How I found my first job in Japan

If you’re currently a senior in college, you’re probably feverishly trying to finish up final exams and senior projects about this time. Once you’re done, if you’re like me you’ll sigh a breath of relief and then suddenly realize, “Holy shit, what am I going to do once I graduate??

Well, I’m no expert but for those interested in finding a job in Japan, let me tell you about my experience with Career Forum, a job fair that helped me land my first job as a Java developer for Hitachi.

Career Forum is a great job fair geared for English and Japanese bilingual speakers and is free to attend for job seekers. You can apply to all sorts of companies including top names like Toshiba, NTT Docomo, and of course Hitachi. I have to be honest though. This is not for the faint of heart.

First of all, they had a technical career forum in San Francisco a little before I graduated in 2003. This year, it seems like the summer forum is being held in Tokyo so even getting there is no picnic and will hit your poor student wallet hard. For that price, you might as well consider going to the London forum at 5/31-6/1. The only other option is to wait until the end of September twiddling your thumbs for the Los Angeles forum. Juniors, you might want to think about getting a head start and plan for the next Boston and New York career forums in Fall and Winter.

Second, when I was there most of the companies seemed to be looking for Japanese people graduating from universities of English-speaking countries. The logic seems to be since they managed to graduate, they must be good at English even though the interviewer usually doesn’t speak English and so has no way of verifying this. I doubt if half the people there were actually fluent in English. So I suggest getting very comfortable in interviewing completely in Japanese. Also, I wished I had done this, but you should prepare a Japanese-style 履歴書 in addition to your regular resume. Make sure to have it proofread, ideally by somebody who successfully found a job with his/her 履歴書.

If your Japanese is not near native level, you’re going to have a lot less options so you should evaluate whether the cost of transportation and accommodations is going to be worth it. Look for foreign companies with locations in Japan like Goldman Sachs. In any case, you should check to see what companies are participating and focus on those you’re interested in. You won’t have enough time to visit every booth. Also wear a suit, no question. It’s Japan we’re talking about here.

If you do manage to land a job in Japan, congratulations! I hope you enjoy the high stress, long hours, and low pay! (Pay is based on seniority and not profession and skills.) Seriously though, you should think about whether this is the path you want to take as it’s not an easy one. I found my job by pure luck and I had to fly twice to Japan for 1st and 2nd round interviews with only the 2nd one paid for by the company. Until then, I was basically sitting around my mom’s house waiting for them to finally hire me. Even then, I was only hired on contract and became a regular employee after one year and yet another interview.

After the expense of flying and staying in San Francisco and Japan, I was pretty much out of money. Thank goodness meals at the company cafeteria and dorm were deducted from my salary. I managed to make it to my first paycheck by eating the cheapest thing I could get at 松屋 every weekend. Also, I had to shop around for a bank branch that would open an account for me without an Alien card (takes over a month to process) so that I could get paid. Can you believe that checks don’t exist in Japan?

Why go through all this when I could have had a much more comfortable job in the US with less stress and more pay? Well, working for a Japanese company in Japan was a great experience for me and helped me grow in many ways. I also started developing my career right away without spending a couple years teaching English in JET or whatnot. Still, that’s another perfectly fine option for getting into Japan. Another option is to develop your career first and then eventually find a company willing to ship you over. You’ll probably end up with a cushier job than climbing the Japanese corporate ladder from the bottom like I did. Whatever approach you decide, I suggest you do it while you’re young!

6 thoughts on “How I found my first job in Japan

  1. Hi Tae Kim, I’m a new reader. I just wanted to congratulate you for your exciting blog. I’ve been wanting to learn Japanese for over 10 years but only got serious for the past 2 years. I have a feeling I will learn a lot from you (you already cleared up Ga vs Wa, which even my native Japanese teachers couldn’t help with) BTW I’m not looking to work in Japan… just to be able to play my favorite games without ignoring the storyline…

  2. This was interesting. I work in Japan as a part-time worker at restaurants and my experiences have been so interesting. I’d *love* to hear more about your experience as a Japanese salaryman; workplace politics, dynamics, how things differ to American companies etc. I’ve read lots of books about how Japanese companies traditionally function but I wonder how different things are these days.

  3. That sounds interesting. I’ve always wanted to try the フリーター lifestyle.

    I think it depends a lot on the company. Mine is big and old so it was still pretty much like the old days. The company takes care of everything for you and you get paid more the longer you work there. I missed all the perks of the bubble period though. No company hanami parties or OLs making you tea. Everybody pretty much has to make their own photocopies and women have real jobs though there were no women in my division of 課長 or higher rank. You can still get treated by higher ranking managers to some nice restaurants and maybe even キャバクラ. The company takes a big portion of your social life as well with 飲み会s. Again, it’s very demanding but definitely an interesting experience. I wouldn’t want to do it for the rest of my life though which is why I quit. Oh and the job itself is very stressful since the people on top can exert a lot of pressure but it definitely taught me how to handle people and be a better developer.

  4. Also, another option, if possible would be to try to find a way to spend your last year or last semester of university in a Japanese usinversity, through some sort of exchange program. I am not talking about learning mainly learning Japanese there, but finishing your degree in a Japanese university. If you do that, you can get familiar with the university teachers, research lab directors, and so on. Very often, (Large) Japanese companies will hire by going at these teachers, and asking if they have good students. If you manage to get in that way, you can start from step one, Japanese style.

    I almost did that. The difference is that instead of directly getting a job after the Japanese University, my original university back home required that I do a 6 month internship before I could get my degree. I found this internship thank to a Japanese university teacher as explained above, and then, did a good enough job that they hired me afterward (full time, life contract, and so on).

    For full details, the original university was INSA in France, the Japanese one was Kobe university, I majored in software development, and landed an internship and job at Sharp, as a mobile application developer.

    For experiences, same as Tae Kim. Very enlightening, character and experience building, but I also discovered that it wasn’t the type of work environement I wanted to work in forever, so I quit after two years and a half. Still working in Japan, but in an European company (Opera, the web browser).

  5. Yeah really. Working 9 to 8 with an hour commute each way is not something I want to do for very long. Even foreign companies are no different if too many Japanese people work there (IBM). I take it Opera in Japan hasn’t been assimilated yet?

  6. The Opera Japan office is certainly more Japanese in many ways that offices in other countries, but we retain a very large part of European culture, and the work enviroment and athmosphere is very friendly. There are rush times around deadlines once in a while, but on average, it is really nice. The number of non-japanese employes is pretty high, and we also tend to attract Japanese people who share the same views as you and me about Traditional Corporate Japan.

    Oh, and by the way. We are hiring 🙂 So that’s another way to work in Japan. Developers, QA, sales… We are looking for all sorts of talented bilingual people.

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