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  • What it is like to work in Japan

    About a year and a half ago, following lehman-induced financial trouble for the engineering company I was working for in London I decided to pack up my stuff and go to my wife's home country: our beloved Japan! Everybody said "don't do it", but I though "how bad can it be? They just fear my intellectual powers and want to keep their good jobs to themselves!". Arrived here, posted on this forum to find out about jobs. Got ridiculed by the wiser members and though "____ them!". Turns out they were right.

    Now I see there are still loads of posts by fresh-faced and hopeful foreigners about getting jobs in Japan, so I thought I'd write some stuff about how it has been for me here in the hope that some might see how things can be if you are overly optimistic... or maybe just plain stupid like me.

    Anyways, I worked as a structural engineer in London for three years before coming here. That's not much, but for my defence, I did a PhD before that, but that's another matter and just more confirmation of my stupidity if you will. I also spoke fairly good Japanese at the time.
    I thought in coming here that since engineering principles are the same regardless of the country and it would be possible to get a job in engineering. Didn't want to become an English teacher, because, well, I'm still not sure what you do then when you go back to Europe... teach English?

    Job hunt sucked, there was nothing available. I really wished I had listened to he nay-sayers. Then I talked to a connection I found through my wife, who had a friend whose husband was the son of a civil engineering company here in Gifu and he agreed to let me have a year of work-experience at his company. That sounded like a plan: Improve my Japanese and get engineering experience, so I took it.

    I spent the year going through two divisions in the company. First job was data-entry, that was fun, well, the sort of stuff you give a work-experience student. Thankfully I can program, so I spent the year coding up macros and programs. The work environment in a traditional company is a bit different from what you might be used to in Europe and it is every bit as bad as it is in the stereotypes: Unwashed people in work uniforms, women whose job includes cleaning the loo and making tea at regular intervals, low pay and no holidays and staying late to do your work because overtime sort of compensates for the low wage.

    The two main gripes you might have with a Japanese company and these seem to be questions which come up regularly are: is the salary enough and what is the holiday allowance like?

    - Salary for an engineer or any other technical job: SUCKS! I mean it sucks arse so much that you might end up with mooch marks on your bum for the rest of your life. I am not joking: unless you have ____ loads of experience and are above native level with your Japanese, I'd recommend you going for a teaching job, because the salaries are pretty much equivalent (plus, a lot of teachers get housing benefits), or in my case the teaching salaries are even slightly better (I have to add that I am on a regular employee wage now, which includes upgrades for seven years of experience as they count from the time you leave university). Don't count on working hard and getting promoted or something like that, because in a traditional company that does not happen unless everybody else who is senior to you first dies or retires.

    -holidays: Well, nominally you get about 20 days of holidays. Plus the Japanese have about one national holiday every month. Sounds good? Yeah, just make sure that you can actually take that allowance. Well, you will probably be allowed to take one or two days off, but if you want to take two 10 days to go back to your country, that's where things can get fun... When nobody else ever takes a holiday, it can get pretty difficult for you to take one. The son of the owner of the company once said to me "I don't understand this need for foreigners to go on holiday..." that should sum it all up. Again, as an English teacher I think this might be less of a problem.

    Now, to get on to the language and the working environment: I got my N1 certification whilst I was here and thought "yay, now I can get a job anywhere in Japan". But, most companies couldn't care less about the JLPT cert. And even if you have that, you still have to master all the technical jargon and that canbe pretty difficult. Plus Japan is a very certification-oriented society, and you'll have to pass all of those as well if you want to get somewhere. To give you an example: There are two certifications for structural engineers: 2kyu and 1kyu (how original). 2kyu is supposed to be very easy to get, say about two or three years for an engineering graduate, but 1kyu takes about 10 to 15 years. Don't expect to get an engineering job without 2kyu, so don't expect to get anywhere for the next 5 years at least. Ask yourselves, is it worth it?

    Working-environmenwise, as the only foreigner in a Japanese company it can get pretty tough. It's probably a lot better if you work in an international company, but a traditional Japanese company is not all that funny. People don't know anything about foreigners, so they assume you know, well, not very much. I mean, I even got asked if we also used windows abroad and got shown surprise when I said that indeed I had heard of it before. Whether or not you'll make friends is down to you I guess, but I have found it hard (not the most outgoing person though...). These days my working day's conversations pretty much boil down to "good morning" and "I'm done for the day", but engineers are geeky and silent people no matter which country, so god knows if that isn't typical.

    I'm leaving other stuff out, like having to come in early to work to clean the streets around the company once a month, not being allowed to use the air conditioning outside working hours, not being allowed to ask questions, not being allowed to change the way things are done because of tradition and all crap like that, which I assume is common to family-run businesses the world over.

    OK the reason I am saying all this, apart from it being an attempt to see if it really is possible to bore somebody to death, is that I keep seeing these posts about working here and I just wanted to give people a bit of an insight about what it CAN be like. That is not to say that it WILL be like this, but from what I have seen and heard quite a few people have had this kind of experience, so don't cry later one. Or actually, you can cry, we all live and learn.

    As an alternative, well, unless you get sent to Japan because you are absolutely awesome and get a matching pay and benefit package for the sacrifice you are willing to make to come here, I would recommend seriously looking at teaching if you really must come to Japan.
    I have also heard from a few people who opened their own company and make their own rules. They all say that it was f***ing hard at first, but all those who made it absolutely love Japan now because they can do it the way they want. Well, who wouldn't love that.

    That's it, hope this helps. If you have more experience to contribute then it would probably be useful if you did. If you think I am spouting rubbish, then please let me know, because if there is another way I'd love to know about it.

  • #2
    You have my empathy..
    I have never worked for anyone here.. but share some of those frustrations..

    If I mention/complain about any stuff like that to my Japanese business partner, he just tilts his head and says in English: "It is normal, I think".

    That is why so much stuff is messed up here.. they all just keep their mouths closed about ridiculous stuff and "ganbaru" some more... so nothing changes/improves..

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    • #3
      Originally posted by hennagaijin View Post
      You have my empathy..
      I have never worked for anyone here.. but share some of those frustrations..
      Thanks mate. I was really hoping though that you'd tell me that working for yourself things are much nicer... Mind if I ask what business you are in?
      Japanese culture is great when you are looking at it as a tourist, but it can be hell when you have to live with it.

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      • #4
        Never again

        There is no way I would ever want to work in corporate Japan again.
        I did it for Five years in Osaka and it sucked.

        Go through your day with role-play greetings/ salutations, even answering the phone is predictable.
        Friendships don't really grow especially Male ones,( they are too busy doing nothing) then chant tsukareta!!! All the time.
        I think any laboring job or teaching English is much better than corporate jobs as the people you are working with are a little more real
        Than Salary men/ OLs who are really just going through the motions.

        Never again!!!!

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        • #5
          Originally posted by yu_ominae View Post
          Japanese culture is great when you are looking at it as a tourist, but it can be hell when you have to live with it.
          Same goes for many countries, Thailand - self-proclaimed Land Of Smiles - can be a nightmare to live and work in. Philippines - kay ganda - so beautiful - as long as you lock and load to protect your valuables.

          Always a huge difference between being on holiday somewhere with no responsibilities to the place, and residing there, earning a living and paying your dues...

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          • #6
            It's pretty good for a foreigner to work in Japan. Most of them came because they can't make it their home country and now they have the different culture and the country to blame for their failure.

            People who let trivial things like " a difference in culture" get in their way couldn't become successful anywhere. People who know what they want and take what they want don't care much about country, culture and/or economical situation.

            The only thing you need is a decent legal system that works and safe environment (both available in Japan). Everything else is second-rate and usually just used for excuses.

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            • #7
              I dont understand why people would work for Japanese companies. You gotta be completely crazy to do that, especially in engineering. Everybody knows how its like working there, so why bother applying?

              If you want to work in Japan, go for foreign companies. There you'll get higher salaries, more vacation, less overtime and a foreigner-friendly working environment. I'm working for one, so I know what I'm talking about.

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              • #8
                That was a good read, I found it very informative as I'm one of those people who is currently looking into the possibilites of working in Japan.

                Hmm, do I stay in the UK that's currently going down the sh*tter and the current soul destroying job I'm in or hopefully make a move to Japan and find a soul destroying job but where learning about a different culture and language make up for it and the economics are doing better?

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Eja Cool8 View Post
                  That was a good read, I found it very informative as I'm one of those people who is currently looking into the possibilites of working in Japan.

                  Hmm, do I stay in the UK that's currently going down the sh*tter and the current soul destroying job I'm in or hopefully make a move to Japan and find a soul destroying job but where learning about a different culture and language make up for it and the economics are doing better?
                  That's a difficult call man. You know my opinion on it. Leaving one thing to learn about something else is good, just make sure you have an exit strategy if things go to pot after all when you are there. Japan is not that well off economically, but I guess you know that already. They wangled out of much needed reforms after the earthquake/tsunami disaster and it looks like they'll stay stationary for a while. Prime minister's about to change once again as well... sigh.

                  Also think that although you will be learning a new language and a new culture (not that easy when you are out there on your own) you'll be leaving friends and family behind. Take some, give some.
                  Last edited by yu_ominae; 2011-08-23, 12:09 AM.

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                  • #10
                    ...and don't forget to clock out at 5.30 but then go back to your desk and do another 3 or 4 hours unpaid overtime.
                    More than likely you won't spend that 4 hours doing anything actually useful. Just fiddling around like everyone else there until someone finally decides that you've all worked long and 'hard' enough and heads for the door.

                    Japan and Germany are equally productive. The Germans just manage to do it in half the time.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Eja Cool8 View Post
                      That was a good read, I found it very informative as I'm one of those people who is currently looking into the possibilites of working in Japan.

                      Hmm, do I stay in the UK that's currently going down the sh*tter and the current soul destroying job I'm in or hopefully make a move to Japan and find a soul destroying job but where learning about a different culture and language make up for it and the economics are doing better?
                      You will not only "learn about" Japanese culture you'll have to live in it and make it your own. Not as fun as you think but if you are sure you can take it, why not.

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                      • #12
                        There's a lot of stuff in your OP that the veterans here probably forewarned you about, mostly that you will have to dump your western ways and adapt to Japanese business practices. Nice to know so much of it was true.

                        Complaining about some of those things, though, is pretty silly if you ask me, like the once a month policing of the grounds. Be glad you aren't working like some English teachers who have to clean classrooms every day.

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Glenski View Post
                          Complaining about some of those things, though, is pretty silly if you ask me, like the once a month policing of the grounds. Be glad you aren't working like some English teachers who have to clean classrooms every day.
                          I notice that you just managed to complain about cleaning as well though
                          Seriously mate, cleaning your own classroom makes sense, that's where you work. I have to clean the office and that's fine. What doesn't make sense is having to come in half an hour early once a month to "voluntarily" clean streets 500m from the office.

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                          • #14
                            I agree with you on this. I graduated this March and started to work in a small manufacturing company. Being the only foreigner there, everyone have high expectations on me.

                            They expect me do whatever being told without any questioning. Working condition is hell and I have to be at workplace at least 30mins before official working hours start.

                            My day begins with cleaning up and I really hate this. We spend at least 1 hour in total every week just for cleaning up.

                            I get only a 100 days off a year including weekends and 10 days paid leave. Everymonth there is one work day on Saturday and nobody gets any extra pay even though we work 6 days over 40hours for that week.

                            Pay is low, and I don't expect any bonus considering sales are bad.

                            I wonder big companies are the same although I know the chances of me joining a big company is pretty limited.

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                            • #15
                              Thanks for posting this.

                              I work in the Tokyo branch of a US company (I transferred out here) and my job isn't altgether that different than it was back home.

                              No way I could cut it in corporate Japan. Unpaid OT? Not allowed to ask questions? There would definitely be an "international incident!"

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