How much Japanese do I need to find a job in Japan?
No you do not need to know how to read all the kanji above to get a job in Japan.
How much Japanese one needs to land a job in Japan is probably the number one question that I get from job-seekers. Naturally, as foreigners we always wonder whether our Japanese is enough especially when we think of working in a Japan that is “insular”, “homogenous” and “bad at English” (not necessarily descriptions I agree with).
The shortest answer to this is “it depends“. The slightly longer answer is that a stronger Japanese ability will definitely give you more options. I would even estimate that each level you move up in the JLPT doubles the number of companies considering hiring you.
That being said job-hunting is also perfectly possible without strong or even any Japanese – it will not be easy though. The in-depth long-long answer exploring how to do so is in the rest of the article. We will examine what the average requirements for Japanese when job-hunting are. What are the exceptions and strategies for job-hunting without strong Japanese?
Oh and to be clear this article is more applicable for early-career people who are looking for their first or second job. Mid-career people reading this will however benefit from parts such as the list of sectors below though.
Side note: This article is written for non-COVID-19 times. For an overview and tips how to get a job in Japan despite COVID, please see this article.
Average Japanese Levels Expected
Of course each company is different. And also of course the higher the Japanese level the better. In general though, these are the hiring trends for fresh-graduates that I and the recruiters I work with see.
- For STEM (理系) graduates: JLPT N3 minimum, JLPT N2 and above preferred.
- For non-STEM (文系) graduates: JLPT N2 minimum, JLPT N1 and above preferred.
Note: STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. N1 “and above” is because N1 in itself does not mean full Japanese proficiency.
You notice that there is a difference between STEM and non-STEM graduates. This is because often jobs in STEM fields, being technical, do not require business Japanese and only the ability to communicate with your colleagues. This leads to the lower Japanese requirement.
Just be aware that in my near 10 years of living in Japan I have never been asked to produce my JLPT certificate. Among my friends only the minority have been asked to show theirs. Therefore if you are confident of passing a certain JLPT test, it may be worth it to just write this level instead of your previous certificate (or if you have none).
If the above is your expression after reading the above don’t fret too much! Many people actually do manage to find employment in Japan despite not having strong Japanese.
Before someone gets the wrong idea, I have to repeat once again that a strong Japanese level is important getting a job in Japan. Nonetheless, there are ways to find employment in Japan without strong Japanese – read on to find out more.
Sectors not requiring Japanese
So which are the sectors which don’t really require Japanese for you to work in? Below are some of the industries which hire large numbers of foreigners without strong Japanese.
IT / Tech / Startups
The big boom over the past 8 years has been the hiring of foreign software engineers. The labor shortage has been so tight that many Japanese companies have started shelling out huge hiring budgets to bring engineers overseas to Japan.
There is therefore also significant demand for English-speaking but not necessarily Japanese fluent roles in related fields such as digital marketing, UI/UX design as well.
Do give the friendly people in Wahl and Case a visit (and maybe your resume) if you have experience in IT and are job-hunting from within Japan. Had a positive experience as a former intern there. Plus, a friend of mine recently got placed in a job through Wahl and Case and says good things about the work they do.
Recruitment / Headhunting
There are many recruiters / headhunters in Japan which actually have much less-than-perfect Japanese. The logic is this: the tightest segment of headhunting (aside from IT engineers) now is actually bilinguals. If you are the headhunter trying to land a bilingual person a job which requires bilingualism, well you can do the business entirely in English.
This also often leaves open the path to growing your network for within Japan and to move to sales and internal HR positions after headhunting – which many people I know have done.
(Some) Research / R&D Positions
Some academia / research positions may be open to people holding advanced degrees in their respective positions. This involves somewhat related fields such as think tanks. In addition, the increase in English programs in Japanese universities means that there may be some academic positions open to faculty who can teach in English.
Be aware that English-friendliness here is heavily dependent on the exact field as some fields are more conservative than others though.
A rather obvious choice that I leave last because in my honest opinion English (or other language) teaching in Japan has significant risks. If for example you want to use a stint in English teaching to brush up your Japanese or as a stepping stone to something else, why not! Or if you are aiming to becoming a certified teacher through obtaining ESL qualifications or the Japanese teaching license, why not too!
The issue is that the majority of English teachers in Japan finish their English teaching stint without ESL qualifications and often without strong Japanese abilities. Add that to how there are many other younger foreigners with low salary expectations also aiming to come to Japan to teach English. Or in other words in the eyes of the job market – caught in a field with little upward salary growth and not very employable outside of it.
Do note that even outside the above fields there will be (small) minorities in each sector which will be open to people hiring in English. The next section will cover strategies which apply for both the sectors above and otherwise.
Finding possible workplaces
Strategies to job hunt without Japanese mainly revolve around two steps. Identifying companies which are hiring in English and proving that you are a valuable candidate even without Japanese. Aside from aiming at the fields above, I’ll write about tips on how to find possible employers below first.
Foreign-friendly Job Fairs
One of the easiest ways to find companies open to hiring in English is going to job fairs where these companies are concentrated. This means not the typical Japanese 合同説明会 (godo setsumeikai – shukatsu job fairs). Companies displaying there will be expecting Japanese applicants and foreigners who can function at a Japanese-equivalent level.
Foreign-friendly job fairs are usually concentrated around March in most years for foreign students graduating in the following year. They’re usually in Tokyo and Osaka – be prepared to travel if you are outside these cities. Some of the big players here are the Top Career series of job fairs, the ASEAN Career Fair and so on.
For events which are held outside March you will be looking at the career fairs done by DISCO. Within Japan they do Tokyo and Kyoto career forums and have multiple locations outside of Japan, including the famous Boston Career Forum.
Do be aware that even at these job fairs the vast preference is for foreign students with strong Japanese ability, especially if you are not from a STEM background. Depending on the location, DISCO’s career fairs may have more Japanese returnees or Japanese studying overseas than foreign students. Participating companies may be more focused on recruiting these Japanese natives than foreigners.
The point is not that these fairs are a sure-fire way to success. It is that relatively speaking you will have more luck at these fairs than other options. These can also be a time-efficient way for you to find and talk to multiple companies at the same time, thus increasing your “target list”.
Recruiters and Headhunters
I keep mentioning recruiters and headhunters in these kinds of articles for one simple reason. Most foreign students / foreigners are not equipped to properly research for companies hiring for them. This is even more acute for students who do have difficulty reading business Japanese.
I’ve already done the full explanation of the value of foreign recruiters here. Just want to repeat that especially to people who cannot research in Japanese, recruiters are a convenient and useful way of filtering companies to apply to and to increase your chances of getting hired.
You’d think it’s obvious. To find a job in Japan you’d just google “foreigners job Japan” or “English jobs Japan” and use the websites that come up first. This would refer to Gaijinpot and Daijob. Maybe LinkedIn.
Not so simple. The problem is that all of these sites only capture a portion of the real market which is hiring. Think about it – Gaijinpot has much content about traveling in Japan aimed towards a native English audience. No surprise then that jobs found there slant heavily towards English teachers (and possibly for people on working holiday). Daijob definitely has a wider range. Even then it certainly will not capture all the companies who want to hire but are not willing to pay the platform advertising fee.
LinkedIn on the other hand is only sparsely used in Japan and even then mainly in mid-career hiring. Uptake is growing though as more companies are experimenting with different ways to attract more candidates.
If you are searching for jobs in English in Japan by yourself you definitely have to dig harder and deeper. Through Google, through other portal sites such as ConnectJob, Active Connector and more. Sometimes even cold-contacting companies even if they don’t have a job opening explicitly stated.
Hints for how to tell who may hire you
Here are some pointers which may be hints as to whether a company may be interested in your profile if you do not speak Japanese.
- Whether the company has a recruitment page in English (or another language).
- Chances increase if the company is from your country or if it is a Japanese company with an office in your home country.
- Do not just go for big famous companies! Small and medium companies are usually more open to considering cold contacts – especially if you have expertise in their area.
- Whether the company has a foreign founder.
Just a case study to demonstrate. If you are a French speaker, you may want to actually think of searching for some big brand names back home – you’re looking at places such as Crédit Suisse or Société Générale. You know these are big companies with name value but in Japan these often have trouble attracting good candidates due to a low recruiting presence.
Some of these companies may be strictly looking to recruit for strong bilinguals, but often they need candidates who are multilinguals in languages other than English. These companies, ie. big internationals with low-profiles within Japan, may be a place to start your search from.
What else can you offer?
As mentioned above, the second part of the formula is showing that you have a lot to offer – just that Japanese is not one of them.
Remember that companies will prefer someone who can speak fluent Japanese over those who can’t. Therefore you really need to prove that you’re one step above the rest even without Japanese – especially if you are applying for popular places. But what can you do to show your worth?
Make your value obvious …
A bad CV in a fluent Japanese speaker is a disadvantage. A bad CV in a job applicant without Japanese is fatal.
Why? Because the 7 second rule for recruiters reading your résumé also applies for Japan. Fluent Japanese speakers (being rare) get more time. But if you do not have Japanese you’d better have something else that jumps out that a recruiter can spot within 7 seconds.
What this means depends on the role you are applying for.
For example, if you are a designer or a programmer – do you have a portfolio site up which impresses? If you are looking for a research based role, what do you have to produce to show your research calibre? If you want to do business roles, have you taken any courses on marketing out of your own volition? What internships have you participated in?
Have you been awarded prestigious scholarships – ie. if you are a MEXT scholar write it in your résumé. Awards. Volunteering experiences. Conferences. Business competitions.
Everyone can claim to be a “quick learner”, very few people have actually done a full online course by themselves. It is not the claim that recruiters are interested in, but the evidence. Your résumé is also a piece of writing and like any piece of writing the golden rule applies – show don’t tell.
Or build your own value …
But what if you don’t really have anything to write. If you’re looking at the grocery list of possible things to put in your résumé above and are drawing a blank.
If you still are some time from job-hunting, you have plenty of time to beef your résumé up. Udemy courses can be as cheap as 15 USD on sale. Speaking personally, they were actually a big help of how I professionally became an engineer. Volunteer for startup conferences or at an NGO. Check sites like Doorkel Internship for long-term internships in Japan. Yes they exist and there are even some which do not require Japanese. Doorkel’s internships are even usually paid.
Note that all of these will be useful even if you go home – all the more why you should explore career-boosting opportunities while a student.
And if you find yourself at the doorstep of job-hunting season with not much time left you are left with a few options. Working double to build up your value while job-hunting is one. Another is taking the time to build yourself up while delaying your job-hunting through measures such as the Shukatsu visa (only applicable if you are a current student within Japan).
Or learn Japanese
Or maybe if you can’t speak Japanese the easiest way to get a job in Japan is, well, to improve your Japanese.
This may set off a whole debate about how Japan needs to globalize and what not. I agree! But the reality is that hiring in pretty much any country will prefer a fluent speaker of the native language than someone who is not. In addition, the more Japanese you understand the more you can decipher the social dynamics and business norms in Japan – all to your advantage if you want to navigate a career here and understand Japan better.
As I mentioned, each new level of the JLPT attained pretty much doubles the available opportunities for you. In addition, to be very frank, some (not all) recruiters will take a JLPT N5 and below as a red flag – especially if you have already been living here for a few years.
So to summarize
Always remember that weak Japanese is a disadvantage. If you’re aiming an average company, you’d have to be above-average compared to your peers. If you’re aiming for a popular company, you’d better be stellar – so stellar that you can beat the Japanese bilinguals graduating from foreign universities.
This is possible. And has been proven by the many foreigners I know who secure jobs without fluent Japanese. The “front door” (ie. typical shukatsu in Japanese) may be shut but there are side doors or a hidden sliding fusuma to get in. More work searching but not impossible.
Hopefully this article gave you some ideas of these side doors and fusuma you can use. Hope this helps as some advice for you to navigate your career here in Japan!