Japanese company employees seek career upgrade after time overseas

by Tomoko Otake

Many employees at big Japanese corporations see their business environment change dramatically when they are transferred overseas.

Suddenly they are their own bosses, dealing with different work customs and being pressed to speak English.

Such experiences, according to Kevin Gibson, managing director of Japan operations at U.K.-based recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, are “invaluable,” and add “premiums” to the market value of these people.

But when they return home, with high expectations for their new assignments, they often end up in unsatisfying head office positions — without the bonuses, benefits and other perks tied to international postings, he said.

A number of Japanese returnees are thus knocking on the door of Robert Walters Japan seeking a career upgrade, said Gibson, who sees this as a great business opportunity.

“They come back and they are part of the group again,” Gibson said in a recent interview.

“They can’t use English any more. They don’t have as much freedom. So they come see us. With their international experience, they want to work for a foreign company now. People are more open to doing that now.”

The growing tendency among Japanese professionals to put their careers first and company loyalty second is evident, with the job-for-life premise evaporating, Gibson said.

Robert Walters Japan, which recruits accounting and other professionals in mid- to senior-level positions for international organizations, has a staff of 35.

It places around 200 candidates a year and forecasts annual revenue of 600 million yen for this year, up 100 million yen from last year.

Until recently, trying to draw Japanese overseas back to Japan had been difficult, with most professionals seeking to prolong their international careers as long as possible.

But over the last three months, the number of inquiries the firm has received from Japanese financial and marketing professionals who are looking to work back in Japan has tripled from the previous period — to some 180, Gibson said.

He attributed the trend to the growing business optimism here, the still-faltering U.S. economy and the recent appreciation of the yen against the dollar.

“The level of interest in career opportunities back in Japan is the highest we have experienced in almost four years,” he said.

Since setting up the Japan office four years ago, the firm has also seen a massive market change.

With the global economic slowdown in the last two years, many foreign firms in Tokyo have cut costs by replacing expatriates with Japanese.

The “localization” of the Japan offices of foreign firms also forced a change at Robert Walters, which initially came here to place foreigners.

Today, 90 percent of the firm’s placements are Japanese, compared with some 50 percent in 2000, Gibson said.