Blurred by motion, a group of businessmen in suits move through an underground walkway.

Businessmen head to work in Tokyo. Photo © Banalities, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The employment situation in Japan has changed markedly from the post-World War II era of rapid economic expansion. With continued deflation and sluggish economic growth, what were once considered the hallmarks of large companies in Japan—guaranteed lifetime employment and advancement by seniority—have virtually disappeared. Today a third of workers are employed under “temporary” status, or haken, without a long-term contract. Graduates from top universities have difficulty landing jobs with prestigious firms, many of which have reduced campus recruiting. Female graduates have difficulty accessing corporate jobs, based on the assumption that they will get married within a couple of years and “retire.” The government is trying to encourage a more active role for women in the workforce to boost economic growth, but a lack of openings in childcare facilities prevents many women with children from going back to work full-time.

Among youth, the goal of pursuing a lifelong career with the same company has changed.Recent census data show that of Japan’s population of 127 million almost 27 percent is over the age of 65. By 2030, one in three people will be 65 or older. Among youth, the goal of pursuing a lifelong career with the same company has changed. Some choose to become freeters (part-time workers) pursuing their own interests instead of a career—a life far removed from that of the overworked salarymen (whitecollar workers) in neckties and suits on crowded commuter trains. Compared to their peers from the past who went straight from university to a company job, the earning power of young people has diminished. Some pursue nontraditional paths, going overseas to work, travel, or earn an advanced degree.

Where do foreign residents fit into the employment picture? In the 1990s, up to 230,000 Brazilians of Japanese origin (whose grandparents had immigrated to Brazil in search of a new life) came to Japan to work. Along with immigrants from the Middle East and Asia, they worked in the manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and fishing industries—jobs that many young Japanese don’t want. Today, with a low birthrate and shrinking population, there is a severe labor shortage in many sectors. To meet the shortage of caregivers in nursing homes and home care, young women from Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries are recruited and trained in basic Japanese so they can take care of Japanese elders. Most foreign workers have temporary visas of five years or less, as the government is reluctant to grant permanent residence or citizenship to foreigners. Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries are rarely granted asylum (less than 1 percent) and are kept in limbo, banned from working legally or attending school.

Most foreign workers have temporary visas of five years or less, as the government is reluctant to grant permanent residence or citizenship to foreigners.The employment picture is quite different for those from English-speaking countries. Many come to Japan thinking they can easily earn a living teaching English in schools or language institutes, or as a private instructor, after obtaining a work visa. Yes, teaching is an option—provided you come with solid training, an appropriate degree, and, preferably, an introduction. Others come with a background in IT to work in business, or bring entrepreneurial skills and start their own companies. With Tokyo preparing to host the 2020 Olympics, there is a demand for interpreters and guides in many foreign languages. While job hunting, keep in mind that connections (abbreviated as ko-neh in Japanese) are extremely important. Getting an introduction from someone in a position of authority carries weight.

Exchanging Meishi (Business Cards)

If someone offers you their business card, receive it with both hands with a slight bow, look at it, and say their name before putting it away. When you offer someone your card, turn it so it faces the receiver. Japanese take meishi seriously, because it reveals information about your affiliation and rank, which are cues to the appropriate level of speech. Having someone’s card is a sign that a relationship has been established. It’s also used as a personal reference—showing someone’s card is proof that they know you and recommend you, so you don’t want to give yours out to everyone on the street.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Living Abroad Japan.