How-tos

How much Japanese-language skill do you need to work in Japan?

by Rochelle Kopp

Contributing Writer

Back in the bubble period, I was able to get a job at a Japanese bank in Tokyo with language skills that were intermediate at best. With a lot of intensive effort (and classes kindly paid for by my employer) I was able to improve quickly and was eventually writing reports in Japanese.

Looking at the non-Japanese working in Japan today, however, I see a lot of people who are coming into their jobs in Japan with much higher skills than I had when I started out. And I often hear job-seekers wondering how much Japanese they really need to work in Japan.

So I asked some Japan-based recruiters for their view on what Japanese levels they see their clients requiring.

I got a very consistent answer: With the exception of certain specialized positions, you’ll need to speak Japanese pretty well, with Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level 2 certification (N2) being a commonly-used benchmark.

Skills needed to do the job

As Casey Wahl, CEO of Wahl and Case, puts it, “More firms are getting comfortable hiring foreigners, but they don’t have too much tolerance for lower level Japanese and for those not willing to conform to the standing corporate culture.”

“(N2) should open most doors and get you in for an interview,” Wahl says. “Then it will be up to your speaking communication skills (usually prioritized over written) to pass the language requirements.”

Akemi Hamano, a recruiting consultant at Hays, says that, with the exception of blue-collar positions, companies are looking for a business level of Japanese ability sufficient for frequent back-and-forth communication and being able to make decisions together.

David Price, client services director at Robert Half, is more succinct.

“In most cases it’s pretty simple — if your co-workers and/or clients can’t or won’t speak your language, then you must speak (and often read and type) theirs,” Price says.

At the same time, whereas expectations for conversational level abilities are high, Alan Adkins, president of The Refined Group, notes that there is more flexibility when it comes to reading and writing, due to an awareness that learning kanji is hard.

The value placed on Japanese ability may not be only related to ease of daily communication.

“Many companies also look at business level Japanese ability as a sign of commitment to Japan as well as solid work ethic as most Japanese people seem to understand how difficult their native language is,” says Anthony Blick, a senior consultant at PowerUp Solutions.

One thing driving the focus on N2 is the fact that so many people now have skills at that level.

Gary Schrader, manager of professional services at Randstad Japan, points out this competition factor, noting a recent influx of non-Japanese labor entering the Japanese market with at least N2 level certified Japanese. This includes both those who have studied in their home countries, and the growing number of non-Japanese studying at Japanese universities.

Personally, in recent years I have worked with many younger employees at my Japanese clients who are natives of China or South Korea and speak excellent Japanese, often at a near-native level.

Given the competition, just a basic level of Japanese ability may not be very meaningful.

As Alex Lieber, director at Extentive, says, “some Japanese is basically as useless as no Japanese. Nobody cares about N4 or N3. Things only start getting interesting from N2.”

“It’s worth putting in the intense effort early on in your Japan career” to get up to N2 level, Wahl says.

Programming skills

The one sector where the recruiters I talked to uniformly highlighted an exception to language requirements was for highly technical positions.

Kazuto Sato, a recruitment consultant at Morgan McKinley, lists system development, programming, data analytics for IT consulting and valuation in mergers and acquisitions advisory as examples.

“Recently we have seen the bar for Japanese requirements dropping to nothing for engineers,” Wahl says. “It is getting more and more common for tech companies to hire foreign engineers with no Japanese skills.”

Wahl attributes this to the fact that “more and more companies are realizing that there is this great pool of engineering talent that doesn’t speak Japanese, but wants to work in Japan and can be very effective.”

Thus, for those who don’t have strong Japanese skills, he recommends that “it might be wise to retrain as an engineer and check out high-level developer training schools like Code Chrysalis.”

Indeed, the workplaces at many tech startups in Japan, as well as some larger tech companies such as Rakuten, are very English-friendly. Some startups are even purposefully making their companies bilingual from the start, both to attract talent and also to lay the groundwork for future overseas expansion.

Other fields that are reported to be more open to hiring non-Japanese who lack Japanese language fluency are language teaching, recruiting, and securities and investments.

In addition, Lieber points out that some Japanese companies are hiring non-Japanese for jobs facing overseas markets, where language skills may be less important.

Even when it comes to jobs requiring specialized skills that trump language ability, employers may not be looking for people in Japan to fill those posts. That’s often the case in foreign multinational corporations, but also more recently in Japanese multinationals, where people with the requisite skills may already be working for the company at other locations and could be transferred to Japan.

“It doesn’t really make sense for my client companies to hire people who don’t speak Japanese in Japan when they just can transfer their employees who are keen to work in Japan from other offices,” Morgan McKinley’s Sato says.

The transfer-from-abroad pattern is also the most typical for one other category of jobs where Japanese is seldom required — very senior executives in Japanese subsidiaries of foreign firms, including the country manager. Those people tend to be valued for their industry experience and trust developed at the headquarters.

And, as Blick notes, in these cases “the work itself will be done in English and bilingual assistants and colleagues are assigned to help with anything in Japanese.”

Skills increase opportunities

The bottom line is that the better your Japanese skills, the more opportunities will be open to you. So unless you’re an engineer or thinking of becoming one, cracking the books to improve your Japanese is probably going to be a good investment if you want to work in Japan.

And, of course, the better your language skills, the better you will be able to succeed in any job that you land, as language skills will enable you to form stronger relationships and contribute more deeply — even in technical positions.

Naturally, language ability should significantly enhance your life outside of work in Japan as well. It’s time to start studying!

Rochelle Kopp is a management consultant working with Japanese firms operating globally and foreign firms operating in Japan. She recently published “Manga de Wakaru Gaikokujin to no Hatarakikata” (“Learn How to Work With Non-Japanese Through Manga.”) You can find her on Twitter at @JapanIntercult.