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.