The Savvy Gaijin Jobseeker

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2001

Landing that dream job in Japan is not as easy as it used to be -- here are a few tips for those looking to the East.

by David Sweet

FOREIGN IT WORKERS, take notice. Before you pack your bags, hop on the next plane, and head for Tokyo in search of one of those sweet JPY15 million contracts you've heard about, take a deep breath, look in the mirror, and ask yourself one simple question: Do you have what it takes?

But wait, you say. Isn't Tokyo a place where a foreigner, or gaijin, can talk his way into a job as long as he can string a few English sentences together and turn on a computer? Not anymore. Welcome to the leaner, meaner Japan. The once hot job market has cooled considerably, and success for foreign IT workers has moved beyond just knowing English and the basics of IT. In this leaner market, gaijin who succeed focus their energy on a vision, take smarter risks, and use their network to rise to the top of the market.

Today foreign workers compete with more and more highly skilled, bicultural Japanese, who are taking jobs once exclusively filled by gaijin. The number of Japanese changing jobs jumped from 398,000 in 1987 to 643,000 by the year 2000 and is still rising. The Justice Ministry reports that foreigners coming to Japan to enter the technology field have more than doubled in the past 10 years to over 16,500, making competition for jobs even fiercer. Add to that the slashing of jobs in the investment banking industry -- Dresdner and ABN Amro are abolishing hundreds of equities positions in Tokyo's Kamiyacho district, for example -- and the market gets even tighter. There are entrenchments, hiring slowdowns, and head count freezes. In this market, new skills are required to get employers to notice you.

American Todd Judge has been searching for a job as a network engineer for nearly a year. "I came to Japan last October for five weeks to investigate the job market and confirm plans for moving here," he says. "Two days before I left, I went to Japan job boards and emailed 10 resumes out. Within 24 hours I had six interviews set up to occur as soon as I arrived. Within the five weeks that I was here, I had interviews with five recruiting firms, 12 companies, and three offers if I could start by the end of the year."

The problem was that Judge couldn't. He had to wait until he finished his business in the US. When he returned in May, six months after his initial job search, the Tokyo financial industry had slowed to a crawl, and IT firms that previously couldn't find enough people to hire were in hiring freezes or laying people off. "The few firms that had decent offers for me which were in the bag if I could start by the end of 2000 had no openings," Judge says. After a successful career spanning more than 11 years in the US, Judge found himself in alien territory.

Some gaijin have resorted to unconventional routes to get where they want to be in the labor market. Jeremy Sanderson went from being a London bobby, or police officer, to opting for a position as a bilingual recruiter with Wall Street Associates in Japan. "Just by virtue of being in Japan, gaijin have taken a risk," he says. "And for gaijin to succeed, they need to work damn hard and continue taking risks."

Taking the risk to come to Japan can still pay off. The opportunity in Beijing or New Delhi to make money as a network engineer or specialize as a database analyst remains slim, whereas the JPY15-20 million a year contract is still possible in Japan.

Gaijin workers often say they feel freer to take risks in Japan than at home. Sanderson finds that his career leap is paying off. He networks with dozens of gaijin jobseekers a week as well as IT employers. To get ahead, he spends his extra time learning network engineering. He says that foreigners without energy to take the initiative fail. "They give up when faced with the enormous amount of barriers one finds in Japan. They lose drive."

But for those with the drive, Sanderson advises, the IT market remains viable. Technical and gaming expert Max Everingham found himself working in investment banking. He kept up with the IT market through freelance writing, attending expos, and networking. "Inside Tokyo, a good network can make all the difference," Everingham says. "Connections are absolutely everything. Certainly, more than in Britain, it's who you know."

Richard Bysouth, another gaijin in the recruiting business, says: "In England I'm the same as a million others, but here the services I can offer are unique." Bysouth started in recruiting and eventually set up his own business, CareerCross. "To make it, you need to be a self starter, making things happen, and be able to apply yourself to a job," he says. "You can't just work 9 to 5, then go home."

Eric Gain from Nagoya-based GaijinPot, an online jobfinder service, says there is more than just IT available to the expat in Japan. The import-export business, especially exporting used cars and importing construction materials from the US to build American-style homes, is still prosperous, he says.

From Nagoya, Gain has a different vantage point: The job market is much more open. "We like being outside the Tokyo market," Gain says. "It frees us, even though most of our market is actually in Tokyo. Outside Tokyo it's low-key. Inside Tokyo, everyone keeps tabs on what everyone else is doing, and we don't have to keep up on that."

So if you've looked in the mirror and you're still not sure you can cut it in Tokyo, you might want to think about booking a flight to Nagoya. At any rate, come prepared to take risks and work hard to get the job you want. @

Note: The function "email this page" is currently not supported for this page.