Interviews in Japan: A Survival Guide

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On January 11, 2016
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It is often said that job interviews are perhaps some of the most nerve-wracking and unpleasant experiences we will ever have to go through. Of course interviewing for a new job is stressful enough in your own country, without the added pain of struggling to understand the linguistic and cultural nuances of an entirely different country with an entirely different values system and set of expectations.

With this in mind, many of you who are new to Japan can find your first interview in Japan with a Japanese owned firm to be both a confusing and frustrating experience. It’s not too unusual to come away from the interview thinking that you have done really well, only to discover later that you made a number of basic errors that cost you the job. And that’s if you’re lucky. In most cases you probably won’t get any post-interview feedback whatsoever.

So, what’s a newbie to do when the time comes for that all-important interview? Hopefully, today I can offer some advice so here’s my top 5 tips for Japanese interviews.

Know before you go.

This may sound really basic, but from my experience thus far, no two job interviews in Japan are the same. Be sure to thoroughly read through all the data that the company provides you with prior to the interview. If possible try to establish how many people will be interviewing you (is it a one to one or a group scenario?). Also, it doesn’t hurt to do a bit of research beforehand about the company itself. Number of employees, management structure, goals and ambitions. These are all simple details you will find on any corporate website, and it certainly does your application no harm to show the bosses that you’ve done your homework.

Scout out the venue.

One thing that too many foreigners in Japan overlook is the importance of punctuality. It is something of a prejudicial stereotype amongst Japanese people that foreigners tend to be lazy, overly-casual and a bit unreliable when it comes to scheduling. So, no matter what happens, do not be late!

To prevent this, I often like to check out the venue one or two days before, so that 1) I know exactly how to get there, and 2) I know how long it will take me to get there on the day. Ideally, you should aim to arrive about 10-15 minutes before your scheduled interview time. Try to avoid arriving any earlier than this, as rather than show your enthusiasm, this could create an imposition for your interviewers.

Engage all of the interview panel equally.

All my interviews in Japan have, to date, been conducted by a group of interviewers. For the individual candidate, facing off against multiple interviewers can sometimes seem intimidating. To add further confusion, I have noticed that Japanese interviewers will sometimes tend to play the “good cop, bad cop” routine.

In other words, one or two of them may seem very familiar and friendly, whilst the others may seem distant, cold and in some cases even antagonistic. In this case, it’s important to, as much as possible, engage them all equally. This will demonstrate to the interview panel not only that you can handle pressure and potentially difficult social situations well, but also that you are able to function well within a group dynamic. As I have elaborated on in previous articles, Japanese society places a great emphasis on the group hierarchy and as such your ability to work as a cohesive element within that group is crucial to your hiring chances.

Don’t ask too many questions

Whilst it is important that you come across as enthusiastic and attentive in your interview, there is such a thing as talking too much, especially in a society that places as high an emphasis on maintaining social graces as Japan does. The golden rule here is “don’t speak until you are spoken to”.

As in all interviews, there will be an opportunity to ask questions towards the end of the interview, but do not interrupt the interviewer when they are in the middle of speaking and also try not to ramble on too much when giving your answers. Keep responses detailed but succinct. One of the big social faux pas that many foreigners make is to not “know their place” and to often speak out of turn. Knowing your audience is an essential part of a successful interview in Japan.

Above all, be flexible

Often, interviews in Japan can seem less like a test of working competence and more like an exercise in patience, endurance and just how much unnecessary bovine excrement one is willing to tolerate. However, it is best not to complain. The more hoops you jump through, the more malleable you will appear to the employer and this will only boost your chances of being hired.

Job interviews are a stressful experience. That is an undeniable fact. However, we all have to go through them at some point. Hopefully today’s article will go some way towards helping you deal with the more difficult elements. As always good luck and happy hunting to you all.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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  • Melina Ferszt says:

    Hello there! My
    husband and I want to study Japanese. We have a huge doubt between
    two schools and we need advice from someone who has experience living
    in Japan;)

    He has 37 years and
    a university degree. I have 36 years and I have no college degree.
    Only an international certificate for teaching Spanish and a high
    level of English. We are from Argentina.

    Option 1: Go to the
    Kansai College, studying for a year both working half-day to see if
    at least I can pay to study a second year and get the degree. To get
    a job in the future. But in that case he would not know how to find
    work in Osaka (he is an industrial designer). Nor do we know how we
    can work half-day in an academy of that intensity …

    Option 2: Go to
    Yokohama Design that is lower intensity, a year working and studying
    and having chances of finding work in Tokyo. We were told that maybe
    we could find something in Latin American embassies for being Latino
    or for the Olympic Games 2020 because of the language … But in this
    case I have fear of never getting to work in Japan without a title
    and only having my certificate for Spanish teaching.

    What do you say? Any
    thoughts or advice? We like Osaka better as a city to live but we are
    afraid of not finding work there.

    Thanks a lot! And
    happy beginning of 2016 !!!!

  • AK says:

    Opposite for me!

  • Kevin says:

    I’m great at interviewing and I usually get the job. The bad part is that I suck at working.

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