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Winging It: 5 Keys to Navigating Your First Job Interview in Japanese

Once you get past your initial nerves and reservations, interviewing in Japanese will boost both your career prospects and your self-confidence.

By 6 min read

At the start of each year, we all like to set ourselves goals. For me, I guess that goal could be loosely articulated as “shake off the malaise.” A large part of this involved accepting that my job and other aspects of my life in Osaka were not as satisfying for me as I hoped they would be. The job paid well enough, but the contract wasn’t that great.

Then things changed. At a certain point, something became abundantly clear: To get a better job than my last one, I would need to speak Japanese. Not only this, I would also need to prove my ability by interviewing in Japanese.

Friends, previous partners and work colleagues have often joked that I have “izakaya Japanese.” In other words, I have the ability to make casual conversation down the pub and navigate most day-to-day situations, but I don’t think I’ve quite reached the level where I can communicate effectively in a business situation or a formal gathering.

I was going to have to learn fast or find as many shortcuts to mask my lack of formal Japanese ability as possible.

As it transpired, after about two months of sending applications and filtering out the usual time wasters and labor law violators, I managed to line up final interviews with three jobs I was interested in. Much to my initial disdain, they all wanted to interview me in Japanese.

Of these three positions, two of them ended up offering me the contract — and prior to this spring, I had never attempted a job interview in Japanese before.

I’d like to share some of my experience with this process. So here are five tips for navigating a job interview in Japanese.

1. Speak naturally and not from a script

My first interview was with a board of education near Osaka. Not ideal, but the pay and holiday package was a big step up, so I applied and got the interview.

“… using your own words and expressions — even if they aren’t letter-perfect — conveys your genuine enthusiasm for the job and will get the interview panel on your side.”

Believe me, when you’re nervous about interviewing for a job, there’s nothing worse than hearing the previous applicant go in ahead of you, give a flawless self-introduction in Japanese and then proceed to give the textbook demonstration lesson.

Rattled, nervous and not feeling confident for my first exclusively Japanese interview, I clammed up. I forgot the answers I intended to give and struggled to get my message across. A couple of weeks later the inevitable rejection came.

This was mistake number one: Do not try to memorize answers ahead of time.

There’s nothing wrong with making some rough notes if you have certain points you want to raise, but it’s better to try and improvise as much as you can. Interviewers will see through blatantly memorized scripts and you’ll soon be lost if they ask any follow up questions. Also, using your own words and expressions — even if they aren’t letter-perfect — conveys your genuine enthusiasm for the job and will get the interview panel on your side.

2. Forget about one-on-one interviews

Almost all interviews you will have with Japanese companies will be conducted by a team. The panel usually consists of four or five people of varying degrees of seniority in the company. As an example, one of my interviews was with a municipal board of education and the group consisted of two school principals, one vice-principal, the head of English education for the city and a couple of other board of education “suits” whose titles I can’t remember.

With this different dynamic, it’s crucial to manage your answers accordingly. Be sure to engage with each individual panel member when they ask you a question, but also refer back to the rest of the group. Appropriate eye contact is key.

3. Speak within your vocabulary range

Most learners of Japanese will agree that keigo — the ultra-formal language used in Japanese business and formal situations — is one of the most difficult aspects of learning the language. Unless the job application specifies JLPT 1 or JLPT 2 Japanese level, it’s unlikely they will expect you to use full keigo when answering questions at the interview.

From a teaching context, they are primarily concerned with your ability to communicate with the other teachers at your school and with board of education officials for administration purposes. So long as you avoid using anything overtly rude or excessively slangy, everyday conversational Japanese is fine. Despite what some Japanophiles will tell you, not everyone in a position of power in this country is fixated on honor or superfluous formality.

They are human just like you. It’s better to speak simply and confidently, rather than with formality and uncertainty.

“If you don’t fully understand a question the first time, it’s OK to ask the interviewer to repeat it.”

4. Don’t give them your life story

When speaking with a panel, you can expect to answer several questions from each member. However — the three-hour, ego-driven insanity of Osaka City BOE aside —  I’ve never had an interview with Japanese management that lasted more than 15-20 minutes. So, you need to keep your answers succinct and to the point. Employers who truly value your abilities and potential will want to know about your capability to do the job and your suitability for the work. All other matters are nonessential. In your preparation, focus on mastering vocabulary that relates directly to the job for which you are interviewing (see # 3 above).

At the beginning of the interview, you will be asked to give a self-introduction — keep it on topic. Mention places you’ve worked before, certifications you’ve achieved, where you studied Japanese and for how long. Unlike my native Glasgow, employers in Japan don’t care what football team you support or what hometown high school you attended.

When answering their questions, try to limit yourself to about 30 seconds per answer. This is enough to give a clear response without over-talking the situation. Keeping answers brief also helps to mask any possible gaps in your vocabulary and grammar abilities.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification

Just as with other languages, Japanese speakers converse at a variety of speeds, with various accents and inflections. If you don’t fully understand a question the first time, it’s OK to ask the interviewer to repeat it. A common mistake many people make when interviewing in a foreign language is to assume that asking for repetition is an automatic fail as it shows you didn’t understand the question. This is simply not true. Conversely, not asking for clarification and giving an incorrect — or nonsensical — answer based on what you “thought” the question was, is far more damaging to your overall chances of being hired.

At the end of the day, being asked to interview in Japanese should be viewed as a positive, not a negative. It shows a degree of professionalism from the company. They aren’t looking for anyone fresh of the proverbial boat seeking the “Japan experience.” It shows they want someone who is serious and committed, and who has taken the time to learn the language and to understand the working culture of this great country.

Besides, that feeling you get when you open that letter and discover for the first time that you’ve managed to land yourself a job entirely through use of a foreign language is a truly amazing experience of its own.

Do you have any useful stories or tips for surviving an interview in Japanese? Let us know in the comments!

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