INTERVIEW 1: Finding... Work in Japan

How one guy from Germany found Work in Japan

I'd like to start my interviews of people from outside of Japan whom have found work in Japan, with Michael Meyer, from Berlin, Germany.

JB: Welcome Michael and thanks for agreeing to share your story.
Michael we were in contact while you were in your native Germany, before you came to Japan, about your desire to come live & work in Japan - how long have you been in Japan now?

MCM: I'm here for over 1 year and almost 5 months now. Time flies.

JB: I remember you have a background in IT Infrastructure, support, but you didn't come here with a job though - how were you able to come here to Japan and with what Visa?

MCM: I knew that my level of Japanese (JLPT N4) at that time wasn't enough to find a job here easily (outside of teaching) and I actually wanted to focus on language studies for an extended period of time, so I decided to become a Japanese language student for a year with a student visa. I had to pay the costs up-front, which tore a big hole in my finances to be honest. But with careful financial planning I made sure that I had time to find a part-time job or an internship during my time in Japan and pay my costs of living.

JB: How would you answer the question; what sort of work is open to foreigners here in Japan before they get here, and more importantly if that isn't an option, once they get themselves here?

MCM: I think the two jobs that are always available are teaching English and working as an HR consultant/recruiter/sales assistant. The level of Japanese needed for these jobs is zero to low, the only requirement is a bachelor degree or something equivalent. A good job for people with little or no work experience.
But if teaching isn't for you and you have IT skills, especially in programming, you might find a couple of good jobs too. In general, the more skills you have, the better for you. A high level of Japanese isn't really a skill here though, it's more of a requirement for some jobs and utter irrelevant for others.
In my case, I wasn't interested in teaching at first and HR sales was not my cup of tea, so I was looking for something else. With over 13 years of working experience in IT, sales and consulting, I thought I’d at least find a good internship here. Not being very lucky and still adapting to the change of environment, I quickly found myself in typical Japanese part-time job though, washing dishes in a German restaurant to be exact. Just like the Japanese, getting a low-pay, low-responsibility, no-future part-time job is not difficult, the whole food and service industry is relying on this type of workforce. Depending on where you work, it might actually be a perfect way to learn polite Japanese.
Most importantly though you need time to adjust to Japan. Running around like a headless chicken looking for jobs isn't helping you. Same goes for networking. Do some research, find the people and industries you are interested in, find people who live here long and might help you. Take risks, but don't be naive.

JB: What advice would you give to people at each of those two steps:

a) how to get to Japan?

MCM: Three suggestions:
• Check your visa options (student, working holiday, etc) and plan ahead (where do you think you'll be or want to be in 1 or 2 years after you go to Japan)
• Learn Japanese as good as you can (it helps greatly)
• Do your research! Plan ahead!

b) what to do when you get here to settle in?

MCM: See above. Take you time to get used to the things that seem easy in your home country but can be a pain in the ass here. These can be daily necessities or immigration affairs, bureaucracy, the list is endless...
Create a safe haven for yourself, a place where you feel safe & secure when things get tough. This could be your apartment, your friends, etc. Find something in your neighborhood that you like and where you feel comfortable. This could be a local Ramen place or simply a konbini with friendly staff.

Also, connect to people here as often as you can. Not just the foreigners who are in the same (new/difficult) situation, but more importantly the locals and people who are here for a while. They can be a great help on your journey in this country, with valuable advice and more often the harsh truth about how things really are around here.

JB: What experiences and opportunities have you pursued or had come to you that have been key to you settling into working in Japan?

MCM: That's a long and sometimes almost magical story I'd say. But the reason why I came to Japan the first time is that I followed an invitation of a British friend of mine who just moved to Japan with his Japanese wife. That was in 2010. I never really thought of going there on my own, but at that time it felt like a good opportunity. In order to prepare for my trip I started to learn some basic Japanese and this was when I think I fell in love with language. When I came to Japan then I fell in love with the country's culture and beauty. From then on, my life was more and more influenced by Japan, small things mostly. Even the big earthquake in 2011 was part of it, when I realized how much I care about this place and the people I already made friends with. Coming to Japan every year once or twice since 2010 and studying Japanese back home not just filled my life with more and more things Japanese, it also slowly aligned my hopes and future with Japan, sometimes almost magically in correlation with everything I already experience in the country.

JB: Recently you have succeeded in being hired into an IT related job. Can you tell us what that is and how it came about?

MCM: This is a good example that good connections are more important than anything else. One of my house-mate's friends happens to work at big international company which is providing managed services to Microsoft data centers all over the world, including Japan. We were talking about the job a couple of times before and I always felt that I’d be qualified for it, so after I got my 5 years visa sponsored by a teaching company, I thought that going back to IT might be actually be a better choice. So after I received the contact details of the new place, things happened pretty fast. I was hired after roughly 2 weeks. My skills and experience matched the profile perfectly. You could call it good timing or just luck, but for me it’s another one of these magical moments that make me stay in Japan.

JB: How important is knowing how to speak Japanese and more importantly between 'not speaking Japanese at all' and 'being very fluent' - how does a growing ability in Japanese help you find work?

MCM: As mentioned above, it’s all about the job and work environment you’re going for. In my experience, one should have at least conversational skills in Japanese and comprehend what is being said. Basic reading skills are also important, including Kanji. But I’m definitely not of the opinion that one has to be fluent in Japanese to find work in Japan. Unless you’re aiming for a traditional Japanese office job. But then again, they are probably hiring you because of your other language abilities and not because of your Japanese. But don’t get me wrong, learn as much as you can, it will only benefit you.

What about an internship in Japan?

JB: Michael, you mentioned Internships - how mature is Japan and the business community in understanding the opportunity and the obligations associated with Internships for foreign or even Japanese Interns?

MCM: Not very mature I’m afraid. The way of entering the workforce is pretty much pre-determined in the existing system. As a Japanese student, you already look for jobs before you even graduated, then you fight through the interview marathons and then eventually you’ll become a new employee with a job for life (more or less). You’ll get trained at the job, not before. So no one really hires a Japanese graduate because of their skills or degree mostly, but more for their potential and how well they’d fit into the company.
This is in strong contrast to how internships work in Europe or in the US. While still being a student, you are required to obtain valuable work and project experience during your internship. Going abroad for internship adds another important value to it, being in a different culture and language. This in combination with your degree is already some kind of skill-set that companies look for, in addition to your general potential. Some hire their old interns after graduating, so it’s a win-win situation for both most of the times.
Especially for foreigners in Japan an internship would be a great way to enter the labor market. They can get important experience in many areas, not just language and culture, but more importantly in getting some real-life, hands-on work experience. It’s also a great opportunity for companies in Japan. What better way to learn about a certain country and expand into its market than with the help of your own intern? The investment for training is significantly lower than for a new full-time employee too.
Since I saw a big gap in supply and demand in Japan and because I’d like to help other foreigners pursuing their dreams in Japan, I became a founding member of Internship Japan (www.internshipjapan.org) to establish the system of internships in Japan. There is still a lot of groundwork to do, but the trend is working to our advantage. More and more companies realize that internships might be a good way to go forward. We aim to raise awareness, create a safe and legal system and support companies and internships alike. We are currently at the beginning of a 3 phase plan (http://www.internshipjapan.org/en/about-us/our-mission) which will ultimately put us in the position to directly connect internship-seekers and companies, supporting the two during the whole process and applying quality standards to the whole labour market. We are still at the beginning and are looking for all the help we can get.

JB: I understand Internship Japan have a big job ahead of them to 'educate the market' (Japan government & business community). What is the most likely path a potential Intern could take to secure an Internship in Japan?

MCM: One way is of course to ask your university if they have connections to Japan. Another way is to do contact us at Internship Japan and follow the simple steps to get a foot into the door. In the future we will be able to directly match internship-seekers with available companies too.
Follow the AAA rule, Always Actively Approach. Do your research, connect with people and ask questions.

JB: What is your final advice to foreigners who are looking to come work and live in Japan, or are here already searching for work?

MCM: Adapt, learn and prepare, but don’t try to be too “Japanese”. Be yourself. Bring what you are and what you have learned to this country and see if they actually want to make use of it.

Don’t try too hard to stay in this country even when you run into constant trouble or issues. A lot of foreigners aren’t really happy with their jobs here, but they still want to cope with it because they love Japan so much. In the long run this frustration is not a healthy condition and is not worth the trouble.

JB: Thanks very much Michael. If anyone would like to connect with Michael, he's kindly agreed. Be sure to mention who you are when you reach out to him on LinkedIn and if you have any difficulty, feel free to contact me and I can put you in touch: Michael Meyer, Site Service Technical Engineer at Atos & Director at Internship Japan https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=225217281

Check back here at my DeepJapan Senpai Advice page from time to time for more interviews, and more of my unique perspective on and of 'Deep Japan'.

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