Jobs in Japan – Finding Your Niche

Please note the disclaimer.

Now, looking at the previous entries you can probably already guess why getting a position as seishain is quite unlikely for most foreigners. Besides cultural issues, there are formal hurdles to overcome. For example facing assessment centers, the Korean guy had problems to excel at group discussions in Japanese. „Doesn’t play so well with others…“ or something like that was their conclusion. Then there are the math and science questions; and if you have trouble answering them in your mother tongue, try to imagine how it is to read them in Japanese. Again there are exceptions from the rule. To give one example, I know from second hand experience that Google’s recruiting process is not so much different from other countries and will be conducted completely in English, if you prefer. Well at least if you apply for a technical position. But then again, Google is far from being a „typical“ Japanese company.

So what options are there, except something like cleaning up Fukushima?

Academics: That’s where I at least gained some experience. Compared to Germany, my impression is that much more effort and value is put upon research by the government. There’s a lot of money available. How this money is distributed and who’s gonna get it – well that’s another, very complicated story. But at least it’s there. Getting a monbusho- or JSPS-scholarship or getting a post-doc position is certainly possible, I’d say. The most important thing here is to have good connections to a Japanese host, or in general be well-connected within your particular research community. I personally know several scientists who successfully conducted research in Japan for a number of years. And conditions were certainly at least as good as, or in most cases even better, than in Germany.

But: FORGET ABOUT TENURE. I think that’s an important point, especially for long-term planning. At least I do not know a single scientist who made it to tenure. And I am not talking about English teachers, who will almost always be bullied at their universities after some years and forced to quit. I’m talking about the natural sciences and engineering here.

Now you can call out racism here, but actually it’s not that simple. Tenure at universities in Japan is a highly political game; actually very similar to Germany. Quite the opposite to the very transparent process of, say Oxford [1], or several top-notch US-universities [2]. Without the cultural background and good connections within the administration, obviously foreigners will have a difficult time in that regard. And even with the cultural background… one guy who absolutely dominated his field like almost no one else, is married to a Japanese women, has Japanese kids… well actually they are not really Japanese, aren’t they? They are only half! [3] … and all in all spent way more than ten years doing research in Japan, once said to me: At some point, career-wise, it was simply a dead-end. He is now tenured at a very renowned university in the US. His unit is very productive and leading in his area.

Actually, the question when you are (considered to be/treated like a) Japanese is something that puzzles me up until today. And while this might be getting slightly off-track here, it is certainly an issue that vastly affects your career chances. So, are you Japanese by blood? By that definition zainichi, buraku, Okinawan’s and probably Ainu wouldn’t be truly Japanese – their bloodlines are certainly different. But no Japanese person would ever consider someone from Okinawa not Japanese [11]. And even people from Okinawa, who do not agree with a lot of things that are decided in the mainland, would probably consider themselves almost always Japanese. Is it the language, then? Well, I knew a Japanese scientist who was born and raised in Japan, but apparently one of his parents was from India, so he had quite dark skin and curly hair. His native language was Japanese, and while he spoke English fluently, he did so with a thick Japanese accent. Other Japanese who did not know him would always mistake him for a foreigner at first. The truth is, in Japan you are Japanese if you look, act and speak (fluently, without any accent) Japanese. So if my friend, the Korean, does not reveal himself, he is Japanese. His Japanese is fluent enough to be indistinguishable from natives, and his looks are too. In this sense the Korean guy is more Japanese than the Japanese guy.

Oh, if the nettouyo is ever going to read this article, they’ll love it just for that statement, that’s for sure.

Shortly after coming to Japan, I was going to a post-office located near an elementary school once; children saw me, pointed fingers and started shouting „Gaijin! Gaijin!“. Granted, this was deep inaka, and the children certainly not meant it in a harmful way, but … I was just thinking, say I continue to live in Japan and have a child who has western features. Grows up in Japan, speaks Japanese better than German, walks near an elementary school, and … [6].

Back to topic. Jobs outside academia? Well, I’d say they always can be classified into one of the following categories:

  1. Having the function of representing something foreign. Say a company imports American machinery or is the local branch of an American company. Then customers certainly want to see that their products are „genuinely“ American. They want to see an American once in a while. That could be your job. Or a big company decides to become more „international“ (whatever that means). You’d be their „proof of international-ness“ (whatever that means).
  2. Being considered to be an „expert“ or having a talent that is considered to be impossible for a Japanese person to have. This covers ESL teachers, translators, etc., but is not necessarily tied to language skills. If you are a female with low morals, how about becoming Gaijin-tarento? On a more serious note, could be something in engineering. In fact, I’ve met several computer science majors who landed jobs in Japan. If you are an expert in $X-framework, your skills in the real-world language Japanese are less important than in the programming-language $X. In fact, it’s probably easier to land a well-paid job with a good skill set in engineering/sciences than with one in languages.
  3. Being an Expat. International companies however usually dispatch staff from overseas that has a longer experience with that particular company, and rarely hire directly in Japan. And if they do, they usually expect job experience. So, not really something if you’ve just graduated.

And then there are always the exceptions. Marutei Tsurunen, who was an ESL teacher before becoming a member of the upper house.

Oh, the irony…

Well, never say never. But the best chance of succeeding is probably when looking for something in category 2. However I have not met a single person, where I’d say: That guy really made a career here within the Japanese system, where you compete with other Japanese. Successful foreigner always found their niche. [7]

As for me personally, I thought a lot about all these things. Why bother with payment based mostly on seniority, with low initial wages, with the high cost of living, with the perspective of living in Tokyo (the only Japanese city I truly hate), and most importantly the long term prospects of (not) making a career in a Japanese company?

Well, it’s simple: Because Japan is awesome! It truly is. There are so many things that make life in Japan desirable, in a lot of ways life is incredible convenient, ordered, and enjoyable.

Is it worth it? Everyone has to decide for his own. For me, I came to the conclusion: It’s not worth it. Can’t really say anything right now, but even with choosing fun and interest over maximizing monetary return, I’ll probably make one and a half to twice of what I’d make in Japan. And that is without the cheaper cost of living [8]. Simply, the long term prospect of making a career and being able to provide for a family, even in troublesome times, made my decision. After all, Germany doesn’t suck [9].

[1] at least I’ve heard from one guy who was employed there that citation count and quality of research has a very high correspondence to getting tenure there.

[2] see [1]

[3] in case you are unsure about when a Japanese is a real Japanese, you can find a very precise diagram on what level of ancestry, i.e. blood, is required to be truly Japanese. [4] [5]

[4] I’m really sorry. I completely mixed something up here.

[5] Also really sorry about sneaking Godwin in here. ‚Happens sometimes. After all, I’m too near to the source.

[6] Not saying that there aren’t any issues in Germany. But someone with different skin color than white is definitely no sensation anymore. Several kids in my high-school class had different skin color, and at least for me, that was just a normal thing. Nothing you’d think much about. And that was roughly 15 years ago. I really can’t imagine school kids shouting „Foreigner! Foreigner!“ nowadays. Individual kids shouting racial slurs? Possible, though they’d probably get their fair share of „feedback“ from kids with a different standpoint.

[7] Difficult to compare to Germany. You’ll certainly face difficulties if you have black skin color or if your second name is like Ülcük but… all in all I’d say, German mainstream nowadays accepts that if you are willing to assimilate, you don’t need to be blond-haired and blue-eyed to be considered German. Where is Japan’s Philip Rösler? [10]

[8] When everything is finally set and fixed, I’ll probably write up a „what happened afterwards“.

[9] or does it?

[10] That’s a bad example I hear you say, because he is German and not Auslander – so what is my point? Well that’s exactly my point.

[11] actually, after writing up this article, I learned that this might not always be true.


3 Antworten to “Jobs in Japan – Finding Your Niche”

  1. Thomas Says:

    I stumbled over your page. Excellent summary of the situation here in Japan. I had the luck to get a tenured position in research, but I guess this is rather an exception. I agree with you, Japan is a great country, but as a foreigner there are no presents. Unless you have a special skill and/or are working harder or are just better in a certain field than a Japenese guy you won’t be considered for the job. I guess its the most challenging job environment one can encounter. I hope you find your ideal job!

  2. Master-Chief Says:

    Thanks very much for your comment, it’s always reassuring to hear that my views are not too distorted.

    I have to say one thing though: Looking at your IP-address, it seems to me that your employer is quite different from a typical Japanese university, and fits somehow in category 2 quite well.

    In fact one of my former colleagues is currently working for your employer as well, though in a different group.

    Anyway, this does not mean that I want to downplay your achievements: Congrats for getting tenure – you’ve achieved something that very few do. I would have never made it in academics, both due to a lack of talent and all the issues mentioned above.

  3. Thomas Says:

    I agree about Japanese universities. Getting tenure for a foreigner there is even more complicated. The funny(?) thing is that even positions which are announced (with English-only job openings) at the „[enter fancy word here]-international institute“ are filled with Japanese at the end. Those 1-2 foreigners who start with their tenure-track are either „motivated“ to leave or are not awared tenure because they don’t have enough language skills or just lack of understanding of „Japanese culture“.

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