningful, relevant job. As of writing, in November 2008, high-end technology jobs are getting more difficult to find, but for mid-level work, especially for bilinguals, they are still available.
But what if you’re an architect, consultant, accountant, or doctor? I’ve had readers from all these professions contact me (in fact a number of times in the case of doctors) and the conversation quickly devolves to two subjects: how much time and effort are you willing to put in to learn the language and just how badly do you want to be in Japan in the first place. I.e., are you willing to reset your career to build something for yourself in Japan?
Why do these professions need bilingual capability with an emphasis on strong Japanese? Well firstly because they are regulated jobs, and require written test certifications to operate . Secondly, each of these professions also typically requires strong aural/oral skills to actually perform – persuasion is a large part of success for professional workers. Architects need to talk to building contractors, who I can assure you are typically NOT bilingual; consultants need to access local data and knowledge to be of informed use to their foreign clients: accountants need to understand the rules of accounting as they pertain to Japan, and frequently these are only available in Japanese; and doctors who are expected to be able to perform in emergencies by communicating to sometimes confused and incoherent patients.
The one exception here is where you might be lucky enough to find a position at a foreign firm where your sector expertise is so extensive that you can fill in on an international role. In this situation, and these types of jobs are dwindling in number, you would work alongside a suitably qualified Japanese colleague for matters pertaining to the Japan side of the equation. This is very common with major law firms specializing in international M&A for example.
But this type of job opportunity is indeed becoming the exception – and for mainstream jobs, to work in your chosen profession, language acquisition is unavoidable. For a smart person this will mean taking 18 months out of your career and really hitting both the books and interacting with society. Full immersion is the only way to do this, which means cosseting one’s self in Japan, preferably in a smaller regional town where there are no other distractions. Doing 18 months mid-career can be costly , and is why I ask people how dedicated they are to coming and living in Japan, outside of a corporate appointment.
Once you have acquired a good level of language, you can then apply to take the appropriate exams. Be aware that where a profession may involve working for the government, you may find that they do not allow people without Japanese citizenship to hold such positions. Being a regular teacher in a high school, for example, would fall into this category – although of course being an assistant English teacher or an English professor at a private University would be OK.
After language, we get to your level of commitment and passion to rebuild a life in Japan. Spouses of Japanese are most likely to address this issue, and it is a very big hurdle to overcome. Essentially, even after gaining Japanese skills, are you emotionally equipped to accept that your hard-won professional qualifications back home may be worth very little to employers here in Japan. True, if you pass local exams, like the Boki exam for accounting, then it will open some opportunities, but generally, you will be expected to earn the moral right to return to your formerly high-level position.
This may mean resetting your expectations and doing some relatively menial work while rebuilding your career platform. For example, architects may find themselves “apprenticed” to a colleague in a larger office that has international ambitions. Although you may be capable of designing better facilities than your colleague, your initial job will probably be relegated to gathering information from the foreign customers/suppliers, being involved in sales pitches, and being an office dog’s-body for the other Japanese architects. This is not an easy thing to accept and you definitely need to be able to develop a strong sense of humility to be able to last during this phase.
But the good news is that if you stick with it, sooner or later, a surprising thing will happen. Gradually the foreign customers/suppliers start to get to know you and ask for you by name. Then you start to win projects of your own and become a breadwinner for the office. Once you start making a financial and moral contribution, then you are much more likely to see your career pick up again.
Or… maybe not.
One of the other big issues for foreign professionals working for Japanese firms, those who have taken years to acquire Japanese, kowtow to colleagues, and develop customers is the proverbial “glass ceiling” on promotions. It is a very unusual Japanese firm that will promote a non-Japanese to its highest levels. Not discrimination exactly, but certainly a lack of confidence that deep down you can be trusted to do the right thing for the company. But then that is another story, for another column.