A 23-year-old student from China who attends the prestigious University of Tokyo is now looking for a job in Japan.
But her quest to achieve the “Japanese dream” of working at a major Japanese company, and earning roughly four times what she could make back home, has hit a snag: she feels Japanese firms are not ready to hire international students.
“It’s hard to keep looking for a job (in Japan) when I cannot tell whether they would really hire international students like me,” she said.
Non-Japanese students are being increasingly welcomed by the central government — at least superficially.
Under the government’s Japan Revitalization Strategy 2014, the Cabinet Office says it’s keen to attract highly skilled international students in order to boost the country’s global competitiveness and to revitalize the economy.
The government in May unveiled plans to attract more students from overseas to work in Japan, particularly at small and midsize companies, with measures such as providing universities with information about corporate internships and arranging meetings between employers and international students.
A labor ministry survey conducted in fall 2013 found 52 percent of 1,775 small and midsize Japanese companies that responded are positive in hiring international students, hoping such workers can boost their global development.
But contrary to the government’s vision, and seemingly increasing demand by firms, many Japanese employers have yet to get the ball rolling, apparently because of a lack of resources for hiring international students or a general tendency to avoid any issues stemming from different work cultures.
According to a 2013 survey by Japan Student Service Organization, a government-funded organization that offers support programs for non-Japanese students, as many as 65 percent were looking for a job in Japan. But only 24 percent of 39,650 students who graduated from an education institution in Japan found a position, a separate 2013 report by JASSO showed.
The exceptionally high demand for Japanese language proficiency is a major hurdle, said Hitomi Sasaki, a director of the career support center at Tokyo’s Waseda University, which hosted 4,985 international students as of November, the largest foreign student body in Japan.
According to a 2012 economy ministry-commissioned report, 84.5 percent of 433 Japanese companies that replied to a survey demand that international students be at least J2 level in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test — the level to communicate appropriately on limited business occasions.
But “business level” in Japanese is vaguely defined. The reality is, employers tend to require native-equivalent level Japanese, especially at business settings, Sasaki said.
“Japanese tend to demand that international students be perfect in their Japanese from the beginning,” because many firms worry that even a slight mistake in speaking Japanese in a business setting could jeopardize client trust, she said.
The high demand for language ability causes international students to struggle during the recruiting process, with its unique, simultaneous shukatsu (job-hunting) system that foreign and Japanese students go through together. The job-hunting process for university seniors who will start working next April has already started, with many students looking to land a position before they graduate.
International students usually have difficulty writing up an “entry sheet” — the detailed resume most Japanese companies require that new graduates fill out in polished Japanese to demonstrate why they merit being invited to an interview session, Sasaki said.
Even if foreign students advance to the next step, they struggle with the recruitment aptitude exam, which is made for native Japanese speakers to demonstrate their basic academic skills, including a language test requiring strong vocabulary.
The screening process is not fair for students from overseas, said a 22-year-old student from South Korea who attends Waseda University.
“(The test) doesn’t seem to assess the Japanese proficiency needed for the actual work,” she said, adding that companies should have a face-to-face meeting before screening so they can evaluate international students’ actual language proficiency and their personalities more fairly.
But the majority of small companies have no money or human resources to offer special treatment to international students, according to a survey of small and midsize companies conducted by the Kansai Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry in 2013.
The survey, in which spokesmen for smaller companies were interviewed, found that most have neither a specific career path that matches international students’ demands nor a system to support such employees’ long-term career development in-house.
Even if a foreign student successfully lands a job, Japan’s corporate culture poses difficulties.
Another University of Tokyo student, a 22-year-old South Korean, said the Japanese business culture she encountered during her job hunt was disappointing, as it tended to force workers from overseas to either assimilate or face being labeled as “brash,” Japanese recruiting personnel told her.
“It’s probably because I tend to say what’s on my mind without mincing words,” she said. Discouraged, she is determined to either pursue a career as an academic or work at a foreign-affiliated firm in Japan.
Sasaki said the student’s case represents a perception gap between Japan’s corporate culture — which requires all new employees to start as an apprentice to be trained by their employer — and international students who hope to demonstrate their full potential immediately after being hired.
Besides the language hurdle, there is also a mismatch in the career vision foreign students face when they join Japanese companies, said Yukiko Watanabe, a career counselor who supports international students at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto Prefecture.
“Japanese firms tend to have a vague assessment system compared to foreign firms,” Watanabe said, explaining that this can confuse international students who want their achievements at work to be evaluated fairly and clearly.
Instead, Watanabe said, companies should help international students establish a clear-cut career vision, such as by giving them an opportunity to become managers of international branches in their home country.
Sasaki of Waseda University said companies should not hesitate to change.
“If companies aim for globalization (by hiring international students), why don’t they employ at least one international student to trigger change instead of demanding too much from them from the beginning,” she said. “Once working together, companies would know how diligent international students are.”
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