The great thing about Japan’s company-based society is that the whole structure of work is based around human relationships. If you’re liked and you show your enthusiasm, then even despite a less than excellent performance, you can expect to keep your job. Therefore, the trick as a job candidate is to get yourselfinto a situation where prospective employers and workmates can get to know you during your candidacy process. Clearly, going through a traditional interview process is one way, but the bases are heavily loaded against you if you are young and have had no chance to get experience.

But there is another way – internships. By agreeing to work for little or no monthly income for 3-4 months (by no coincidence, the same period of probation as people who get their jobs by more traditional means), you get a chance to get to know the team and for them to know you. As the bonds of friendship and understanding start to strengthen, then your chances of being able to integrate into the company on a permanent basis increase exponentially. This strategy works very well in smaller companies.

Of course, there are a number of drawbacks with being an intern. One is the problem of getting little or no salary. This makes it tricky for people who are not living in their hometown and who have to pay rent and board during the period. Also, there is the fact that much of the work can be boring and low-skilled. This makes it difficult for you as an intern to show what you’re really made of.

The way around this is to make sure that you get permission to work back after normal closing hours and embark on some value-added project that will make your manager and colleagues sit up and take notice before the internship ends. Also, just your hardworking demeanor while working in such a testing situation will bring the experienced manager to the conclusion that you are a team-player, not a complainer, and someone of real value to the company. In short, someone they want to keep.

Getting internships is not easy, but with effort you can find them. First, create a short list of companies you want to target. Clearly they should be in an industry that you’re interested in, and they should be with companies that are smaller and run by the founder (so there are not too many rules or decision makers in your way). Next, find a way to contact someone at regular employee level, and ask them about what the company needs doing if only it had the budget. Providing the company has spare seats and is willing to take the risk of having a non-credentialed person in the office, most firms will be only too happy to have someone help them complete some long-term projects.

Several of my companies employ interns on a rotating (frequent) basis. Key to us is that the intern sticks around for at least 3-4 months, so that we can train them and give them some meaningful work. Many companies just offer copying, mailing, sorting, and other “make work” but I don’t think this kind of internship has much meaning, except perhaps if you are working for the print shop of a securities company. In such companies, urban legend has it that some of Wall Street’s most successful bankers started out this way. Certainly in the bowels of the organization, you can learn a lot about how the company works and who does what…

There are very few internships for non-Japanese in Japanese companies. The idea of a non-structured employee on no salary is beyond most Bucho’s imagination to conceive. However, there are some opportunities for foreign interns in smaller service companies, such as translation, advertising, consulting, and legal agencies, and software and computer companies.

In contrast, there are excellent opportunities for young Japanese working in all sizes of foreign multinationals. There is a huge shortage of young bilinguals willing to put some time in and prove themselves, so just the act of doing such an internship will open doors to a permanent job.