How to prepare for a job interview in Japan

In this issue of the guide, we look at the experience of interviewing with a Japanese company and we’ve put together experiences and tips from the TGD team for you.

So you’ve sent off some job applications and you’ve got an interview lined up with a company in Tokyo, awesome! and quite possibly fairly scary. Well here at TGD we’ve all been through the process, with varying levels of language ability. We’re going to share with you some of our experiences and tips for getting through the interview without doing anything too embarrassing.

I should say that this article assumes you have at least a basic enough level of Japanese to stumble through a conversation. Regardless of your language ability, if this is your first time interviewing with a Japanese company, I imagine you’re pretty nervous about things like etiquette, how to speak about yourself, and generally how it’s going to go down.

1 – Your portfolio.

This is a pretty important thing to get right generally and for an interview in Tokyo, you don’t need to change much. If you have projects with Japanese language in them then you should put them in.

I strongly recommend you set up your portfolio in both English and Japanese. I have each dividing slide/page set up bilingually with the project name and other info in English and Japanese. This will help your interviewer and you keep track of where you are. Plus it looks good to have some Japanese copy in there.

Interviewers here seem to be very literal and want to see the full breadth of what you can do shown in your folio. Honestly, I’ve had an interviewer ask if I could design a flyer while looking through my folio because they couldn’t SEE an actual flyer in there despite other similar projects. But this is very dependent on the agency.

2 – Business Cards

名刺交換 (meishi koukan) or “the exchange of business cards” is an incredibly important part of Japanese corporate culture. Make sure you have your cards and when you receive the card from your interviewer place it on the table in front of you or hold it in your hand. Don’t stick it in your pocket!

Check out this video for more information on business card etiquette.

3 – Speak Japanese.

This might seem like a no brainer but let me explain. Even with high level of Japanese skill, it’s easy to get stressed out in the interview and fall back on English, but this can be a big mistake.

Even if your interviewer speaks decent English, do not fall back on it – try and get through in Japanese and when you really get stuck then use English. I’ve made this mistake before and been rejected because my language level was too low.

After that rejection I wrote down a point by point explanation of my resume, got my Japanese teacher to correct it, and practiced it over and over. It didn’t matter so much that I didn’t really know all the vocab I used, just being able to get through that explanation demonstrates your willingness to learn. And guess what, I got a job offer for the next interview I had.

Our contributor Ash said this about her interview experience in Tokyo. ‘Applying for a job as a translator and localiser, your Japanese level and fluency level have to be pretty high. Still, the nervousness that comes with an interview can be overwhelming. I walked out of there thinking that everything I said must have sounded like really bad Japanese and there was no way I would get that job.

But, they called me back and offered me the position, so it can’t have been too bad. In any case, if I had given up and just said what wanted to say in English, there would be no indication for them that I was someone that wouldn’t just give up in any other situation. I definitely wish I had prepared a little more of a speech though.’

4 – What to wear

It’s important to judge it by the company: if its an internal job at a bank then suit up, if it’s a hip startup and everybody on their wantedly page is wearing jeans and t-shirts, then something less formal. I usually play it safe even with the “relaxed” places and go with a good shirt, jeans and brogues.

Oh and guys, no shorts or three quarter pants, yes even when it’s 35 degrees and 90% humidity. Wear long pants and bring a face towel and a fan, you might even impress them with your participation in this part Japanese culture!

Now, unless you’re sporting a beard, clean shaven is the way to go, no two day growth on the cheeks. If you’ve got a beard or ‘stache then make sure it looks glorious.

For interviewing women, Ash had this to say ‘Some companies are more casual than others. I always try to find out beforehand if there’s a particular way that they want me to dress, but even if they say casual is okay, I try to make sure what I wear is on the business side of trendy. Women are often expected to wear a sensible heel as well to look professional.

Another thing to note is Japan is a very conservative country. It is rare to see even a little bit of cleavage, not just in businesses but out on the street as well. So even if you have a shirt that would be business-appropriate back home, if there’s just a little bit showing, I would advise you to wear another top underneath or something else entirely.’

5 – Interview styles

Different companies have different methods for interviewing applicants. Honestly many are like a standard job interview with you and one or two interviewers. Sometimes a panel. With global companies you can expect to interview with the global team via video conference and the local team in person.

Yo shared this story about two recent interviews ‘At one interview they gave me to 30mins to draw my own version of the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. They wanted to see how imaginative I could be in a short time. They also had a Japanese test called a Hikishiken (筆記試験 – ひっきしけん) before the interview.

But at my most recent interview, which is also the studio I’m working for now, they could see what I can do by my portfolio. They also asked more about “what I think about design”, and “what I can bring to this company”, as a foreigner, this is the most important part of the interview because you can show what you can do differently.’

6 – Questions you’ll be asked

Apart from the usual questions about your work history, involvement in projects, and ambitions, there’s a few extra questions you’ll get as an international interviewing in Japan.

Why Japan?

Sure, everybody you meet in Tokyo is probably going to ask you this. But you’re going to be asked the same question in the interview, so make sure you have a good answer ready.

How long do you plan to stay in Japan?

Another question that it’s important to have a good answer to. If a company is going to invest time in training you in both Japanese business and design, then they want to be sure you’re not going to disappear home after 12 months.

Can you do zangyou (overtime)?

In many Japanese companies there is an expectation that you will put in an additional 40 or more hours a month overtime. This isn’t usually due to there being an inordinate amount of work but more due to bureaucratic and project management issues. Riccardo, who has significant experience in Japanese companies, explains more.

‘残業 (zangyou) is a considered a fact of life in the Japanese corporate system. As they say “しょうがない” (shyouganai) or “it can’t be helped”. But be careful, as being someone who “cannot do zangyou” is like saying you are weak.

The first company I worked for in Japan was a small Japanese design studio focused on fashion advertising. Doing zangyou wasn’t really necessary for the workload but I did a lot. This work was the result of bad management and miscommunication between directors and clients. Plus an unconditional devotion to the client, it seemed as if immediately answering emails and making instant changes to the project at all hours was part of the contract.

I even noticed that many people were taking long breaks during the day. So one day I asked a colleague “why don’t guys rush now and finish the job during the day so that you can leave at 19:00 instead 23:30 as usual?” but the answer I got was “even if we rush and finish everything now, we already know we will get calls and emails with more work we have to take care of after 19:00. This can’t be helped because people working on the client side are in the same situation and have to be able to show progress to their bosses by making changes at any hour of day or night.”

It’s hard to really understand this from by directly asking about zangyou, but if you can get them to talk about their process for project management and design development then you can find out easily. Generally speaking a company with poor processes will do lots of zangyou.’

But it’s not all bad as Riccardo adds ‘New companies like the one i’m working for developed their own “design process”. Usually they follow a western style culture and they understand that to create good products people need to be happy and have more time to dedicate to their private life.’

Can you work hard?

I was asked this several times in the same interview. Now at first, I was a bit insulted by this question, I’ve got a solid history of employment and a good folio. So why are they asking me this? When I asked for clarification from my interviewer, they said “you know, it’s hard work in a Japanese company”. That didn’t really help.

What I’ve come to understand the meaning to be is – much like Riccardo mentioned above, it’s a different work culture here and to be very blunt – in old school Japanese companies there is a lot of value placed on your being there over actually doing a lot of work. So hard work equals extra hours.

8 – What should you ask?

So apart from the usual questions you’d ask in an interview, here are a few that we recommend asking in an interview with a Japanese company.

Why do you want to hire/what do you expect from an international designer?

I like this question because, let’s be honest, it’s a bit of a cheeky take on the old “why are you in Japan”. But to be serious, I really want to know what a Japanese agency expects me to bring to the team. Are they looking for a global perspective? Do they want different ideas and thinking? Or do they just want anybody for the job? This can tell you a lot about the company.

What are the working hours (労働時間 – Roudou jikan)

This is a question that Riccardo highly recommends asking. ‘You need to understand the hours that employees usually put in at the company, if they stay late at night. You should find that they will be honest about this.’

But watch out, as Yo had this to say, ‘if they answer “sairyouroudou jikan” (裁量労働 – さいりょうろうどうじかん) be careful! This means that if you finish your work on time, you can go home on time. But if not, you will be expected to stay late, without extra pay. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve been waiting all day for client feedback and it comes in at 7pm, they will still expect you to stay late and work’

Well there you go, hopefully now you feel a little more prepared for an interview in Japan! Good luck and as always let us know in the comments, on facebook or LinkedIn if you have any questions.

Tim O'Hanlon

Tim is an Australian born Communication Designer with passion for applying design and strategic thinking to all of his work. Tim moved to Tokyo in 2014 and has been working as a freelance designer since. In his spare time Tim loves to travel around Japan hiking, cycling, eating and snowboarding.

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