Jan 30, 2017

Working in Japan: Expats on job interviews

The first interview this expat attended in full-Japanese included some kind of standardised questionnaire that we were told was de rigeur in Japan. When presented with it in all its kanji bells and whistles, the supervisor/invigilator must have seen the collective cold sweat that broke across all of us who were in attendance, as he did his best to assure us that it wasn’t that important and that there would be a few questions that we couldn’t read/understand. He should have corrected the latter statement. There were a few questions we could understand. The rest would have to be guess work.   

The actual interview bit now appears as a sweaty blur. It’s probably no surprise that at this formative stage of being a ‘fluent’ Japanese speaker, priority No.1 in a job interview was making sure that I could actually answer the questions from a technical standpoint, i.e string together comprehensible sentences. Any idea of selling oneself beyond that simply didn’t exist. The one thing I do remember clearly was at the end when the person in charge asked me something along the lines of, “Do you have any final words?”, (they never ask this back home, but apparently it’s a fairly common in Japan). Having exhausted my repertoire of committed-to-memory phrases all I could manage was a broken, “No, that’s all I have to say.”, or something along those lines. To be fair, it raised a warm smile from one of the interviewers who could clearly see that I was a spent force.

Stage three was me being shut in a room with some papers to translate, an electronic dictionary, a redundant dictionary in book form, and a pair of jittery hands.

I didn’t get the job.

During my days as an ALT there would be a period every year when soon-to-graduate students were taken through the paces of interviews for the next stage in their formal education. I’d see these students in various forms waiting to be called into the Principal’s office for their 15 minutes of role play. As soon as they were called the interview began. By this I mean they were taught a particular way to open the door, enter the room, and then close the door after them. There was a way to sit, a way to place the hands, to bow, to speak, to have the hair combed and pinned … an all powerful way, as there is in so many aspects of Japanese society.

For the job-seeking expat in Japan, one wonders to what degree an understanding of this way is expected.

We asked the City-Cost community what they think job seekers in Japan should know about interviews over here that are conducted by locals. We set aside any language issues from the outset.


This was perhaps the most common theme to come up regarding interviews in Japan. It seems that levels of appearance carry more weight in here than they perhaps do in other parts of the world.

Some even remarked that before opening one’s mouth an interviewee has already been assessed based on appearance. Dark suits, tie, neat hair, minimal jewellery (probably none in the case of gents), simple colors and tones, sensible tights, and an all round conservative vibe appear to be the favored facilitators of appearance. Perhaps not unlike one would expect back home, but just, more so. Paying attention to socks also came up. The expat wanting to make an impression in Japan should always be alert to potential shoe removal. Even in an interview situation, it turns out!

Tone down the confidence

Maybe many of us have been schooled in the idea that a job interview is a chance to sell yourself. Why you should pick me and not that loser waiting outside! However, many remarked that appearing confident could mark you as less likely to fit in, in Japan. Spend enough time on these shores and one can probably see the reasoning here. The group remains omnipotent in Japan, and it could be that the most important thing one should convey in an interview is an ability to join it. This would relate not only to attitude (or level of confidence, in this case) but also the above mentioned appearance. Being the zany one with the mad ties and stripy socks probably doesn’t carry much of anything in Japan.

Confidence could also been seen as a hindrance in one’s ability to follow ‘the way’, which is naturally more submissive in tone. In a workplace where there’s ‘a way’ things are done, the all-guns-firing trailblazer is probably in less demand. Confidence could give off a whiff of the latter. Just like your interview suit, tone it down.


Timekeeping came up in a few responses in the sense of don’t be on time, be early. Quite what it means to be early is not a definitive thing but 20 minutes ahead of time seems to have been appropriate.

While punctuality might seem a given in any land, it’s probably worth bearing in mind that ‘punctuality’ does differ from country to country. In Japan it tends to mean being early.

Mind your manners

Be polite. Sit up straight. Don’t yawn. All standard ammunition (if not weapons) in the interview arsenal, here or anywhere.

Whilst it’s difficult to express with a great degree of clarity, in Japan one could argue that these things are more specific. There are ways to be polite and to sit up straight. Such nuances are perhaps beyond us expats to pick up but our efforts to this effect will likely be recognised and appreciated.

A teacher friend of mine once observed of jr high school over here that students first and foremost learn how to be Japanese, more than they do history or maths.

This and all of the above might best be expressed as displaying ‘social ability’, as someone remarked. Many of us might associate this with simply not being annoying, weird, gobby, … something along those lines. However, it seems to be much more finely tuned in Japan than this. A teacher friend of mine once observed of jr high school over here that students first and foremost learn how to be Japanese, more than they do history or maths.

Maybe this is the key to interviews in Japan, then. Show em how Japanese you can be!

If you’ve had any experiences of job interviews in Japan, we’d love to hear about them. Drop us a line in the comments below.

For more content like this …

Finding a job in Japan: Expats on the factors and difficulties

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Facebook: @citycostjapan





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  • SalarymanJim

    on Jan 31

    I would recommend being super polite, smile a lot, and appear a bit humble.

  • Kasajizo

    on Feb 4

    Very informative article! I must remember to show how Japanese I can be (not very ) :)

  • City-Cost

    on Feb 13

    @Kasajizo Cheers! It's a balancing act, in my experience at least.