Getting employed by smaller Japanese companies can sometimes be more than just mere culture shock. Such companies are typically run top-down, and the patriarchal atmosphere is very evident. This often means that you need to deal with the CEO directly to understand what is going on in the organization, and if you don't have that access, then you need to be like one of the family – trusting that things will work out. Further, to plan a career, you need to understand the "family" relationships and figure out who besides the CEO is important. Usually this will be a couple of his/her key managers.
Of course this is quite hard to do when you're living 5,000 miles away from the center of the action…
Reader: To give you the background, I'm an American living in California. I have already passed my 2 kyu Japanese language test, and my company of 4 years has just made me redundant. A friend's dad had some industry contacts in Japan from conventions and emailed my resume out to a bunch of Japanese companies. To our surprise, a small publishing company expressed interested in me, and I traveled to Tokyo to do interviews with the CEO. Since the CEO mentioned that they planning to establish a branch office in California in two years time, I can at least understand them wanting to hire me.
The job offer came through and they offered me JPY300,000/month to start, which I think is very fair. Now they are pushing hard to get my Visa paperwork through. While this is all good, I'm uncomfortable with several things. Firstly, I have no idea what job I'll be doing, and apparently neither does the HR manager. Secondly, I've not seen anything like a contract, company regulations, or job description, despite my asking for it. I’ve started apartment hunting and don't want to be making financial commitments without the job being properly confirmed. Indeed, I’m feeling pretty nervous about the whole thing.
Terrie: Actually, this situation of not knowing what you'll be doing is more common than you might think. Firstly, you're dealing with a small company where hiring processes are very informal and information is typically not well shared, and secondly you're dealing with a CEO who is making an offer to you based on a still vague future plan – thus indicating that he wants to test, mold, and grow you into a trusted partner for that future office.
I think it is really important that you at least get a signed or company-authorized job offer. That's the minimum legal documentation they need to produce, and with it you can take legal action if they don't go through with the actual job. I'm surprised that they are already applying for your work visa without this contract, and you should try to establish some rapport with the HR manager and gently but insistently ask for it. This is reasonable.
To help this happen, does your friend's father have any "pull" with this company? If his does, then he is the right person to ask the CEO what you will be doing. If not, and this sounds like the case, then is there anyone else in Tokyo who is Japanese and an older (i.e., patient) person who could call HR for you and get the contract commitment out of them? You don't want to go to the CEO just yet, because you don't want him to suddenly decide that you're a difficult person. Save this until last.
In terms of your job description, I agree that you shouldn't have to be a mind reader, especially as an international hire. However, if you put yourself in the head of your prospective employer, the world revolves around him and he has his staff supporting him and generally taking care of the details. In a normal (local) hire, the HR staff would figure out what the new hire would be doing and would arrange the documentation accordingly.
That said, I think I can guess what the company is thinking. They want you to:
All of this will take 2-3 years, depending on how quickly you polish your Japanese, your ability to get along with and be trusted by the CEO, and your ability to get sales or business results
While blind faith is not always a great way to get a job, because your situation is not so unusual – and I've seen others start in a CEO-helper position and wind up with really exciting/interesting jobs – why don't you try viewing this opportunity as a "box of chocolates", a la Forest Gump? At very least you'll have an exciting experience and a new life for a while until you discover whether the company is really for you or not.