If your career in Japan takes you beyond teaching English at an eikawa or public school, there is a lot of information to unpack about the job hunting process. Any rumors you have read on forums likely have at least a grain of truth to them, and we’re here to help you understand what to expect if you plan to jump into the world of job hunting in Japan, better known as “shukatsu.”
Unraveling the Mystery of Shukatsu
Besides first-hand reports and rumours that you may have read about, there are definitely big differences between the new-hire process for Japanese companies and Western companies. In Japan, companies prefer to hire people straight out of university. Most employees will stay with one or two companies their entire lives. Whereas in the West, it’s extremely common to jump from job to job as companies continually look for experience in your chosen field.
What Japan has that you have probably never experienced is a job hunting system called shukatsu, which combines shushoku (“finding employment”)and katsudo (“activities”) to create a catchword that translated to “job hunting activities.”
Popular animation created to show the emotional anxiety of shukatsu (best to watch with sound)
Because Japanese companies like to recruit young new-hires, most university students start the shukatsu process up to two years before graduating.
Living to Work
In Japan, life is work. It doesn’t really matter how much money you make — it matters what company you work for. Compared to the Western idea that a better job means a better salary, this difference really shows the contrast between the two mentalities. In Japan, honor is a big thing. Working a long for a big company that everyone knows makes many feel like they’re a more honorable person in the eyes of others. And companies reinforce this loyalty by offering pay raises based on how long they stay with the company instead of rewarding based on skills and contributions.
Handling the Pressure
Since work is such a big part of Japanese culture, there is so much pressure on new graduates to find a job that it can almost become unbearable for them if they don’t get accepted by any company. In 2018, there were over 150 suicides connected with shukatsu — just because famous companies rejected their applications.
But social pressure stretches far beyond getting denied by a potential employer. Even if you get hired, expectations for following the norms remain strong. If you do something “out of line,” you may not be directly confronted, but any objections will be shown nonetheless. For example, if you smoke where you’re not supposed to, you will feel silently judging eyes glaring at you. The point will be made by making you feel uneasy.
Another example is that many Japanese companies, especially those with a famous name, will have a room specifically dedicated for new-hires who were brought on immediately after graduating. If you choose to have a gap year before getting hired, you would be alienated from the other new-hires.
With such strong social pressures, imagine the anxiety that university students face. No gap years, no relaxing, straight from school to work, otherwise society will look down on you.
Dressing for Success
There is an expression in Japan, “Deru kugi wa utareru.” — The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
It’s bad for university graduates to go against the standard “rules” of shukatsu; this means you have to wear the same suit, the same shoes, and the same hairstyle as everyone else. Pretty much if you’re different, you won’t fit in and because of the social pressures — everyone must shun the person who is different or they themselves will be shunned.
Costs of Job Hunting in Japan
Let’s say you land in Japan and are ready to try Japanese-style shukatsu, which means giving up many of the things you think you know about yourself, especially your fashion and personality. Doing these two things are already a big step in the right direction for employment success in Japan, but there’s more you can do.
- Japanese-style Resume / CV and Photo ID
Cost: No more than ¥2,000.
Traditionally, work custom suggests that you handwrite your resume using a standard template. More often though, Japanese job search engines will let you create a digital resume for potential employers to search through. Whether you hand write or type out your resume for your job interview, you will want to be sure to format the document to A4-size paper before printing. Remember that if you are coming from the United States, Canada, or the Philippines, Japan has a different standard of paper size.
If you don’t have a printer, you can save your resume and entry sheet to a flash drive and head to your local convenience store to print off copies. Don’t forget to attach an ID photo as well to your resume. You can use the same one that you used for your resident card. If you don’t have a photo, there are photo booths placed in and around train stations just for this purpose.
- Shukatsu-style Suits (Commonly called “Recruit Suit”)
Alright, your paperwork is printed out. Now it’s time to conform to societal expectations! Suits are obviously a big thing in Japan and its vital that you have one for all interviews and meetings. If you’re big, tall, or plus-size, I suggest buying a conservative black suit from your home country as you will most likely have to get one custom made in Japan. As for men’s neckties, muted solid colors are appropriate (except black and white) and avoid strong patterns and designs. Along with the suit, you will need a business bag or briefcase and black dress shoes. Again, if you have a larger shoe size, it’s best to buy them before arriving.
- Tools of the Trade
There are several essentials besides your resume and suit that you will need for job hunting in Japan. These items are important for getting around Japan and for showing how professional you are to potential employers.
- Rechargeable Public Transport Card
You should most certainly have a SUICA or Pasmo card (or a similar card if living outside of Tokyo). These cards are pretty much like a rechargeable bus and train pass. You can pick them up from the airport once you land.
A smartphone is a must for navigation. Google Maps works very well in Japan and can translate the train and bus schedules for you. If you’re using your smartphone from home, be sure to unlock your phone before arriving so that you can buy a data SIM Card for long-term residents, otherwise you will be on international roaming.
- Notepad and Pen
A notepad and pen are a must for jotting down notes about your company during the interview.
- A Nice Watch
Japan is all about being on time, so wearing a watch suggests that you mean business.
- Hanko Seal
A hanko is the Japanese equivalent of a signature and is often required for employment paperwork. You can have one custom made online or you can change your name to a popular Kanji and use that.
A Sign of the Times
Does all of this still really happen in Japan? Shukatsu has been a part of Japanese society for a very long time and is built into the fabric of job hunting. However, for some university graduates, the work culture in Japan is getting much better for a couple of reasons: younger generations growing up with access to the internet paired with an aging population.
Much of the concepts that define shukatsu are dying out simply because many recruits won’t stand for it anymore. More and more companies are changing their tune to “wooing” students to join them as new-hires can better compare international work cultures with the negative aspects of Japan’s work culture.
A Reassuring Note to Foreigners
If you’ve never worked in the corporate world and want to get your ears wet in Japan, you may be thinking how insane shukatsu is, but fear not.
Recently, industry polls asked what important qualities are needed for considering new hires. The qualities that Japanese companies responded with are strong communication skills, independence, and a “fighting spirit.” Companies like these are setting their gaze on foreign students whom they believe offer those traits and are perceived to have more of a spark and passion for success. Around 85% of companies in Japan are looking to keep or increase the rate of new-hires from overseas.
Entering Japan’s corporate culture can be daunting with seemingly endless customs and rules. It’s absolutely scary for the majority of Japanese university graduates to begin the process of shukatsu. Just remember that the culture is changing. Younger generations of corporate managers are more forgiving and with this, more positive changes will hopefully come to Japan. If you find a job in Japan and have the skills, apply! You never know what can happen.