From the Trenches – DP: Part One

From the Trenches – DP: Part One

I thought this week and next, it would be interesting to hear from someone who has overcome the odds, and found work not only outside Tokyo, but also in a Japanese company without having a degree in the language. Basically DP has come up with some great strategies for making progress in a very different business world than the one he came from. I strongly encourage other foreign spouses to take cues from his experiences.

Landing a Position

My wife (who is Japanese) and I moved to Japan in June 2003 to improve my Japanese and for us both of us to gain work experience. Starting out in Japan with introductory Japanese and several years working in IT wasn't easy, but after a good number of mistakes and failures, bit-by-bit we've made it through our 18 months here and haven't gone crazy (yet).

Having come to Japan to learn Japanese I decided not to take an English teaching job, as I wouldn't get as many day-to-day chances to learn Japanese and because the work experience wouldn't be very useful to me in the future. We also decided against working in Tokyo, because my wife's family live in the Kansai area.

The main problem I faced in finding work was that even if I could find work related to my experience, my Japanese level wasn't enough to survive on the job. To fix this, I began a daily routine of studying at the local library 5-6 hours per day as there were no Japanese schools anywhere near where we lived. Without tests, teachers or other students, to keep me motivated while studying alone was difficult; I wouldn't recommend it unless you have previously studied other languages a reasonable amount, and know what you are getting yourself into and what techniques work for you - or if you have a spouse who is wonderfully supportive.

I set myself a target of 3 to 6 months to find work. It's not easy to make do without income for half a year, especially given the cost of living in Japan, but we both felt that if I could keep my Japanese study productive, this time would be well invested.

Looking for work, I found that 95% of opportunities advertised on the Internet with a mimimum level of Japanese required are to be found in Tokyo. This probably isn't surprising, given that 88% of foreign companies have their main operations in Kanto (as of 2002). With the Internet proving weak for opportunities for anything outside of Tokyo, and recruitment agents quite rightly preferring candidates with higher Japanese proficiency, I looked for information written by others about finding work, and what working here is like. Information such as Terrie's weekly columns and several personal web sites discussing the topic helped me to improve my search technique and style of approaching Japanese companies. Also, through writing and meeting with people both in the Kansai and Kanto regions, it was possible to learn from those who had lived here much longer.

Four months after arriving I received a letter to attend an interview with a company who had found my details on a recruitment agent's database. It didn't go well... The interview turned out to be their annual graduate intake; they evidently had not filtered for their desired Japanese level when they had done their database dump. The interview however turned out to be a much more useful learning experience than I initially realised. After making it through a 15 minute interrogation with an interviewer who spoke no English I came to realise that doing an interview in Japanese wasn't as impossible as I had imagined and it was good practice for next time.

When I was able to arrange an interview with a software development company several weeks later, even knowing they didn't use any English, I had more confidence to do it all in Japanese. It went well and they offered me a starting three month contract. I postponed starting for 6 weeks, to give me further time to improve my Japanese and began in late January 2004, in all, seven months after arriving here.

I believe there were several reasons why they accepted me. First, I only used Japanese in the interview, showing that I wanted to do it their way and that I could fit in. I had also researched the company well, so I knew what questions and topics were likely to come up and I had polished my Japanese vocabulary in preparation. Further, the company was quite small, so I only really had to convince one person, the president, that I was worth the risk. In a larger company there would have been more layers of management; any one person who wasn't convinced could have pulled the plug.