In Japan, it can be hard to get a job as anything other than an English teacher without a high level of Japanese language skills. Just how much does it affect your job prospects, however, and is it worth dedicating some time to leveling up?
If you want to measure your Japanese ability, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is the standard way to go about it. It is a standardized test to measure the proficiency level of non-native learners of Japanese, covering language knowledge, reading ability and listening ability. It has become the main and easiest way for employers to check if you’ll be able to keep up with the Japanese used in the office.
Here’s a quick overview of how the JLPT affects your job prospects in Japan.
The facts and figures
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some statistics. Here are some of the key points from Japan Switch’s latest job industry report, collected from job boards in 2021.
|No. of Jobs
*Jobs that did not list a JLPT level were classed as “unspecified.” Manufacturing, sales and teaching were the major contributors to this category.
Learning Japanese is going to open more doors for you
We can see a pattern: generally, as your JLPT level goes up, so does the number of jobs available to you. However, keep in mind that any group includes the levels below it. Thus, N4-N5 candidates had a pool of only 616 jobs in total.
Additionally, each industry has its own salary ranges, which are further affected by language ability. For example, for teaching, the average annual salary doesn’t change much between having any Japanese and having JLPT N3, but raises significantly at N2:
For IT, a popular career with foreigners in Japan, the trend is somewhat similar, with ups and downs between no Japanese and JLPT N3, then a jump at N2:
While N2 may open more doors and higher salaries, does that mean there are no positions available without it?
Even in IT and teaching—the most well-known for not needing high levels of Japanese ability—there is already an advantage to having N2. For translation, holders of N3 could receive ¥4M, N2 holders ¥6M, and N1 holders ¥7M! Somewhat unsurprisingly, there was insufficient data for averages under the N3 mark.
The hotel industry had the most notable differences in average annual salary. There was insufficient data for below N2 level, but N2 holders could receive ¥4.6 million, whereas N1 holders stood to gain an impressive ¥7.5 million!
Of course, the above data has some restrictions, as it was only taken from job postings available on job boards between March and May 2021. So what’s the reality of the situation?
Suppose you want to look for a job in a Japanese company through connections. How will you make those connections with no Japanese? Of course, you could make moves in the expat community, but if the job requires Japanese, that isn’t going to change.
Unfortunately, English is still not widely used in Japan. According to recent surveys, the country is 53rd in global English proficiency studies. Moreover, less than 30 percent of Japanese people speak English, and only two percent can speak English fluently. So learning Japanese is going to open more doors for you.
Thus, if you have no Japanese skills and have no intention to learn, you’ll have to rely highly on your other skills. As a result, you’ll mostly be limited to international companies.
Jobs that don’t require Japanese
While N2 may open more doors and higher salaries, does that mean there are no positions available without it? Of course not!
Suppose you’re fresh out of university with no work experience and no Japanese. In that case, your best bet is to head into English teaching. Many of the larger eikaiwa (English conversation schools) require no Japanese skills.
There are many IT opportunities that require little or no Japanese.
If you’ve got coding skills at your fingertips, there are many IT opportunities around that require little or no Japanese. You’ll also find some offers in recruiting, customer service and the restaurant industries that require none or basic to no Japanese.
Alternatively, you could go the freelance route and get creative with writing or photography, as plenty of travel and lifestyle websites cater to an English-speaking audience (ahem).
Limitations of working in Japan with no Japanese
If you choose a field that doesn’t require Japanese, you’ll have to consider some restrictions, such as communication in the workplace. While Japanese co-workers might try to get things across in English, it’s not their first language. So prepare yourself for a lot of “I thought you were going to send the email!”
Another limitation will be with your career path itself. As we’ve seen, teaching and IT rely less heavily on Japanese ability, so you won’t have much problem finding a standard eikaiwa instructor role. However, you might find a roadblock if you look to move to other departments. Moving towards an HR or financial position, for example, will require a higher Japanese level to conduct daily operations and communicate with team members.
This is mostly true for other industries, too. So, for example, you may get entry-level jobs with a lower Japanese level but might find that the further you climb, the more Japanese you need.
How to improve your Japanese to get the job you want
If (like myself) you’ve suddenly realized that a hotel job doesn’t sound half bad, you’ll probably want to get a move on with your Japanese studies! Of course, GaijinPot study is always a good place to start, but here are a few more points to keep in mind:
- Set goals—find a job you want online and the minimum JLPT you need. Then book yourself a JLPT test, so you have a date to work towards
- Immerse yourself in the language (through Netflix, reading, making friends)
- Take a Japanese class—you’ll feel more incentive to learn, rather than rely on self-study
- Crossover Japanese studies with things you enjoy—join a gym or club, take a cooking class—whatever activity you love!
What has your experience been in Japan? Have you found an industry where you haven’t needed any Japanese? Let us know in the comments below!