“Not my family, friends — not even me — nobody thought I would end up working in Japan,” says Yoon Hyejung, a South Korean graduate who made headlines in the domestic media for receiving an offer from a top Japanese company without having what South Koreans call “specs.”

Yoon did not fit the typical profile of a South Korean high flyer. She did not have a long list of language certificates, internships or a degree from a top university in Seoul — the “specifications” many domestic firms demand from new hires. Instead, she had a year’s experience of traveling around the world and two years of working holidays in Australia and Japan.

Korean media labeled Yoon a “job nomad,” judging her newsworthy for snagging a plum position abroad while defying the stereotype of what makes a graduate employable in her home country. “Yoon, who received a full-time job offer from Kirin, is a ‘non-Seoul university graduate’ who experienced difficulties in the domestic market,” the Chosun Ilbo marveled.

Facing an ultracompetitive job market in South Korea, more graduates are choosing the nomadic path and heading abroad to fulfill their dreams. The Human Resources Development Service of Korea says the number of South Koreans who went abroad via government-sponsored programs alone has tripled within the last three years, from 1,679 in 2014 to over 5,000 in 2017.

The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency says the majority of candidates who receive job offers through its forums are opting to work in Japan. “If we look at the figures from 2016 and 2017, for example, we can say that almost six out of 10 candidates go to Japan,” a representative told The Japan Times.

The number of South Korean workers in Japan surpassed 50,000 last year. According to Japan’s labor ministry, 55,926 South Korean nationals were employed in the country as of October 2017, an increase of about 8,000 from the previous year.

Right now, the East Asian neighbors’ job markets are a study in contrasts. While Japan has a record-high employment rate of 97.6 percent for university graduates and student applicants receive an average of two job offers, youth unemployment in South Korea at the end of last year was 9.9 percent, the highest figure since the government started gathering data, according to Statistics Korea. The country has a highly educated workforce — four times more students graduate college than did 20 years ago — but lacks the highly qualified jobs they covet. Due to this mismatch, the “sentiment rate” of youth unemployment — which also includes those in part-time jobs seeking full-time positions and those who have given up looking — now stands at an unenviable 22.7 percent.

When Yoon decided to look for a job, she soon realized she was short of options.

“With my final GPA of 2.8, I wasn’t even qualified to apply for South Korean companies, which required a minimum of 3.0, and I didn’t even have a TOEIC score,” Yoon recalls, referring to the Test of English for International Communication. “I had experience but I didn’t have the specs South Korean companies were looking for.”

Yoon believes it would have taken her at least a year to prepare the minimum specs required to apply to domestic companies. With jobs thin on the ground, many young South Koreans are putting off graduation and instead studying for certificates in skills such as computer programming and languages, or are preparing for public service exams. This CV-padding process, known as “building specs,” can take several months or even years, but even when you have the minimum specs required for an entry-level position, a job is not guaranteed.

“I was already 26. Even if I landed a job fast, I would be 27 at best, but if it took longer than that, I would soon turn 30,” she says, explaining that in South Korea’s seniority-centered job market, age can quickly become a disadvantage, especially for female graduates.

Upon finding out that most of the jobs she wanted required a different major, she felt even more pressure. That was when Yoon began to consider Japan.

“Honestly, I didn’t have a favorable image of Japan,” Yoon admits. “In high school, my score in Japanese was eight out of 100. I didn’t even want to memorize hiragana.”

However, within a matter of a few years, Yoon found herself presenting her strengths and goals in Japanese, boarding planes to and from Japan, and taking countless late-night bus rides between Tokyo and Osaka, Busan and Seoul, seeking the opportunity she dreamed of.

“In the domestic market, I had the worst specs, but in Japan, it didn’t matter.” There, she says, “I could immediately apply for most companies, from large conglomerates to small and medium-size companies to startup ventures.” She prepared for two upcoming big job fairs thinking they might be her last chances.

Receiving the offer from Kirin was like “a dream,” says Yoon. “When my aunt heard the news that I was accepted by such a good company in Japan, she burst into tears.”

Yoon says the cultural differences bring a positive synergy to her workplace, and she is satisfied with her job. Although there are hierarchical and bureaucratic sides to it, just like in South Korea, she feels it is less rigidly vertically structured, and she rarely works until late. And when she does, she gets paid.

“In many ways, rights are guaranteed at the workplace,” she says of working in Japan, “so I feel employees can work comfortably and on an equal footing.”

The grass is greener?

Job nomads are not universally celebrated in South Korea. Some accuse them of abandoning the country for an easier option, but Yoon says her experience has been anything but.

“Getting a job abroad can be as twice as difficult, because you have to overcome language and cultural barriers on top of work,” she says.

For Yoon, securing a job involved shuttling back and forth between 10 friends’ homes on a tight budget, learning Japanese manners and language, and many a shiftless night on planes and long-distance buses.

Kim Minji, who recently received an offer from Japan after a year of job hunting, says the contrasting job markets only tell half the story.

“Right now, Japan lacks workers so it’s looking for overseas talent, while South Korea’s unemployment is hitting new highs, so this may make them feel like Japan may be an easier option than South Korea,” she says. However, “If you are just looking for any job in Japan with no conditions, it may be easy, but that was not the case for me.”

Starting with researching about each company from scratch on her own in an unfamiliar language, Kim says the process was tough. She also had to cope with issues such as visas, housing and varying work cultures at different firms, including avoiding exploitative “black companies.” In addition, she was competing against not only other foreign candidates but also native speakers.

Although she believes job-hunting in Japan was at least as stressful as it would have been back home, she says nobody asked her about English- or Japanese-language test results, even when she received offers from firms that had said they required certain TOEIC or Japan Language Proficiency Test scores.

“Whereas South Korean companies were more interested in my situation as an employee that can start the job right away, Japanese companies were more interested in learning my potential as an employee, how I have lived my life and what I want to do from now on,” she says, while stressing that a high level of Japanese and thorough research of the companies were a must.

Lee Yongmin
Lee Yongmin

For Lee Yongmin, a senior student at Ajou University in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, this difference was a crucial factor in his decision to focus his energies on Japan, having recently spent a semester in Osaka.

“South Korean companies want those who are already capable of giving the results, but in Japan, workers grow with the company. Companies raise their employees,” he says. “I realized that the situations of my Korean friends and Japanese friends were totally different. My Japanese friends had more choices and they could be more relaxed, and I envied that.”

“For me, I don’t think it is even worth trying the South Korean job market,” says Lee. Instead of building specs for years in the hope of landing an average job in South Korea, he has decided to pour his energies into studying English and Japanese, believing that these skills will open up a wider range of opportunities.

“Even though I’m not aiming for large conglomerates, it’s still very difficult to get a job” in South Korea, he says. “They demand such impressive specs, and when I look at the social welfare benefits at smaller firms, I feel it is better to look at opportunities abroad instead.”

For Lee, Japan was the natural choice. He had already started learning the language, and companies’ willingness to educate employers from scratch meant he was not limited to jobs related to his major. He was also encouraged by the experience of some older students.

“Some of my seniors who struggled with the domestic job market received offers from Japanese companies,” he says. “I feel I have a good chance.”

Quality as well as quantity

As more success stories of South Korean job nomads in Japan make the news, more programs tailored toward the Japanese job market have been popping up. Yeungjin College in Daegu, for example, has set up a customized program to foster talents sought by Japanese companies. The college has become well-known in South Korea for its boast that 100 percent of its graduates have found employment. Japanese language programs are also seeing a boost in enrollment, and many are starting programs preparing jobseekers for the Japanese market.

The tough job market in South Korea is far from the only reason why South Koreans are looking abroad for work, according to a recent survey by local employment portal Job Korea and Albamon of 848 South Koreans in their 20s and 30s. Social security benefits and a better work environment ranked as the top reasons for considering overseas work. Others included personal growth and perceptions that there was less competition and work politics abroad.

Kim Jihwan
Kim Jihwan

“It seems like Japanese can afford to focus on living today more than South Koreans,” says Kim Jihwan, a student who recently returned from a semester abroad in Osaka. Kim says he has always felt pressure to think about future plans, instead of being satisfied with what he had, in South Korea’s highly competitive society.

He believes there is more respect for individualism and this makes a big difference in people’s daily lives. “They seem to have a better balance with work in general,” he says of the Japanese.

With languages skills in Japanese, Korean and English, Kim hopes to work for a foreign firm in the region and Kim says Japan is a good option. “Working at a Japan office will help me build a more international career in Asia because the offices in Japan are still much bigger than those in South Korea.”

Due to Japan’s cultural proximity, he also feels he will have less cultural barriers to climbing the corporate ladder than if he worked in other parts of the world. “It’s a place I can use my strength and grow, and because it’s similar and closer to South Korea, it’s more convenient for me to settle there,” he says.

Rose-tinted view of Japan

However, Kim Jihye, a South Korean worker in Japan, warns that in reality, Japanese work culture is not necessarily freer than South Korea. In fact, she believes it is stricter.

For example, she cites the examples of having coffee breaks with colleagues and looking at phones at work as behaviors tolerated in offices in South Korea more than in Japan. Kim speculates that this may be because concepts like work-hour limits, overtime pay and so on are more tightly regimented in Japan, so companies expect a stricter attitude among employees in office hours, which, depending on your character, may be a good or bad thing.

On average, South Korean works the second-longest hours among OECD countries and overwork pay is not paid regularly. In a survey by local employment portal Job Korea, 46.3 percent of respondents said they often work beyond the end of their shift, while only 37.7 percent of those surveyed said they were paid for overtime. On average, South Koreans work late 2½ days every week.

Considering this, Japan’s stricter work culture can be seen as beneficial in terms of work-life balance. A survey by the Tokyo office of the Korea International Trade Association found that 57.8 percent of South Korean employees in Japan are satisfied with their work; 84.5 percent of respondents said they would be happy to recommend working in Japan to their acquaintances.

Kim counsels her compatriots not to be starry-eyed about life as a foreign worker.

“I started my job hunting in Japan having heard only the good side, but the reality is that it is quite difficult because of the high language and cultural barriers,” she says. “Having a specific goal and plan is very important. If you start unprepared, there is a higher chance that you won’t be satisfied and will regret it, especially if you come without the language.

“Many have a fantasy that working overseas will be better than South Korea, but if you don’t prepare yourself for the language and culture, there is less possibility you will get a better job than you would in South Korea,” she adds. “My industry, IT, needs people more than other industries, so it really needs foreign labor but not all areas are like this.”

The increase in South Koreans heading east shows no signs of abating. In the Job Korea-Albamon survey, 87.6 percent of respondents in their 20s and 30s said they were willing to work abroad if offered the chance, and 86 percent believe the number of “job nomads” is bound to keep on rising.

For now at least, this trend is a win-win situation for both South Korean job nomads and labor-hungry Japanese firms.

“South Korean graduates are sought after (in Japan) because they have outstanding CVs due to the competitive environment they were brought up in, and they are also from a similar culture. They are used to the group culture,” the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency official explains. “For South Koreans, Japan is attractive for the culture and geographical proximity, and Japan offers a good work environment.”

Looking back on her career path so far, Yoon has no regrets about her decision to accept Kirin’s offer to work in Japan.

“I love South Korea but I felt I wouldn’t be happy even if I survived the competition,” she says. “Living abroad as a proud Korean is also a good choice.”

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