Big in Japan No More? Expat Employment in Times of Economic Uncertainty
Ganbatte ne! Often translated as "good luck", this Japanese expression actually means something along
the lines of "do your best", "just hang in there", or "you need to persist". Persistence is also required for
expats living in Japan and
among those foreigners who dream of moving there.
Life after Fukushima
On the one hand, expat life in Japan seems to be back to normal: In March 2011, after the nuclear disaster in
Fukushima, lots of gaijin (foreign residents) turned into "fly-jin" for a while. Following the warnings of their
embassies, plenty of expats left the country for other Asian nations to sit out the development at the damaged
power plant. Although there is still enough lethal radiation in the damaged reactors to kill a person within
less than an hour, Japan's cities are indeed safe from any fallout. Most expatriates have long since come back
to the country.
Many established executives and foreign assignees - who tend to work in well-paid positions for three to five
years, even ten or more - soon returned to their daily routines: long hours at the office for the working parent(s),
a day at one of Tokyo's international schools for the kids. However, for new arrivals in Japan or people planning
a move to the Land of the Rising Sun, the situation may look a bit different. For them, starting life as a gaijin
can mean expat living in times of economic uncertainty.
Japan's Economic Challenges
It's hardly a secret that the Japanese economy is suffering from a variety of issues. These problems have only been
exacerbated by the catastrophe at Fukushima and the resulting damage. In addition to the reconstruction costs after
the 2011 East Japan Earthquake, Japan also faces the highest public debt in the developed world and a problematic
demographic structure with a very low birthrate and an aging populace.
Furthermore, the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone affects Japan, since the national economy is heavily dependent
on exports. There is also flagging demand for Japanese products on the huge Chinese market. It certainly doesn't
help matters that the territorial disputes between Japan and China or Korea, respectively, are threatening to
adversely affect trade relations. Due to these factors, the International Monetary Fund downgraded its prognosis
for Japan's economic development. For 2012, the organization predicts a growth rate of 2.2% of the GDP, at the
most. In the following year, the growth is said to be even lower, at maybe 1.2%.
Obviously, such gloom and doom only appears to strengthen Japan's traditional reluctance to hire foreign
employees. Since new expats do, however, need a Japan-based company to sponsor their visa, this can hamper the
chances of job applicants from abroad. Moreover, the changes in Japanese corporate culture itself are increasing.
For older employees, their employer is still like their family - a workplace where stability and loyalty are
valued above all else, and seniority is rewarded by promotions and higher salaries. However, in recent years,
the number of so-called "irregular workers" has been on the rise, especially among new hires and younger people.
They no longer enjoy the same corporate benefits as their parents' generation, owing to part-time contracts and
lack of stable employment.
Expat Careers in Japan
How does all this impact the prospects of gaijin that consider
working in Japan?
First of all, it strongly depends on your individual situation and your own reason for moving to Japan. If you
are a recent graduate, young, footloose and fancy-free, you could be content with working in the hospitality industry,
e.g. in a gaijin pub, or teaching English in rural Japan for a couple of years. Jobs as wait staff or low-paid EFL
teachers in less coveted positions are probably the easiest to come by.
Temporary employment as an irregular worker in a corporation could also aid younger employees in building up a
business network and acquiring intercultural competence. It may not be a great boost to your career right now, but
it could pay off later on. However, for such a job, you already need some Japanese language skills and professional
experience. A financial cushion to address the high cost of living is an additional plus.
The typical expat perks are reserved for intra-company transfers, though. Foreign assignees are usually managers
or specialized experts sent by the HQ to their Japanese branch office. To get a foreign assignment might require a
bit of long-term planning: It helps to land a job with an international company in your home country, to
systematically cultivate your language skills, to attend Japan-themed business events, and to apply for internal
vacancies overseas as soon as the opportunity arises.
Perhaps finding a job in Japan is going to become less difficult in the future. Even though Japan is (in)famous
for having been a sakoku, a locked country, for more than two centuries, it could be forced to be more
immigrant-friendly. For instance, OECD consultants warn that only a systematic immigration policy can support
Japan's stagnating economy in the long run. Future generation of expats and migrants might thus need less
persistence. If you are aiming for life in Japan right now, though, best of luck - ganbatte ne!