Finding Work in Japan: The One Thing You Shouldn’t Say on Your Resume

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What not to say on your resume for Japan

So you want to work in Japan? Great! I thought the same thing about eight years ago — and I still haven’t left.

I’ve taught English, got married, had a kid (well, my wife did most of the heavy lifting there), started working as a translator and now I do my best to help people all over Japan improve their work life or get hired in the first place. I’ve learned a lot about myself and had a hell of a lot more fun than I ever thought I would. Sure, there have been some tough times mixed in as well, but overall I’m extremely happy with my choice.

I’ll admit: It wasn’t a cakewalk for me to get that first job in Japan. While I was full of enthusiasm and had sufficient credentials (a degree in anything), my first resume resulted in exactly zero interviews.

I was at a loss. I wrote about how much I loved Japan, how interested I was in the culture, mentioned my degree in passing, and noted how I was willing to work anywhere in the country — even the deep inaka (countryside) like I had heard hiring departments would want to hear. But it wasn’t working out. Nobody was giving me a second look.

I thought my quest to work in Japan was over, but then I got some sage advice that I’d like to share with you.

While I was lamenting my fate, I showed my CV and cover letter to a college friend who had already been accepted into the JET program and asked for his thoughts. The first words of his response were:

“Everyone applying wants to work in Japan, bro.”

I read through my cover letter again and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Every paragraph was some form of me talking about why I was interested in Japan. I wrote about all of the things I planned on doing to become a true “cultural ambassador.” I spent many sentences going on about how hard I would study Japanese, and how I would strive to become a part of whatever community I found myself joining. I mentioned the travels I already had planned for when I arrived.

Basically, I told them all about why I wanted to work in Japan.

It was a page-long essay about my love of Japan — nothing more. I wrote only minimally about the skills I would bring to the table in performing the job. I gave no information about my past experience teaching people. I didn’t once talk about my desire to help people learn.

“Basically, I provided nothing that would convince my future employer that I was anything more than someone who wanted someone to pay them to move to Japan.”

So I started over from scratch, limiting my still considerable interest in Japan to a single paragraph. I spent the rest of my cover letter explaining why I would be a valuable asset for their organizations. Before long, I was able to nab an interview and then lock down a position.

It wasn’t until years later that I would learn just how common this resume-writing mistake is — and it’s easy to understand why.

While you’re in your home country, the fact that you want to work in Japan seems like a big deal. And to you, it absolutely is. It’s the thing that’s prompting you to search for jobs thousands of miles away. But the companies you’re applying to? Well, guess what? They’re already in Japan. They don’t care how much you might enjoy their country — they want to know if you can do the job.

So if you’re living outside Japan and trying to apply for that first job to get your foot in the door, keep this in mind: While it’s great to mention how enthusiastic you are about the country, if you can’t tie it into how that will help you be a great JET, ALT, translator, CIR, or whatever, it’s just wasted space.

The people making the hiring decisions are ultimately looking for people that can help them fulfill their companies’ goals.

Would they like to hire someone who’s got a genuine interest in Japan? Sure. Would they like for that person to also have a boatload of relevant experience? Hells yes!

Bear this in mind when applying for jobs in Japan and you’ll be way ahead of the game — unlike me all those years ago.

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Refusing to be a bitter gaijin since 2007.
  • notironic says:

    I was eager to work in Japan and just went to Tokyo on a three-month tourist visa (which airport immigration frowned on). Once there, I started calling up English conversation schools, and two weeks later, I had a job and a work visa sponsored. From there, I started working my way up. But this may only work for white Western men.

  • Anne says:

    Thanks James and everyone! After reading this article, I went through my resume and made some revisions. Last 2013, I tried on looking for a job in Japan using gaijinpot.com and I was not lucky enough. I gave up after few months. I felt like I was not ready yet and there are a lot of things I need to improve. I started to get a teaching job here in the Philippines which I still do until now. Yes, I am a Filipina and I was actually encouraged upon reading some of the comments below describing some Filipina teachers in Japan.

    Last year, I tried again. I have been actively seeking for a job in Japan since October but most of the job openings prefer applicants currently living in Japan and must be a native English speaker, which I am not. I am losing my hope not until my friend told me to go in a Japanese Language School. I am currently inquiring to 3 schools in Japan (2 in Tokyo and 1 in Yokohama). The school will assist on acquiring a student visa and a permit to work. My plan is to start seeking for a job again while I am studying and get employed after the term. I believe that learning the language first will help me cope faster living in country like Japan. Am I on the right track or am I just wasting my time and money?

    In total, I have 3years teaching work experience, a year of Masters degree and about to finish my TEFL program. These are all part of preparation for the last 3years but then again, I am not an English native speaker. I worry a lot about the tight competition on getting a job in Japan.

  • Shaniel Iraia says:

    Cheers James, much appreciated! 🙂

  • Anthony says:

    I guess thats the big problem in most places people seek work.

    They talk too much about how they love the job but never considered letting their employers know how much they can rely on them to get the job done.

  • Louise Sargent says:

    James, thank you so much for such an insightful article. I will be finishing my cellular and molecular medicine bachelor degree within the next year, and although I know after a few visits that I absolutely want to live and work in Japan long-term, I have been wondering which career paths I am best suited to. I feel I would like to work in translation (I’m from the UK), and perhaps specialise in medical or scientific translation. Do you have any tips for getting into this and strengthening my CV, or even any reasons NOT to go down this route? Any advice is greatly appreciated. I may apply for a working holiday visa, and possibly even a Masters course at a Japanese university eventually, but for now I’m thinking about how I could earn money on a work visa in the long-run.
    Kindest wishes,
    Louise

  • Bulmak says:

    Seems like my mistake is to have be born in the wrong country and not being able to learn Japanese fast enough. My major is: English Teacher as a Second Language, but as soon as I graduated I moved here, which leaves me with 0 experience, and well, English is not my first language. Everywhere I look they either look for people with great Japanese or people from countries like USA, Australia, UK or Canada. I wish I would have majored in something else. Everything seems so impossible.

    • james says:

      Not impossible Bulmak! It def is tougher from people coming from “non-English native countries”

      but if you can knock their socks off at the interview you have a good shot at getting a job. Don’t get discouraged, just make your resume perfect, and keep truckin’. Good luck to you.

  • Legendary Wave Pool says:

    Very down to earth; I guess this can apply to almost every job application in everywhere, even in your home country.

  • It is largely the same applying for a job in your home country (or anywhere else) – you need to sell yourself to the employer about why they should pay you money to do the job they could give the next guy. I’ve employed a lot of people over the years, and that is what I look for – what can you do for my business/department/organisation.
    As I get older, understanding how hard it is to get someone to pay you to do something you want to do – companies/employers (and customers) don’t just give money away. You have to have something they want, and while a love of Japan helps with the hurdles of moving/living in the country, a Japanese employer wouldn’t get the same essay from a local applicant.
    I glad you’re still loving Japan.

    • james says:

      I think you said it best “that is what I look for – what can you do for my business/department/organisation” Hope you find a way to have more fun as well.

  • Chester Payne says:

    This advice is relevant for applying for any job, anywhere. The employer isn’t interested in how good this job is for you; they want to know how good you are for this job.

  • Christof Chlebek says:

    Thanks for your nice article, James. It’s a nice to be reminded point, which many less experienced people will definitely need. To me, it is not really Japan-specific, so to speak. You should write every application with the “and this is why You want Me!” attitude in mind. Therefore, wanting to go to Japan is obviously not the best argument to support an application.

    So what are Japan-specific points? How about
    – Should I present myself excessively positive (like in the US) or in the matter-of-fact style (like in GER). Or still different; maybe point out negative points to show that I have good self-reflection? There are many styles I could think of.
    – Should I point the application towards the company or towards a specific position I try to acquire?
    – If I’m applying for an international job posting, is it preferred that I write in English or – if able – that I apply in Japanese?
    These are just three things that came to my mind after reading your article. There may be as well dozens of other things to point out and do wrong 😉 Anyway, nice work on your post!

  • Zachary Essey says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I will definitely keep this in mind and I know that this is something that applies to me.

  • dothackjhe says:

    I guess the same logic applies pretty much in every country in the world, not just in Japan.

  • ja says:

    Totally agree! I am lucky to finally land a job and immerse myself in the culture.

  • Brandon says:

    Yup! Hate to admit it but I did the same thing. This article hits home.
    I think culture shock is also at play. We are still at the point where we think we are considered special or different in some way. So we write about it, believing that our prospective employers give a damn. Most conversations I had back then with the locals also seemed to land on that topic. Boring. Possibly narcissistic?

    Geez. Thanks a lot Mr. Winovich for digging those memories back up! 😛

  • Tony Ludlow says:

    Good stuff, James! I lived in Japan for 10 years (3 in Tokyo and 7 in Nagoya) and you hit the nail on the proverbial head!

  • Chris Foley says:

    Doesn’t Common Sense come to play that your applying to work for a company and not the country of Japan?

    Seriously.. You didn’t even think that was the problem in the first place? how dense were you when you were younger?

    I’m glad someone with adequate common sense pointed you in the right direction. I also shudder to think that there is a plethora of others just like you were putting down nonsensical information on a cover letter like that.

    • james says:

      Hey Chris. Yep and I’m not alone in my denseness. I’ve seen MANY resumes with my exact problem. Now I’m trying to eliminate it completely!

  • Soudesune says:

    Excellent advice – my first cover letter looked much the same as yours did, and I had similar results!!

  • Stewart Dorward says:

    Having worked recruiting people for high school jobs here for 10 years, I tended to avoid the Japanophiles as much as possible. They simply would hit a brick wall of culture shock when their fantasy Japan crashed under the weight of real life here. It didn’t matter if they were into martial arts, manga, anime, food or whatever. I wanted professional teachers not Japanophiles.

  • Isaiah says:

    Thank you for writing this, I’ll be making my attempt to work in Japan very soon and this is what I needed to read before sending out my resume.

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