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Learning in Uncharted Waters

Is working in Japan one of the things on your bucket list?

I found myself in several curious situations during my journey into the Japanese workforce, some of which you might come across in your own employment adventure.  It’s always best to be prepared. As a foreigner that has been in Japan since 2010, life in a country so different from my own was like navigating uncharted waters. A year studying Japanese from scratch (differentiating the Katakana ‘tsu’ and ‘shi’, do you feel me?) and another four years at a Japanese university later, it was time.

Job hunting is rite of passage in Japan for all university seniors. I also joined the ritual, mostly out of curiosity.  Lesson learnt, curiosity does kill the cat. Everyday was an endless cycle of CV sendouts and back to back interviews . In the end, I was hired by a small B2B wholesale company in Yokohama because I promised them a fresh set of eyes as well as an understanding of the market outside of Japan–which is more than just being able to speak English.

Being a fresh grad was essentially a world of its own. I wasn’t actually in a fully Japanese environment until the day I started working, which was nothing but surprises!
The company I was in was a small-medium sized business. Stories I’ve heard from my friends working in larger establishments differed quite a bit from my own experience.

1. Need a place to live and a way to get to work?
Most large establishments reimburse commutation expenses but there has been an increase in companies offering housing sponsorships for their staff as well. Company dorms and subsidies are a relief from the burden of housing expenses (and in some way, ensuring employees get to work on time). It’s especially helpful for fresh graduates who do not have the financial ability to rent a place of their own, which is even more important if the office is located right in the middle of the city– where rent skyrockets.
As a foreigner, I found the commutation pass strangely satisfying. As my workplace was in Yokohama, it meant I had a free pass through Shinjuku-Shibuya all the way to my office. I didn’t have housing support but honestly, commutation support alone made me very happy considering how I come from a country where I would’ve  had to drive to work and pay for my own petrol.

2. Japanese company = Lifetime security
It is a well-known fact that Japanese companies do take care of their employees with  many ultimately starting and ending their professional career having spent 25 years at the same company–‘lifers’ as we put it internally. Getting fired from a Japanese company is generally a very difficult task (but that doesn’t give you license to be lax about things) and in some sense, security is there. Many people are dis-incentivized to change companies by the need to feed their families.
This was also strange for me, especially now that I’m in the recruitment industry. Quoting the words of a consultant of mine, “When you’ve stayed in the same company for such a long time, the higher you move up, the more detached you are from the actual work. Ten years in a digital advertising agency, and by then, all you’d be doing is stamping documents.”

Times are changing and people are coming to see the value in moving to new companies. Job changing and freelancing are generally well-accepted in my home country as the reasons for making such a decision are endless (salary, work environment, field, skill enhancement) and yet, it is still somewhat frowned upon in Japan.

3. You will almost always have brothers/sisters-in-arms.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Japanese companies grueling mass hiring, taking place only in April and some in September.  Graduates who don’t manage to get in during that period have to wait another 6 months for the next mass hiring. It is precisely because of this practice that many of the fresh graduates and even mid-level employees usually enter a company with  a number of people sharing the same timeline. You will always have someone that will feel the same pain, experience the same hardships and go through the good times with you.
There isn’t the concept of “Douki (同期)” in my country so it was a refreshing thing to hear about. I was in a relatively small company so I didn’t have comrades that entered at the same time as me but my friends from university told me many of their stories and I thought it was encouraging to have another person make the same mistakes as you did, just to learn a lesson together. You end up bonding a lot with that same person and it becomes a long-term friendship, just like being in the army.

….To be continued in Part II, so stay tuned!