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How Important is Japanese in the Modern Workplace?

By 6 min read

With the dawn of the New Year, it will soon be 10 years since I first started working in Japan. When I first began looking seriously for jobs in Tokyo, during my final days of university in 2006, my primary concern was my lack of Japanese ability.

I had been doing evening classes at my university in Edinburgh for a few months, but my Japanese was still well below even the most elementary level. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, especially in sphere of English teaching, certification in Japanese was not really a major requirement.

Back in 2006, the basic requirement for English teachers seemed to run as follows: For private language school (Eikaiwa) teachers, no Japanese ability was required, and in today’s admittedly considerably reduced Eikaiwa jobs market, that is still the case. In fact, some Eikaiwas have a policy of banning teachers from speaking Japanese at work, with the notion of creating an English-only working environment. Whilst this is beneficial to those new to Japan with no Japanese language ability, ultimately if you have any designs on living in Japan more than just a year or two, you’ll need to get out of this kind of atmosphere as soon as possible.

Where there has been some change is in the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) market. Back in 2006, almost all ALT jobs in Japan were managed by dispatch agencies such as Interac, Altia and a few others. Whilst the individual requirements of these companies vary, generally, A JLPT N4 or N5, which is equivalent to basic daily conversational Japanese would give your application a major boost, but if you could show yourself to be a strong candidate in other areas, failings in your Japanese would probably be overlooked. These days however, the market has shifted somewhat.

With municipal and prefectural governments across Japan tightening their budgets, amid plunging tax revenues, more and more cities are starting to consider going down the “direct hire” route, cutting out the often expensive services these agencies provide.

However, the downside for local governments in this regard is that they are now required to manage the teachers themselves. Part of the service dispatch agencies provide is management of the teachers and liaising between teachers and the board of education in the event of any problems. Without an agency BOE staff themselves must manage the teachers. In local city governments, especially in more rural areas, finding city administrative staff with a high level of English is not easy.

So on the plus side, teachers who go down the direct hire route will probably enjoy a higher salary, with the same consistent wage paid all year round. However, you will also need to have a higher level of Japanese language competence as well as a greater degree of cultural sensitivity. You will be expected to communicate every day with teachers and support staff who have no English ability whatsoever as well as have an awareness and understanding of appropriate conduct and behaviour that is befitting of someone who holds a position of public trust, as teachers are still regarded in Japan.

In keeping with these higher standards, dispatch companies are also beginning to insist in more and more cases on Japanese language ability as well as time served in Japan prior to employment. Given the differing nature of requirements in each individual city in Japan, even if you feel that you don’t meet the language requirements stated on an agency’s website, I would still encourage you to apply.

Of course there is much more to Japan than just English teaching. There are of course plenty of other jobs that foreigners can do here, especially in the larger cities.

In the technical industries, such as manufacturing, research and development and high technology, as you would expect most foreign staff are expected to have a higher level of Japanese. Not only is communication required in these areas, but a near-native level of reading ability will be needed to decipher the various terminology, technical manuals and so on.

In sales, marketing and PR, things are far less clear cut. If you are working for a company that primarily markets its products overseas, then the main part of your job may well involve communicating via email and telephone with buyers overseas in English or whatever your own native language may be. Japanese would only be required for daily conversation and communication with your office colleagues. As such, in some cases you would probably get away with an N4 or N3 JLPT level. However, if the opposite is the case and you are working for a foreign company based in Japan, with products primarily targeted at the Japanese domestic market, then, naturally, you can expect a high level of Japanese both written and spoken to be an essential requirement.

In the entertainment industry, there has also been something of a shift in recent years.

Perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, simply being foreign and outgoing would have been enough to get you noticed in the media. However, as Japan slowly continues along the road towards globalisation, these days have passed. Simply playing the “daft gaijin” won’t cut it anymore. As such, more and more foreign actors and models in Japan are seeking to “skill up” their Japanese in order to secure more lucrative and stable work.

For those without any discernible Japanese ability, but who are tired of English teaching, corporate recruitment remains an industry one can get into. However, it is very high-stress, high risk, and having tried it for a few months in the past, I can’t, in good conscience, recommend it. However, if you can deal with daily rejection, have a good head for sales and you like the excitement of a high pressure, high reward scenario then perhaps it is worth a shot.

However, as with ALT teaching jobs, rising industry standards have led to an increase in job requirements too. Previously almost any recruitment firm would hire you, based on their assessment of your potential to do the job, regardless of your Japanese ability. These days however, I see more and more agencies asking for at least an N4 in Japanese. Admittedly, with about 6 months to 1 year of consistent study, this is an attainable goal, but still it does mean you’ll need to put in at least some effort with regards to your Japanese skills.

In closing, I would say that, much as in 2006, one definitely doesn’t absolutely need to speak Japanese to work here. However, getting even a basic certification in the language will enhance your prospects immeasurably, and after all, if you really want to live in Japan, shouldn’t you take some time to get to know the local lingo?

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  • Johnny LoveFive says:

    Totally used those books in my classes!! Now, granted mine wasn’t for work, it was for “fun” as much fun as can be learning Japanese, but I was highly motivated. See, there’s this series of video games in Japan called doubutsu no mori, and their Western counterparts are Animal Crossing. I’m such a fan of the series that I wanted its original Japanese version, leading me to learn Japanese simply with the intent of playing the games. I don’t recommend this for everyone, as the series uses some slang words- some will have to be googled, they’re not in normal texts, but if you’re highly into games, and want to play their Japanese versions, I HIGHLY recommend Japanese For Busy People, it not only got me to the level I can understand what I’m doing in the games, but now I can actually have conversations with people in Japanese- kind of a win/win given its rarity of speakers in America.

  • maulinator says:

    From my experience Japanese is far more important than the author suggests, I think. Outside of teaching English, and possibly some recruiting jobs (from smaller less reputable firms), Japanese is a necessity. Any sales job requires Japanese, even if your clients are foreign, some part of your job will be in Japanese. In IT and other highly skilled positions, such as finance or research, your Japanese may not be as important if you bring a skill set that the comapny needs, but the level will depend on how Japanese your co-workers and primairy your bosses are. If everyone is a gaijin, then you can scrape by on a pretty low level of Japanese, but if not, then Japanese is a must. Most coveted positions now require Japanese fluency, short term positions might not be as picky.

  • Well written advice. Thanks for posting!

  • kayumochi says:

    “Perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, simply being foreign and outgoing would have been enough to get you noticed in the media” No, much further back than that.

    And the days when a gaijin could say, “I speak Japanese so am therefore of use to you,” ended about 1990.

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