Getting a job in Japan is hard. The visa issue makes it fundamentally difficult for foreigners, but so do misconceptions about the way to go about getting a job. The first thing to realize is that gengo nōryoku (言語能力, language skills) alone are unlikely to land you the position you want: The whole country is full of folks who speak Japanese at least as well as you do. Having other marketable skills is critical — but so is knowing Japanese job-hunting culture.
One of the most interesting aspects of Japanese job-hunting is jiko-PR (自己PR, literally, “self-public relations”), one of the few times when Japanese — stereotypically known for their circumspection and humility — are forced to boldly brag and loudly proclaim about their abilities and accomplishments. Getting a job means mastering jiko-PR, and mastering jiko-PR means understanding its origins.
My own theory, which I’ve substantiated only with my own experience, is that the jiko-PR tradition is strongly intertwined with the ōendan (応援団, cheerleading team) and bukatsu (部活, school club/sports) culture in Japanese schools.
In the chūgakkō (中学校, junior high school) where I taught for several years, the students had regular sōkōkai (壮行会, pep rallies) before big tournaments. The ōendan would stand in front of the teams participating and, team by team, deliver an ēru (エール, literally, “yell”).
This is the name for the rhythmic chant that began, as many things do in Japan, quite formally, introduced with: Korekara yakyū-bu ni ēru o okuru (これ から野球部にエールを送る, “We will now deliver the yell for the baseball team”).
The cheerleaders then raised each arm to an extended shout of furē (フレー, an approximation of “hurray”) and called out the name of the team or school slowly, syllable by syllable. Next, the ōendan, joined by the rest of the school, chanted: Win win Nishi-chū, win win Nishi-chū (ウィンウィン、西中、ウィン ウィン、西中). Nishi-chū is an abbreviated name of the school where I worked, and this was often replaced with a team or player, depending on the tournament.
After the cheer was repeated three times, the head of the ōendan would punch forward with his fist in the air and give a primal scream. I always imagined this was some sort of transfer of karma or power to the teams, which they could then take with them for the tournament.
But the teams did not receive their ēru for free. They were forced to prostrate themselves, to some extent, before the rest of the school to earn this power. The team lined up and, player by player, gave what amounted to jiko-PR. The captain started with something like Sei ippai ganbaritai to omoimasu (精一杯頑張りたいと思います, “I want to try as hard as I possibly can”).
Then the next person would go. For a track meet, that might be something along the lines of Chikara o tsukushite saigo made hashiritai desu (力を尽くして最後まで走りたいです, “I want to use all my power and run until the end”).
And on and on down the line. There was a corniness to these vows, which all the students delivered with adolescent awkwardness, but then again, they were junior high schoolers. The public speaking alone was probably hard enough for them. I always felt bad for the poor kid at the end who, having listened to all his or her teammates pledge to do their best, was forced to construct some kind of verbiage that had not yet been used.
Jiko-PR is similar to this exercise but much less public. Generally interviews are between the mensetsukan (面接官, interviewer) and the ōbosha (応募者, applicant), but there are sometimes a mix of multiple interviewers and even interviews with multiple applicants who are queried at the same time.
The interview will probably start with some simple icebreakers, but when it is your turn to jiko-PR, it will be immediately apparent because the mensetsukan will likely say something as simple as Jiko-PR shite kudasai (自己PRしてください, literally, “Please do your jiko-PR“).
Now it’s your turn to give a 30- to 60-second self-introduction that will make the interviewer think you are katsuyaku shisō (活躍しそう, seem likely to participate actively in the company) or ganbatte kuresō (頑張ってくれそう, seem likely to work hard for the company).
Go ahead and take a note from the junior high schoolers and begin with a pretty straightforward and cheesy “topic sentence.” Frequently encountered patterns include Watashi no tsuyomi wa __ desu (私の強みは__です, “My strength is __”) and Watashi no tokuchō wa __ desu (私の特徴は__です, “My specialty is ___”). If you want to get a little creative, you could use a cheesier line, like Watashi no shigoto no mottō wa __ desu (私の仕事のモットーは__です, “My work motto is __”).
You can fill in the blanks with a wide variety of phrases and sayings. They can be as philosophical as Keizoku wa chikara (継続は力, “Continuity is power”) for your motto, as straightforward as shōsai o yoku kakunin suru koto (詳細をよく確認 すること, checking the details well), or as complex as takai mokuhyō ni mukatte taezu doryoku suru koto (高い目標に向かって絶えず努力すること, working steadily toward high goals). Be sure to use koto (こと) to turn your phrase into a noun.
Once you’ve established your strength, it’s time to give examples. Avoid words such as iroiro (いろいろ) and samazama (さまざま) (both meaning “various”), which serve only as filler, and look instead for specific numbers or examples, just as you might with a resume in English.
And don’t forget that there is definitely room for creativity. As with any job application, it’s up to you to provide the core content through your own experience and organize it into some kind of narrative to convince the company that you’re a worthy hire.
Use the Japanese examples above as a framework, and don’t be shy: Jiko-PR give you permission to brag.