By Preston Hatfield (Yamanashi-ken, 2009-10) for JQ magazine. Preston moved from San Francisco to New York City in January 2012 and is now accepting submissions from people who want to be his friend. Abduct him from his house in the middle of the night, or find him on Facebook and ask about his JET blog in which he details his exploits and misadventures in that crazy Land of the Rising Sun we all love.
If you have been back from JET for a year or two, you probably already know the story. If you are just now returning and you have not been keeping up with the news, let me fill you in: The economy, well, it sucks. And while that fact may not exactly be news considering that the markets crashed back in 2008, it is very possible, especially for those who have lived abroad since then, that the recession has not affected you yet. But according to the Wall Street Journal, with 8.2 percent unemployment, an additional 88 million unemployed Americans not a part of that calculation due to having stopped actively searching for jobs, and three consecutive lackluster jobs reports coming out of Washington in the past months (which according to the Journal makes this the “weakest quarter for job growth since the labor market began to recover in 2010”), returning expats are in for a rude homecoming.
Speaking from experience, the generous salary and benefits JETs enjoy seems like a well that will never run dry, and when I came home in the summer of 2010 and bounced between part-time jobs, internships, and temporary positions for the better part of two years, I was kicking myself for walking away from a guaranteed contract in Japan before my limit was up. If I could do it again, they would have to drag me onto that America bound plane kicking and screaming.
I am writing mainly to the JETs who are coming home this year—more specifically, to young JETs who will be making their valiant attempts to join the American workforce for the first time since graduation— and please know that I am not trying to scare you. Hey, you survived teaching in Japanese classrooms, nothing can scare you anymore. But I am here to warn you that the road ahead may be rough, and you would be wise to manage your expectations when you decide to start your next job search. It can be stressful. On top of the reverse culture shock and post-JET depression that some of you will experience, the added pressure of needing a job and the frustration of sending out résumé after résumé without response can bring you down and tempt you to sign on with whatever Japan teaching pops up on a Google search. I trust that you and I are not the only ones who have felt this way, but before you do that, take a step back and consider your other options.
Hopefully, as you are readjusting to life in the States you will be formulating a rough game plan for the challenge ahead, but if you do not already have a field that you are determined to break into, if grad school is not yet on your radar, and if you really want to strengthen your understanding of Japan and maintain your connection to Japanese culture, then perhaps working at a Japanese company in America is an option. There are a handful of established Japanese staffing agencies with offices throughout America’s major cities that place people in a variety of full and part-time positions. But do these companies want to interview, much less hire, former English teachers such as ourselves? I caught up with a recruiter in Midtown Manhattan to find out.
Meet Sayaka Takeda, a two-year recruiting veteran with Actus Consulting Group. She loves her job, and her enthusiasm for her work and the interest she takes in her clients is apparent when you meet her. Even with a demanding schedule and a to-do list stacked as high as plates at kaitenzushi restaurants, there is a lot for her to look forward to at the start of a new day, like hearing from a client she placed that they enjoy their new job, receiving favorable reports from companies about a worker she and her colleagues introduced, and any time she is able to support and encourage her clients.
Let me backtrack briefly to say that if you are thinking about pursuing a job using Japanese, and if your job search is anything like mine, it will get to the point where you want to slap the next person to suggest that you have a leg up on the competition because your language skills are good and you have experience living and working in Japan. Yes, by all means do be positive and optimistic about your marketable skills, but temper that excitement. It is important to be realistic about your prospects in the current economic climate. With a Japanese ability somewhere between ni and san kyu (as I found a good percent of the JETs in my ken were), it certainly is not lying or shortchanging yourself to say that you speak Japanese, but the question is: Is that proficiency level really good enough that you will be functional in a work environment that demands speed and accuracy in all forms of communication?
“Companies care less about your language skills and more about the other skills and qualifications you have that meet their needs and the position’s requirements. Understanding culture and work mentality can always help, but that is not a guaranteed pass for every job at Japanese firms,” Takeda says. In fact, while there are many jobs that require native level Japanese ability, there seem to be just as many that require little or no Japanese ability at all.
Even so, it is a good idea to know what you can and cannot do with your language skills. The first time you bomb the written exam for a Japanese translation position you found on Craigslist will be a humbling experience. That is not to say you should not try. Interviews and proficiency tests can only make you better and more familiar with the process. Think of it as practice and a way to measure the marketability of your skills. Each time you will get better, more comfortable, and more confident. So apply to these positions if they interest you, but be prepared for a dose of reality. Remember, in Japan it is easy to feel great about your speaking ability when everyone praises you for being able to do a jikoshokai, but once you return home and start claiming that you speak Japanese, employers will expect more from you than “Hajimemashite. Preston desu. Dozo yoroshiku.”
Then again, pursuing language jobs on your own is difficult because so much of the hiring decision lies solely on your exam performance. It is cut-and-dried and likely to put an otherwise exceptionally qualified candidate with middle of the road language abilities in a no-win situation. That is why with this kind of job search you may greatly improve your chances of success by teaming up with a recruiter. Ms. Takeda says at Actus they spend a lot of time getting to know each candidate so the recruiters can grasp and sell their strengths: “We do not just forward your résumés. We learn as much as we can about each company, their culture, and their needs to better understand how to approach them about a new client. We provide clients with general interview tips and our company scouting reports specially tailored to each position to help them prepare. We have a decent amount of influence to convince companies to actually meet our clients, particularly when we have already established a good rapport and successful placement history with a company. After an interview, we can make up for anything a candidate could not do and try to get rid of a company’s doubts about the candidate, but the judgments are all in their hands.”
If you decide to seek a recruiter’s help, be sure to approach them the same way you would a company about a job. Research the agency to know what industries they staff, read the recruiters’ bios if they are available online, and have a clear idea of how you want the recruiter to help you. Do not just show up and expect them to take you by the hand, but give them a sense of what you are looking for and what your selling points are as a candidate. Typically, the way it works is you will forward the recruiter your résumé in advance so they can review your work and educational background and formulate some questions to ask when you meet to ascertain what your personality, career goals, and preferences are. Ms. Takeda also reminds us to present ourselves well to recruiters. “It may not be a normal interview where a job is immediately on the line, but we will be representing you based on what we learn during our meeting. You can relax a bit, but remember to stay professional and come prepared,” she says. Hopefully this goes without saying, but that means no jeans. We have all been to Japan and we know their office culture is fairly conservative. It would not be a bad idea to meet your recruiter in the same suit you wore to your JET interview.
OK, so now you have an idea of what field you want to be in, you are fairly sure what your language limits are, and you have an awesome recruiter working to help you land a job. These are all important steps in the right direction, but there are still a number of obstacles to pass before you join the ranks of the gainfully employed, the most immediate of which is the Mount Fuji-sized problem of the bad economy. It seems to have taken its toll on Japanese companies in America as well. Staffing agencies like Actus tend to serve a fairly balanced number of native Japanese and American job seekers, and furthermore, it is not uncommon for the American clients have some Japanese background, whether it’s Japanese study, work experience (including teaching), or having lived in Japan. This background is important because companies are more likely to trust your understanding of the Japanese culture and working environment. Some people would argue that Americans are not at a disadvantage to Japanese who pursue the same jobs and have fluent speaking ability and the work environment understanding already woven into the fabric of their being. I wonder, however, if this is not an overoptimistic outlook. Allow me to explain.
I do not wish to minimize the value of anyone’s experiences, but the modern day reality is that international work, travel, and study, much like an undergraduate degree, has in many cases become a prerequisite for serious employment consideration—and this is across the board, not just for working in a Japanese company. It used to be that having a college degree coupled with a study abroad program made you a cut above, but now these things are needed just to keep up with the pack. Having JET and a Japanese study abroad program on my résumé has made for some good talking points during interviews, but I have yet to have an interviewer become so fascinated with my experiences that we developed a rapport that eventually landed me a position (though I have heard stories of this happening to others). My point is, while I agree that having Japan experience will serve you well in an interview with a Japanese company, one must assume that most people applying for these jobs will be similarly qualified in that respect.
With that in mind, consider this: very few of the jobs a recruiter will be recommending to you will be related to education. Just how applicable is JET to a job in the import/export business? Do you think a Japanese newspaper cares if you organized the best game of Fruits Basket this side of Tochigi has ever seen? How should we be trying to sell ourselves when we write our cover letters and go in for interviews?
“Communication skills!” Takeda emphasizes. “Yes, it is ambiguous, but it is one of the most recurring key words referring to how well you can listen to others and respond to different situations. Other recurring themes are a person’s flexibility, passion for the work, their ability to gel with the company culture, and loyalty. Computer skills like MS Office are also essential. Spanish and Portuguese skill is a big plus to have, as many Japanese companies are targeting Latin America for the next market.”
And here is some more good news: it seems as though JET may be an asset for us, after all. “JET experience is enough for some positions, especially entry level,” Takeda says. “If you are applying for a position at a corporation, you have to show that you can work in or successfully adapt to that kind of setting. JET experience with some kind of sales experience or a science background is in high demand.”
That is all well and good, but it is still theoretical. Not to insist on being the dark cloud over this issue, but I have met only a scant number of JETs who have managed to land themselves jobs using Japanese. I wonder if our recruiters can give us hope with an anecdote or two. Ms. Takeda?
“Last year, I placed one JET alum for a permanent position and another two for temp positions. For all those candidates, the Japanese skill and experience was a plus, but was not the sole reason they were hired. The candidates were all entry level, but had great communication skills and showed their willingness to learn. They were very thorough throughout the application process and I felt honored to represent them. Any experience besides JET—such as internships and part-time jobs that show your interests are not limited to teaching—will be appealing to employers. Also, Japanese 読み書き will be a great skill to have. Many candidates have listening and speaking skills, but not business-level 読み書き skills. It does not have to be perfect, but if you have a chance, definitely polish those skills! Temp jobs are a great start for JET alumni. The competition is fierce for permanent positions. Yes, we all want the full-time, permanent job, but it may take a while. If you just come back from Japan, temping is a great way to gain experience in a corporate setting in the U.S.”
For the sake of this piece I will volunteer my own story as well. When I moved to New York in January 2012, I met with Ms. Takeda to see about finding a job at a Japanese company. Over the months they introduced a number of positions to me, and of those I was able to go to a few interviews that were conducted almost completely in Japanese, though I was assured that it would have been fine to speak in English if I wanted. The most remarkable interview was for a well-known Japanese newspaper that would have been a full-time position with salary and benefits and would have connected me with some important people. Unemployed as I was at the time, I spent two weeks preparing for the interview by studying Japanese, reading the company’s webpage in Japanese and then again in English, listening to NHK podcasts, reading multiple finance and political rags each morning (financial knowledge and interest was highly desired), and emailing regularly with Ms. Takeda, who was relaying information about the company to me and answering my multitude of questions.
I walked into that interview feeling more prepared for anything I had ever done, and my performance, I felt, reflected that. While I did not get that job, and, as my JET savings were starting to run dry, subsequently ended up accepting a job that had nothing to do with Japanese a few weeks later. I regard that as an incredibly positive and encouraging experience, and there is no doubt that I was able to be as prepared as I was only because I had Ms. Takeda’s help. I guess the moral of this story is twofold: recruiters may be able to work a miracle here and there, but they are still just people and it is always a good thing to have them in your corner. Also, no matter how much you feel like you are perfect for a position, no matter how much you think you nailed an interview, sometimes you will be passed over for reasons completely out of your control. For these instances especially, try to feel good about what you’ve accomplished, even if the end result was not what you wanted. You are making progress and getting closer to the end goal. Remember, if you knock loudly on enough doors, one of them is bound to open eventually.
At last I will bring this piece to a close and leave you with some final words of advice from Ms. Takeda, who strongly recommends communicating with your recruiter regularly and keeping them updated on what you have been doing since you last spoke. “We do not want to waste anyone’s time,” she explains. “Depending on your situation (getting another offer, etc.), we can change our approach with companies you have applied to and interviewed with. Try to connect with anyone who works for Japanese companies. Register with recruiting agencies and ask many questions. Attend networking events and take advantage of LinkedIn. I recruit on LinkedIn and heavily rely on it for searches. Find and connect with me!”