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Foreigners solicited, hard-pressed to stay

by Alex Martin

Despite sending his resume to more than 15 companies, Bryan Cheng, a Taiwanese graduate student at Waseda University in Tokyo, hasn’t received any positive replies.

“I’ve been rejected by two, am in the process of having an interview with one, and haven’t even heard from the rest,” Cheng, 26, said wryly, adding he plans on returning home to Taiwan if he doesn’t land a job by June. “I want to stay in Japan, but I’ll be wasting my parents’ money if I remain here any longer.”

Cheng, who graduates in March, is not the only foreign student having difficulty starting a career in Japan. While the record-low job offers for Japanese university graduates has made headlines, the international student community has its own struggles, including the language barrier and Japan’s notoriously convoluted job-hunting process.

Foreign students in Japan have been increasing over the years — 2010 marked a record 141,774, according to the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) — and the government has declared it plans to increase this figure to 300,000 by 2020 as part of its global strategy.

Students from Southeast Asia account for the majority of the foreign student body, with those from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam topping the list, according to JASSO.

But Cheng and others recently interviewed by The Japan Times said they were vexed by the marathon job-hunting process, and seemed disheartened by the experience.

“I didn’t know that in Japan you need to begin looking for a job a year and a half before graduation,” said Cheng, who first arrived in 2008.

“By the time I realized this last year, it was already too late to apply for job openings for those graduating this year. So the ones I’m applying for now are jobs that begin this October or next April,” he said.

Cheng, who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Michigan State University, said he would like to work in investment banking, but confessed that at this point he is ready to try other fields.

“Basically I’m looking for anything now. I want to stay here,” he said.

A poll taken last August by DISCO Inc., a domestic recruiting consultancy, revealed that out of 923 responding firms, only 21.7 percent said they “plan on” hiring foreign students graduating from Japanese universities in 2011.

The survey also indicated that roughly 90 percent of the companies also feel there are “barriers” to hiring foreign students, including a lack of suitable positions, language and communications issues, and the red tape involved in employment procedures, including visa applications.

In addition, an Internet survey carried out by DISCO in November showed 89 percent of foreign university and graduate students who responded said the outlook for the job market in 2011 is “grim.”

Yutaka Toyosawa, a representative of Waseda University’s career center, said there are three main factors hurting the chances of foreign students finding a job in Japan.

“Most corporations require business-level Japanese from their employees, but many international students lack this,” he said.

Waseda is one of the schools that has been drastically increasing its number of foreign students over the past years — in 2008 it had 2,735 international students in its undergraduate and graduate programs, but by 2010 this figure had jumped to 3,755.

Toyosawa also pointed out that there is a conflict of interest between companies looking for long-term employees, and foreign nationals, who often plan on working in Japan for a limited time before returning home.

And finally, from collecting information to filling out entry forms, attending interviews and taking written exams, the entire process accompanying job-hunting is a major hurdle in itself, Toyosawa said.

Nora Rika Kobashigawa, an American of Japanese descent who will graduate from Waseda’s graduate school of Asia-Pacific Studies later this year, agreed that the lack of information was one of the reasons foreign students were experiencing difficulty finding jobs.

“There is no other country in the world that has this type of job-hunting process,” Kobashigawa said.

“There is this idea that if you are an international student, you have plenty of global experience, you can speak English — which is the global language — and you should be able to land a job in Japan. But then you find yourself stumbling with the process.”

Kobashigawa, who was born and raised in Hawaii but studied Japanese for 1 1/2 years at Doshisha University in Kyoto before entering Waseda, said she felt out of place when attending a group interview for one of the companies she applied for.

She was the only foreign student present at the interview, which was carried out in Japanese, and the others were far better prepared after undergoing countless “mogi-mensetsu” (practice interviews) before the real thing.

“You notice that compared to other Japanese students, you really don’t know what you are doing,” she said, adding she knew Japanese friends who applied to companies they weren’t interested in just to gain interview experience.

Japanese students send applications to a surprising number of companies.

Survey results released in December by Leggenda Corporation K.K. with responses from 16,171 Japanese university students expecting to graduate in 2012 showed that on average, students said they planned to apply to more than 100 firms — a record high for the survey — by the time they finish job-hunting.

Kobashigawa pointed out that the entry and application forms for companies are mostly in Japanese, including questions and essay topics, another drawback for those without sufficient language skills.

Achilov Muhsin, 23, a junior studying international law at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, echoed this sentiment.

Muhsin, from Uzbekistan, said he has applied to many foreign firms and trading houses in Japan, but said he always failed the interviews, which were in Japanese.

“I’ve been in Japan since 2007, so my Japanese isn’t so bad, but they judge everything based on the same criteria as they do for the Japanese,” he said.

While there are job fairs for foreign students, some of those interviewed said they were informed, ironically, that the best bet for a foreign student to land a job in Japan was to fly to the United States to attend the Boston Career Forum, a large-scale Japanese and English bilingual job fair held each year.

The government, universities and the corporate sector have in fact been working to increase the number of foreign university graduates in the workforce.

In late January, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s Saitama Labor Bureau hosted a seminar targeting local Saitama Prefecture-based corporations interested in hiring foreign students, the first of its kind.

Sony Corp. recently announced plans to double the number of foreign graduates hired at its headquarters by fiscal 2013, and other big-name corporations, including Panasonic Corp., Lawson Inc. and Fast Retailing Co., are making similar efforts.

Organizations are also making efforts, including the Tokyo Employment Service Center for Foreigners, which periodically hosts various guidance seminars for foreign students interested in working in Japan.

But it seems these measures are lagging the increasing demand for jobs by foreign nationals graduating from Japanese universities.

Victor, a Swedish MBA student at Waseda Business School who declined to give his family name, said he has basically given up finding a job in Japan and plans to focus on finding work back home.

“As a foreign student here you don’t get the impression that firms are really looking to hire you, so for me it feels like a waste of time to be searching,” he said, although he added his limited Japanese-language skills are probably hampering his chances of landing a job in Japan.

“I understand the situation, I can’t demand someone to hire me when I can’t speak the local language well enough. I only have myself to blame in that sense,” he said.

But the Swede, who has been granted a full scholarship from a Japan-based private institution that also covers his rent, said it was unfortunate that Japan cannot retain its educated foreign workforce when it spends money attracting them in the first place.

An education ministry official said that in fiscal 2010, the government will spend ¥19.6 billion in scholarships on a total of 12,074 foreign students studying in Japan.

“I believe many foreign students here are on scholarships, and I think it’s also costing the government a lot of money, but very few of them are staying,” Victor said.

“It’s a shame.”