International Transfers

International Transfers

I have lost track of how many letters I've received from people either trying to come to Japan or trying to get sent back home again by being employed by a multinational company. The daydreams are often similar. Join a Japanese company in the USA, and one day you may get the chance to be transferred to Japan. Or for foreign staff here in Japan, find a fast-growing Japanese tech start-up and help them to expand back in your home country.

The sad fact is that Japanese companies very seldom transfer employees across jurisdictions (although temporary overseas reassignment for training programs is more common). They simply aren't set up for the administration involved in tracking thousands of employees around the globe and even if they were, the managers are not trained in international HR management - and to be honest, those managers working here in Japan often have a problem trying to take foreign employees seriously.

Instead most Japanese companies operate globally in surprisingly decentralized units, hiring and firing locally. The spider's web that helps everything hang together revolves less around a centrally planned system than it does on the lure of new, cool products, and a network of Japanese 'salaryman' expatriates reporting back each night to their manager at head office.

One employee I had spent her teenage years dreaming of coming to Japan one day. So on graduation, she took an underpaid position in a famous Japanese firm, because she saw the company as a means of coming to Japan at some point. After numerous requests and hints over her two years with the firm, instead of moving her to Tokyo, they actually dispatched her to a neighboring Asian country. Perhaps they were telling her in not so subtle terms that "demanding" employees were not wanted.

The benefit that she did gain, however, was a deeper understanding of Japanese culture from her colleagues, and some limited but worthwhile opportunities to practice her Japanese. After 2 years, she contacted me and asked whether she should come to Japan as a tourist and simply attempt to land a job on her own. My advice to her was, "Absolutely!" as Japanese companies can't seem to imagine moving non-Japanese employees back to Japan for anything more than a 3-week training course. For some reason a foreign employee in Tokyo is becoming more acceptable, but one dispatched from another country is not.

This is not to say that there aren't some transfers. In the senior management field and in finance, I have met a few talented individuals who have wound up in Japan, or who have been transferred back home. One acquaintance, for example, was country manager of a well-known Japanese SI company, but when that company decided to shut down its country office, he was offered a position with the Shacho Shitsu back here in Japan. This offer was made because he had truly hard-to-find talent in financial analysis, and because the company was strategically moving in that direction. But this is a rare story and he was the only one in a company of thousands to do this.

A more common story is that of another candidate, who was working for several years in a highly successful Internet start-up in Tokyo. The company decided to set up a European office, but to the surprise of the candidate, instead of picking him even though he was a native of the target country, the CEO picked a local Japanese businessman from outside the operation. The rationale of the CEO was, "Well, this new guy has been in Europe the whole time and has a better personal network." A fair response, perhaps, but what about the fellow with all the company knowledge, technical experience, AND the language skills?!

Terrie Lloyd is the founder of Daijob Inc. He also writes a weekly newsletter for entrepreneurs and business people, about business and political opportunities in Japan. You can find the newsletter at

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