Japan Is Clinging to Insular Ways


Hiroko Tabuchi has a most interesting piece, “Young and Global Need Not Apply in Japan,” published in The New York Times (5/30/2012).  It is on the often futile efforts that Western-educated Japanese students experience when they try to enter the Japanese workforce.  They are not generally well received by Japan’s top companies when they come knocking on corporate doors with foreign degrees in hand.

Consider the experience of Roman Sato, who studied applied statistics at Oxford University in England, and who wished to return to work at a Japanese company in Japan.  He was unsuccessful and today works for a British bank in Tokyo.  So many Japanese students have become discouraged that the proportion of Western education seeking Japanese is shrinking (oh no, that word again) compared to their regional competitors in China, South Korea and India.

Western-educated Japanese are viewed with some suspicion regarding interpersonal manners.  One woman was told that she “laughed too much” in her job interview, while others were viewed as either over-eager, over-educated, or too susceptible to poaching by other employers.  The Western-educated Japanese are not seen as loyalists in the eyes of many Japanese company heads.

The news isn’t any better for Japanese students returning from overseas study.  They find themselves behind their competitors in shukatsu, the Japanese system that tends to hire students right out of college.  (Students begin interviewing for jobs during their junior year of college.)  Some find themselves just too old for the Japanese job hunt culture.

This reluctance on the part of Japanese companies to hire those who participate in study abroad may explain the declining numbers of Japanese students going abroad.  Using 2009 OECD figures, fewer than 60,000 Japanese students study overseas out of a total student body population of three million.

It appears that the corporate culture in Japan is a bit suspicious of returning Japanese who may have gone too global in their ways.  This includes becoming too assertive in meetings and not knowing their place in the company hierarchy.  It is still considered quite bold to go overseas for study and to return to establish your career in Japan.

Is there any place for a globally-minded workforce in Japan?  Do you have another perspective on this critical piece about Japan?

21 thoughts on “Japan Is Clinging to Insular Ways

  1. I feel this is one negative point of Japan that has to be fixed in some way. I indeed understand the essence of putting the stress on the Japanese ways of employment to a certain level, but that wouldn’t give any diversity and change within a company. The intercultural diversity which people find themselves in is truly essential to clarify viewpoints about certain matters and look at the matter from a different point of view. So if Japan continues to go on with this sort of matter, it will certainly make a vulnerable point in its companies’ foreign relationships.

    To overcome this somewhat rigid phenomenon, we will have to center our scope of viewing the people who came back from abroad differently, and to accept the sense of diversity within their company. If we cannot do that, Japan will certainly be degraded when it comes to intercultural relations with foreign companies, and the mood to make the returnees want to work in Japan would go down as well. Given those aspects in mind, I think that Japan should revise its ways of employment, even if it considers the aspects of humbleness and dignity shown like a average Japanese person and tries to continue on with its work. This is a controversial problem, so I feel that we would have to slowly change the people’s ideas to naturally welcome the differences and use them to create a change in the way they view the society as well.

  2. The reason why Japanese companies do not hire Japanese students with oversea education seems to be that they are so westernized and so different from students with only Japanese education that people in the companies, especially seniors, cannot deal with them. Many of those who are in high positions in the companies do not have much overseas experience or experiences of studying abroad. They may not be used to American or European culture. Thus, they are negative toward employing foreign educated students. However, students should also make efforts to adapt themselves to Japanese companies if they really want to work there. I wonder if this isn’t only companies’ fault. In the article, Mr. Koga says that he was blamed because he crossed his arms in front of his colleagues who were older than he is. In Japan, crossing your arms in front of senior people is thought to be rude even if it is not in European or American companies. As far as I got to know from this article, Mr. Koga did not make an effort to adapt himself to the Japanese company. The problem of crossing arms is based on cultural differences and if students with oversea education want to work in Japanese companies, accepting and adapting themselves to Japanese culture is necessary.

  3. As a returnee myself, I am very shocked to hear that Japanese companies are not really fond of people with experience abroad. I truly believe that experience abroad enables you to have broader perspectives, which is important in this globalizing society. Fewer and fewer university students are wanting to study abroad, but I think “shukatsu” is truly to blame. Because shukatsu starts during junior year, students are discouraged to study abroad for they will lag behind their competitors. Japan puts so much stress on job hunting that it becomes a real burden on university students. I feel that students should be given more time to think about their future, instead of rushing to find a company that would accept them. Going abroad gives you the opportunity to encounter different perspectives. Japan puts emphasis on unity and maintaining peace within the group, resulting with no chance of going against the norm. However, without differences or chances to go against the norm, there would be no chance for development or innovation. Japan has to rethink the benefits that people who experienced going abroad could bring and improve the environment to encourage more to go abroad.

  4. I am really disappointed to hear this news that Japanese companies are not in favor of hiring people with experience abroad. As I have a one year stay in the USA, this trend seems so wrong that Japan should fix it. Also it is a kind of prejudice. I do not deny that some people who spent many years of their lives abroad do not fit in Japanese society in terms of manners, etiquette, etc. Nevertheless, they obviously have by far broader perspectives than Japanese without experience abroad because they have seen many more diverse cultures and people. They should be respected in job hunting as well. Japanese university students care about job hunting too much and it leads to the declining number of students wanting to go abroad. With this phenomenon, Japan might lag behind other Asia countries like China and South Korea in this current global and competitive society. Unless their experiences are respected, Japanese people will remain more introverted and persist in stereotyping Japanese culture, which prevents Japan from developing further. To improve this, companies and Japanese government should encourage and give university students more opportunities to see other countries and have experiences. Also they should change their views toward people with experience abroad. Hopefully change will come.

  5. This is a problem. An organization should have many types of people. If there are only Japanese who grow up in Japan, ideas are limited. I want to know why the companies do not accept the students who studied abroad.

  6. I actually have a friend who works at U-shin. It is a rather small company so I was surprised to hear the name of the company. It is true U-Shin is eager to hire returnees and international people but from my friend’s story, he is not able to use his English in an efficient way. Right now his job is to translate manuals all day. He told me that it was not the job he imagined. There are certainly some places in the company where people can use “real” English but it seems few.

  7. As a junior student to start job hunting soon, this is a very sensitive topic. I have lived five years abroad, therefore I understand how returnees can be different in attitudes, especially when it comes to expressing yourself. So I also understand why recruiters resist hiring returnees, because they can be assertive at times. I do not think that I am the type of person who can be overly confident or assertive at situations like job interviews, so I actually respect those who can, and am willing to be able to be like them. Japanese corporations are so conservative about their traditions and their policies that I think they are missing the chances to improve their company. Hiring a globally-minded workforce can affect other employees in a good way. It is important to have leading companies to hire these workers in this time of economic downturn to stimulate others as well. The Japanese giants must be the pioneers to change the conservative Japanese corporations.

  8. When I first heard that the Western-educated Japanese students are not well received in Japan’s top companies, I was so shocked. I’m planning to go abroad to America for a year, so I’m worried if I can work at a Japanese company. It was also very shocking to me about the reasons why the Japanese companies do not like to hire the Western-educated Japanese. Although it is natural that competent people make the company better, the Japanese companies hate to employ them. I really cannot understand this. The tips to do “shukatsu” well for Japanese returnees are “don’t be too assertive” and “don’t ask too much.” According to this advice, I think I need to suppress my feelings or sometimes lie to make myself look like a person who has the Japanese way of thinking when I’m having a job interview at Japanese company. It is sort of sad that I can’t get hired unless I disguise myself. I hope that Japanese companies go global in the near future.

  9. As a student who has been doing shukatsu, I have been thinking about why Japanese companies are not willing to hire students with western education backgrounds. I don’t have a degree from an overseas college but I did study abroad in the States for 8 months. Still Japanese companies can tell that I have a better ability to speak English from my resume, but they are skeptical if they can give me the opportunities to use that. One time, they went so far as to say they did not want a person whose English skill is that high and asked why I didn’t apply for the jobs at western companies, not the Japanese company where I was taking an interview. I was very confused by the question and even thought maybe I should have changed my resume to not indicate my English ability. I feel like Japanese companies are afraid that prospective students will, similar to American culture, quit their jobs after some years since it is fairly common to leave the jobs and get another one. Company persons, especially seniors, do not like the prospective students’ bold/aggressive characteristics and they feel like those students are against them. Another thought is they might be anxious about what if the students got placed in the section where they don’t have to speak English that much and he hated that job. I agree with the article and from my point of view as a shukatsu student it appears to be the case that Japanese students with western education backgrounds have a very difficult time finding a job in Japanese companies.

  10. Shocking. That was only word that came up to my mind. Isn’t Japan trying to internationalize? How is Japan going to compete with other companies in the world? Where is Japan heading? This article concerned me very much since I myself am a returnee and plan to study abroad in the near future. Although Japan opened its doors to foreigners years ago when Matthew Perry came, I think national isolation does somehow still exist in the hearts of the Japanese. Japanese who can speak English fluently and who study and live abroad are considered the minority, which stereotypically Japanese people hate being. Whereas in other countries, people from all over the world keep coming in and out to have new discoveries. I believe Japanese lack curiosity about what is happening around the world. This may be because our country is an island and most of the citizens are Japanese and monolingual. Those who just wish to have an ordinary life may not be concerned, but for the country itself it is a hindrance to several aspects. I think that people who studied abroad should be able to make use of what they learned and have the opportunity to spread them. I don’t expect Japan to change, not unless companies accept such intelligent students.

  11. I was very shocked when I heard about this in Prof. Snow’s class last week. I felt that Japan was wasting important human resources from not choosing to hire them. Many companies in Japan have become international but if they continue to have this kind of idea I believe they will not be able to compete in the international society. As one student who is studying foreign studies at the university, I was very sad, since I want to work at a Japanese company using the skills I have acquired at Sophia University and as a returnee.

  12. As a returnee doing shukatsu, I felt disadvantaged because I was told, like this article, that Japanese companies are reluctant to hire students who have overseas experience. However, when I participated in the Boston Career Forum (a career forum for bilingual speakers held by DISCO International, Inc.), I felt that the Japanese companies that participated actually wanted to hire students who had a “Western” way of thinking. Two companies actually told me that I wasn’t eligible for an interview because I did not attend a university in the US.

    I have many friends who are bilingual, who grew up abroad, who are outspoken and very opinionated, but none of them has had a problem finding a job. Some were hired by non-Japanese companies, but most were hired by Japanese companies. From MY personal experience, I didn’t really feel that Japanese companies judged based on international background. Maybe the Japanese companies I looked at were different, maybe they were the minority group that actually accepts Westernized students. Or maybe, the traditional Japanese ways of hiring is slowly changing as globalization becomes a bigger issue. Maybe.

  13. I was really surprised to hear in the last class that Japanese students who have studied abroad must not speak too much and ask too many questions at job interviews in order to make a good impression on Japanese employers.
    I took for granted that Japanese companies have already begun to set their minds on becoming global, but I was shocked and really wondered what kind of occasions make it so severe for returnee students to be hired. In my opinion, what is the most important thing is to change the Japanese sense of keeping too much harmony among communities by thinking more highly of the importance of individualism. Japanese people put too high a value on relationships among companies, colleagues, and even family, so when someone fails, everybody tries to blame him/her for the result so exclusively. Therefore, I think that Japanese companies should try to appreciate the capacity of returnee students and try not to impose on them too much. That is the very best thing for Japan to globalize while keeping the proper harmony.

  14. It is true that Japanese students are less likely to study abroad nowadays. I believe that there are many reasons for this. I agree with the text that the number of students who study abroad is decreasing because fewer companies are requiring those students. Moreover, there must be other facts that are also preventing them from studying in other countries. It may be true that financial problems are also preventing them. In addition, some Japanese students are not courageous enough to spend time in unfamiliar countries. It is because a lot of worries will follow with the experience.

  15. After hearing about this article in class, when I went home I immediately discussed it with my parents because I was surprised to hear that Japanese companies think like this.

    However, I can understand why the one women who was told who laughed too much failed to become hired and why the intern from Yale was left out from meetings for correcting the superior. In the first case, I do think most countries would not accept a person who laughs too much in her interview. It shows that she isn’t serious enough to work there. To allow a “westerner” to understand how this is not acceptable, I would compare it with a person laughing before facing a sports match. It’s rude to your competition because it sends a message that you look down on them and don’t take them seriously. However, if the person was told to relax and be themselves during the interview (which is rarely ever the case in Japan) and then was told that they laughed too much, they have every right to be angry. In the second case, correcting a superior in a professional environment is not acceptable. The intern said he made sure he was not rude, but that was only his point of view and he may have sounded rude from the workers’ perspectives. A patient, even if he is a med school student, should not correct a doctor on how to treat him because doctors are far more experienced than he is. Still, there are people in Japan who would actually listen to their subordinate and there are people in America who won’t listen to their subordinates.

    This article I feel was biased and putting up an article like this on the New York Times hurts the reputation of Japanese companies when there are indeed many Japanese companies looking for returnees and foreigners to work for their companies.

  16. Similar to other students, I too was greatly upset to know how conservative Japanese companies are. Aren’t they supposed to be aiming for global talents with broad perspectives if they are to find markets abroad? I understand that they may hesitate at hiring oversea-experienced students for fear of losing their Japanese-ness from their company spirits, but they should also remember that those students have actually survived through jungles of Western educations without forgetting an admiration for their home country. If they were in fact caught with Western ideas, they would not be applying for Japanese companies to begin with. In addition, their ability to adapt themselves to different situations despite cultural background differences can well be applied, in a micro perspective, to the individual level within the country. Tokyoites tend to be more restless than Fukuians are, and Osakans incline to be more emphatic than Shizuokans are. To me, it is a bit odd that Japanese enjoy such divergences among themselves but suddenly start to fear the very same notion just as it upsizes to worldwide. (There is a TV program called “Himitsu-no Kenmin Show [Secret Prefecture Resident Show],” featuring how cultures and personalities differentiate in various parts of Japan.)

  17. I always thought that studying abroad was a good thing and that it put people who have been abroad at an advantage. I was quite surprised to hear that companies are actually looking down on it. Companies may not want employees who have different opinions or different ways of thinking than an average Japanese person, but not everyone who has been abroad changes and I think it is useful to be bilingual. If the company is a domestic company, being bilingual may not be much use, but if the company has already or is planning to expand overseas, being able to speak the language of the country they are working in or understand values or culture of the country beforehand may be helpful. It may be because I have lived abroad for many years, but If I were the CEO, I would like to hire employees that have lived in countries other than Japan as I think they will be able to think and look at things from many different points of view.

  18. I was shocked when I learned about this in the last class. It seems that Japanese companies have been international and they expand their business all over the world. I thought it was a real social trend when I heard the news that UNIQLO started using English and made it as an official language in the company. To get people who can use fluent English and who have experience of study in other counties, heads of UNIQLO consider that staying abroad is a good thing. But there are still only few companies like UNIQLO. Most of the Japanese companies still adhere to conservative views and they do not want people who may disrupt “Wa” (harmony or veiled rules) in their work places. If Japanese companies do want to be internationalized, they should welcome returnees and people who have international experiences or they can never be changed.

    I’m going to America to study English for 2 years starting this summer. Many of my friends did “shukatsu” and they got jobs already. When I talk to them and hear their stories of job hunting, I feel uneasy and uncomfortable because they seem mature compared with me. Also I am concerned myself that studying abroad would be a disadvantage when I try to find job. I want to make it an advantage for my career and my life.

  19. As some of them point out that Mr.Koga should accept Japanese companies’ style, I also think that he rejects Japanese working style too much for his desire to work at Japanese companies all the way to returning.
    And I think it is true that because of “shukatsu,” many Japanese who experienced studying abroad feel difficulty applying to companies and getting jobs. “Shukatsu” generally starts at the time of the latter junior year and people who choose to study abroad usually go overseas at that time and return at the middle of the spring term in their senior year. So, they will be left behind their friends and fewer and fewer jobs are waiting for them.
    I feel that Japanese job hunting starts too early. Actually, for university students, many of them want to study more and spend precious student life in universities for the whole four years. For myself, I think that what students have to do is study something, not to learn about companies. However “shukatsu” forces them not to be absorbed in their studies so much; rather it stresses earlier that they should know how society is. It seems to me that too early “shukatsu” sacrifices Japanese students’ college life. If “shukatsu” began much later and some companies set up “the gap year” system like we can see in the UK, students will be able to focus themselves more on their college or studying life and more students will study abroad without fear of starting “shukatsu.”

  20. As is often said, Japanese people tend to easily label people who are not of Japanese descent and raised in Japan as “foreigners,” and associate their faults or behaviors which are uncomfortable for us with that fact. This is because Japan has basically one people, but we have to change this tendency consciously. I think this is a matter of perception. In fact, there are many Japanese who behave badly. On the other hand, western-educated Japanese are properly raised. It is very clear which is worse. The important thing is to let many Japanese know these problems and change their ways of thinking consciously.

  21. Ware ware Nihonjin wa Amaterasu no Shison desu !!! This is a Japanese saying. We are descendants of the Sun Goddess. It reflects the Japanese ideal that they are somehow cosmically blessed and different (better) than the rest of us human mortals.

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