Uniquely Japanese Job Interview Questions

On the surface, Japanese job interviews are a lot like Western ones, and the interviewers ask you the regular questions about where you worked before, your strengths and weaknesses, and the reason you applied for the job. But there are also a good number of questions that you’d probably never hear in other countries. When I changed jobs recently, I noticed that a lot of the questions I got asked dealt with how I felt about living and working in Japan, rather than focusing on my qualifications for the job. When Japanese companies hire a non-Japanese staff member, they’re often worried about whether the person will fit in with their coworkers, so there tend to be a lot of “Do-you-like-Japan?” type questions that are a really important part of their decision.

I think that there are two main things employers are worried about in Japan: 1) Is the person going to get along with his/her Japanese coworkers and not cause friction? and 2) Is the person going to stick around? When they ask you about what you like about Japan, what you think about working at a Japanese company, etc. they want to hear how much you know about Japanese business culture and make sure that you’re not going to head back to your home country in six months. Foreigners who have alienated all their Japanese coworkers, and people disappearing back to their home countries are huge problems, so it’s really important to convince a potential employer that you’re going to be able to get along with people and that you’re going to be around long enough to make it worth their while hiring and training you.
When I was helping do interviews at my old company, I sometimes heard  people saying they came to Japan because they wanted to date Japanese women or that something to keep in mind when working at a Japanese company is that Japanese people are uncreative. Obviously, this kind of answer isn’t going to make a good impression on a potential employer.

Below are some questions that often get asked at Japanese job interviews, sample answers, and important points to remember when answering. I don’t know if the answers are great or not, but I got a job in quite a competitive situation recently, so I hope  they’re at least worth reading.

Q. What do you think is important for foreigners to keep in mind when working at a Japanese company?

A: I think that it’s very important to have strong personal relationships with your coworkers, and in order to do this, it’s important to be aware of Japanese customs. For example, instead of saying your opinion directly to someone, sometimes it can be very useful to communicate through an intermediary or to ask someone who is senior to you for advice about how to deal with difficult situations. I am always very careful to avoid confrontations and keep in mind that my coworkers may not say their true feelings about something directly, so I have to read between the lines and put myself in the other person’s shoes.

Important points:
-Show awareness of differences between Japanese and Western culture
-Never sound even the faintest bit negative about Japan

Q. What would you do if you had a problem with a Japanese coworker?

A. I think that in Japan, solving a personal problem always begins with an apology, even if you don’t think you are wrong. In most cases, I would apologize to the person, and not only find a good way to resolve the problem, but after that I would try to reestablish my good relationship with the person.

Important points:
-Show that you’re a cooperative, flexible person who will make a real effort to learn about cultural differences and take them into account when dealing with your co-workers.

Q. What do you like most about Japan?

A. I really admire how Japanese people put other people’s needs before their own. At work, I’m always impressed by how people think a lot about how their actions will affect their coworkers. For example, I think that Japanese people are a lot more considerate about taking vacations and volunteering to help their coworkers than Westerners are.

Important points:
-They don’t want to hear about how much you like anime or Japanese pop music. Try to say something that will make you sound like a loyal, dedicated employee, or at least someone who understands Japan.

Q. Please give us a self-promotional speech.

I do everything with enthusiasm and passion (nesshin ni). Even if I am not interested in a project in the beginning, when I start to work on it, I always get very interested in it and want to do a really good job on it. For example, at my current company, I always find that when I start researching something for a book or article, I find myself thinking a lot about it outside my working hours, and I often talk about it with my friends and coworkers. I think that you can tell whether a person really put their heart into something when you see the finished product, so it’s very important to do so. I think that when people read things that I wrote, they will be able to tell that I made a great effort to research it very carefully, to make sure the grammar and spelling are perfect, and that it’s easy and enjoyable to read.

Important points:
-I guess this is like “Why should we hire you?” but the phrasing of it (Jiko PR o oneigaishimasu) always struck me as really odd for a country that values modesty as highly as Japan does. After hearing Japanese people’s jiko PR speeches, though, they never seem to say things about their abilities directly. It’s more about their efforts and attitudes and how they lead to results.

Q. Why did you come to Japan?

A. I’ve been interested in Japanese culture ever since I was young. I read a lot of books about Japan, I was really interested in Japanese aesthetics, and I had some Japanese friends in college, so I always wanted to visit. After college I came to Japan on a working holiday visa and started working as an English teacher. I was only planning to stay a year, but I really like the people, the food, and the lifestyle, so I decided to stay for a second year, and then another, and another…and now I’ve been here for 17 years and have a wife and child.

Important points:
-Try to show that you are “serious” about Japan. Some companies have an impression that people who came here to study martial arts will always put their martial art first, or people who like anime will be less serious as employees, so it might be better to downplay this kind of thing.

Q. How long do you plan to stay in Japan?

A. Well, my wife is Japanese, and we have a baby now, so we are probably going to stay here forever. Actually, we’re looking to buy a condominium soon, so we’ve decided we are going to be living here permanently.

Important points:
-Of course everyone has a different answer to this, but a key point is to convince your prospective employer that you are going to be here for a long time because you have some sort of reason to stay in Japan. If you have a fiance, spouse, child, or relative in Japan, emphasize it because you will seem a lot more stable.

28 replies
  1. AdelaideBen
    AdelaideBen says:

    Nice post… of course, on one level it’s scary to think about a job interview that can take such a perspective, and part of me would want to struggle against that in-built suspicion that all foreigners are basically to be avoided if at all possible (unless they sound like wallpaper)… but of course, that’s not what you mean. The purpose is to avoid distinguishing yourself in a way that will likely disturb the group – or appear anything other than you’re happy to be integrated into a Japanese employment situation. And whilst I don’t know the stats, I would say that there’s a very high proportion of foreign workers in Japan that are most likely not looking for long-term employment. Still, that was a really good post… and I’m sure it will generate a lot of thought (and hopefully some good discussion/experiences).

  2. toranosuke
    toranosuke says:

    Thanks for this sort of post. As I’ve never applied for a job in Japan, the job interview process is something of a mystery to me, and this helps clarify things a lot.

    I have spent what I consider to be a fair bit of time in Japan (roughly 14 months over the course of three separate stays), and have always enjoyed it tremendously. Not only the traditional and popular culture, the art, the architecture, the wonderful food, and like that, but also in terms of the many ways that Japan has very high quality of life – the cleanliness of the streets, the timeliness of the trains, how incredibly safe I feel walking or, especially, biking, around. The great customer service. All of these things. And yet, I worry a lot about whether I could ever tolerate (or thrive in) a Japanese workplace, or even get the job to begin with. Unlike the stereotypical Japanese expectation, I am not a perfectionist, and have a very difficult time doing anything “just so”, perfectly. Corporate BS, procedure, bureaucracy, paperwork, drive me crazy, as does the kind of jargony talk that we see in your example of a jiko-PR…

    Maybe, if I’m lucky, museums and universities aren’t quite like what we stereotypically think of Japanese office culture as being. Maybe, if I’m lucky, they’re more laid back places, where one can be an individual and not simply a cog in the machine that does everything as perfectly and efficiently as possible. If I’m lucky. But I fear that’s not the case…

  3. staff
    staff says:

    Yeah, that’s way better than some of the answers I had written:

    Q. What would you do if you had a problem with a Japanese coworker?
    A. Depends on how big they were.

    Q. Why did you come to Japan?
    A. Initially to avoid prosecution, but I have grown fond of the food.

    Q. How long do you plan to stay in Japan?
    A. Unless the statute of limitations changes, another 3 years and 27 days.

    • staff
      staff says:

      I have met Japanese people who are creative. Even at work. I have also met people at work who are neither Japanese nor creative. What a wonderful wide world we live in.

    • Lisation
      Lisation says:

      I think Japanese people are some of the most creative, if you could label an entire civilization, that is.
      Being able to live in extreme conditions and thrive is a proof of creativity. During my visit to Japan (Tokyo and Kamakura (to see the Daibutsu)) i saw sings of a very creative people and their ways of dealing with earthquakes and the architecture in the biggest city in the world, were astonishing. Really creative use of space combined with great mathematical precision made a city that can work 24-7 and with a surprising amount of freedom of movement in a place that should be extremely crowded.

      Sure, japanese people might be regarded as very un-creative due to their strict history and love for their old culture and keeping things tidy. Althou, these are only one side of the coin. The japan we see today is also very modern and expressive, something they have been able to handle with surprising efficiency and with great results! Its not unusual to find high tech stores selling wares and services just across from a several hundred year old shrine or a traditional store with roots going back at least a hundred years.. Sure, Tokyo is a very extreme city but you find the same kind of things all over Japan, in varying degrees.

  4. s0undmind
    s0undmind says:

    I was wondering if there is a difference between the self-introduction (ji co shoukai) and the self promotion (ji co PR) speeches. From my experience, the self-introduction is a general all-purpose introduction that can be used in many situation (including outside of an interview setting) when first meeting and is given at the beginning of the interview. While, the self-promotion speech is given if asked for and is more geared to how you would fit the current position. Am I just splitting hairs?

    • qjphotos
      qjphotos says:

      Yes, I think that’s the main difference. And I think that the jiko PR is based on just one or two things that make you stand out as a candidate, where as the jiko shokai is an overview your career and how you came to be applying for the job.

  5. Shinai Aya
    Shinai Aya says:

    Hello. my name is Aya and I’m a Canadian-Libyan~I wear a hijab (scarf on my head). my goal in life is to teach English in Japan. however, I am extremely worried that the Japanese people will judge me badly due to my religion and my choice of wearing the hijab. I think they wouldn’t hire me to teach English because they might think English isn’t my native language (but it is). they would rather choose someone western over me because of my last name or where i was born….it worries me a lot because my dream is a life in Japan. I lived my whole life in Kitchener/Waterloo Ontario Canada and I barely know Arabic. So, do you have any ideas concerning my issue please email me.thanks^_^.

    btw, I really like your blog. the pictures are amazing and I can’t stop reading your posts. if it is ok with you could i put your site on my “blogroll” to advertise it to everyone else? and vice versa is you would like… i just started mine a week ago. ^_^

    • MyAnswer
      MyAnswer says:

      Maybe my answer comes too late, but, if you are not in Japan yet, take your time and do a research on the interenet regarding the conditions of teaching English in Japan. There are many things that have changed; talk to many people involved, and ask about the salaries and living style. supposing you get a job with a begginer salary of 250 000 yen, 2 500 $ ( aprox), the prices are so high that you could hardly save maximum 500 $ per month ( restraining yourself from expensive dinners and medical expenses). Most of the schools have troubles due to the union suing them for low salaries given to teachers. Check very well the conditions before commiting to any.
      Moreover, it s hard to get a job if you go to an interview wearing something on your head ( I know a guy who could not get any job because he was wearing a turban and beard.)
      Tip: you’d better try to teach your native language or what they might think it is your native language , because they ask for “native English ( a.k.a: American or British) speaker at every small job.

      I didn t intend to discourage you, but just check more about this.

    • Viola Rose
      Viola Rose says:

      I’m a Canadian born native English speaker. From what I have seen, there are a number of dark-skinned or “non-western” looking people at the company where I’ve applied. I do think that you might want to take a few English grammar classes or pick up a book on grammar and spelling before applying to work as an English teacher. I can see a lot of errors in the paragraph you’ve written here. Most of the interviewers are native English speakers themselves, and will notice any issues with your grammar, syntax, and spelling.

  6. Tomlinson
    Tomlinson says:

    Very interesting article. Never sound even the faintest bit negative about Japan. I find this very amusing… I think we should just be moderate about it; no need to go all “nippon ichiban” about everything…

  7. TJ
    TJ says:

    Great post~

    Thanks so much for taking the time to put this all together.
    I actually just released a post called ‘Working with Japanese People’ and was searching to see what else was out there and came across this.
    I think that you covered a lot of really pressing points, and if you don’t mind too terribly, I would love to include a few excerpts from your blog into my post.

    Great blog~
    Cheers

    TJ

  8. Radhakrishnan M
    Radhakrishnan M says:

    Great post; useful for me for the upcoming interview with DMG Moriseiki.
    Pls share something related to technical jobs; if u have any…

  9. savingmybacon
    savingmybacon says:

    Hi, I am applying to a Japanese firm. The application process is pretty long than usual. There was a Skype interview two weeks before I got a schedule for the final telephone interview. I was expecting a tougher grind on the final interview, so I prepared well. I was caught off guard when the person on the other line was the CEO himself! The first part of the interview was a little shaky because I couldn’t get over the fact that I was speaking with the CEO, but it went smoother afterwards.

    I want to “decode” how Japanese hire because of these particular instances:
    1. They gave a question like what you get in school, and they were expecting you to give the correct answer. He said that my answer was consistent to what they are thinking, and then made some follow-up. In the follow-up, I was a miss, and then the guy started to give the correct answers he was expecting.
    2. At the start of the interview, he said that the interview would take around 40 minutes. Then, I checked my call log and the interview spanned for about 12 minutes only. That’s not a good sign! But could it be because Japanese are very strict with time, so they wouldn’t beat around the bush and ask so many more when they already got what they are looking for?
    3. He asked me for 3 of my weaknesses. I was concise and honest about it, but there was bit of a silence afterwards. Again, not a good sign.
    4. I got the “why should we hire you” question as the last one. I replied: I don’t crack under pressure. I added I’ve read about their website – I know the job is very demanding in terms of time management and the expectations of the company but I’m up for the challenge. There was no follow-up after that, instead he directly…
    5. Asked me if I don’t have complications on visa processing, etc.

    There were mixed signals all over, it’s driving me nuts!

  10. Viola Rose
    Viola Rose says:

    Thank you for this very informative article. Some of the things people will say in an interview, claiming to actually want the job, are very shocking. I was also very happy to read that you were able to teach English overseas in the long term. I was worried that my job would only last a year or two and that employers were wanting to turn employees over quickly. My greatest concern with moving to Japan for work was being fired and ending up back home, having spent $1200 on a plane ticket and with nothing to show for it. I hope there are more posts about fitting in, in the Japanese workplace. I don’t want to step on any toes either!

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