Terrie's Job Tips -- 6,000 Miles and Half the Salary

Today we answer another reader letter about the realities of someone at the top of their profession back home considering a move to Japan.

I am British, 38 years old, and an SAP consultant. I have a Japanese wife and 2 young children aged 4 and 2, and we have been talking about going to Japan to live. The problem is that in the UK I have progressed my IT career and am near the top of my profession, as a Senior SAP Basis/Netweaver Consultant. I receive around 50,000 pounds (approx. JPY11.338m) + benefits. My Japanese language ability is beginner level and I have enrolled in a local university’s online Japanese language course as a means to get to JLPT2 - but it's hard going and I get the feeling I'll have to actually be in Japan to have the best chance to pass the exam.

I have already had a verbal offer from a company in the Tokyo region for a SAP Basis Administration role and they are offering me JPY450,000 plus JPY180,000 for an apartment. Is this the right amount for this type of position? It seems low to me, and taking it will mean a major income drop and lifestyle change for my family. Also, is this enough to both support my family and also send my kids to an International school?

The short answer is "no", you cannot keep a family of four AND send your kids to an international school on this kind of income. If you're prepared to send them to a Japanese school for the first couple of years, then it is possible.

Our reader's letter highlights some of the difficult decisions that foreign partners coming to Japan with their Japanese spouses have to make, especially those people who are at the peak of their professions overseas and who through lack of language skills and personal relationships will be relegated to a much lower position when they get started here in Japan. When considering a major lifestyle move like this, you really need to be discussing with your spouse the realities and implications that such a move will bring. Is the whole family prepared to change their habits so thoroughly that they can live on half the income?

My opinion is of course that change and new adventure are good for the soul, and if you can't hack a more Spartan lifestyle, then try to get a leave of absence from your current job, rather than burn all bridges. Who knows, even this reader's Japanese wife may find the change too great. That said, there are some benefits of trying to fit into the Japanese urban way of life. Living in a Japanese style house or mansion in Kanagawa or somewhere else outside central Tokyo and mixing with the neighbors can be fun, eating a Japanese diet can be healthy and cost-effective, and sending your kids to a Japanese school early on, when exams don't feature high in the curriculum gives them a great base to become bilingual later.

But I digress, so back to the question. Is the amount offered fair? From the information provided, the company is probably making its offer on the basis of their needs, not the current abilities of the applicant, and thus their JPY630,000 offer for a systems administrator would seem to be reasonable. If the reader was to start networking socially, over time he may find a similar position paying an extra JPY1-2m per year, but probably not much more than that.

Sending the kids to an international school is going to cost at least JPY2m per child, and so he needs to be on at least JPY10m to do that. I suggest that he work out his finances with his wife, and consider putting the kids into a local school for a year or so, while concentrating on moving up the salary scale. I always counsel my candidates that it is better to have a lower paid job in Japan than no job at all, especially when job hunting. The reasons are simple: even a small income gives you the luxury of picking and choosing options and in so doing can make you more attractive to the recruiter. Nothing puts recruiters off faster than someone who reeks of desperation to get a job.

To move above the salary level being offered, the challenge for our reader is to find a job that will use his full skill set - not always easy to do when you're not bilingual and not well connected socially. That said, though, there have been some major SAP projects done by foreign firms here over the years. These usually consist of implementations planned and mandated by head office and call for project management and implementation management rather than local high-end systems consulting or architecting. If our reader has the relevant PM experience, then one possible opportunity to leverage up his salary would be to work his way into a new project which is still in the planning phases. A full-scale SAP implementation management position can bring a salary of JPY15m+ for the duration of the project - which typically can last about 12-36 months, depending on the size and complexity.