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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.

Expat careers in Japan

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!

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