Terrie's Job Tips -- Limited Japanese Ability - Part One: Acknowledging the Problem

I've been getting lots of email recently from people asking me if as a non-Japanese speaker they can get work in Japan. Given that the Japanese government is considering making Japanese language ability a prerequisite for granting and/or renewing long-term visas and work visas, perhaps this type of question will disappear of its own accord. However, in the meantime, while I always advise people to learn Japanese before working, if they can, it is true that there are a good number of people already here who have built perfectly good careers without having a strong handle on the language.

This has been possible because those people either work for foreign multinationals where most of the Japanese staff are bilingual and thus support that person, they work in the export division of a Japanese company where they communicate with overseas offices and customers in English, or they work in an English-language specific field such as teaching, writing, etc. In this set of articles, I will take a look at how people are able to survive despite their communications handicap.

But first, this is the letter, which made me ponder about possible survival strategies in the first place.

I need some direction. I have been a successful corporate salesman primarily in the IT industry in the USA for about the past 6-years and was recently hired by a major multinational firm - so I know that within my own culture I am quite employable. I'm 39-years-old, and my wife is from Kobe Japan. We would like to live in Japan but all of the sales positions I have found on the Internet are for bilinguals. I speak some Japanese but am far from fluent. I do well financially so any position that I would consider would economically have to be comparable to my current job. OR, at very least I would need the new position in Japan to offer the potential to rise back towards what I am already making here in the States.

Our reader needs to understand that he isn't moving interstate, or even to another Western economy. Japan is a sovereign Asian nation and has a very different set of values. The simple fact is that unless you meet a market demand here – which will necessitate you integrating yourself with the country's language, culture, and customs, you can't expect to simply change the scenery of Toledo for Tokyo and pick-up your career where you left off.

Well, OK, if you are an ex-pat appointed to run the Japan operation of your company for a period, then this could be an exception, otherwise my general answer is to our reader is, "No, non-Japanese speakers don't have many options in Japan. If you want a good salary and good prospects, learn the language first or don't come." As I continually emphasize, if you are in a position to learn Japanese when first moving here, then you should definitely try to do so for at least 6-9 months. Not doing so will severely limit your career to English teaching, proof reading and rewriting, bar tending, and recruiting, etc.

For an IT sales role in particular, which is what our Reader is seeking, we should all remember that selling is all about influencing someone to make a buying decision. That means fluent communication and a deep understanding of nuance; common shared cultural references, and possibly regional values as well. If you can only communicate in English, then you can only focus on foreign firms, or those Japanese firms with bilingual managers.

There are about 5,000+ foreign firms active in Japan, and although some have non-Japanese managers making purchasing decisions, they are few and far between. Mostly, you're going to find that procurement is made by Japanese managers who have the trust of the company and the power to make independent decisions. While these people probably can speak English, they naturally expect that you as a local vendor will speak to them in their own language. In other words, imagine if you were back home and a Japanese salesperson tried to sell a service to you in Japanese - you'd probably boot him out after a few minutes.

For those readers who have absolutely made up their minds (you're married to a Japanese spouse, or you're an inveterate traveler and like pushing the envelope) to move to Japan to work without first acquiring a command of the language, I have tried to create a series of articles which outline the typical profiles of non-fluent foreigners who have actually been able to make it in Japan. In order to protect personal privacy, I have tried to make these composite descriptions, drawn from a wide range of foreign colleagues I've come to know over the years.

I'll also note that although these articles are presented as a strategy for dealing with insufficient language skills, for those of you with bilingual ability, then these same types of positions offer even greater chances of success.