As we know, there are many kinds of work available to foreigners in Japan; corporate, IT, sales, recruiting, teaching English, construction, and minimum wage (tossing burgers), etc. It is also the case that Japan’s ageing population and declining native workforce is making employing foreigners more and more essential to the country’s future growth.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that this apparent need for foreign workers is simply about conveniently sitting bodies at desks and work stations that otherwise would be vacant. Indeed, I would argue that it represents the greatest opportunity so far for Japan to achieve the kind of internationalization that its policy-makers have been extolling for decades.
Internationalisation has long been the buzz-word of a political and industrial movement seeking to make Japan a more prominent and effective part of the global economy. To this end, and for as long as I have been in Japan, the emphasis has been on improving English education in schools and colleges, in line with thinking that supposes that English is, or should be, the Lingua-Franca for international relations and global commerce.
Whatever the virtues or otherwise of English as a Lingua-Franca, it is quite apparent that English education in Japan has been a failure. Part of the problem is that English is only one of several mandatory subjects for high school and college entrance exams. With neither the time nor inclination to learn beyond test requirements, students rarely develop the ability to communicate effectively in English, and this can later transfer to the workplace as misunderstandings with overseas customers and/or suppliers.
In Your Own Words
Obviously, Japanese ability may be important for foreign staff at Japanese companies, but for those who are doing business overseas, ability in one’s own language, English or otherwise, could be an even greater asset. And this is not only about who ordered what from whom, and when delivery can be expected; it can also be about reading between the lines’ and appreciating the nuances of your own language so as to better understand a customer’s or client’s needs and opinions.
Similarly, native speakers with good writing skills should be in a position to produce more appropriate language for their companies’ overseas letters, e-mails, documents or sales literature, or to check existing material for errors. I know two former English teachers who have made a niche for themselves at Japanese companies in just this way, so perhaps TEFL qualifications will have a wider relevance in the future job market in Japan.
And of course, English is only one language on the global stage; with Japanese companies being active throughout Asia, native speakers from China, India, Thailand, Vietnam and other countries should find themselves increasingly in demand by Japanese companies.
I have rarely heard Japanese friends and colleagues talking about personal skills in quite the same way as we do in the West. In Japan, the traditionally desirable traits tend to centre around a deference to authority and seniority, to modesty, and to never quite saying what one means. For many Westerners used to doing business with the Japanese, these may be seen as quite endearing qualities, but they may not always be appropriate in an international context.
In addition, the Japanese education system has some deep flaws in general, not only in its English programme. All too often it has ‘streamed’ students with little regard for individuality; created unreasonable competition for places at ‘better’ schools; and relied far too heavily on ‘low grade’ schools and the private sector to catch students who fell through the cracks. Worst of all, it can be argued to have encouraged a very blinkered view of the world and Japan’s role within it.
What all this means is that the personal skills that are most appreciated in overseas cultures, may be lacking to a greater or lesser extent among Japanese workers, especially at the small to medium sized companies that typically find it hard to attract higher calibre recruits. Already, many Japanese company managers are looking to foreign staff to improve business performance in overseas markets in the following ways:
- Showing Initiative – this may seem at variance with the time-honoured Japanese practice of doing what one is told, but even the most conservative of managers will tell you that a little common sense initiative amongst one’s employees is preferable to having to constantly give them directions on every simple task!
- Self-confidence – also seemingly at variance with Japanese notions of deference and humility, the Western belief in oneself and one’s abilities could actually do much to instill greater confidence in Japanese products or services to Western trading partners, and where the relative ages of those involved would be irrelevant.
In combination with initiative, self-confidence can also be a powerful tool in problem solving and decision making, often negating the need to take issues back to one’s management for further discussion.
- Directness – this is one of the hardest things to expect of any Japanese because it is culturally and linguistically alien. What you or I, or any other Westerner knows, and probably many Asians too, is that one can be direct without sounding rude. In fact, directness is most often expressed through polite forms of speech in English. But that is not the case with Japanese.
In my experience of Japanese company negotiations, I believe I was sometimes used as a blunt tool by colleagues who knew I would not shy away from making reasonable demands of suppliers. Of course, everyone would laugh and cut the foreigner some slack for his less than perfect use of Japanese, but nobody ever complained about my cutting to the chase!
- General knowledge – or local knowledge of any kind cannot be underestimated as a means of achieving rapport with others. If I were to visit the UK’s West-Midlands tomorrow on business, anything I knew about local history, industry, food, arts, sports, etc. would be most useful in developing a relationship with my host. Failing that, I could draw on other knowledge of my country and culture, or even on what I know about Japan to make the business context less stressful and more memorable.
A Final Thought – Practical Skills
You will already know what you can bring to the party in a practical sense. Whether it is a clean, current driver’s licence, expertise with spreadsheets, in depth knowledge of one computer operating system or another, artistic ability, or an affinity for languages or mathematics, you never know when it may be useful, even essential, in your work. In fact, Japanese employers will often ask candidates about their creative spare time activities to gauge how well they are able to switch off after work, so add as many of those activities to your CV as you can; as I said, you never know when something you do for fun might become applicable at work.
By Bill Ambler
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