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3 job interview questions which kill foreign job-hunters in Japan and how to deal with them

I think most of my readers here understand that cultures are different for each country. A part of this definitely extends to work culture. And by extension, there is definitely recruitment culture too. And by further extension, recruitment culture shock.

You don’t really see this that much in document screening. However, the interview stage is where culture can add a lot of nuance into what recruiters are looking for. Subsequently, there are a lot of “landmines” in the interview process which actually cause many foreigners to fail the interview process without them knowing what exactly went wrong.

I wanted to go through some of the common killer questions which you may expect here in Japan. Note that I’m not (explicitly) asking you to lie in an interview. But in the same way that any recruiting company wants to put their best foot forward to attract good people (and of course hide less sexy parts of the company), so too does the applicant have this right.

Just be aware that the more advanced you are in your career, the less the following applies. Mid-career interviews put far more emphasis about what you have done and what you can do quickly – a pattern which is common throughout most of the world. If this applies to you, you may want to take a look at this article for more applicable advice. In addition, more start-up and gaishikei culture companies may not have the following traits.

However, if you are applying in the the fresh graduate / less-than 3 years segment of the market and especially to Japanese companies, be aware of the following to avoid stepping on the landmines.

Q1. “Why do you want to work here?”

Interviewer with microphone
Often the first if not the second question on the list

Or: “What were your motivations to apply here”? “What kind of work do you want to do here?”
What do they really mean: “Why should we pay you?”

This is actually not Japan specific but a question that bombs interviewees worldwide. The problem is that many interviewees take this question too literally – it’s really not about what you want.

Remember that once you join a company they are paying you a salary – you are not the customer, they are your clients. Therefore anything literally answering the question (ie. because the company offers remote work, casual dress, paid leave) etc. is going to be minus 50 points for your grade – if not an automatic fail.

There are 2 points to a “good response” here.

How well do you know the company

This is a key place where you must show that you know the company. This means throwing out facts such as maybe their market share, their mission and vision stated on their website or any other details that make them special. Do they have special technology? Are there any special or international projects which you took note of which interest you?

There is of course a point of flattery here. But demonstrating that you’ve done your research on them is a sign to the recruiter that you have given serious thought in working there and that it’s not just another company in your shopping list.

Alignment and Contribution

Are your directions aligned and how do you prove it?

The other point is that you really have to show that you will and how you will contribute. Consider the following:

🙅‍♂️:”I’d like to join your company because you have a very international team. I enjoy working with different people and think it will be a good environment for me to learn.”
🙆‍♂️:”I’d like to join your company because you have a very international team. This would be a good environment for me to do my best in my work, learn from others and from this contribute.”

Not very different answers but these will sound entirely different to the interviewer. The former sounds good for you, the latter makes it explicit that they stand to gain as well.

In the same way any answer to the above needs to talk about how your wants align with your performance and how you want to contribute to their company.

Q2. “How long do you think you’ll stay in Japan?”

Calendar

Or: “How long would you like to work for us?”, “What are your plans in the future?”
What do they really mean: “Will you be around for long enough to make it worth for us to train you?”

This is probably the most common question that will lead to companies immediately disqualifying an applying candidate.

Remember that Japan’s fresh graduate recruitment is based on hiring fresh graduates for companies to train you to fully form part of the company in the long term. Therefore any sign that you are not going to commit long term to either the company or to living in Japan is a yellow if not red flag to employers. Even if you are applying to join a company that is trying to recruit foreigners as people for them to send abroad, making clear that you would not mind staying in Japan for the long term is also a good sign.

How long is “long term” though? That is a question that no one has a concrete answer. Companies would prefer you to stay your whole life but on the other hand saying something like “until retirement” may sound to the interviewer like you are saying a lie – unless you can elaborate by saying that working in Japan gives you the best chance to support your family back home etc. If it were me though I’d definitely not say anything less than 10 years.

Q3. “What was one challenge you overcame so far”

Athlete jumping hurdles
Do you focus on talking about how hard you jumped or how you tucked in your legs to make it easier?

Or: “Please introduce a piece of work / project that you did which you are proud of.”
What do they really mean: “How much can this person take when it when it gets tough? And does this person get Japanese dynamics.”

This is a question that is full of nuance but this nuance can catch you out. What happens is you give an answer which demonstrates your efficienc, effectiveness and intellect … but is that what the interviewer really wants to see?

Gambaru

Remember that what is defined as “hard work” depends on the culture – and Japan has a particularly interesting definition which I explain here. In short, you could be perfectly effective through researching about a better solution that would save time and cost only to lose to someone else applying who shows their ability to self-sacrifice and keep going at it.

This is also why students who came from sports clubs in universities are heavily preferred in traditional Japanese companies. They’ve dealt with pain and punishing training schedules (nevermind that they’re sleeping through class) and so naturally after entering a company they’d also be able to keep up with the overtime and drinking (though not so much nowadays) which is demanded. They can gambaru.

Therefore answers demonstrating persistent, earnest commitment are generally preferred in traditional Japanese companies versus being “smart”.

Group dynamics

There’s also one other factor that explains why sports club members are preferred – they’re used to the hierarchial structure that Japanese companies operate under. This is especially important given that the potential-based hiring system is premised on you learning from your sempais through On-the-Job Training from a place of humility.

Recruiters are also especially sensitive about this awareness and being used to Japanese group dynamics when hiring foreigners – the more you know already the less that they have to teach, the less conflict that may happen after starting work and the less likely you are to quit due to cultural frustrations.

Therefore answers about your achievements are almost definitely going to be better received if there is an element of groupwork with Japanese group members inside. Instead of talking about just your own efforts in your research for example, focusing your explanation about your relationship with your professor highly helped and how you were very open to feedback from them. And then how this helped you overcome your difficulties (and add some gambaru stuff as well).

Do not bomb yourself

Now the above are based on a very stereotypical Japanese company so it does not apply to all places. But nevertheless though, the questions above are really the most common questions where foreigner candidates kill themselves especially if you are participating in open recruitment in which Japanese applicants participate as well.

I would go to say therefore it is important to judge the company culture of the places that you apply to to decide how closely to the “normal script” you should keep to – but that’s a different topic. In the meantime though, hopefully this article will help you to increase a bit of your success rates in job-hunting in Japan!

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