ESSAY: JOBS IN JAPAN FOR NON-JAPANESE
By Arudou Debito
(Made public June 12, 2001)
I recently read on a Japanese BBS:
"What's with all these foreigners? They came here only to earn money. Now with the economic downturn they are no longer in demand, yet they still act like they have the right to stay here. I think they should just leave."
Although I disagree, this sentiment is, believe it or not, somewhat understandable, since many people (including people in the Non-Japanese communities themselves) look down on foreigners as nogoodniks--here only for the profit motive. Although many might say, "What's wrong with that?", this simple-looking a motivation makes the social contribution look one-sided, opening Non-Japanese up for disrespect. Third-World foreigners are often seen less for their important role of filling the rougher, cheaper blue-collar jobs that many Japanese disavow, more for some unsavory occupations and alleged ties to criminal activity. Likewise, First-World foreigners are often seen as being here on the teat of The Bubble, paid good money more for being native speakers of a language (usually English), less as professionals fulfilling respectable roles in Japanese society. These domestic mindsets contribute to the recent spate of foreigner bashing (particularly by the Japanese police, http://www.debito.org/TheCommunity/communityissues.html#police and Tokyo Governor Ishihara, http://www.debito.org/A.html), seeing Non-Japanese more as a social bane than a boon.
It is time people stopped assuming foreigners are here for no good reason. To some degree it is our job, as members of the foreign community, to assist ourselves in this imaging-up--by steering fellow Non-Japanese into professions not merely assigned or proscribed by Japanese society (since with few exceptions, they are subordinate, temporary, and socially-dissed). Instead, our jobs should be chosen by ourselves and recommended to others for our experienced merits and benefits. Better jobs increase the chances of long-termism, and the longer we are here, contributing to Japanese society in terms of product, stature, tax revenue, and gene pool, the more difficult it will be for the xenophobes to claim we have no role in Japan.
That is the role of this seminal essay. It is a preliminary collation of personal impressions that I have garnered about walks of life, and roads less travelled for foreigners in Japan. I cannot address many occupations adequately (as my status over here as a Caucasian-naturalized-Japanese academic will of course unavail me of many standpoints), so corrections and suggestions are, as always, welcome. After suitable revisions and critique, I hope to put this up on a website for everyone's reference.
This essay is structured thus (click to page down):
JOBS DISCUSSED: Tarento, Sportsperson, Businessperson, Entrepreneur, Computer Technician, Restaurateur, Tourism, Journalist, Trucking, Finance, Religion, Activist, Niche Markets, Unexplored Markets
1) For the purposes of this essay, by "foreigners" I do not mean "Zainichis" (ethnic Korean, Chinese, Indian, etc.), born in Japan, often with Japanese as their native tongue, who would be citizens already in other developed countries. Although Zainichis too face difficult situations in Japan, this essay will direct its advice to people who are immigrants to Japan, born elsewhere with Japanese as a second language, who therefore face greater cultural and entrenchment barriers.
2) I assume the reader is not willing to settle for the standard jobs deemed "foreigner-worthy" (language teaching, mizu shoubai, blue-collar, etc.). Although these occupations answer social demands and pay the bills just fine, many are unstable (i.e. involving contract work, often with renewal limits, with decreasing legal protections nowadays; see http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#ninkisei) and exploitative (with many labor abuses covered up by threats to visa status, lack of social safety net despite taxpayer status, and structural disincentives towards elemental freedoms, such as marriage and procreation). There are other, often better jobs out there. Let's see if we can find them.
3) I assume the reader is here for the long term. It is very difficult for foreign communities to be perceived as contributors to society if they are seen to be here as a guest or on a lark. I also presume that people are willing to pay some degree of social dues to be rewarded with a long-term position.
4) Finally, I assume that people are willing to make the investment and learn Japanese. For without Japanese ability, you essentially have no control over your fate.
That said, let's look at some occupations that Non-Japanese have made inroads into, and mention future possibilities and potentials in Japanese society. Again, impressions are personal, based upon experiences witnessed by my friends and myself, and in no particular order:
1) TARENTO (TV Personality)
EXAMPLES: Dave Spector, Daniel Carr, Bob Sapp, Kent Dericott, Kent Gilbert, Sri Lankan Wikki-san, former Sumo wrestler Konishiki, many others. With exceptional language abilities and affability, they have indubitably made an impression on Japan, and increased tolerance and respect towards people of accent. TV Show Koko Ga Hen is the current foreign Tarento factory.
ADVANTAGES: High pay, high exposure, a possible soapbox.
DISADVANTAGES: The Japanese public is very fickle and unforgiving, and tends to believe that since Tarento are getting paid to entertain they should never be unpleasant in any way. Since Japan lacks the social exoneration mechanism of, "If you try to please everybody, you please nobody", the constant criticism and perennial fine-tuning or defanging of personal presentation will grind. Those who are perpetually ingratiating, such as the natural comedians or singers who refrain from social commentary, will have a higher chance of success. However, there is a huge amount of cultural value placed on facial characteristics (which is largely a matter of genes) and on stoicism towards adversity (which occurs often in this highly-competitive market), so those who are not in absolute control of their manners and mannerisms will face a plethora of pitfalls.
POTENTIAL: High, but perfection in language and grace under fire is a must.
EXAMPLES: Konishiki et al, soccer stars Ramos Rui and Alcindo, body builder Chuck Wilson, baseball stars Randy Bass and Warren Cromartie, many others including coaches.
ADVANTAGES: High pay (particularly from product endorsements), high exposure, some social forgiveness of foibles thanks to sports fans, some spin-off potential after retirement as sports commentator or Tarento.
DISADVANTAGES: Early retirement (endemic to all sports--the body does wear out), curtailed free-agentism (which is why Japanese baseball players, for example, are defecting to the US Big Leagues), the inevitable linkage of sports to patriotism creates a tendency for racist sentiments to appear in the sports press. Although some sports are more liberal and open in their hiring practices (soccer and basketball), others require citizenship (sumo, volleyball cf. Yoko Zetterlund case) for full participation; others limit their numbers of foreign players (two to any Japanese baseball team). There is also a strong tendency for foreigners to be seen as guests, especially when they are coaches brought in to improve Japan's technique, to be let go in favor of a native as soon as international proficiency is reached.
POTENTIAL: High. But basically only for those born athletes who bother to learn the language and stay here, perhaps naturalize.
3) BUSINESSPERSON (i.e. a salaried worker in a company)
EXAMPLES abound, especially with the late-80's Bubble Boom and "Kaisha Management" styles taking the corporate world by storm some time ago.
ADVANTAGES: Plenty of jobs are out there, both in the domestic kaisha and the foreign expat communities. Some job stability even in the twilight of Japan's lifetime employment.
DISADVANTAGES: In many domestic kaisha: hazing, work without responsibility (relegation to translation or English-teaching work), promotional glass ceilings based upon nationality and gender, long hours with low pay under unhealthy conditions (drinking every night does hurt), transient middle-aged experienced workers being relegated to entry level not uncommon, advancement to higher echelons requiring decades of gaman. Generally at this time, the only way a foreigner will advance to the control switches of a Japanese company is though a hostile takeover or a foreign-Japanese consortium (cf Nissan or Mazda). In foreign companies in Japan, conditions are better, but expats are generally not here for the long term, and switching from expat packages to Japanese salaried conditions means a dramatic change in lifestyle. Some foreign companies moreover prefer to hire Japanese speakers with Asian faces, thinking this will facilitate market access.
POTENTIAL: Low to Medium. Higher promotionwise if hired by a foreign company in Japan.
4) ENTREPRENEUR (i.e. people starting up their own businesses)
EXAMPLES: Exporters of Japanese used products (cars to NZ, tyres to Hong Kong), importers of speciality goods from home country (say, Finnish winter goods or Canadian insulated windows to Hokkaido), and even non-trade related trades such as farmer, translator, consultant, and even homegrown English schools.
ADVANTAGES: You can be your own boss and control your fate. There are export markets; for example, "used goods" in Japan hardly qualify as such in other countries, and many port towns are booming with barter and cash. Importwise, there is is an increasing market for materials made better in more competitive markets overseas (cf. building materials like doors and windows). Translation and interpretation are always in demand with globalization, and organic farming is coming into its own.
DISADVANTAGES: Depending on the region, laws punish foreign entrepreneurs. Companies registered overseas must hire two Japanese full-timers (up in Hokkaido, but less enforced it seems in Tokyo), driving many a start-up into bankruptcy. Alternatively, companies registered domestically have high entry costs (limited liability minimum capitalization 3,000,000 yen, incorporation minimum 10,000,000 yen). Also, trade in general, particularly the import business, is for insiders only, particularly once one works with the Japanese distribution system. Although outsourcing translation work is no long seen as extraordinary, consultancy in general is still not de rigeur in Japan, and only those with super business acumen or patronage can make a living from it. Eikaiwa market was saturated long ago, and the enfranchisement of the market with Novas and ECs (much the same way as Seven-Eleven et al. have killed the brandless corner bento store) has only made matters more difficult. And of course, the Japanese government can slap you with a tariff or an import restraint if you get too successful (as was seen recently with Chinese veggies).
POTENTIAL: Medium to Low, depending on locale and market. Probably highest in used exports.
5) COMPUTER PROGRAMMER/INTERNET TECHNICIAN
EXAMPLES: Abound, as Japan's OA has mutated into IT.
ADVANTAGES: Japan is a world leader in software design and creation, particularly peerless in the games market. Moreover, with IT becoming an official putsch under former PM Mori, and the New Economy seen as a logical next step for Japan's future, social permission to bring in cheaper workers, such as Indian engineers, has created a boom market. A must for most internet work, English is in high demand, and the dearth in domestic proficiency gives many Non-Japanese a competitive advantage.
DISADVANTAGES: Dot-Coms have turned into Dot-Bombs recently, and there is no evidence that Japan's companies are immune. Also insufficient signals that Japanese companies are going to lose their seniority systems, where overemphasis on elder rule winds up stifling real computer talent (found more in the junior employees more responsive to trends and upgrades), hindering competitiveness in the world's fastest obsolescing market.
POTENTIAL: High if you have English abilities. Lower if just doing grunt programming work.
6) RESTAURATEUR & CONNECTED ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY
EXAMPLES: Bars/restaurants run and staffed by Non-Japanese all over Japan (zillions in Roppongi, Gaijin Bar/Mugishutei/Brian Brew in Sapporo, Otaru Beer in Otaru, PEI Club in Oita, etc.). Richest foreigner in Hokkaido owns a chain of Indian restaurants.
ADVANTAGES: Japanese love to try new food and restaurants for taste and atmosphere, and as long as ethnic food caters to local tastes (which inevitably it does), cash cows can occur. There is a larger openness for spin-offs (bands, DJs, dancers, etc.) in the exotica industry.
DISADVANTAGES: Western food (save French and Italian) is no longer anything special and there is overcompetition in the meat preparation industry (it is probably difficult to make a living with, say, a bigger better hamburger when size is less intertwined with dining value; see http://www.debito.org/eatinghabits.html). Exotic food has more potential, but basically only in the big cities, and, like it or not, there is an undercurrent of trepidation in the elderly towards foreigners preparing food. Generally speaking, the advantage lies with Japanese going overseas, learning exotic cooking, and coming back to create the cash cow. And let's face it. Japanese food is addictive enough, with ethnic food seen more as a luxury indulgence anywhere else but in Tokyo.
POTENTIAL: High, if foodwise you go for the curry market or South-East Asian market. Lower in the meat-based market. High also entertainmentwise for the rock/jazz/dance atmosphere, lower for the classical market.
EXAMPLES: Tour Guides both domestic (subcontracted foreign taxi drivers in Hiroshima) and overseas, flight attendants (on every Japanese international flight), travel agents (an Austrian is branch boss of a Hokkaido chain).
ADVANTAGES: High domestic demand. Tourism has been booming with easier and cheaper access out of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka these past years, and fifteen years of a high yen has made overseas shopping far more attractive.
DISADVANTAGES: Demandwise, the era of the high yen may be coming to an end, with a renewed push for economic recovery led by higher exports. Internationally, overseas tour guides are more often local Japanese expats or flag-holding exported bus girls, not native speakers. Domestically, Japan's hotels, transportation, and food have long since weeded out the shoestring travellers, and far more exotic places with unrenewed architecture make Japan a less choice travel spot than its neighbors; since there are few travel meccas in Japan (save Kyoto/Nara and Hiroshima), catering to foreign tourists is a niche market indeed. Foreign travel agents face the same barriers to foreign entrepreneurs as anyone else. Foreign flight attendants face three-year contracts like everyone else, plus the hazing and recently-diminished cachet of the industry (stewardesses were once seen as a pinnacle job for Japanese women) make overseas airlines far more attractive.
POTENTIAL: Medium to low. Catering to Japanese tourists heading overseas is far more lucrative than the reverse, making foreign staff are far less necessary here.
EXAMPLES: Dave Zoppetti formerly of Asahi TV, plus hundreds of freelancers working for the Japanese English-language press, also getting published in occasional articles.
ADVANTAGES: Constant investigating and some soapboxing. TV jobs well-paid.
DISADVANTAGES: The real money is, of course, in the domestic Japanese-language media, which necessitates exemplary Japanese language abilities. Otherwise, working as relatively disposable labor for English-langage newspapers begets unstable positions. Entrepreneurship with some advertiser-supported magazines both paper and net-based (cf. Japan Traveler, Tokyo Journal, japantoday.com) has happened but still remains more niche than boom. Foreign correspondency is best, but overseas papers generally bring in journalists from overseas, rather than rely on local writers with language abilities with a history of freelancing.
POTENTIAL: Medium. The market is promising as long as people keep plugging away at the Japanese market, as people are.
9) TRUCKING (including transportation of goods and people)
EXAMPLES: Michael C, trucker near Kansai (whose input or corrections I would appreciate)
ADVANTAGES: The market has been visibly opening up (more women taxi drivers and truckers nowadays visible around Hokkaido, anyway). Transportation of goods is always in demand: things always have to get from one place to another.
DISADVANTAGES: No idea how job treatment of foreigners is in this industry (granted, it's not a desk job with a supervisor breathing down your neck all day, and as long as you drive safely and deliver goods on time there should be little problem), but from what I could see from my father-in-law's experiences as both a trucker and a cabdriver (long hours, low pay, hazing, the works, albeit postwar to the mid-1990's), it isn't everyone's cup of tea. Cab market is also glutted in the big cities.
POTENTIAL: Unknown. Demand for drivers is there, though.
10) FINANCIAL ANALYST
EXAMPLES: The flotillas of gaijin toushisha money managers in Tokyo with business degrees and Japanese ability from famous schools.
ADVANTAGES: Enormous paychecks and a lifestyle where money is of less concern.
DISADVANTAGES: Excessively long hours and high stress. Many people make their pile and retire in their forties. It is also a niche market for those in the Tokyo area only (unless you want to go through the rank and file of the Japanese companies transferred to local branches, trying to sell to consumers who don't understand or trust the debt/equity markets in a deflationary economy).
POTENTIAL: High, if you can land work in a foreign securities house (when many are withdrawing from or consolidating in Tokyo), low in a Japanese company.
11) MEMBER OF THE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY:
EXAMPLES: Christian ministers, expat missionaries, some Buddhist disciples and Sokka Gakkai members.
ADVANTAGES: Lucrative market in ceremonies, particularly hotel weddings. Additional support from the faithful both domestic and overseas.
DISADVANTAGES: Japanese conversion rate to Christianity is low. Buddhism as an orthodoxy is more faithfully followed in other Asian countries. Foreigners cannot become Shinto priests. Few signs of Sokka Gakkai promoting foreigners to higher ranks. And after Aum/Aleph's gas attacks, there is a renewed public view of seeing religious groups as cults.
POTENTIAL: Unknown. This is a rather special type of vocation anyway.
12) POLITICIAN OR ACTIVIST <g>
EXAMPLES: Tsurunen Marutei running for office in Odawara, various people plugging away for human rights in Japan, famous speakers such as Karel van Wolferen punditing about Japanese systemic factors, Gregory Clark rehashing rewarmed nihonjinron to various receptive fora.
ADVANTAGES: All the soapboxing you can eat. Good money if you hit the lecture circuit (see http://www.debito.org/HELPSpring2001.html#clarkarticle) Some naturalized Japanese have been elected to office in the past (but not because they were perceived as foreign).
DISADVANTAGES: With up to three generations of elected political families, politics is the fiefdom of the enfranchised. Foreigners, including third-generation ethnicities, still cannot vote their own in (although the political see-saw is still debating granting Zainichis local suffrage). Activism in Japan (a place that doesn't see civil disobedience with the same positiveness as the West) is not the realm for the thin-skinned, and this author can personally attest that he finally understands why activists all over the world die young and penniless.
PROGNOSIS: Don't make it your day job.
13) NICHE MARKETS (in brief)
a) SEASONAL MARKETS: Resort ski instructors (cf. Sahoro, Hokkaido), outdoor guides in Japanese outback (Niseko, Hokkaido), etc. PROGNOSIS: With the increase in outdoorism in Japan, it's good work if you can get it, but no matter what you only get it half the year. Promotion opportunities are far better as an entrepreneur, but you can see above what happens to foreign entrepreneurs in Japan.
b) ACADEMIC IN A NON-LANGUAGE-ORIENTED EDUCATOR POSITION: Chemists (Olaf K), social studies teachers (Kirk M, Tim P) do exist, but this venture does not necessarily guarantee a tenure-track position, since most foreigners in Japan are refused tenure at Japanese universities simply because they are foreigners. PROGNOSIS: Chances for tenured job security far greater if accepted to a university faculty unconnected with the English department.
c) MODELLING: Pretty good money for looking good--if you look good. PROGNOSIS: Okay if you're one of the born-beautiful. But how many foreigners do you know by name who have become successful name-droppable models in Japan, and sustainably? Remains to be seen.
d) MARTIAL ARTS: Hey, son of missionaries Steven Segal was the first foreigner to own his own Aikido studio in Japan, so it CAN happen. However, the only reason we know of Steven is because he branched to Hollywood and wowed one of his students, Michael Ovitz, a major movie producer and Disney's number two man at the time. This has nothing to do with Japan. PROGNOSIS: Infinitesimal.
JOBS WITH UNEXPLORED POTENTIAL FOR NON-JAPANESE
Manga/Anime (some Japanese have gotten sick of Japanese styles and storylines), House Design and Architecture (likewise people are sick of shoebox designs; Toubetsu town in Hokkaido makes its money from selling Sweden-designed houses--though as of late more materials are domestic to appease building inspectors; public works nevertheless have very strict tacit local-content requirements), Porno (there are openings, ahem), Children's Books (all we need is one person with some international sensitivitiy, some kokusaika agenda, and Dr Seuss parable ability to crack the market...), Author (with ICHIGENSAN, Dave Zoppetti won the Subarusho and came this close to winning the Akutagawasho--see http://www.debito.org/zoppetti.jpg, so it is possible), and no doubt others, such as Alex Kerr and Gregory Clark. The author of this site himself has a book published in Japanese.
Additions and corrections welcome, as I'm sure there are readers out there who feel their occupation was un-, under- or mis-represented.
I encourage people of experience to help ourselves prove to Japan that we are a valuable and indispensible part of Japanese society. The best way to do that is to get a good job, one that is conducive to a long-term lifestyle. I hope that people will from now offer advice to that end. However, there is some personal homework to be done. Crucial to success here is the ability to speak Japanese--negotiating in Japan on our own terms. Do all this, and ultimately the xenophobes will lose the debate. Then watch how Japanese society, as it has done so many times in the past, adjusts to changed conditions with style and grace.
Teacher of Business English and Debate
And author (in Japanese) of book "Japanese Only"