A little over three years ago, I uprooted my quiet European life, packed two large suitcases and moved to Japan.
Some of you may be thinking this is the typical Millennial story — let me reassure you. My move wasn’t a soul-searching mission to a countryside temple, I didn’t learn how to channel my Ki, and my calligraphy hasn’t improved an iota.
For me, it was a necessary cultural experience, a natural progression in life. Japan is the fifth country I’ve lived in, Asia is the third continent. There is nothing I find more interesting than to witness how culture shapes individuals, influences our life experiences, and what we could learn from one another if we were to step out of our cultural bubbles.
It wasn’t enough for me to just learn basic Japanese and make some friends here. I wanted to become proficient in the language and truly immerse myself in the unique, fast-paced and quirky culture of Tokyo. It took me years to achieve some semblance of what I came here for, which means it’s just about time to look back and ask myself: Was it all worth it?
No town for a generalist
A warning I have for those seeking to someday work in Japan: know your value-added to the local job market. I’ve seen too many foreigners come to Japan thinking, “I speak English, I can find a job,” just to move back home frustrated and broke a few years later.
Knowing English can land you a job, but English will be your job, and it’s not necessarily a very rewarding one. It is much easier to find meaningful work in Japan if you are trained in the technical skills they need here, such as software engineering, chemical engineering, advanced manufacturing or even translation.
That isn’t my case. I have a master’s degree in Human Rights Law, which in Japan is about as useful as having a postcard with the words “not a lawyer” printed in boldface on either side. I needed a more sought-after skillset I could sell to employers.
I went to Japanese school for almost two years. In that time, and with more effort than it took to get my university degree, I was able to pass the Japanese language proficiency exam (JPLT N1, for the connoisseurs).
I was ready. I had my Japanese language certificate, my past professional experience in international relations and my master’s degree. I went to my first job interview with a consulting firm, my head held high and brimming with unwarranted confidence.
Sure enough, I got rejected. The reason they gave: my Japanese wasn’t fluent enough.
After a lot of screaming into my pillow and ultimately lowering my job-seeking standards, I landed a low-paid part-time position as an administrative staff member in a local university. This is what working in Japan looks like for many highly-educated generalists in the social sciences or international relations. Despite my advanced degree, proficiency in three languages and prior job experience, I was doing repetitive administrative tasks for a fraction of what I would be earning if I had just stayed in my home country of Switzerland.
For me, this was still a step-up from teaching English, because at least I was working in Japanese with Japanese colleagues, but it was hardly a comfortable life. As you can probably tell, I was pretty bitter about it.
I probably should have heeded the advice of my friends and tried harder to find a job in either a foreign company, or a company like Rakuten (basically Japanese Amazon) that uses English as its working language. But that’s not what I wanted. I came to Japan to immerse myself in Japanese culture. I didn’t go through the pain of learning Japanese just to spend all day working in English with other expats.
Luckily, after six months, I found a better job. I was hired in the corporate communications department of a purely Japanese software company.
Composing elevator jazz
To clarify, I was hired by a Japanese company to do their English corporate communication. My interview was exclusively in Japanese and I was not required to submit a writing sample. My CV doesn’t mention that I grew up in the U.S., so for all they knew my only qualification was that I had a degree from the U.K. and used English in my previous job. In other words, I was hired mostly on faith.
In many respects, it was a blessing. I get to spend most days doing what I love — writing. All of my meetings and most of my daily interactions with colleagues are in Japanese, which means my language skills have become much better (I bet those buggers from my first job interview would hire me now!). I have learned a tremendous amount about how Japanese companies work, and the workplace reform movement the country is currently undergoing. On top of that, I genuinely feel like my perspective as the only foreigner in my department is valued and appreciated.
There is however a dark side — one that is systemic, affecting many English speakers working in Japanese companies. While English teachers are a dime a dozen and the standards for teaching English have risen in recent years (they still lag behind most of the industrialized world, but that’s a story for a different article), foreigners who are fluent enough to work in a purely Japanese environment are still somewhat rare. We’re talking about a country where only about 2% of the population is foreigners. That number is about 25% in Switzerland.
The problem with such scarcity is that we’re so few and far between, there is practically no quality control for what we do.
Take a random person from your entourage and ask them if they think they could write for a living. Chances are, they can’t. Not every native speaker can or wants to become a writer, and not every writer is a good writer (but hey, I try!). In Japan, companies don’t have the luxury of choice, so any native, native-fluent, or even somewhat proficient English speaker is expected to know how to write compelling prose. It’s an impossible standard they would never apply to themselves — my Japanese colleagues in the editorial department all go through a rigorous competency test.
This leads to two major issues when it comes to communication work. First, nobody can really check what I write — I have to be my own editor. When I bring it up with my boss, I usually get told: “Why don’t you ask another native speaker from a different department?” The simple answer: They’re not editors. If a Japanese editor were to raise a similar issue, nobody would imagine telling them: “Oh, just go ask anybody with free time.”
The second issue is that there’s no incentive to produce quality over quantity. Quality takes time — it takes many more working hours to polish a text than it does to stitch together a rough draft. Sure, quality is important: for our foreign clients, it demonstrates professionalism and helps build trust in our brand. But if none of my bosses can notice the effort, is it really worth making?
In essence, my work is like a jazz composer making elevator music. I can knock myself out trying tirelessly to compose a masterpiece, but those who hired me would be satisfied with an eight-note loop.
I’ll do my best anyway, for the sake of those who take the elevator, and for the love of jazz.
So, was it worth it?
You basically have three options as a high-skilled worker in Japan (apart from teaching English). The first is working for a foreign company, making a decent living doing a purposeful job, but somewhat isolated from the local community.
The second is what I did, become decent in Japanese and find a job that requires English skills, but without being able to reach the level of professionalism, quality and purpose that you would achieve in your home country.
The third is becoming perfectly fluent in Japanese, to the point where you blend in with the local workforce. This last option can be very rewarding for personal reasons, but keep in mind that on average, Tokyo salaries are lower than in many large U.S. and European cities — and becoming perfectly fluent takes many years of hard work. If you spend years of your life and a big chunk of money to assiduously learn anything, you may expect a positive, or at least neutral, return on investment. Not Japanese. Financially, the decision to learn the language wasn’t just bad — it was disastrous.
I realize it takes a hearty slice of hubris to come to a foreign country and expect to be treated differently. To some, it may sound like I suffer from a white savior complex, aggressively asking for recognition for what is essentially my own passion project. I would argue however that it isn’t a matter of being white or foreign, but rather that the language of the global economy is English, and difference being an average English speaker and a communications professional is grossly overlooked in Japan.
Japanese companies have been able to prosper by dominating their local market, but overseas competitors are slowly creeping in, investing tremendous resources in hiring a diverse and highly-qualified international workforce. This is becoming particularly prevalent in tech, where giants like Google and Salesforce are opening up huge offices and poaching all the highly qualified expat professionals. Unless Japanese companies step up their game, they will have to rely on people like me, who come here out of overwhelming personal interest and despite harsh economic disincentives. This isn’t a sustainable model for economic growth, and may provide some explanation as to why the Japanese economy has been stagnating for many years.
I’m lucky enough to have phenomenal working conditions, so I can’t write knowingly about the oppressive hierarchy, excessive overtime and antiquated cultural relics that many other foreigners experience. Nevertheless, I hope Japanese companies will acknowledge the necessity of nurturing a culturally diverse, qualified and professional workforce. I hope they become more attuned to skill differences between foreign workers, and understand that English ability is a broad spectrum, not just a checkbox on a job application.
I stand by my decision
If you are considering moving here too, I hope my experience can serve as a cautionary tale. Working in Japan will inevitably be a sacrifice on some level, especially for highly-skilled generalists. It’s unlikely that Japanese companies will become sensitive to the difference between refined jazz and elevator music, so for us aspiring musicians of the written word, motivation will have to come from the inside.
My advice would be to make sure you have a plan, that you understand the value-added you’re bringing to the Japanese labor market. Don’t assume that being a native English speaker will land you an amazing job. Don’t assume that learning Japanese will lead to high-paid career opportunities; it will more likely be a negative return on investment. Be prepared to have to hustle, find your own path, build your own niche, and find motivation for what you do from the inside.
All of that being said, for me, moving to Japan has been the experience of a lifetime. It has opened my mind to an entirely new culture, and in so doing brought happiness and meaning to my life in ways I could hardly explain. I may not have much in savings or own a fancy car, I may have closed some doors for career success and professional development, but for the things I value the most in life, there’s been nothing quite like living in Japan.