Help this 外国人 figure out how to get to 日本.
October 11, 2009 10:17 AM   Subscribe

Yet another question about moving to Japan.

So, I want to move to Japan, ideally by the end of 2010 or beginning of 2011. These are my conditions/skills/attributes:

-(assume I will have) conversational Japanese, including reading and writing. I'd also be interested in hearing what different levels of skill--i.e. "Conversational" vs. "Business"--would enable me to do or limit me to. I'm currently working very aggressively to learn the language, and I'm making noticeable, fast progress. I have the luxury (and obsessive capability) of being able to spend 30+ hours a week on it (not including "passive absorption time"), so I'm confident I will at least be conversational by then--if not by early next year. But I would like to know what the bare minimum is that I can expect to be able to work with, effectively, so I can plan well.

-10+ years as a web developer, currently working at MIT. I don't have any presumption that I'm that much better than any other web dev (although I am damn good, thank you very much) just 'cause I work at MIT, but I'm going to play that up if it would help at all. I also lived in NYC for a number of years and worked at a bunch of start-ups (a work style I'm done with, see below). I'm familiar with a wide variety of technologies, but I'm fairly limited in the Microsoft-platform side of things--my expertise is in all OSS (PHP/Java/and currently Ruby). I also kick most devs' asses with my UNIX sysadmin skills (not that I consider myself a sysadmin, oh great sysadmins of the world). This doesn't begin to cover my full skill set and experience, but I figured it would be enough to get a gist of what I can bring to the table.

-What I'm most interested in knowing: I don't want a crazy job where I work 70 hour weeks regularly. I'm done with that. I'll work hard, but I want a sane(r) work environment. Is this asking too much? Everything I've read about working in Japan says that the tech field is nuts in terms of overtime. I'd rather get paid a little less and work more sane hours but what I've read about the culture of work suggests this may be naive of me.

All that aside, if I have to work like a dog for a short time in order to move to something else that would suit me better, I'd do it...I just don't know what's possible. An alternative way to ask what I'm asking is, are there companies/organizations out there, in Japan, who would be able to use someone like me and have good work environments?

And, one more thing on this note--I'm perfectly comfortable considering a new career path if I can leverage my existent skill set and experience in any way. I've been doing this a while and I'm looking for a change soon anyways. I'm open to out-of-the-box ideas.

-I want to live in a big urban area, which I guess means Osaka or Tokyo? I assume this is just fine, as that's where more of the big companies are?

I'm signed up for the CFN Boston Career Forum this year, and while my Japanese is currently for crap, I figured I might as well go and see what I can find out even still. Does anyone think this would or would not be useful, regardless of my Japanese language ability (at this point)? My simple plan is to go this year, feel things out a bit, and then, assuming I have basic conversational skill, go again next year (2010) and see what is really possible.

I've read these already, and pulled some good stuff out of them:

Some guy moving in Japan
Advice for working in Japan
How difficult is it for a family of three to move to Japan?
"Trailing spouse" experiences moving to Japan?
Tokyo cost of living

Terrie's Job Tips at have been quite useful as well, but I think he has a certain perspective which may not be providing me with the whole picture--I want to try to understand how to find more under the radar, unconventional tech gigs, if possible and if such things exist.

Any advice, help, links, etc. will be greatly appreciated. Thank you AskMeFi Hive Mind!
posted by dubitable to Work & Money (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Jobs that don't involve teaching English usually require at least JLPT level 2 Japanese (about 1000 kanji, 6000 vocabulary). Unless you know someone who can help you get work, start studying.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:16 AM on October 11, 2009

Best answer: Terrie Lloyd's advice is pretty spot on, so don't discount it.

Anyway, having Japanese ability is helpful, but in will no way prepare you to work for a Japanese company at this stage of the game - the cultural chasm is just too great - and I don't know why you would want to work for a Japanese company anyway.

If you want to get set up, it's easiest to locate in Tokyo. Osaka may be a large city, but its economy has been hammered over the past 15 years. It has few of the head offices and other clients that need your services as a web developer.

Nagoya, as the center of Japan's auto and aerospace industry, may have jobs for developers, but Nagoya is where the manufacturing gets done, and the specialized companies that provide services to Nagoya industry are usually located in Tokyo.

But these are Japanese companies, and, right off the get-go, it will be difficult for you to get a job with them. Besides, the working conditions will probably suck - the hours are long - and the pay will be even worse. Developers are not paid well in Japan.

Instead, you should focus on American (or foreign) companies with operations in Japan. They'll probably pay more, and the work may be more interesting. Language won't be an issue, although your basic Japanese ability will help more than if you approached a Japanese company.

Check out the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan website to see which companies operate in the country. Their directory should have the names and email addresses of contacts at these companies, and you can even try phoning them up (cold calling).

The Canadian, British and Australian Chambers in Japan should be useful, too. Take a look at who's on the boards of these Chambers.

The challenge is that most software/IT contracting at foreign firms in Tokyo has serviced the financial services industry, and foreign firms have cut 20-30% of their staff over the past year due to the economic meltdown. However, embassy and trade delegations still need the help of local talent (contractors), but it will be challenging and time-consuming to make these connections.

The Tokyo Entrepreneurial Association is also a good place to network. Foreigners play a key role in startup entrepreneurial ventures in Tokyo, mostly because of culture and technological expertise.

At MIT, investigate who on staff and faculty has dealings with Japan. Try networking with them.

If you really want to work in Japan, you're going to need to relocate there to find a job. You can't do it from here.

Another place to cold call would be Digital Garage, Joichi Ito's startup incubator in Tokyo. Perhaps they can give you some pointers.

Good luck!
posted by KokuRyu at 11:35 AM on October 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Holy CRAP that is some good data KokuRyu. Thank you, it's going to take me a bit of time to process all of that.

Thanks also betweenthebars for the data on JLPT levels...I'd appreciate any more details on what equates to what (JLPT 2 = "conversational Japanese?"). My hero Khatzumoto is pretty strongly against the JLPT at all, and he at least has some experience to back up his claims that you don't need it--but I'd be interested in hearing what other folks think about the need to take this and have it on your resume.
posted by dubitable at 11:43 AM on October 11, 2009

I found the JLPT to be a pretty useful tool to focus my study efforts, and Japanese employers do place considerable value on the test when considering to hire a foreigner.

However, Japanese companies also place considerable value on conventionality - how old you are, and the path you have taken to reach the application process.

For example, the three most common paths foreign recruits take to join a Japanese company are

a) university internship at a Japanese company; a coworker of mine (I work in Canada) doing her Masters is currently interning with a large Japanese company's research division. The internship was set up by the Canadian university

b) graduate from Japanese university (undergrad or Masters) and apply at a Japanese company

c) join the JET program as a CIR (not an ALT), and get a job at a Japanese company after spending 2 years as a CIR

These are the conventional routes, and the people with the best chance of success have passed JLPT Level 1, and are also business-oriented and quite polished.

What you're trying to do is unconventional. With 10 years at MIT, you're also older. JLPT is the least of your worries.

But's it's a useful benchmark and studying tool. JLPT 1 (the highest level) is only the gateway to Japanese, IMHO.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:55 AM on October 11, 2009

Response by poster: What you're trying to do is unconventional. With 10 years at MIT, you're also older. JLPT is the least of your worries.

Sorry, to clarify: I've been a web developer for 10 years--in Boston and NYC. But I have only been at MIT for about a year and half now. I was just bringing it up because in and of itself it sounds impressive to some people (like I said, I take that fact with a grain of salt, but...), and I wanted to know if people thought the name recognition would help me at all with Japanese organizations. But it may be moot, as it sounds like you're suggesting going through Western companies first, more or less?

In the end I don't care if my route to Japan requires me to work for a Western company or not, but I'm just hoping I can get there long enough to immerse myself in the culture for a significant amount of time, and be able to much better navigate things so that I can figure out a longer term plan for staying there, if such a thing is possible and if I find it desirable.

Thanks again for your help!
posted by dubitable at 12:27 PM on October 11, 2009

Best answer: I'll jump in to concur with the "work for a Western company" advice. I worked for a Japanese company and was very very lucky, in that the company scrupulously avoided making people work overtime, but everyone I know that has worked for a Japanese company has worked crazy amounts of unpaid overtime. For Western companies, nobody's been unpaid, but folks in the finance industry work crazy amounts of properly paid overtime, while folks in the tech industry work fairly little overtime at all.
posted by Bugbread at 4:33 PM on October 11, 2009

Best answer: I work in Japan for a French company, in a more relaxed city than either Tokyo or Osaka.

I highly recommend for your career and your sanity finding a similar position. Even in my foreign-owned company with significant presence of foreign management, the work environment is quite conventional Japanese: stupidly long hours, ridiculous rules, high reliance on seniority. But I still consider myself lucky because I have been working with good people with fewer hours, fewer rules, and happier-seeming folks than a lot of the companies we work with. Colleagues who join my lab from other companies say the same thing - that the environment where I am working is better than the Japanese-owned companies they are coming from (these are all big name MNC).

Since you are at MIT, you should get in touch with the MISTI Japan people in E38-7. They won't be able to hand you a job, but they can give you more info and maybe (maybe!) put you in touch with someone who happens to be looking.

Beyond that, I second the entrepreneurial route; there are also some good LinkedIn groups to get into. Start-ups often have foreign members or Japanese with foreign experience. Another thing not mentioned yet is that depending on the kind of development you do, maybe you can qualify for something that leads to self-sponsorship, if you can get contracts for regular off-site work. I know this option exists, but not how much you have to earn to prove it to the government.

And just take the damn JLPT eventually. It gives you a goal, lots of study materials are geared towards it, and it's just 1 day and $100.
posted by whatzit at 6:36 PM on October 11, 2009

Best answer: dubitable, I would argue that for you, perhaps, taking the test (even if just a practice test) might be pretty useful. How much do you have a chance to use Japanese in daily life? If you're thinking of trying to join a Japanese company (and I agree with the others in that you should aim for a position at a western company instead), it will be all Japanese all the time. Is the JLPT perfect? No, but in most cases, someone with 2kyu will be able to handle working in a Japanese environment better than someone without.

You say you're making noticeable, aggressive progress. Measured against what? There are a plethora of online study guides, most of which are based on the JLPT. Check some of those out, see where you're at.

Finally, be aware that the market here is really, really shitty. Outright layoffs for full-time workers are hard to do, so, in a lot of ways, full-time jobs are almost impossible to get. People with FT work can have (and are having, in a lot of fields) their wages cut and their bonuses cancelled (and the bonus is pretty much essential, as monthly wages can be quite low). As for not wanting to work overtime, well, that's the heart and soul of business here. Horribly inefficient overtime. I'm not trying to dissuade you from coming, I'm just trying to let you know what things are like here, and unfortunately, they don't look to be getting much better. I've been here for 9 years, and I'm seriously thinking it might be time to leave, but, strangely, for economic reasons, which is not the reason I ever thought I'd go home.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:36 PM on October 11, 2009

(I always forget something).

One thing does have to be defended about the salaries here: numerically they are much lower than US-standards, but keep in mind that any good, sizable company is going to offer you a housing allowance, a transportation allowance, 2-3 months worth of "bonus", etc., and your health care is much much cheaper. I have never had exact numbers to run, but total compensation should be in the ballpark of US salary. On a per hour basis though, it is a different matter!
posted by whatzit at 6:40 PM on October 11, 2009

Response by poster: Okay, what I'm taking away from this:

-Work for a Western if all possible (and this may be all that is possible for me at first).
-I will still have to work long hours, sounds like.
-Take the JLPT.
-The economy there is not great right now.

Ghidorah, points taken re: learning Japanese. You're right in that I'm not measuring my progress against speaking with Japanese on a day to day basis--but I'm doing what I believe is the next best thing, which is trying to watch, listen to and read Japanese language materials (created for Japanese, not non-Japanese speakers, to be clear). I say I've made progress because my comprehension has gone up markedly from just a few months ago. All that aside, I don't get the ability to speak with Japanese people regularly, and I know that's a weakness. I do have a language partner but I only see him once a week. I'm thinking I might try and get a second language partner as well.

In any case, based on what you and whatzit and KokoRyu are saying, it looks like I'll be adding taking the JLPT to my list.

whatzit, thanks for the tips on MISTI. I'll check it out ASAP.

One more thing: I'd love to mefi-mail some of you some specific questions, but I don't want to be presumptuous. Would any of you "old Japan hands" be willing to answer some more specific questions about your experiences?

Thanks a lot folks! This is very helpful!
posted by dubitable at 6:08 AM on October 12, 2009

KokuRyu's comment is gospel truth. He already spaced out his bullet points like an HTML list, so just print it out and put a verse number in front of each graf and you've got yourself a mini-bible.
posted by planetkyoto at 8:11 AM on October 12, 2009

I'm cool with Mefi-mail.
posted by Bugbread at 6:31 PM on October 12, 2009

Best answer: Leverage your language partner!

I work in Japan, for a large Japanese company, doing computer development and other various and sundry odd jobs (being the only native English speaker means I have some uniquely useful skills). I do very minimal overtime, make a tolerably reasonable salary (I can easily save over half of my salary and still live comfortably), have my rent and transportation costs almost entirely subsidized, and have a commute of around 15 minutes including the walks to and from the train station. I do not work in Tokyo, although Tokyo could very well have been an option for me, and may still be, but my company is unusual in having its main office (very) far from Tokyo.

I did not go to any career forum, or have to send my resume off into the void. My language partner sent my info on to a friend at my current company, who sent it off to another (higher-up) person, who then communicated with me, interviewed me, and then offered me this position. The whole process was actually so easy as to feel almost unreal, and I did not really trust that I would have the job until I had all of my visa paperwork in hand.

KokuRyu's pointers on networking are definitely the ones I'd work on. Japanese people love tests and certifications, so taking and passing the JLPT could very well be useful.
posted by that girl at 6:52 PM on October 12, 2009

Best answer: I'll just second what KokuRyu said and comment on my own experience. I actually obtained my first job in Japan straight out of university at the Boston Career Forum (at a large, globally-known electronics conglomerate). Going straight into a Japan company from university is not usually how Americans make it to Japan, but is not terribly unusual for people from other Asian countries trying to get to Japan. I was fortunate in that I already had a Japanese language ability above JLPT Level 1 -- other non-Japanese who entered the company with me took six months worth of language training in addition to the standard six-month new employee training, while I was sent to work immediately without that. (You would most likely have the same kind of training, perhaps in a shortened form.) However, since I was essentially joining the company as a raw recruit, my lack of experience was not an issue, and I was treated and paid exactly the same as my fellow Japanese employees. Overtime was fully paid, and although I left after 6 months due to differences with the overall corporate environment, my time there was not too bad. Just like in the US, there is a wide variety of companies. Unpaid overtime is technically illegal but is the standard at most small- and medium-size companies. Your immediate boss will determine a lot of how much you enjoy your workplace, since they often have a lot of leeway regarding employee welfare and transfers and such.

I live in Tokyo, in a somewhat expensive apartment, and I make what would be considered pittance wages in New York, but I am able to live comfortably, if frugally. I do not get a bonus, but factoring that in to your salary calculations is key -- at large companies there tends to be both a summer and a winter bonus, each about 2-3 months worth of salary. This year has been extremely tough, however, and bonuses have been cut back or cut entirely. You might be able to negotiate a higher monthly salary without a set bonus (often referred to as 年俸制, nenpousei: yearly salary system) if you'd prefer more stability.

A warning: no matter how good your Japanese is, if as you say you haven't spent much time around Japanese people or in Japan, you will have a long period of adjustment and accompanying stress. This, plus the normal stress of your job, will take its toll on you in the beginning. Be prepared to suffer some culture shock or even mild depression. If possible, try to visit Japan a few times for extended periods before you actually decide to move here. You might also consider coming to study first, then transition to employment after a year or two -- there are several scholarship programs to assist you with that.

Good luck to you!
posted by armage at 7:29 PM on October 12, 2009

Response by poster: Leverage your language partner!

Oh, good point that girl, I didn't think of that. Thanks for that and the other tips.

armage, I hear your point about speaking--and spending time--with native Japanese speakers. In fact, one of (many of) the main reasons I want to move there is because I'm determined to become fluent in the language, and I recognize I won't be able to do that until I live in the country and really understand the culture, as best as I am able. I've been to Tokyo twice, but only for short visits--less than a week each time. But I would like to consider the other ideas you propose as well, I'm open to any avenue that gets me there with some sort of possibility for a longer term plan. The answers you have all provided on this thread have given me tremendous food for thought.

Thanks also to those who responded to me over MeFi mail and on the thread about contacting you--I'll be in touch when I have more well-formulated questions.

I may be biased but I feel like this is one of the most well-answered Ask MeFi questions I've seen. Your comments have all been really substantial and useful to me.

ありがとうございました。たぶん、来年、日本に飲み物を買えます。I'm sure I mangled that terribly but hopefully you guys know what I mean. Cheers!
posted by dubitable at 8:02 PM on October 12, 2009

Best answer: I have the set no-bonus salary that armage mentioned, and with the economic woes lately, I am extremely happy for it.

If you want information on more "rural" Japan (i.e. not Osaka or Tokyo but still larger than most US cities), feel free to memail me. I think living away from Tokyo can be totally awesome! "Rural" Japan is almost nothing like the rural US, unless you get deep into places like Shimane-ken, where you are extremely unlikely to get a job, unless you find a job at a power plant. The most rural places are generally sufficiently mountainous to not support farms or reasonable railways. However, places like Fukuoka, Hiroshima, and even smaller prefectural capital cities are mostly reasonable places.

The biggest issue with being further afield is the size of the English-speaking expatriate community. I have definitely been feeling some of the culture-shock blahs, and I know my Japanese language partner in the US got them hard once winter rolled around, so I am a bit apprehensive of my first winter here.
posted by that girl at 9:24 PM on October 12, 2009

Best answer: I'm leaving after 3 and a half years here, for economic reasons. My plan was to get here as quick as possible, so I got a job as an English teacher. Once you live here, it's not not hard to find a job, and I was lucky enough to get a software development job with a tiny American-owned company that was definitely a dream-job while it lasted. Japanese was not required at all (which was actually a negative, because, like you I came here for cultural immersion). But the working conditions were great, no 残業, and a perfect location. I think it's perfectly reasonable you could find yourself a situation like this if you try. Although, with the current economic times, it might be rough. If you are interested, mefi mail me with specific questions.
posted by greasepig at 11:34 PM on October 12, 2009

Best answer: You can me-mail me also.

I live in a semi-planned research city less than an hour from Tokyo. There are just enough foreigners here, super-smart and from all over the world, to make this a non-homogeneous place. But anyway, lots of public and corporate R&D happens here and there is a big university.
posted by whatzit at 4:35 AM on October 13, 2009

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