TenshokuDo is a website providing information about the Japanese job market. The TenshokuDo editorial team interviewed six foreigners working in Tokyo about what it takes to switch jobs in Japan. Read their stories as they talk about how they went from their first job here to finding a new job, working remotely, co-founding a company, and working freelance.
Find out about the application and hiring process they went through, their Japanese-language ability, and advice they have for others looking to switch jobs in Japan.
We asked Samantha, a Senior Community Specialist at Wahl+Case Tokyo recruitment office for her tips, advice, and knowledge on current job market trends.
- How did you find and apply for the job you have now?
- Many of you seem to have become an entrepreneur or freelance worker. What’s that like in Japan?
- How is your Japanese-language ability and do you have to speak it for work?
- Any advice for switching jobs in Japan?
Meet the Six Foreigners
Daryl is originally from Australia. After working at various companies, Daryl had the chance to try working in Tokyo after wanting to live in Japan since he was a kid. He decided to move to Japan in February of 2018.
His first job in Tokyo was working at a web marketing department of a traditional Japanese conglomerate. After working there for eight months, he took another job as a writer, working remotely.
Currently, he works remotely as a Japan Correspondent for Crunchyroll News, a company based in San Francisco. On the side, he works as a freelance digital marketing consultant for various companies in Japan.
Lucy moved to Japan in mid-2016 from Melbourne, Australia. Before moving to Japan, she worked as a full-time editor at a music magazine.
She was ready to try something new and worked as an English instructor for about a year, before co-founding a creative/communications agency.
She originally planned to move to Japan for about six months to a year; it has now been three years and she has no plans to move back as of now.
Peryhan moved to Japan as an exchange student in 2014. She returned back home to Egypt and later came back for her master’s program in 2016 to study at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. She currently works as an operations staff at a telecommunications company in Tokyo.
Phoebe visited Japan multiple times, before moving to Tokyo in September 2014 to study Japanese on a Daiwa Scholarship. After graduating in early 2016, she joined a TV production company and worked as a Markets Reporter for NHK World Newsline.
In April 2019, she made the decision to become freelance, and works as a TV reporter and multimedia journalist on various projects.
Shaun moved from Perth, Australia in January 2016 as an English Instructor. As he has a background in computer science, after ten months of working at an English conversation school, he accepted a job as a software engineer at Bitcoin.com.
Zoria moved to Japan in 2016 as she was accepted into Tokyo University of Foreign Studies on a scholarship to research Japanese visual poetry.
After the completion of her research, she started working as a travel writer and culture journalist, bringing Japan closer to people around the world.
How did you find and apply for the job you have now?
I looked for jobs through large recruiting agencies and job websites like LinkedIn and Indeed.
For Bitcoin.com, I met the CEO of Bitcoin.com at a Bitcoin meetup and applied by emailing him later. It’s great to network in the industry you’re interested in and talk directly to the people responsible for hiring. That would give you a significantly higher chance of success compared to applying online like everyone else.
There’s no need to be afraid to talk to people responsible for hiring. They are looking to hire people so would be happy to talk to someone interested in working for them.
Bitcoin Cash weekly meetup in Tokyo at meetup.com.
I did the Japanese ”Shushoku-katsudo” for a year and a half, my resources were the job fairs held at both my university and some recommendations of some other recruiting companies.
It didn't go well for me as most companies required passing lots of exams, later I used websites such as Daijob.com, Gaijin pot, LinkedIn, and even Craigslist (the company I work for right now is listed in Daijob.com).
I found this job through my network. After a year-and-a-half long hassle with job fairs and recruiting companies, I decided to ask within my community if anyone has a good idea where to work, luckily my friends were doing a part-time job in my current company and introduced me to apply there.
A screenshot of Daijob, a website that has been servicing bilingual and multilingual talent looking for jobs in Japan since 1998.
I have always found jobs in very non-mainstream ways, through recommendation, or first starting freelance or part-time for the company.
As a translator, I worked freelance and online, finding my own clients. As a university lecturer, I was invited and trained by my own professors who selected me from their many students and guided me through the process.
As a travel writer, I slowly built my portfolio and professional contacts. So, I have never found a job through job-hunting, mass-applying, or recruiter firm.
I found most of my contacts and one-off jobs on Craigslist in Japan. While there is a lot of filth to get through on there, it can be quite good to find something weird or quirky – like acting in a commercial or Fuji TV drama.
For careers, when I was searching, I’d use Indeed and GajinPot to find more career-based positions. Another great resource is the website for the companies themselves. I found that most companies in Japan have job listings on their own site; and using their own methods helps getting your foot in the door.
If you find a place you want to work at, check out their website for any open positions or ‘graduate’ positions.
Connections! Most of my work has been from people just contacting me or chatting to people at events and parties. I love talking to people.
I have also asked for advice from several freelance friends in the field, who helped me with advice on how to pitch, approach editors etc. – and they also introduce me to people.
Also, social media presence. I have received works via Twitter, Instagram and my food blog Pheebz Eatz. I put my portfolio on Contently which I highly recommended for freelance writers – I just got cleared for clients to approach me for sponsored content.
I find most of my work now through referrals or ongoing clients, we do pitch projects too, but the companies we've reached out to we've had some connection with too, either friends or associates.
I think GaijinPot has a pretty comprehensive job site, but apart from that, I'm not too sure where else to look.
I always think a cold email is a great way to reach out to companies too. Find a place you think you'd like to work and reach out, send an email to tee up a meeting just to say if you're looking for anyone in the future you'd be keen.
I've done that a little and gotten a few jobs actually from it because nobody really does it anymore.
A screenshot from Lucy's company website, Y+L Projects.
Samantha: Referrals is definitely my biggest recommendation, as referrals say a lot about the service or company. Meetups are also a good idea, as you would be able to meet professionals in that space and also build your own network or learn from others that are in that meetup.
It’s unnerving to be in a country with no knowledge of the market whatsoever, but meetups could help you build your own personal connections and learn more from those more knowledgeable.
Recruitment companies are a good option if you are unsure as they would be able to share market info, help in preparing for interviews, and eventually be able to help with salary negotiation. The common misconception people have about recruitment companies are that they shouldn’t be trusted and instead of applying through an agency, direct would be better. However, applying directly without any form of information about the company is the fastest way to get rejected without having your CV looked at.
Many of you seem to have become an entrepreneur or freelance worker. What’s that like in Japan?
Pros of being freelance: Freedom – to choose when and where I work, what I want to cover, to research the things that interest me the most. Sense of purpose – working for myself is the most satisfying way of working. Finding stories about things and people that I believe should be told to the world is also so rewarding.
Cons of being freelance: Unstable income – like most people in the field, I have a stable income from a non-writing source, but my contract is only yearly with the show or I could get axed.
Phoebe working remotely in a park.
Freelance means you don’t know where your next income will come from. Currently, I feel like I won’t finish everything in one lifetime, but I know from other friends that a slight lull in work sends them into a panic. I also have that fear.
Admin, taxes, invoices, receipts, and visas – Japan is such a grey area. I hate dealing with stuff like this because I am very disorganized and get stupefied when faced with numbers, but it is perfectly doable.
Asking for money – knowing your own value. It is so easy to undervalue yourself. A great piece of advice I recently received from an LA-based freelance graphic designer: “If you feel comfortable asking for the amount you’re asking for, it’s probably too low.”
I help companies out as a freelance consultant with their digital marketing and as a content writer/video creator. Having some formal professional digital marketing experience at a traditional company really helps in this regard, as well as having a kind personality.
Being able to choose the people I work with and for, is the best. Sometimes it’s hard trying to get older bosses to understand more modern social media techniques in the face of them working from Showa Era ideas that don’t work in Reiwa. Though the feeling I get when my ideas get through to them and show results is great.
The worst thing about being freelance is paperwork, taxes, and everything else. Because Japan doesn’t really have the concept of ‘freelance,’ all the bureaucracy is based on company workers and getting the ward office and immigration to understand is hard.
Technically, you cannot be a freelancer in Japan because you need a company to sponsor your visa, but there are some workarounds and being able to show the contracts you have, as a freelancer, to the immigration office helps.
Samantha: Visa sponsorship depends on the type of job you would eventually be doing. I can’t say much about the teaching visa but for engineering visas, they usually look at the years of work and your university degree. Also, not all companies sponsor visas (at least for startups. For the more established companies, they do.) so it would be wise to ask beforehand or refer to the job description when applying.
Freelancing is not common here in Japan and to be completely honest, to this point it is still somewhat frowned upon. The sole reason being, if you were a freelancer freelancing for over 5 years of your career, would you be able to work in a company where freedom is no longer the same?
I'm the co-founder of a creative/communications agency; we mainly do content production and communication strategy (PR social media and the like).
I also still do quite a bit of writing on the side, mainly travel writing for both local and international publications.
In terms of qualifications, I don't think you specifically need anything to do what I do! Rather than skills per se, I think to actually do what I do in Japan, you've got to be sure not to get too comfortable in a 'regular' job, and actually be proactive about trying new things, leveraging new opportunities and backing yourself.
A screenshot from Lucy's company website, Y+L Projects.
The pros far outweigh the cons in my opinion. I work for myself, so everything I do work-wise benefits my company and me directly. I can work the hours I want (within reason) and always feel motivated to do as much as I can. Work is fun for me; it never feels like I'm cashing in my time for pay like it might at a regular 9 to 5 job.
Cons wise is that switching off can be hard, I'm also a little neurotic about work, so that's especially true for me personally.
Working for yourself also means you're directly responsible for paying yourself, so there's a lot of behind the scenes work doing meetings, trying to get new clients and contracts, but it's all part of it.
The biggest and well-known pro of my job is the chance to travel for work to places you would not have the time or money to travel otherwise.
The journalists also get previews and sneak peeks, are given detailed tours of places, like sake breweries or kimono-making shops. I get to talk in-depth with Buddhist and Shinto priests, sushi chefs, fashion designers, musicians, geishas, poets and so on.
The con of the travel writing job is that people don't see is the fact that these jobs are very low paid, very time-consuming, there is not a clear division between work and pleasure, so sometimes you end up mixing both.
This means that you may travel for work, but have no time to really rest, travel schedules are packed and not relaxed, and as you need to constantly listen, ask questions, write notes, take photos and speak Japanese – it is a tiring work trip, and not a leisurely slow and spontaneous vacation.
Sometimes, some clients even confuse journalists with 'talento' or 'model', trying to catch you doing something on camera that will later be shown and printed.
Currently, for me the pros outweigh the cons, as I love what I do and I am very passionate about writing.
A screenshot of Zoria’s Instagram profile where she posts many travel and work pictures @zoria_in_tokyo
How is your Japanese-language ability and do you have to speak it for work?
I did about a year of Japanese study causally before I came to Japan, which helped a lot for comprehension, but for a big city in Tokyo, it isn’t as necessary.
In the jobs I’ve worked in, they’ve been multilingual workplaces. I’ve mostly had to speak in English and Japanese, but I heard Spanish, French, Chinese, and more.
I studied Japanese on my own at first while back in my home country. I then studied the Japanese language and culture comprehensively for two years at Tokyo University. I was able to focus on my Japanese language course while working slowly and building a portfolio.
At my current office, we speak many languages amongst each other, very often English and Japanese, but there are speakers of many other languages.
The native Japanese speakers in my office, and in fact many people's offices, seem to be very patient with those of us who don't speak perfect Japanese.
We only speak English in my office. The main con is that I don’t get much of a chance to practice Japanese because everything is in English. After four years in Japan, I’m still a beginner in Japanese.
My Japanese level is around N2. I speak Japanese most of the time at work. Although our clients are 90% English speakers, my coworkers and the system we use for work is Japanese. It is very challenging and frustrating sometimes, but when I'm in trouble, everyone encourages me to deliver my thoughts in English.
I studied Japanese in the university for about one year and I continued self-learning while I was doing my masters (which was in English) I do not study anymore but I keep my ears open for new words and phrases.
I know friends who do not speak Japanese and yet have a job, but it seems that this is only possible if you're in the IT business, not humanities.
The JLPT - Japanese Language Proficiency test has five levels from N5 to N1.
My Japanese language skills are very mediocre, but I think of course, for my work it would help if I spoke better Japanese.
My business partner is Japanese, so he takes care of a lot of the paperwork.
This is such a complicated issue. For me, I regularly beat myself up for how bad I still am.
However, I interview people in Japanese now on a weekly basis and I just record things, transcribe and get Japanese or bilingual friends to help when I can’t quite get something. This allows me to access places and people and stories I wouldn’t otherwise be able to, and it gives me a strong competitive advantage over those who do not speak it.
Going freelance has improved my Japanese loads! However, I know several journalists in Tokyo who speak far worse or almost no Japanese. They have been here a long time and have transitioned, have stable side gigs/other sources of income. As far as I am aware, there are very few non-Japanese speakers purely in the media field and they might have transitioned with their company here.
Phoebe doing tea research for an article she was assigned to write.
Samantha: Japanese language is still an important factor when a company decides to hire. An example would be; if a company required a salesperson, Japanese would be necessary even if you are not required to sell domestically.
This being; most of the internal work would be in Japanese (i.e: speaking to your boss, colleagues or even the occasional phone calls.) While it might be different for engineers (as they would code in English anyway and most of their coworkers are foreign engineers too), Japanese speaking engineers are highly valued in the market if compared to those that don’t. N2 is borderline (as this means; you’d have no problem reading emails in Japanese etc.) and anything above that would be a plus.
Any advice for switching jobs in Japan?
For a foreign person, working in Japan might seem like an impossibility or far more difficult than back home, but I don't think that's the case at all.
Here if you have some skills, the ability to network a bit, some ambition, then really you're going to become a valuable commodity.
The 'outsider' perspective that you bring to a company or job is highly appreciated here if you can show that you can offer something.
If you’re in Japan and looking for a switch, networking is important.
If you’re in any field of work, there are meet-ups happening all the time where you can talk to other people in the same line of work but at different companies. This can help you find new jobs or just meet new people that will become lifelines in the future.
Working in Japan teaches you a lot about discipline and teamwork. I believe in the strength of networking when it comes to finding a job here. However, before deciding to move to Japan for work, I believe in precise evaluation of the goal you're trying to reach and what you can and can not sacrifice.
It’s also important to realize that work and life balance isn't easily achievable within the work ethics, thus the emphasis on the friendly atmosphere should be highlighted.
From my experience, finding a good job in Japan requires a lot of luck—many positions are available, but the accepting/friendly atmosphere is rare.
Build relevant career skills – for me that was studying computer science in university and practicing software development by working on my own hobby projects.
Network in the industry you are interested in and talk directly to people responsible for hiring. For me, that was attending Bitcoin meetups and going to tech startup events.
Always look out for local meetups to network with people at website like meetup.com
Talking to the hiring decision-makers gives you a massive advantage over people applying online.
Connect with professionals from your fields that can tell you when you can apply outside of the general recruitment process.
Actually, avoid that mass job-hunting where you solve tests in a hangar with a 1,000 other people in the same suit. Aside from talking to people in the field, work on your skills and portfolio and work on your language skills. Learn about your legal rights, be informed, ask for help from friends who know more.
Finally, always have a plan B, because even when you do everything right, they might be someone else who will do everything wrong, and you need to be able to walk away from that.
Samantha: All the advice above is good advice. It is a plus to bring a foreign perspective into Japan, but it should never be something primary. People appreciate a different point of view, but they do not appreciate being told that their way is wrong; even if it might be. The above advice touches on that and I’d like to highlight the dangers of becoming the “gaijin” that Japanese shy away from.
Also, as the others have mentioned, networking is important as it would help you long term. Do not be afraid to ask for help from the more knowledgeable people in the industry, or even recruiting agencies. After all, there isn’t much to lose and every piece of information gained adds to your own knowledge.
Ready to Make the Switch
What did you think? After hearing from six foreigners who have all successfully transitioned from one line of work to another, do you feel confident enough to give it a go? Everyone touched on several key points: knowing your worth, being proactive and friendly, researching the company and field you’re looking into, using recruitment services as well as less conventional methods, and networking networking networking! Getting to know other people in the industry you’re interested in and building relationships with them is so important—especially if, like so many of our interviewees, you decide to take the plunge and work for yourself. Already being in Japan helps. Look up some of the meetup pages listed in the article above and find out how you can make connections that count!
If you’re still outside Japan and looking to start working here, we have another article for that here!
Contact Samantha for Job opportunity in Japan
Samantha is currently involved in community management, event planning, e-mail marketing, and finding top talents for mid-level to executive level positions in Japan and APAC, for enterprise, consumer, and advertising technology.
She currently work as a senior Community Specialist at EQIQ K.K. (www.wahlandcase.com)