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Working in Japan – A Word From a Veteran

If you are thinking about coming to Japan, be ready to work- and work hard. And if you can do that, you will get paid.


You might find it very frustrating being a newcomer in a new market (and especially if you don’t have any language skills). In this case I would opt for a major company for a few years to establish a good list of contacts. And, one more thing, be sure to give lots of presents – especially when you travel, even if it’s a day trip to Osaka; make sure you bring your co-workers a box of the local specialty from wherever it was you were visiting. They’ll love you for it!! Japanese also love chit-chat and long talks. Prepare a bunch of topics that you can spin at every meeting! Compliment them like a champion! It may feel a little conspicuous, but the bigger the compliment the better. And, ALWAYS play down compliments that they dish out to you. It may be hard not to go on a victory lap every now and then, but believe me, they respect the humble player, the quiet achiever.


Japanese especially love the “old school connection”; old boys; club member; team player mentality. Entrepreneurs aren’t really welcome at all. Japanese love the old big company status! In short, they don’t believe in making money “the easy way”; if you’re not sweating and toiling for it, you don’t deserve it!


If you’ve just got out of college and just want to make a quick buck to pay back your student loans or travel around the world try IT jobs in Tokyo. Companies are desperate for programmers & Internet project managers. You can make a bundle. Be sure to shop around too! English teaching is the only case where I would not recommend a big city. Forget Tokyo and forget Osaka. The market is flushed with teachers, the rates are dropping, and the cost of living will eat up your cash. You will be much better off financially in a smaller city like Nagoya or Shizuoka. One warning: It IS easy money but if you’re a real teacher you may not feel professionally rewarded. If you want a “real” teaching job, a private high school or University is the way to go for you. But these jobs are very difficult to get directly (without a good contact). Don’t go through an agency! But if you have the right contacts and can get paid directly by the schools, you’ll have one of the best teaching experiences possible.


Learning Japanese. Business Japanese and conversational Japanese are 2 different worlds. You might be able to schmooze the local waiter/ waitress with some cool comments and a cute smile but the hard headed, traditional Japanese SALARYMEN are going to want to hear you speak in a polite and articulate manner using KEIGO (the polite form of Japanese), which is the standard, cordial language that all business is conducted in. Even if you can speak really well you may also have to face the fact that you are not Japanese and are, by definition, an outsider. No matter how professional your efforts are, you may still need to be accompanied by a Japanese person for your business ventures.


Whatever industry you’re in, you’ll probably come across the “no contracts” policy of a lot of Japanese companies. Believe me! Insist on a written contract. If they value you, they will sign for you. Also, insist on a copy in your native language, drafted by a professional. Clearly defining the job is also important in this agreement you make with the Japanese company because the Japanese language is inherently ambiguous; make sure you understand exactly what it is you’ll be doing before you agree to anything- especially if it’s just a “favor”. Many times for me, a little “favor” has turned into a major ordeal that I should have billed several thousand dollars for. And these were my friends!! All of my expat friends have a policy: we charge our friends, but at the “friend’s rate”- everyone benefits.


Having said this, small gestures and tokens of appreciation are very important in Japan. Never overlook these small things that are noticed only by their absence. And very often Japanese will reciprocate in kind. Establish your business contacts, nurture them, learn Japanese, take an interest in the culture (also appreciated by the Japanese Business community), make your contracts, corner your market and enjoy your Japan experience!


Excerpted and adapted from “Working in Japan – A Word by a Veteran” by Peter Wilson in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 18

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