I’ve been asked several times about working in Japan, specifically concerning getting your foot in the door. Most people who want to work here initially look to the JET program or an English language school, but I think for most people it really is an interim job rather than a start to a career.
Let’s say you work 3-4 years as an English teacher in Japan, and you would like to break into another industry. Staying in Japan to continue teaching can only take you to a certain point financially and career-wise, and you risk plateauing in your late 20’s. There is always the option of opening your own language school or specialize in what you teach, but it is still can be limiting in the long-term.
Anyway, here are 5 things that I think are key to getting a non-language related job in Japan.
1. Make a consorted effort to learn (at least some) Japanese. If you can speak decent Japanese in a business environment, you will become a unicorn. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but if you are easy to communicate with in both written and spoken language, then it will be easy to get your foot in the door.
2. Have a marketable skill that is not related to being a native English speaker. Programming, web design, SEO, sales, whatever. This skill plus actually speaking Japanese is what will get you interviews for lucrative positions for things you want to do. Japanese fluency with no other experience only holds so much value in the corporate setting. Basically, don’t be surprised if it turns out to be the lowest common denominator in your skill set. (That and the ability to use Microsoft Word.)
3. Ask yourself what your real goals are. Is the end game just physically existing in Japan? Do you want to leverage your experiences in Japan for future projects?
If you just want to bum around, then doing the English teacher thing or some freelance work is perfectly fine. However if in the long-term you want to be doing something in relation to a specific industry, sticking around in an English teaching position is going to make it difficult to move towards your goals.
4. Educate yourself about what the market needs and what it lacks. Some things that are taken for granted in the US and other Western countries hold more value here. The opposite also holds true! Know how to sell yourself properly.
5. Network! Try to make friends in the industry you want to break into. An intro is worth a 1000 job applications. (Same as anywhere else!) Try to broaden your social circle and see what happens. Some people are reluctant to speak with a foreigner about a position that wasn’t created with an international person in mind, but a recommendation from a mutual acquaintance can give you a decent chance to sell yourself for that job. (I like to call this your Gaijin Street Cred factor.)
This of course can all be taken with a grain of salt, but I think no matter what, establishing some simple short term goals can help you avoid getting stuck in a career rut.