Japan studies programs abroad falling short on giving grads clear career path into the country

Kyodo

European universities and employers need to improve the assistance they provide to foreign graduates looking to work in Japan, according to delegates at a recent two-day conference in London.

Participants of the forum held Nov. 6 and 7 agreed that Japanese studies departments need to broaden the range of skills students acquire so they can meet the needs of Japanese firms.

The gathering of academics, students and human resources staff from across Europe also agreed Japanese employers have to be more sensitive to the needs of overseas graduates in Japan.

Harald Conrad, a lecturer on Japan’s economy and management at Sheffield University, arranged the event at SOAS University of London.

“I think there was general agreement among the participants that universities should and can address employability more in the curriculum,” he said. “I don’t think Japanese studies departments have thought about this in a systematic way and we hope to change that.”

Conrad said graduates need to understand better how Japanese companies think and operate in practice. Anecdotally, many foreign graduates drop out of Japanese firms because they have unrealistic expectations.

Human resources specialists told the conference that while good proficiency in Japanese is often important, firms are frequently looking for graduates with additional skills. They recommended studying Japanese alongside other subjects, such as business.

Ian Robinson, human resources manager for Toshiba Europe Ltd., said: “We are not necessarily looking for Japanese speakers. We are looking for people who can change how we do business in Japan and change the mindset.”

Japanese studies departments are already adapting courses to ensure that students are better equipped for the world of work, according to the conference.

Instead of just writing essays, students are encouraged to take part in group work that involves developing a range of business-friendly skills, including a better understanding of Japanese workplace culture and negotiation skills. They also prepare their resumes and job interviews in Japanese and carry out internships.

Boosting employability (skills that can be transferred from the classroom into the workplace) has become increasingly important as students are forced to take on more of the costs of their education.

But it is also Japanese employers who need to change their approach if they are to attract and, more importantly retain, foreign graduates.

Some companies now aim to take on 20 percent of their annual graduate intake from overseas to bring about innovation and improve understanding of overseas markets.

Conrad and Hendrik Meyer-Ohle, from the National University of Singapore, have recently conducted a survey of these fresh foreign graduates.

Many complained about vague job descriptions as well as a lack of direction and feedback from their seniors. Others talked about relatively low pay and being asked to perform low-level jobs in their first few years (in order to introduce new recruits to all aspects of the company). Some spoke about being overwhelmed at the high expectations placed on them.

As a result, foreign graduates often leave Japan after just a few years and return to their home country. This can discourage firms from further diversifying their workforce.

One recent Oxford University graduate told the conference she had been deterred from working in Japan due to the experiences of fellow students in the country.

Some firms are working hard to provide support for overseas graduates, particularly those in information technology who have little or no proficiency in Japanese.

There was general agreement that the logic of the Japanese employment system — with its emphasis on the long term in terms of pay and career progression and letting people find themselves in the first few years of a job — should be more fully explained to potential candidates. Many job seekers said they would benefit from mentoring by previous graduates.

But while recognizing the Japanese system is different, there was a feeling companies need to give their foreign graduates clearer goals and job descriptions.

Meyer-Ohle said that rather than focus on fresh foreign graduates, firms could benefit by sending more experienced, mid-career staff at European subsidiaries to their head office.