Applying for jobs in Japan

Applying for jobs can be an exhausting, stressing and demotivating experience. This is no less true in Japan. For us foreigners, this is sometimes compounded by the language barrier and lack of cultural awareness.

I recently went through an interview process, with less than perfect Japanese language skills, and I am going to talk about my experience, as well as how job interviews work in Japan in general.

The first thing you have to do, and possibly the most different to what you are used to, is writing a CV, or résumé for Americans. The huge difference here is that Japanese CVs are usually handwritten. Yes, you read that right, handwritten. In the 21st century. While in the rest of the world people started typing their CVs some time before the 1950s, and often send them by email these days, here in Japan they still love their handwritten CVs. I guess it’s important how beautiful your kanji is or something. You will usually buy a CV template from a convenience store or a 100 yen shop, and fill in the blanks.

Needless to say, this is a huge hassle. First of all, if you make a mistake, you’ll simply have to start over, so you better have a bunch of templates ready, just in case. Another problem, as you may have guessed, is that if you are applying for multiple jobs, you’ll have to write down the same things over and over again. I hope you don’t suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, because the hours of time it will take to write multiple CVs won’t be pleasant. That’s if you are even good at kanji in the first place. If not, you’ll have to either try you best to copy the characters from a printed form, or ask someone else to do it for you — and you better reward them for the effort.

Another difference, although in this case perhaps an advantage for some, is that the Japanese CVs don’t leave much room for creativity. You simply fill in the blanks and explain your work history, your responsibilities at your different jobs, and the dates you worked at them. There is not much “selling yourself” to do here, though there is a small section where you can explain your strengths in a couple of sentences. Some people might prefer that, as there isn’t much customizing to worry about. On the other hand, if you like getting creative, this can be tedious. I guess Japanese companies emphasise job history over creativity, or at least wait until the job interview to asses your personality.

This brings me to the job interview itself. Once your CV has been accepted — or perhaps before, as you might be required to hand in your CV during the first interview — you will have to face the interviewers. It’s not rare for companies to require several job interviews before you get the job, although that is hardly unique to Japan these days. Having two or three interviews is extremely common.

While there is no way for me to prove this, from my own experience and talking to other people, I have the feeling that most of the “weeding out” is done after the first job interview. Or maybe I have a very fortunate group of friends and acquaintances. I’d say that if you make it to the second interview, you have a pretty strong chance of actually getting the job, though of course it’s never a guarantee. Don’t spill hot coffee on the interviewer, I guess.

If the interview is to be conducted in Japanese, but you clearly stated that you are not totally fluent in the language, don’t despair. It’s possible that they will be lenient in that respect, and they simply lack the ability to conduct the interview in English.

I have personally had interviews both in English and in Japanese, and I didn’t feel like the Japanese interview went well at all. I wasn’t polite and “businessy” enough, I couldn’t express myself in very complex ways, and the interview took all of 20 minutes. On top of this, I was given a business card (business card culture is a topic all of its own, so please do some research), and since I didn’t have a card holder I ended up holding the card with both hands all the way to the entrance, to which I was accompanied. Despite all of this, I ended up getting invited to a second interview right away, and eventually got the job.

Something to keep in mind is that some jobs require English, and the number of applicants with good English skills is extremely limited in Japan, so they might turn a blind eye toward your limited Japanese communication skills, as long as you can have a basic conversation. I know I was worried about not being polite and professional enough — you know how strict Japanese business culture can be — and it ended up not mattering all that much. It also means that once you are working, your coworkers will often leave you to your own devices, and you won’t be expected to participate in all the aspects of Japanese business culture. Not being expected to say “otsukaresama desu” every five minutes is a great perk.

When I went to a second job interview, I was a bit more at ease, as I had somehow passed the first one despite my language limitations. The second job interview was more of a briefing about what the job would entail and so on. Someone else (a higher-up, I assume) got invited into the room, but only asked me about current events. At this point I was pretty sure that the questions and my answers didn’t matter that much, so I replied to the best of my abilities. I submitted the documents they requested me and I ended up getting the job. I was even missing my university diploma, as my university took a long time to send it (months), and they were OK with it.

If you’re applying for jobs in Japan, don’t despair. Buy a bunch of CV templates, be at ease in the interview and remember that they might want you for your skills, regardless of your Japanese level. Good luck!

Hi, I’m Sergio.
I’m from Spain, lived in the UK for seven years and came to Japan in 2012.
I majored in journalism in London and have been teaching English in Tokyo.
I like traveling, cycling, photography, movies, and spending time with friends.
I wrote articles about life in Japan as a foreigner and anything that I might find interesting.
My email is ” “, by all means contact me about anything!


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