There is no doubt that the best way to acquire a decent level of Japanese and an excellent collection of business contacts is to join a Japanese company (versus a foreign capital one) in Japan. Some of the best people we’ve ever placed have come through this route. While it’s an excellent education, almost 100% of people who’ve done it are only too ready to move on to a foreign company after 2-3 years. The reason? Autocracy and Bureaucracy.

It’s quite amazing to me that over the last ten years, Japanese companies have really started to change their attitude towards foreigners working for them. Yes, the glass ceiling is still there, and it’s unusual for a foreigner to make it past Bucho level, but the variety of opportunities for foreign staff, as well as the effort to talk to and include them seems to be steadily improving. Indeed, in some companies there seems to be an attitude developing that foreigners are a vital strategic direction that will help a moribund company out of its hole, the only trouble is that nobody seems to have figured out how to make their foreign workers fit into the classic Japanese salaryman mold.

The thing that both parties (the Japanese employers and foreign candidates) seem to underestimate, is the culture gap. Most Japanese companies are accepting foreigners on their terms, not the other way around, and usually these terms are quite onerous and inflexible. You have to remember that a Japanese company’s idea of an ideal employee is someone who will obey orders without question, who is willing to work until midnight frequently, who gets results as a team member yet lets their boss take the credit, and who demonstrates the right mix of humility and general ‘cuteness’. Yes, I know that I’m generalizing here, but I’ve had enough letters from people to see that a pattern exists.

Let’s take a look at why Japanese companies have so much trouble gainfully employing foreigners…..

The career opportunities open for Japanese employees depend on the size of the company, but certainly in larger companies a person’s career track is decided very early on, based on schooling, family background, general ability to display obedience and confidence at the same time, and a whole lot of other intangible factors. These are the “chosen ones”- they get identified early and are helped by senior management to move up the corporate ladder. If a person doesn’t have these factors going for them, the only other way to get ahead in the company is through sheer hard work. This however, can be a very long, arduous process, taking 5-10 years to gain each promotion that a “chosen one” can get in 3 years or less.

So you see, given that a foreigner has none of the education reference points, nor is likely to have the language and behavioral nuances down to the fine level needed to impress those around them, it is difficult for a large Japanese company to deem them worth trusting, and thus provide career or promotional opportunities. Instead, almost the only way a foreigner can get ahead is by hard work, and as I said, you’d need to be prepared to take a lifetime of suffering to prove your worth. Most foreigners aren’t prepared or mentally conditioned to do this, and so the myth of foreigners being unreliable is perpetuated.

As a foreigner looking to settle and work in Japan, there are two ways to deal with this situation. One is to simply accept that a job in a Japanese company will always be temporary and use the opportunity to gain the language and business connections that will be invaluable to a foreign employer. The second way is to find a company that really is different. There are some, where the founder studied overseas and understands the non-Japanese mindset and has purposefully hired internationalized staff, or the start-up, where being foreign matters a lot less than the ability to get results and enjoy the company of one’s colleagues.

Surviving a Japanese Company

If you’re set on working in a Japanese company, be aware that the jobs you’re most likely to succeed in will focus on your native language skills; mainly assisting in trade and marketing with overseas vendors and/or sales agents and selling into the foreign community here in Japan, or in technology, especially systems software development. Occasionally we do also see smaller founder-run companies where the CEO is looking for a special projects person to execute a business idea involving an overseas location. Where can you find these jobs? Either by frequenting job boards such as, going to recruiting fairs, or joining business organizations where you’re likely to meet CEO’s. In almost all cases, these opportunities will require you to physically be located in Japan.

As always, my contact details are simply: Looking forward to getting some enquiries…