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Cover image for Working in Japan: Myths, Realities, Compensation, Culture (By A Software Engineer)

Working in Japan: Myths, Realities, Compensation, Culture (By A Software Engineer)

rob117 profile image Rob Sherling ・28 min read

Cover photo by https://unsplash.com/@manucosen

Programming in Japan

Table of Contents

Intro

This is a massive, nearly 30 minute read. If you're just interested in salary, click the indexed link above. I promise the whole thing is a great read, though.

This last year working in Japan has been a wild one. I wanted to take the time to offer the perspective of someone who's working successfully in Japan as a software engineer in mostly-or-entirely Japanese companies. Also, I want to give a perspective that hopefully offers some contrast against the mountain of horribly misinformed comments I see regurgitated on social media (looking directly at you, Reddit).

I'm writing the article that I wish I had going into all this - how hard is it to get that first programming job? What do I need to do to make it happen? How do I become a freelancer, and why would I do that? How much - exactly - does one make?

To that end, I have year-by-year breakdowns of my salary, a brief background of my pre-engineering start here, and much more.

A few things before we get started: I have mostly self-taught Japanese. I am fluent in Japanese and have native English. I am a very confident person. I am comfortable negotiating and saying no. I have never worked for a non-Japanese company in a career capacity. All of the companies that I've worked for were overwhelmingly Japanese in both nationality and language.

I'll do my best to list the upsides and downsides of my own personal experience, but as always every situation is different. Now that we're prepared for the wave of "but your experience is definitely not normal because X" comments, let's do this!

Also, this post will contain no Japanese, because while I can understand the choice to sprinkle Japanese into a post about Japan, it makes the post harder to understand and doesn't really add anything.

Qualifications

As of this article, I have about 4 years of experience as a programmer - mainly back end. Experience matters, of course, but what you do in when you're gaining that experience matters more.

I did not learn programming in school or in a bootcamp. I learned to program by reading books on the fundamentals (what is an int, stack vs. heap, etc.) and then just doing a lot of things.
As I mentioned above, I'm very comfortable with Japanese.

Starting My Career Here

I came over as a Human Biology grad with no programming experience and pretty good Japanese (JLPT ~N3 for those who know the test). I could read some utility bills, some letters, and documents, and get by just fine with no English.

I came over as an English teacher. I decided I wanted to be a games programmer, bought a physical copy of programming for dummies, and read on the 40-minute trains between my house and whatever school I was teaching at while I was situated up in Sendai (north-east Japan).

I was worried about telling people that I was an English teacher when I changed into programming. I was concerned that they wouldn't take me seriously, or that it would somehow diminish my credibility. There is a perception with some truth to it that many people come to teach English here because it's an easy, paid way to experience Japan.

I was totally wrong. If anything, it deepened my peer's respect for me because I was learning something outside of my field, and there's a pretty healthy respect for teachers here anyway.

I studied Japanese and programming really intensely for about two years. I got my N1, released a game, and then applied for a programming job. In retrospect, I should have done things pretty differently.

I put way, way too much value on the N1. For those who don't know, JLPT is a test of your Japanese ability. Like all tests, it can be gamed, and it can be very flawed. I thought that I would need the N1 (highest level) to be viable in the Japanese workforce. The level before that, the N2, was really straightforward and didn't require much study apart from grammar. The N1 was just all study. So much boring, grindy study.

Day of the test, I fell asleep in the listening and woke up 10 questions later with someone talking about selling lemon-flavored baked goods. I went with the tried-and-true method of choosing all "C" for the questions I missed.

I passed by four points.

Then I got into the workforce and used almost none of what I learned after the N2. I should have just focused more on programming from there.

Also, entering the workforce months sooner would have been wise. I released a small, fairly well-polished game and then started studying Ruby for a few months. My Ruby study had very little to do with me getting hired. I could have gotten hired right after my release.

If I can do it, you can too. Just put the work in.

Working Conditions

Hours

Just like in America, the conditions are as varied as the jobs. Japan can offer jobs that follow 10-7 work hours with an hour lunch - I would consider this the normal schedule in the tech scene. You can certainly find 9-6 jobs, jobs with flex time and core working hours, etc. Meritocracies are rare but definitely exist - often (but not always!) when a contract stipulates that you can work whatever hours you want, it's used to have you work horrific amounts of overtime. I have worked in places where they were willing to change my contract to a meritocratic one. They exist, and the system can be excellent - work hard, go home early.

Paid Leave

Like pretty much every first-world country except the states, Japan has mandatory holidays. 10 days a year, minimum, with a bunch of public holidays. It is absolutely true that many companies in Japan make you feel bad for taking paid time off, but from what I've directly experienced this is often less about a boss giving you flak and more about not wanting to abandon your team - a sentiment I've seen echoed in other countries as well. This seems to be less common in the tech scene - competition here is so fierce that you really can't risk losing programmers to that kind of thing, and the government cracks down very hard on stopping people from taking days off. On a personal note, I have never had an issue with it.

Contracts And Rules

Contracts are really, really short. Usually a single page, and very loose.

You have a few kinds of contracts, and I'm not going to really get into it here, but basically, you either have contracts that renew and ones that are just permanent. Make sure you understand exactly what is in your contract - it's usually just boilerplate. Side note - check if they pay your taxes from your check or if you're expected to set aside money to pay them yourself. The tax issue is a bit complicated, so just ask.

Similarly, all companies are required to have rules of operation for their employees. If you are unclear on anything, ask to see the rule of operation governing it.

Working in Games

I do not recommend working in games. The entire state of working in games is a sham globally - low pay, bad conditions, churn - but I can only comment on my experience in Japan.

Working in games in Japan is probably pretty similar to working in games in America. The pay is usually lower than in other fields. You can easily expect something south of 300k JPY / 3k USD a month. Not bad if you're totally inexperienced, but the raises and the salary cap are terrible. Ironically, if you want to draw a really good salary in this field, become specialized in either infrastructure or backend systems, then enter the field - you'll easily make double. Again, just my observations.

I worked for a games company in Osaka called Aiming. I wasn't a fan of most of the management, but the people were gold. We had a game area in the company where people gamed during lunch. Fridays, we'd bring alcohol and snacks, drink, go drink somewhere else, come back and drink, etc. - there were, of course, plenty that didn't drink and it was always a great time.

I also interviewed at a few different game companies. One, let's call them Schmooby-Loft, had a particularly interesting interview process. At one point a gentleman from HR made it clear to me that I was technically entitled to take my time off when I pleased in accordance with Japanese law. He also made it very, explicitly, painfully clear that it would also almost certainly "be reflected" on my performance review and salary adjustments if I chose to take time off during busy periods.

Not that it's taking time off during busy periods should be encouraged. But they made a show of conveying that in the most intimidating way they could.

I turned down their flattering offer of "my current salary at the time but with more overtime."

Company Rigidity and Change

Japanese companies are famously bureaucratic. However, you can make a massive difference at your company if you chose the right one.

I've changed my pay, my working hours, my team, and my job tasks just by having conversations. Much like anywhere else, it depends on the people you work with and your ability to be persuasive - in this case, in a language that you may not have grown up with.

My approach is always the same - find out who to talk to, and tell them what I need. Managers are usually more than willing to accommodate you if you ask - often the problem is them not knowing what you need.

Employment Overall

I Was "Let Go" Once

I've been let go from one job. I'm gonna be honest - I technically chose to leave, but it was a dark situation to be in.

When I was working at a pretty famous (in Japan) programming company, I had a medical issue. I won't get into the specifics, but the company that I was working for initially seemed really supportive. I got medical leave, was put on government-paid benefits while we worked things out, etc.

Unfortunately, after it became clear that I wouldn't be able to return to work for a while, my company decided to let me go. That's actually not the part that upsets me - I understand their position, I was still eligible for medical assistance, etc.

The part that upsets me is that they asked to talk directly to my doctor to confirm my situation despite my showing them appropriate medical documentation including a certified letter from my doctor. After my doctor said (rightfully so) that that was insane and illegal, they reduced my pay citing work performance - while I was on medical leave. If I returned to work before my medical situation was resolved, and had to take leave again, my new medical leave benefits would have been at the reduced rate.

They then asked me to leave. I did.

I want to make it clear - there's a lot of nuance to this situation and this short description doesn't do it justice, but it does segue nicely into:

Excellent Job Security, But Not Guaranteed

In Japan, it's almost impossible to fire someone. Company restructuring, a flagrant violation of valid company policy, or gross incompetence. That's about it.

In reality, one of the following will happen - and I have seen some happen to people I know- in lieu of being fired.

1) You will be pressured into leaving. This takes the form of management putting stress on you in any way they can until you quit. If this happens, leave. Not because you're wrong - because you're in demand and there are dozens of companies lined up to hire you, so why work for shitty people that do this?

For clarity - I have had an acquaintance of mine in HR talk casually to me about how they were actively doing this to someone. It is very, very real.

2) Restructured. Not a lot to be said about this - if they downsize, which is pretty hard to do here, you can get downsized too. Not very common in tech, and you get paid unemployment anyway.

3) Assigned meaningless jobs. I've never seen this happen in tech, but I'm aware of it in other fields. Basically, boredom until you leave.

4) Contract not renewed - this one's kind of interesting. Your contract isn't renewed citing some reason. If you think it's bogus, you can fight for damages. That's about it, the rest depends on your circumstances.

Bad Bosses, Harassment, Options

In America, I think it would be safe to say that a lot - the majority, even - of the workforce has worked for a boss that they did not think was a good boss. Some have even unfortunately - in one form or another - experienced harassment. In this regard, Japan is no different.

I have worked under several kinds of bosses, in several kinds of companies. I have worked for people who are very hands-off, micromanagers, powerful leaders, and people that I believe have no business being in an office, much less leading. I have worked for bosses that inspire me to be a better person, and bosses that inspire me to stay home.

I want to talk about something more specific here, something that I've experienced once in a pretty serious degree - harassment.

Japanese law defines a lot of different kinds of harassment. Power harassment, mental harassment, sexual harassment, etc., but the take away is this - there are a lot of ways to harass someone, and the government comes down on them all very seriously. A company can get into serious trouble for inadequately investigating a single claim of harassment.

I don't know how my experience would be different if I were a native Japanese person or not a man. All I can offer is what I've learned from my own experiences.

If your boss does something you think is harassing, for example:

  • talks to you differently than they do to your peers, but in a negative way
  • assigns you impossible or disproportionate workloads
  • sets specific rules that only apply to you
  • ever is physical with you in any way that you find uncomfortable
  • undermines you in front of your peers
  • excludes you from social events

Bring it up to your CEO or HR, whichever you feel more of a connection to. You have a ton of power and resources here, and the government takes these claims extremely seriously.

In my own experiences, I have had two things that I can describe as harassment. One was a drunk boss - who I was very casual and good friends with - smack the back of my head in a disciplinary fashion in a bar. He came to his senses in a few seconds and apologized profusely. I don't think it's an accurate reflection of his character and chose to let it go.

The second one was much longer, and concerned a manager who went from not liking me to outright hostility. I did what anyone in that situation should do - I documented it extensively and talked to the CEO one-on-one. The CEO was an outstanding person, got directly involved, and did his best to reel the manager in. Unfortunately, it didn't work well, and I chose to leave the company. The CEO said that the situation was unacceptable and apologized to me personally for the situation. Again, the circumstances are way more complicated than a short paragraph can do justice.

I consider my experience with this type of harassment to be both unusual and well handled. The CEO was willing to pursue the matter further but I chose to leave because it wasn't worth it to me. There are way too many job opportunities and great companies to have to work with terrible people like that manager. Life's too short.

The Really Good Parts!

We just covered a lot of negative things - and we're going to cover more - but I want to switch it up.

I think exceptional cases make for better reading. I think that negative press gets more attention. But overall my time in the tech sector in Japan (and Japan overall) has been good. Aggressive pay raises on job change, a ton of job security, energized teams, and fun people. Like anywhere, the company culture defines how much you're going to like your job, but I've worked with people and at places that I had a blast almost every day at work.

Working in tech was the first time in my life that work just didn't feel like work. Most days, I don't even think about it - I just go to a different building and keep having fun. The only time that changed was when the workplace got unhealthy - see the above sections.

It's common to go out drinking/eating at least occasionally with your coworkers. You don't have to drink if you don't want to - many people don't. Some have one drink and are completely smashed. Some will drink you under the table. You can go for a quick bite at a host of restaurants - obviously Japanese, but Italian, French, Burgers, Thai, etc. are all available. You can, contrary to popular belief, have house parties. I've done escape rooms with my coworkers, been invited to theme parks, and been asked to come rock climbing.

A misconception that I feel compelled to address: I have never, ever been excluded because I wasn't Japanese, or invited as a "token foreigner". If you ever get that feeling, you should work with different people because those are just shitty human beings.

My coworkers have, at times, been very enthusiastic to practice their English. You will find that many programmers can read English pretty well. That being said, if you have native or fluent English, you will have a huge advantage in the field because you can read Stack Overflow and error messages with high comprehension. I'm not even kidding - Japanese Stack Overflow is hot garbage, and this will be like a superpower for you assuming you can translate that knowledge back into Japanese if someone asks you the reasoning behind your code.

The company that I'm currently freelancing for has a policy that you should leave when you're done. I have seen people come in at 10 am and leave at 3 pm, after taking an hour-something lunch. There is no stigma, no penalty - just do your job and have fun, and go home when you're done for the day.

I have never had someone criticize me, to my recollection, for taking longer than an hour at lunch. I have been out for two hours at a time, with no issue.

I regularly take 30-minute breaks to think, stretch my legs, etc., and with the exception of a particularly difficult person, have not had an issue, ever.

A serious weakness of mine is that for a large part of my tech career I was chronically tardy. Now I work for companies with no set schedule and remote work (and, ironically, get up at ~7:30 am every day) - but I have never had that be a serious issue for me. Like most things, negotiate it early and be honest. Monolithic companies tend to be less forgiving on this front, however.

Japanese Attitudes Towards People Who Are Not Japanese

Disclaimer: this is a gray area that I have pretty strong feelings about. This is definitely the most opinionated part of this article, and I totally understand if you don't agree with what I'm about to say. It certainly isn't essential reading and is really more of a rebuttal to something I see endlessly regurgitated online. If that doesn't interest you, just hop on over to the Overtime section that follows.

I often hear other non-Japanese people say "You will always just be seen as a foreigner". No matter how good your Japanese is or what you know about the culture, no one will make deep friendships with you or you will always be acknowledged as different. I find that often, but not always, this sentiment comes from people who don't have very good Japanese. I want to make something clear.

If you have non-conversational Japanese, it is very likely that could be the case. If we're talking about the government's infamous perspective that people born-and-raised in Japan aren't Japanese unless a parent was, that's absolutely correct (and tremendously shitty for those people at times). If you mean that every time you go to a store, people will assume you don't speak Japanese until proven otherwise / you'll get the English menu because they assume you need one to have a pleasant experience / people will try to practice their English on you as soon as you meet - I am in 100% agreement.

But if you mean that no matter how good you are at Japanese and what kind of people you hang out with, that you'll always be seen as "the foreigner", the issue is really more nuanced than that.

I can't speak to other people's experiences, but I live a lot of my personal and work life using Japanese. I learned in Osaka, so I speak like a person from that area, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that people have straight-up forgotten that I wasn't Japanese and I don't look even remotely Japanese. Not even a little.

I've had more than one friend be surprised when we went out and they handed me the English menu, and when I told them it's because I don't look Japanese they laughed and said they forgot.

My friend was asked by a coworker if he was going to vote in Japan's elections. When he said he couldn't, they asked why. When he said because he isn't Japanese, they said they forgot. He is SUPER white, and they at assumed he at least had voting rights.

Essentially, if you find yourself in a situation where you feel like you'll never be accepted on the same level because your skin or culture is different, that really depends on how you mean it. If you mean that people will assume you aren't from around there at first impression, then of course - we assume a lot about people from the way they look or act.

But if you mean that Japanese people you've gotten to know won't accept you for one of their own, that has not been the case in my experience.

Overtime

Oh boy, the big one.

I've seen it all over the spectrum. I work, on average, about three or four hours of overtime. Per year.

I also personally had someone that called me - in distress - because their company had them working weekends and going home on the last train, every day. This company is known for being particularly abusive during the busy times of the year, and that's certainly not a rare story.

I'm about to follow this with what I think is going to easily be the most controversial, polarizing part of this whole article.

If you work in Osaka or Tokyo, in tech, and you regularly have overtime that makes you unhappy, that is most likely your fault. Hear me out.

Every contract that I've seen in Japan includes a certain amount of "prepaid overtime." This means that every month, for the first x hours of overtime, you don't make anything extra. There are exceptions - significant weekend work, work past 10 pm, etc. either gets paid extra or a day off in lieu. From what I'm aware, even this is a step up from some countries - like the states - where you don't make anything extra at all if you're a salaried worker above a certain pay bracket.

However, if your employer is using this clause to regularly have you work overtime, leave. Japan has an extremely well-developed public transport system, remote opportunities, and a shortage of tech jobs that can land you five interviews per day. I'm not exaggerating - per day. There is no fear of visa renewal for tech companies - it involves them printing off a few pieces of paper about company information, stamping something, and then waiting a few weeks. Many are even willing to sponsor outright. You'll find that there are plenty of companies that will strongly encourage you to leave either on time or early.

I have found that the best way to deal with it is to be really, really upfront. Ask your interviewer what their day is like - what time do they usually come in, what time do they usually leave. If their answer isn't something along the lines of an enthusiastic "I love to leave on time to pursue my hobby of crab-shell collecting", make it very clear that you leave on time as a matter of principle. Actually, make it clear that you leave on time regardless. If that was a dealbreaker, no problem. Go to your other four interviews for that day with places that look cool to work for.

It's a problem in the country - one that's gotten much better in recent years, but a problem just like anywhere else. The difference is, in tech you can leverage enormous demand for your skills to make sure it isn't your problem.

Interviews and Perception of Programmers

Attitudes Towards Programmers

When I tell people that I'm a system engineer ("SE" as it's called here), I usually get the same sort of reaction I imagine programmers get elsewhere. People who have been in the game might talk shop a bit, people who don't get what you do will treat it with reactions ranging from "you must be smart" to a glazed look and a polite nod.

From a corporate perspective, attitudes towards programmers tend to take one of two perspectives. Either programming is like a blue-collar job where you throw people into the code factory for their 10-hour shift, or programmers are a very expensive type of wizard that needs to be enticed with money and benefits to work their magic. Games and sales seemed to think the first, engineering firms and tech-driven products the second.

Interviews, Competition, Company Size

Disclosure - I absolutely love interviews. Even when I don't know the answer to a question, I get to learn a ton about something I've never experienced. Plus, if you do know the answer, you're actually getting paid to be a show-off (assuming you get the job), so revel in one of the few times in your life where that will be socially acceptable.

You will often hear that "You need to work in one place your whole life in Japan." That system has been falling out of use for 30 years but I see it everywhere. Workers have been made replaceable, seen by an increase in contract work. The shift was so intense that it forced the government to make an initiative that if you renew someone's contract for five years, you need to make them a permanent employee. Yes, there are still many companies you can work for life. You can also change jobs once a year and be fine.

There is very, very little competition because the lack of skilled talent is absolutely enormous. If you're just starting out, you'll have an advantage if you have robust projects and fluent English, but if you have actual good domain knowledge in your area? No shortage of jobs. You can absolutely get a job here starting at 400k (~4k USD) a month if you really put the work in and speak Japanese. If you already have experience and have the chops to demonstrate that, you can pull down significantly more.

I don't have any kind of interview prep advice because I'm sure the way you prep will matter more on your personality than anything else, but when you're in the interview, there are a few things you absolutely should do.

Be honest. Don't mind overtime? Say that. Hate it? Say that too. Salary important for you? Negotiate. People say Japanese people don't negotiate. I can tell you with absolute confidence from being on the hiring side and working with the decision-makers, as well as being the interviewee - when HR gives you an offer, that is not their best offer.

I have negotiated higher salaries, starting bonuses, more vacation days, and different working hours. You can do this - just do it in your style. Don't be afraid to ask over email, compare offers, etc.

Avoid big titan companies (Rakuten, Line) unless salary and reputation beat everything for you because you don't get to negotiate things like flexible job hours and perks. Medium corporations offer a nice balance of salary and perks, startups are often all perks and you have a good chance to negotiate extra things.

In general, if you want something or won't do something, bring that up. For example, I make it very clear in all my interviews that I am a backend specialist, and I don't know frontend - I have basic familiarity with it, I can reason my way around the concepts, but if you asked me to write a webpage the company would grind to a halt.

Most companies do either basic code reviews (fizzbuzz) or some online code test. The online code tests are usually like "Array in an array, print as a grid" type of thing. True story - I was doing a timed code test, screwed up a comma in the output, and didn't have time to fix it before submitting. I submitted it and sent a follow-up email explaining the quick change I would make to have it pass.

At an interview later that week one person said they saw it and had no issue, the other said they didn't even check the test results because they already decided to hire me.

I had a really cool interview that was a general whiteboard interview where they asked me to build an architecture for an API. The API was to count fan votes that were cast for their favorite member of a music group during a live broadcast of said group. The catch was that you could only cast a vote if you had a unique code from a cd that you had purchased. That was a blast.

The hardest code review I ever got was at an English-speaking company, I loved it but I didn't know a good amount of the front-end questions.

Line (Chat app and game company) wanted me to take a test to even be able to email their recruiter.

My experiences with Rakuten have been weird - they invited me to a hiring party for mobile app developers, so I went because free food. It was really cool, but I had two years of experience and none of it in mobile apps. They wanted three years of app development experience. Weird situation.

Lastly, on the time it takes for closing an offer. I find that the typical turn-around from the first message to offer is about two weeks. Some places are a bit longer, some are a single interview, but that's usually the case. You can expect a casual first interview, at least one follow-up, and then a final offer. It is not uncommon at all to meet the CEO for the final interview - it's often merely a formality, but they frequently sign off on every hire.

Working with Recruiters

I have had the pleasure of working with a handful of good recruiters - just all-around excellent people. I became friends with two of them - one Japanese and one Swedish. I have also had recruiters message me on LinkedIn that actually read my profile/website.

That being said - much as in America, the vast majority of recruiters are hot trash at their job. Ghosting, mass spam messages, unsolicited friend requests to avoid paying LinkedIn mail fees. It's no better on Japanese platforms, either - mountains of spam that was so bad that I had a template letter (much as I do on LinkedIn) which says "Read my profile, I have x terms". This is often met with silence (LinkedIn) or an apology and an offer to keep in contact if those terms can be met (Japanese platforms).

I have also worked with excellent job sites that I used to find jobs that met my terms. They do exist - just make sure that the site isn't recruiter oriented. Smaller sites tend to be better, especially ones that follow the format of "Employer posts a job, you can click to show interest."

For people seriously looking for jobs in Japan -
Bizreach is full of spam. Avoid.
Wantedly is usually for companies that have a ton of passion and criminally low salaries that take advantage of new grads. I directly saw this happen. You can find good things there, just be careful.
Gaijinpot programmer jobs seem to have horrible conditions, but I imagine that's because they cater to an audience that might not be expected to have a lot of Japanese skill.

Freelancing

Freelancing is actually surprisingly straightforward. I don't know if you can start as a freelancer without an already existing visa, but you just go to a freelancing company (you 100% need Japanese for this) and tell them you want to freelance. They do the rest of the work helping you find companies and arranging interviews.

Finding work as a freelancer is really fast, too. Most companies wanted me to start working as soon as I could.

The primary advantage that I found in freelancing is you can work non-5-day weeks really easily and because you don't get paid days off and discounts on insurance you can get a higher salary relatively easily. Lots of freelance jobs have remote work as well.

I work three to four days a week right now, and I love it. I worked a week in the Philippines and have long weekends every weekend.

Jobs That You Can Do Without Japanese

Easing back into meatier topics, there are a few kinds of jobs that you can do without speaking Japanese in Japan, and it comes down to one basic thing - companies that have strong international ties.

This typically means a few choices. If you want a huge salary you should work at a bank, a Japanese branch of a global company, or any similar company owned by foreign interests. If you're interested in passion over money, there are English-only startups that sponsor visas- they are few and far between, but they definitely exist. If you want something in the middle, Fintech is a good middle balance - decent salary, good passion.

All of the above require you to be good at what you do - if you don't have sufficient experience, it's very unlikely that you'd be hired over an inexperienced-but-English-proficient local.

Money, Visa, Location

Salary and Cost Of Living

I want to get a frame of reference before we start talking about salary - and we will, in very concrete detail, with numbers. There is an opinion that in general, Japan pays programmers poorly and Tokyo is crazy-expensive.

We need to tackle these things one-by-one, and I'm going to start with the "Tokyo is crazy-expensive" one first.

You can live in a great apartment for very cheap (well less than 100k yen/$1k per month) if you're willing to commute an hour or more on trains. I mean like shiny, attractive apartments with a ton of space. Houses with parking spaces. You can also pay easily more than that for a single room about 10 minutes from Shibuya (a main hub of Tokyo).

Japanese apartments are undeniably smaller than their western counterparts. Tokyo is no exception, and neither was Osaka. That being said, in Osaka I lived in a one-bedroom, living room, dining-kitchen for 60k (~$600)/month. In the greater Tokyo area, I've lived an hour from work in a two-bedroom, dining-kitchen with living room for about 90k (~$900) and a one-bedroom dining-kitchen with a living room in a more expensive, nicer area of Tokyo for 120k (~$1,200).

Right now, I live in an apartment that built the month before I moved in. It's 30 minutes from Shibuya (4-minute walk to my station). 10 minutes to a different close-by main station. One bedroom, separate sunlit study, combo living-dining room, and a bar-kitchen that runs 155k (~$1,550)/month. From what I've gathered that is insanely cheap compared to NYC or the Bay Area. That being said, those are still big numbers depending on your own fiscal status.

I move next month (working remote means I can live farther now for cheaper) to a slightly bigger place with the same layout and parking for about half the cost.

As far as where to live - Osaka for the people and culture, Tokyo for the pay and job opportunities. I was very happy in Osaka, but I hit a pay ceiling after my first job. Tokyo has a massive amount of work and good pay to boot.

Now, salary and how Japan pays programmers.

I'm going to list all of my jobs and the salary that I made. This doesn't include personal jobs, my side business, etc.

Starting - Games. Osaka. 280k(~$2.8k)/mo. In Osaka as a single male, this was enough to have an okay standard of living.
Next year - Outsourcing Shop. Yokohama (near Tokyo) - 400k (~$4k)/mo. This was pretty comfortable, but not great.
Next year - Engineer at a sales and recruiting place. Tokyo. 708k (~$7k)/mo, with 300k (~$3k) signing bonus to cover moving costs. A comfortable lifestyle.
Now - Freelancer. My current rate depends on the job, but I charge about 750k (~$7.5k)/mo, some jobs could cost more, rarely less. Comfortable lifestyle. Note that this is technically less because of the way that taxed and health insurance work here.

At each job, I went home and studied/built things that I wasn't doing at work. As soon as I had studied the essentials of whatever tech we were using at the office, I would chase some side project or build something for money. As a result, my salary may be higher than "normal" because of my deeper skillset.

At each step, I negotiated. From job one. If you don't mind working in more traditional "10-7 C++ or C#" types of jobs, there are plenty that break 10m ($100k)/yr.

I found that job offers start to thin around 8m ($80k) a year. This where you'll have fewer interviews because fewer companies can afford you - this is a sign you're rising above the market average.

There is this commonly touted number online that engineers make 100K+ right out of graduating. What is less touted is the number of those that still need a roommate to live close to work.

Seattle, NY, Bay-area, you can expect to make a lot of money, and pay a lot in rent. Tokyo is definitely not a cheap place to live, but the only real difference is apartment size. By the square foot, Tokyo is very expensive. Apartments tend to be smaller, but I can live without roommates comfortably. I have tons of space and live in a relatively expensive area of Tokyo - other similar places would have set me back much less but be further out. There is no Tokyo hustle-and-bustle in my area - no train sounds, no traffic noise. Aside from me, my area is super quiet.

Apartments

Ugh. I have had such a mixed bag with this. Hunting for them has been JAM PACKED with racism at times, and incredible easy at others. Finding a job is fairly trivial, finding a place to live was insane.

I am in no way exaggerating when I say that some of the moving experiences I had in Tokyo and Sendai were the most discriminated against I have ever been in my life. When house hunting once, out of the exactly 30 apartments that I wanted to see in Tokyo, only 3 would even let me look. The rest straight-up said non-Japanese not welcome. Japanese skill, salary, relationship status - none of it mattered. The apartment I got I liked, though.

Outside of that specific time, every other time I've done this in either Tokyo or Osaka it was really easy and super cool. The real estate agents were helpful (if your real estate agent isn't aggressively finding places for you and calling them, go across the street to another one). Every apartment was super cool about having me move in except for one oddball that wanted me to be double-insured because I wasn't Japanese. I laughed and said no. In general, they pretty much asked: "Does he speak Japanese?" They didn't ask about my salary or anything. I think a few asked how long I'd been/be in Japan, and if I had some kind of job already, but that was it. My Osaka one wanted to know how long my visa was good for - and threw in an air conditioner for free because they thought I was a fun person.

Unfortunately, my next move to the countryside involved all of my candidate homes allowing me to come look, but a Japanese person would have to be my guarantor or I couldn't move in (be double insured). They made it very clear that it was because I was not Japanese. I've heard that it's very possible that the reason is because it's the countryside where there are less non-Japanese, and I'm inclined to believe that reason.

Conclusion

Just like every other country, it's a totally mixed bag. You'll have companies that you dislike strongly, you'll have companies that you love.

You'll have people that frustrate you endlessly, and people that will leave positive lasting impressions on you for the rest of your life.

You'll feel underpaid, you'll feel overpaid. You have expensive apartments in the heart of the city, and cheap ones on the edge.

You'll make well more than the average earner in Tokyo, and have a comfortable life if you can speak Japanese or have intense skill.

Life here is really good - for me. Your experience might be different, but from what I've seen it's really the same here as it is everywhere else.

It's what you make of it.


If you have questions or comments about living in Japan, please leave a comment and I'll do my best to get back to you.

Posted on by:

rob117 profile

Rob Sherling

@rob117

I work in Japan and am fluent in Japanese. Get in touch if you want to chat / work together!

Discussion

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Wow, that's an awesome article! I loved reading it a lot 👍

Personally, one of my big goals is to have worked in different countries around the world for at least a year or two. One of them definitely is Japan, and I am working on my Japanese skills (though they are more around N5 haha). Reading about having the skills and the language being enough to land a regular job encouraged me a lot to further pursue my language studies, thank you!

I have a few pending questions, though:

  • Why do you work in Japan instead of anywhere else? What's your story? Did you grow up in Japan, or just moved there and stayed?
  • What's your tip or trick to learn Japanese (and Kanji...) self-tought, outside of Japan, alone in a fun and inspiring way, in order to get to at least N3?
  • What's your favorite food 😁
 

"Personally, one of my big goals is to have worked in different countries around the world for at least a year or two."

Absolutely 100% do it. If you have the chance and the means, it can be a fantastic experience. If it doesn't work out for you, you can always just leave. As long as you don't need to give something up (sell a house, for example), it's a surprisingly low-risk decision.

I'm really pleased that I could inspire even one person to chase their dream. It's entirely possible.

For the questions:

"Why do you work in Japan instead of anywhere else? What's your story? Did you grow up in Japan, or just moved there and stayed?"

I went to Japan for some pretty complicated, unusual reasons, but the short version is that I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life. One day my Japanese teacher at university (more on that in a second) told me that "my accent wasn't very good and if I didn't go to Japan no one would understand me." I took that as inspiration to get out of my hometown and go do something new. I studied abroad for a year and learned a little in school and a lot in bars.

The full story absolutely deserves its own blog post, but I don't know if it's something that is dev.to appropriate because it has nothing to do with development, really. Thanks for asking though, I'd love to write about it someday and if I do I'll drop a link here.

After that year of study abroad I went home, finished my degree, and came back.

"What's your tip or trick to learn Japanese (and Kanji...) self-taught, outside of Japan, alone in a fun and inspiring way, in order to get to at least N3?"

I sucked BIG in school. I took Japanese for three years -one of them in Japan!- and only knew a few hundred kanji, got a D in my last kanji class, and spoke like a woman because I learned too much from my girlfriend from studying abroad. Here is EXACTLY what you want to do -

First rule: If it isn't fun, you're wasting your time. Consistency beats effort, and consistency needs fun. TV? Good. Textbooks? If you enjoy them. 17th-century Japanese plays about the joy of rice? If it means consistency, live that dream.
Second rule: AJATT. Google that, read some of his classics. Essentially - do as much in Japanese as you can, and that anything done in Japanese counts as study, so go wild. Movies, Games, anything, as long as you keep learning when you use it. You want to hoard media like a dragon hoards gold, and you want to be selective about what you keep. My rule of thumb was that all new media had between 2-5 minutes to impress me, or it went in the trash.
Third rule: Do Heisig's Remembering the Kanji. Get the latest edition. Do not get volume two, or rathe, only read the first and second sections (Radicals that always have one reading, followed by radicals that have two readings). The rest is not an efficient use of your time. Volume three is good for party tricks and remembering some name Kanji easier, so only do it when you both have time and need to satisfy a kanji craving. Doing Heisig should feel like meditation - I put on music, sound of rain, got a notebook, and studied. I did something like 50 kanji a day that way and finished in 6 weeks. It's really, really enjoyable. After that, either do the first parts of volume two like I recommended or just go read what you want (I strongly recommend manga that actually interests you because it's easier to digest).
Fourth rule: If it was worth learning, it was worth reviewing. Make a flashcard right then whenever you learn a new word. It takes about a minute, and then you have the word forever.
Fifth rule: Use Anki flashcards. I've been working on a managed, much faster, much better solution for Anki for a while now. Anki is free, and it's great, but you get what you pay for - it takes a lot of time and has a steep learning curve. I'm building an app - hoping to launch this year, and the prototype for the app took my flashcard making time from 2 minutes for an unknown kanji with sentence and translation to 14 seconds.
Last rule: Anki core 6k. Be resourceful and track that deck down - it should still exist out there in the corners of the internet. Incredible find. Do this while / after doing Heisig. I promise you that if you finish this deck, the first parts of volume two, and heisig that you will CRUSH the N3 and be ready to get the N2 grammar book and then crush that two. Do 50 kanji a day (work up to it, do what you're comfortable with, and never push yourself too hard because some guy on the internet said so with no proof), then do 30 words a day (same), and in about 200 days I would bet a goofy amount of money that the N3 would be childish for you.

Really lastly: Skype Japanese people you can meet online for language exchange sites to practice speaking. It's a good time. Be brave, talk fun - in short, try your best not to ask about the weather and boring things like that. Ask the things you want to know.

Wow, sorry for the long paragraph. I really tried to condense a ton of info and years of experience there - I could write a blog post easily the size of this one on how to do it and make it fun. I loved it.

Favorite food:
This one is a struggle. I'm gonna saaaaay.. Okonomiyaki. Really easy to make, even outside Japan. The trick is to chop the cabbage thin - almost (or even) shredded. Then get Okonomiyaki powder or make some from scratch. Make sure to cook the whole way through, and if you don't have the sauce for it don't even start because it makes the dish. Shrimp (mild allergy, but worth it), beef, pork-strip mix with sauce and mayo.

Thanks for reading that whole huge response, hope I answered everything. If not, let me know.

 

wow, thank you for writing so much! I'd love to read your article, if you ever create one. The condensed info here was more helpful than reading lots of the forum discussions I found.

I should have Heisig at home (learned the Kana from his book easily and got the first two Kanji volumes), but switched over to WaniKani, because I love how it makes reviews easy (in the beginning). Though I hate how I tend to forget Kanji and vocab which don't come up anymore... and how it piles up stuff to review up to hundreds of items a day. Probably one of the reasons why I started to do it irregularly and forgetting everything along the way.

I never really gave Anki full credit, because it became tedious to fill and everyone seems to have a favorite deck of varying quality. I will take a look at Anki Core 6K, though, and see how I can tweak Anki to my needs.

Also, AJATT. What are you doing to me? This site is like a (good) virus invading my brain, thank you 😂

Oh, and ping me for the app. You seem to create what you need and know what you do, so I want to give it a go.

I have no idea where I would post that kind of article - I feel like Dev.to probably wouldn't want random non-programming articles on it. Maybe Medium?

The only three anki decks that I think are any good -
core 2k (not necessary if you have 6k as it's included) for just doing the basics and then leaving it at normal conversation level
core 6k for advanced conversation
Heisig RTK because it's GOLD and takes out the card creation process.

AJATT is so, so feel-good. And you need that, sometimes. The motivation that it brings will carry you through the parts of your study where you don't feel like you're progressing.

Will ping for the app when it's done - I'm trying to do the front end part, and I am way, way worse at it than I am with the back end, so I'm kind of dragging my feet. :(

 

First off, I have to say this is very insightful. I'm beginning to think my experience was a bit out of the norm, since it was very different.

I worked for a terrible company as a web dev in Osaka. I am a non-Japanese person with decent Japanese (around JLPT N3, but took the N2 and failed mostly because my kanji wasn't up to snuff) and worked for a company that did not require Japanese ability, though it certainly helped. I experienced shitty management, petty rules that didn't make much sense, very low pay, and a lot of responsibility (but at least there wasn't much overtime). Mind you it was my first dev job, but even after about a year working there, when I started to ask for things (like flex time, pay raise) I was turned down. So I thought I could go elsewhere, and started looking for another job. Let me tell you it was very difficult to even get an interview in the Osaka area as a foreign dev with 1 yr experience and no N2 certification. I used multiple recruiters and job boards, but after months of looking I sort of gave up and started to focus on the Tokyo area. Now I still lived in Osaka at the time, which may have contributed to the lack of interest from employers, but there were certainly tons more opportunities there. I still didn't manage to find anything worthwhile.

In the end I decided to move back to my home country, and I found a job with the most amazing work culture and started having fun at work again. Within 2 years of leaving Japan I had moved on to another company in my home country doing remote work as a web dev, and there I earn more than double what I did in Japan, I can work on my own schedule, have a great work life balance, and the people are great.

I still hold strong feelings against ever going back to Japan to try and find another dev job, but judging from your article it seems like this is not the norm and people can have a great work experience there. I would only caution others to be careful about the companies you choose to work for there (also having N2 opens so many opportunities for you).

 

Your experience is absolutely normal. I would say that if your Japanese is around N2, you're at the gold standard - you can communicate reasonably well in a variety of situations and are very employable from a language standpoint. Below that, and you'll really struggle to find work unless you have enough programming skills to make up for it.

Recruiters - well, I imagine your opinion of recruiters is similar to mine. Even if they have nothing, at all, that is a fit for you they'll continue to suggest jobs because it's their job to do so. That must have been a very disheartening process.

"Within 2 years of leaving Japan I had moved on to another company in my home country doing remote work as a web dev, and there I earn more than double what I did in Japan, I can work on my own schedule, have a great work life balance, and the people are great."

That is fantastic and I'm glad to hear it! I think that's a pretty healthy benchmark - your salary should be nearly double in ~three years from your start if you started off on the low end. That's about how mine played out, too.

"I would only caution others to be careful about the companies you choose to work for there (also having N2 opens so many opportunities for you)."

1000% this. Be very, very, very choosey about who you work with, or you're going to have a terrible time. And of course, N2 level skills make everything much easier (note - none of my employers cared AT ALL about actually having the N2, it's the language skills that come at that level that make you attractive).

 

In hindsight I probably should have focused more on improving my Japanese while I was there. Still had an amazing time teaching English before becoming a dev though, so it wasn't all bad.

I'm glad you got to enjoy that! I wish teaching English were more of a career so the people who like it could keep doing it.

 

Thanks a lot for sharing your experience with us, really appreciated.

Although I don’t have that level of Japanese, I’m currently working in Kyoto at a startup as Fullstack developer. I can relate to many things you’ve mentioned.

 

Thank you for reading!

Congratulations! Kyoto is a beautiful place to work with a thriving startup scene (especially, apparently, in games). If you ever need someone to talk to, just shoot me a message.

 

You're right, it's mostly startups only atm. Absolutely, it would be great to get in touch!
I see you studied abroad for a year, which university/school is it?

Kansai Gaidai in Hirakata. Loved it, and I've been to Kyoto a bunch - especially for indie game studio meets. :)

What a coincidence, I exchanged there for a semester too. Still meeting up with friends from there.

I can’t DM you because you’re not following me, but I would like to ask you about salaries and how to negotiate it here.

I should be following you now, but I linked a negotiation article that gives a really good foundation. Search for "negotiate", you should find it useful

 

Great post! I've been looking into moving to Japan for awhile and this answered a lot of questions I've had.

Might not be something you can answer but do you have any idea what the electronics or embedded industry is like in Japan? Or resources I could checkout to try and figure that out? I'm curious to what's in demand over there/what people use. I know traditionally a lot of Japanese companies will try and stick to parts from other Japanese companies but I'm curious how much of that holds up now.

 

Before I answer, just a clarification.

"I know traditionally a lot of Japanese companies will try and stick to parts from other Japanese companies but I'm curious how much of that holds up now."

Do you mean that you intend to import these things?

 

Not exactly. I'm trying to learn about product lines/toolchains/development tools etc that are particularly popular or in demand. The idea being that I can try using those things in projects to get familiar with them and of course put on a resume. Most electronics distributors carry parts from Japanese companies so buying them isn't really an issue.

As an example parts from Microchip, ST, and Texas Instruments are popular with people here in the USA but if you open up products from Japan you're more likely to find parts from Renesas, Toshiba, and Rohm. Some things are more universal like the use of ARM cores in microcontrollers/microprocessors but the development tools can vary quite a lot between manufacturers.

Likewise in the USA a lot of companies use Cadence OrCad/Allegro or Altium Designer for PCB design but I have no idea if those are equally popular in Japan.

Huh. I have absolutely no idea where to even start looking into that kind of thing, other than searching for relevant terms for your search in Japanese. I don't know anything about that field, unfortunately.

 

This is gold, man. Pure gold. Thanks for writing this. Curious: Ever consider getting a developer job back in the states? I gather that you haven't done software development in the states, but what do you think are the pros/cons of being a non-native (but relatively fluent) developer in Japan versus in your home country?

 

Thank you, that praise is really validating! :)

So. This could be an entire follow-up article of its own, but in short:

I'm considering moving back to the states in a few years. Not because I think I'd be happier programming there (I really don't mind either way), but because I think the things I can do there better fit my agenda. I would only go back if I had total, comprehensive health care though.

From what it looks like - being a software developer in America seems to be harder. Not because of higher skill requirements, but because the job ads are written by CRAZY PEOPLE.

Entry level positions that want a bachelors in CS and experience. "Junior" dev positions that have 4 years experience required. "Senior" positions that need 10+ years in a language that I read about once in my youth. I feel like I had an easier time getting an interview with Google than I would at some of these companies.

Japanese job ads tend to ask for what they actually need (they still overask sometimes, of course), look at your experience and projects, ask relevant questions, and then go forward based on mutual trust. They have this in America as well, but it's not as prevalent. Having a BS in CompSci isn't necessary for pretty much anything here.

However, America seems to also have more applicants for each job, so from what I gather the degree requirement is to make things easier on HR.

The other big plus is that fluent English/ fluent Japanese hybrids with good programming are SUPER rare, so it's a huge plus.

 

Hi! Nice article, i just want to ask, where can I get that "medium" or "startup" company information in Japan? Thanks!

 

Do you mean for companies that expect Japanese language skill, or for people who are technically proficient but don't have Japanese experience?

 

I meant for people who are technically proficient haha, I've got my JLPT N4 last year, I like Japan so much cause of their environment, so maybe I'll give it a try to work in Japan

I would suggest Googling jobs in Japan (in English, of course). That's definitely going to be the fastest way to find those kinds of jobs, because I don't know of any site that caters mainly to that audience. I just see them come up when I job hunt.

 

Great stuff, spot on with most stuff from my experience except for being a freelancer meaning less salary. The amount of stuff you can bring in as tax deductibles is just crazy.

Can you recommend any of those companies that hook you up with freelancing gigs?

 

Follow me and send a DM so we can talk about it.

 

Awesome. I have a Japanese degree and just got some experience as a Front-end Dev. Always wondered if I could work in Japan

 

If your Japanese is good and your skills are relevant, you could certainly find work here.

 

What about if my Japanese is rusty (but used to be great), and my skills are relevant to Front-end? (JS, React, Vue, Node)

So, this is a bit of a tricky situation. I don't think it's the end-all be-all, but using the JLPT is a fairly okay way to gauge what your skill might be in the absence of any other data.

When you say "rusty but it used to be great", approximately what level relative to the JLPT are you talking about?

like back in the day I could have passed level 2, but now I'd need to hit the books pretty hard to work back up to that

Right. I would say that if you get to N2 level, you'll be okay. Lower than that, and your JS skills have to be really, really good. If you have an impressive project, you'll do well. Otherwise, definitely hit the books.

 

Any idea what the jobs are like on the security landscape? I want to be a penetration tester, one year left of school and interning as a security test engineer (lots of py programming for the most part) right now, and would love to move to Japan. I've been studying Japanese for 6 months now and have progressed pretty well. Started out with Matt vs Japan's lazy kanji deck to go along with rtk (at about 1175 kanji now in Anki deck), been using the Tango books (anki deck sentence cards 15 new words per day) to introduce new vocab, and I am reading(manga for now) roughly 2 hours per day, watching tv/anime 2 hours per day (with J subs),playing JRPGs, etc. in order to improve my Japanese. I think that sticking with this and gaining a few years of experience in the US would help my case when looking for a job in Japan, but that begs the question, what is the job market for security professionals like? In the US, it is huge right now. I'd assume Japan would be the same but I can't say for certain. When people talk about tech in Japan, they seem to rarely speak about security/networking/sys ad positions.

 

I have absolutely no idea what it's like for security because I have never worked in that field. Googling it in Japanese might give you some ideas though. :)

 

Really great article, I think I really needed to read this to give myself some more perspective!

I'm on my last year of university (comp sci., game programming focus) so I'm hoping to find a job in Japan once I graduate.

Hoping to get N2 this December... not sure if it's truly that important but looking at all bigger game companies, without N2 they won't even look at your application. I have 1.5 years in AAA already though so I'm not sure if that'll affect anything.

From whatever you've heard, how is it from indie game dev in Japan vs. AAA game dev? I'm more on the tools / backend side if that changes anything rather than being right in the middle of gameplay (which is a lot rougher from what I hear, and what you mentioned in your article).

And how important is getting N2, really? What's a more efficient way to study with the goal of communicating effectively in a Japanese workplace (focus in tech of course)?

Thanks again for this! You've helped motivate me to keep going and to sign up here just to leave this comment and give you a follow :P

 

I'm sorry for the slow turn around - I'm in the middle of launching a startup and moving!

I'm surprised to see that you need the N2 to even apply, but that might be because of the more stringent process involved with the expense of bringing in someone from overseas - I imagine that getting the N2 shows some level of ability as well as a probable dedication to sticking around Japan for a while.

Having experience in AAA is really, really useful for working at AAA places, but it depends on what you did there I imagine. If that experience translates into what you want to do at the new company, you're probably going to have a good time!

I'm certainly not ANY kind of authority on the state of gaming in Japan and indie vs. AAA, so please take this with a certain air of "My opinion based on my single experience at a mid-sized company about 4 years ago"-esque confidence.

Backend guys typically make more money and are harder to replace. They have the same hours as everyone else, and if a hotfix needs to come out it's almost certain that you won't be going home until it's done. After all, if a UI bug happens you can push out a patch next week. If payments goes down, every minute is a crisis.

Don't worry about getting N2 just to get N2 - get the skills that make N2 easy, and then get it so you have paper to show employers / a level of benchmarked progress for yourself. The most efficient way to study - learn a MOUNTAIN of vocabulary. Please forgive me for not linking, but if you look through the answers I left here, one is an essay of text with more-than-average likes. That should have the strategy you need. I did what I said there and went from N4 to ezpz N2 in about a year.

As for the focus in tech - I went into my first tech job with no idea what they were saying. I recommend just asking when you don't get a word. If you're a fun person and your coworkers are cool people, they'll find it endearing that you're trying to learn to be more fluent. Ask them "What is static page in Japanese?" or "Why is the slang for server down (like a fish)?"

Then write that down and remember it. Emphasis on remember. (I'm working on an app for that. I WISH IT WERE LAUNCHED SO I COULD PLUG IT HERE, haha).

Anyway, good luck and don't hesitate to email / comment here if you need anything else.

 

Thanks for the reply!! No worries :)

I think all the N2 requirements were for larger game companies, so I guess that may be different for smaller companies which may be more lenient in terms of your exact language skills? Not sure.

Vocabulary is definitely most important thing I agree! So much to learn :D
Do you have any tips for practicing listening for N2 level and such? I seem to be lacking a bit there.

Thanks for all these tips! I'll keep them all in mind as I keep working on N2 and finding a job. I'll also look out for that app when its launched :P

 

I've really loved this. You just broke a lot of things that I've took for granted over the Japanese work culture and even hyped me a little with the idea of trying what you've done. The main issue is that Japanese is not an easy language, though haha

 

You're right that it's a tough language! Language difficulty is 100% relative to your native language (learning Korean is easier for Japanese people that learning Chinese, learning German is easier than Japanese for English speakers, etc.), and Japanese doesn't seem to resemble many other languages.

My advice? Learn kanji FIRST if you're interested. I wrote another commend above about how to do it.

Thank you so much for your appreciation. I'm really glad that you enjoyed it.

 

This was certainly worth the 30-ish minute read. Thank you for sharing your experiences! I especially liked the part where you tackled overtime and the "obligatory" nomikai (drinking parties) -- these are the biggest reasons why I always pass up on trying my luck in Japan. I'm currently a full-stack dev with N3 certification (although I'm already rusty haha). Reading about your adventures inspired me to seriously study Japanese again, and of course enhance my programming skills. :) Thank you!

 

I'm really happy that you found the read worth it, and it's always a good feeling to know you've inspired someone!

If you ever need help with your study, please let me know.

 

If you have the perseverance, one can get a really nice engineering position at Microsoft, Indeed or Google with really nice pay packages, no Japanese necessary at all, and free food (Google). Didn’t Google just open up a new campus in Shibuya? I think there are more and more American style tech companies in Tokyo.

 

I had a phone interview with Google, actually! Unfortunately they don't do 3/week employment and I'm working on my own project so it didn't progress after that. They seem super cool!

It makes sense that you wouldn't need Japanese for that. They wanted to have me be a cloud support top-level tech or something - basically, I would deal with Japanese customers and help fix their problems as the end-of-the-line last-resort measure. They said that was difficult to hire for because of the Japanese/English needs.

I imagine that the non-Japanese positions require even more skill, probably more than I have! :)

 

Your career is cool and inspired. I wish to have more advice from you. I am a fresh graduate Vietnamese student with a bachelor's degree in EE engineering with lousy programming skills, and I still live in Vietnam. My English is normal which is around 7-7.5 IELTS, and have no Japanese skill, but my twin brother has N2 so I don't really afraid about learning Japanese. I have a few experience in AI and currently building a chatbot for a company. Can you suggest to me which skill I should improve first, because it is hard to do both of them at the same time, and also to what stage those skills should reach before applying for a IT job in Japan ?. For your information, most of the offers for fresh graduate Vietnamese programmer is around 200k to 250k.

 

I think there was a problem with Dev.to's notification system. I kept seeing notifications for my articles, but couldn't actually read their contents. I am sorry for the delay in responding.

I'm not sure if this helps you anymore because so much time has passed, but:

Do the skill that is the most satisfying for you. If it doesn't matter then focus on programming first. Get a year or two of good, challenging, quality experience under your belt and then go for Japanese. I absolutely think you can focus on both, but it takes a lot of dedication and a good system.

Getting programming first will give you skills to live on while you learn Japanese.

"What stage those skills should reach?"
N2 for Japanese, no idea for programming.

I've seen plenty of Vietnamese programmers working here, so it's totally possible.

200-250k in what currency?

 

Thank you for your reply. Currently, I am trying to improve both Japanese and programming but the progress in Japanese is quite slow. And 200-250k is in Japanese Yen

That's very low compared to Japan, but the cost of living is also much higher here, I imagine.

 

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this! I'm currently planning to start searching for tech jobs in Japan roughly a year from now, and this elucidated a lot for me. There are a few things I'm curious about, however, and hoping you might have insight on them!

  1. Like a few others here in this comment section, I am also registered to take the N2 this December. I'm confident with kanji, somewhat confident in vocabulary, but very behind in grammar. I just got back from a two week trip to Japan, and found that while I could read most signs, and idle conversation was doable, conversation was awkward at times and I made a few dumb mistakes (e.g., not knowing 話しかける so working my way around by saying 話すことを始める). I know this is part of the language learning process, but should I be concerned? On the path to speaking better with practice, are people in the workforce (assuming that yes, I generally know my way around with keigo) more likely to be understanding, or irritated to no end?

  2. In the game development world, typically my experience in the US is that conflict of interest is a really big deal, so I write my own games in my spare time, but work in tech fields other than game development. Is this a pattern I should continue in Japan? Or, are conflicts of interest really not a big deal, and I can freely apply for game development companies while also working on my own games?

  3. Being a foreigner seeking a tech job surely poses struggles on its own. I'm curious, did you know any women from other countries seeking jobs in tech in Japan? I don't have a lot of hope in that department.

  4. You mention a lot of places to more or less avoid - Bizreach, Wantedly, Gaijinpot. What are places that are worth looking for jobs in? I'm not afraid of using Japanese sites but once that I found from a google search seemed to have zero information about things like whether they would be willing to sponsor a visa. Assuming they would even reply to me, this doesn't give me the impression they would be very patient with me stumbling around when speaking the language, either.

  5. Also, in particular, I'm interested in working in cities outside of Tokyo, such as Osaka or Fukuoka. Is that going to be exceedingly difficult, especially in the hunt for my first job?

I instantly created an account just to ask this and follow you, once again, thank you so much for this post, and thank you for reading this!

 

I think there was a problem with Dev.to's notification system. I kept seeing notifications for my articles, but couldn't actually read their contents for months. I am sorry for the delay in responding.

I'm not sure if this will help you because it's coming months after you asked for it, but here we go:

1) How did you do?! I hope you did well, I'm always happy to hear about people pushing themselves to do better. Grammar, btw, - (GOD I WISH I WAS AN AMAZON AFFILIATE) 完全マスター・文法、N2
Absolutely awesome for learning grammar. Do the whole thing and review religiously. N1 Book was good, too

No, by the way. Don't be concerned at all. A few days ago I mixed up "Formal" and "Funeral" and said "I don't want a wedding that feels too funeral-like, you know?" before realizing and laughing with everyone. People in the workforce are super, super chill with you not knowing things. Don't worry about it as long as you actually try and learn the words. I don't imagine a lot of frustration for you being a learner, but I do image a lot of frustration if they have to teach you the same words often.

Also, Keigo is super, super overrated in most situations. Be polite and read the room, and you'll do fine (*this advice may not apply to Japanese or asian-looking people).

2) Ask the individual companies, but it will likely go something like this:
"What's the game?"
"x concept."
"Oh, that's not a clone of our game. Cool, have fun."

Of course, that isn't a guarantee and every company is different, but in general bring it up early at the interviews and you should be fine making that part of your contract.

3) Honestly, not that I can recall. I wish I could be more help here, but the Japanese women that I've seen apply for jobs didn't have a problem getting hired.

4) I would love to list sites, but I can't. I strongly encourage you to search in Japanese (I imagine your search was in Japanese, of course, but just checking). As for visa sponsorship - most companies won't say anything about it at all, really. The idea of hiring a non-Japanese probably hasn't even crossed their minds when they wrote it, so you'd have to approach them with the idea. Just ask when you apply.

If you have trouble speaking Japanese with confidence, that's going to be an issue to a degree. This is because you won't be able to say what you want, how you want. It's not so much "patience for stumbling" as "can we easily understand each other?"

Fukuoka - absolutely 0 idea.
Osaka - nah, there's a ton of jobs in Osaka. I've seen a lot of older companies, older tech, game companies, etc., but it for sure exists. Just filter the region on job search sites.

Please let me know if this helped you or if I missed anything.

 

Hello Rob. I am also interested in building my career in japan. Let's say I have 2 years of backend experience mainly Java, a JLPT N2 certificate and OCA certificate, are there much opportunities present already for me? and how much can I ask for a starting salary (considering it'd wouldn't be entry level) ?

 

I think there was a problem with Dev.to's notification system. I kept seeing notifications for my articles, but couldn't actually read their contents. I am sorry for the delay in responding.

This depends TREMENDOUSLY on so many things. I don't want to sound like a jerk, but if you read the article negotiation section (I assume you have), your actual skills in Java (not just time you spent at a desk where Java was in the job title), accomplishments, and the work you want will dictate a large part of your entire package. I would talk to a recruiter or two - you're going to get a much better answer. if you have JLPT N2, it should be pretty easy to find a recruiter who will talk to you!

 

I spent a bunch of years in Kansai. Don't really miss it. Well... maybe sometimes, but not really. =)

 

Oh! What part of Kansai? What did you do there?

 

Osaka, Shiga, and Kyoto. Went to grad school and worked at game companies.

I've never been to Shiga - it's really countryside, right?

 

"From what I've gathered that is insanely cheap compared to NYC or the Bay Area."

Isn't it the case for literally the rest of the world? :D

 
 

Thanks for the long, insightful and beneficial article you've written, one thing i would like to know is, would emigrating to Japan be something hard for someone who comes from a ME/NA country with "Mohamed" being part of their first name? i read a bit about Japan's govt's view of Arabs and Middle easterners in general and found that Japan rarely accepts Muslims (I'm not one anymore but i think they'd count me as one of them due to my name and background) Thanks again for the great article.

 

I think there was a problem with Dev.to's notification system. I kept seeing notifications for my articles, but couldn't actually read their contents. I am sorry for the delay in responding.

I worked with a guy named Mohamed when I taught English. Great guy. Went to go rent a house - got discriminated against because he was black. It's not even a speculation type of thing - his white Ukrainian girlfriend went to scope it out, said there would be two of them, they said no problem. He went with her to confirm, they told them "The apartment is suddenly unavailable." After some back and forth, it turns out that the landlord didn't want a black guy living there. Japanese law makes this perfectly legal.

That being said, for the vast majority of your interactions, no one will care. I don't know anything about the actual emigration process itself for non-Americans, of course, but living here - I don't think you'll experience more-than-average ignorance for having that name as compared to any other name.

 

Amazing read, thank you so much for all the details, I got a lot of information here. I was wondering, since I am about to get my B's in Translation ( English-Spanish tech.), how is it that you made the jump from teacher to developer, because I am noticing a pattern here lol, what tools did you use to learn programming, how did you decide what language to choose, any certifications? (Microsoft, Oracle, etc.), do they help when trying to get hired? Because I am thinking about moving there through a Business Manager Visa ( I wanted to start a co-working Cafe in Fukuoka including some language-teaching in the mix while boosting my basic programming skills), but if there is a different way, an easier one, through Working Visa, then switching to Self Sponsored Visa, it would be awesome to get your insight on it.
Thanks a lot and I am sorry if this is too long, you seem like you got most of it figured out.

 

Thanks a lot for writing this! Such an inspiration! Do you have recommendation to begin learning japanese? :)

 

Sure! This is a response to someone else.

dev.to/rob117/comment/ek2k

 

Very interesting read. Thanks for sharing

 

Thank you, I'm glad you liked it!

 

Cool, I’m extremely interested in moving to Japan. (Also a programmer, still learning Japanese, early 20s.) I think this was a nice clear honest overview, thanks for sharing!

 

My pleasure, thank you for the praise!

 

Awesome read! As a programmer for a fairly big firm in Tokyo, most of it was spot on!

Good japanese really improves your living experience here!

 

Agreed. Tremendously. Having good Japanese opens so many doors for you.

 

Great article. Enjoyed reading whole. Thank you Rob.

 

My pleasure, thank you for reading!

 

Thank you Rob for sharing your experiences !

 

Thank you so much for reading!

 

This is one of the best things I've ever read on the internet. Thanks!

 

Thank you, that means a lot to me!

 

A really detailed post. Thank you for the time!

 

Absolutely, my pleasure! Thank you for reading.

 

Very helpful article!
Thanks from Tokyo.