Before interviewing for a job in any country, you should research and learn as much as possible about the prospective employer. Studying the company website and its social media presence (including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter), reviewing company news releases, and speaking to current or former company employees are considered important steps to good preparation. If the target company operates stores, hotels or restaurants, take the time to visit at least one or two of them. Learning as much as possible about the company’s protocols will help you in preparing for the interview.
It also helps to find out who will conduct the interview, and what style the interview will follow. In most cases in Japan, a Japanese HR manager will conduct the first interview, though at a foreign company, the interviewer(s) may not be Japanese, and may conduct a very non-Japanese-style interview. Sometimes, the interviewer at a foreign company will be a Japanese native who may or may not conduct the interview in a traditional Japanese style. A good headhunter or career counselor, or even the person who provided an introduction to the company, may be able to provide useful guidance. You should be aware, however, that if you seek advice from a career professional there may be a fee involved.
One point to keep in mind is you probably won’t be the only one preparing for the meeting — the interviewing company likely will be doing a bit of pre-interview preparation as well. Japanese companies often evaluate prospective employees before an interview, and in these investigations, they rely heavily on personal introductions and personal contacts. They seek information, insights and feedback from people who know you. They also will look at social networking websites for information about you.
What to Bring
- Bring a copy of your latest resumé to the interview.
- To create a positive, professional impression, bring along business cards with your name, address and contact details in both English and Japanese.
- Carry a notebook and pen — these are essential tools for projecting a professional appearance, even if they are not used.
- Other materials to bring could include a portfolio of work or newspaper clippings, letters of recommendation and any other relevant documents.
- A company brochure or materials collected during a store visit can give you good topics for discussion during the interview.
- Carry your documents and materials in a briefcase or other professional-looking bag or satchel.
Punctuality is a must in Japan; being late is regarded as rude. Plan your travel time to arrive at the meeting location about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. If transportation problems or other unexpected circumstances delay your arrival, call the company to alert the interviewer(s).
Locations can be difficult to find in complicated urban areas, so before the meeting get a map showing the closest subway station exit. Most companies provide detailed access information on their web pages.
When you arrive at the interview location early, do not ask to see the interviewer until just a few minutes prior to the scheduled time — as unprofessional as being late can be, arriving too early and expecting immediate attention also can create a negative first impression.
How to Dress
The interview dress code for men is a dark suit with white shirt and conservative tie, along with polished shoes. Women can wear a business-style dress, suit or skirt. Many companies have adopted a no-tie policy at their offices to reduce the use of air conditioning. Despite this “Cool Biz” campaign, a more conservative outfit is appropriate.
Hair and beards should be nicely groomed (though some Japanese interviewers may be put off by facial hair, so you may want to consider attending the interview clean-shaven). Japanese rarely wear strong perfumes or aftershave lotions, so if you use these, do so sparingly. You should cover any visible tattoos, and remove any jewelry from piercings (understated ear studs for women should be acceptable).
You should be aware that your conduct and demeanor are being observed and judged from the moment you arrive for your interview. Be courteous and respectful to everyone you meet, starting with the receptionist who greets you to the office. Maintain good posture as you sit to wait for your interview. After being directed to the interview room, knock on the door and wait to be invited in. When you enter the room, exchange a proper greeting, and do not sit until you are asked to do so and are shown where to sit.
The first meeting, which may last from 30 to 60 minutes, allows the interviewer to form an initial impression of you as a potential employee, to confirm your skills and motivation, and to review your resumé. If you are from a foreign country, you likely will be asked why you are looking for a job in Japan.
Demonstrating good communication skills and business etiquette during the interview is as important as impressive credentials. A Japanese interviewer will pay close attention to manners, posture and how well you keep up with the pace of the interview. It’s important to remember that your character will be judged thoroughly, but with subtlety.
The Japanese appreciate warmth and sincerity, so it is important to maintain a quiet and upbeat manner during conversation. Friendships are highly valued in the Japanese culture; it is important that the person hired be one who will fit in with the company’s personality and traditions. Generally, the Japanese admire hard work, extra effort, openness, obedience, willingness to learn and the ability to keep an even temper. Skills (especially language skills) should be understated; bragging or exaggerating your accomplishments should be avoided.
It is important for a foreigner to show an understanding of Japanese culture during the interview, but you should not attempt to behave exactly like a Japanese person in all circumstances. Any Japanese company that is considering hiring a foreigner is doing so because of what the foreigner can bring to the organization in terms of different or non-Japanese ways of thinking. In Japanese organizations, foreigners, especially at the managerial level, are seen as agents for positive change.
During the interview you should attempt to walk a fine line by being respectful and understanding of the Japanese way of doing things while still emphasizing the value you can bring to the organization as a foreigner. It would be unwise, however, to offer suggestions regarding changing the current way of doing business.
Your interviewer most likely will give you the opportunity to ask questions about the company or the position, so you should have several ready in advance.
Dismissals of full-time employees are quite difficult in Japan, so companies spend significant time and effort during the interview process. The first interview is usually conducted by one person, or possibly by two people. A second and third interview might follow. Some companies have a lengthy interview process of up to six sessions that could involve many people. Hiring an employee is considered to be a group decision, so it is important for you to emphasize and demonstrate an ability to be a team player.
Interviews are typically conducted in meeting rooms. You should stand up when an interviewer enters the room, and be conscious of maintaining good posture and a calm and polite demeanor. When you sit, keep your knees together and rest your hands on your lap or on the table, without appearing unnatural.
You may be told beforehand the interview will be conducted in English, but it would be best that you not count on this. Enter the interview with the expectation that it will be conducted entirely in Japanese.
You should try to identify the most senior person in the room, who may or may not be the main person speaking. Acknowledge this person with brief but consistent eye contact, and follow his or her body language. The best tactic is to carefully listen to the person asking questions, giving the questioner the initial eye contact and body language response, then moving on to include everyone else in the conversation as you speak.
If you can be physically present in Japan, this will be taken as an indication of a strong desire for the position. If you are unable to travel to Japan, the company might suggest a telephone interview; however, this typically would apply to senior positions. Another option for a long-distance interview would be to participate through video conferencing technology, such as Skype.
If you are doing a video-based interview, make sure you are in a quiet place, with good lighting and an uncluttered background. Dress and prepare as if you are going to a face-to-face interview.
A formal interview with a Japanese company may not bring an opportunity to exchange business cards (meishi), but you should bring some just in case. If the interviewer does not come from behind the interview table, no exchange of business cards will take place, and you should simply take a seat in the chair indicated. Follow the body language of the interviewer to determine whether to present your business card. Japanese businessmen carry a meishi holder. The standard size for a Japanese business card is 55 mm by 91 mm. When you prepare for your own business card, make sure it will fit into a standard holder.
Women can have rounded edges for their business cards, but men absolutely should not. If business cards are exchanged, you should do so with reverence. Business cards are given and received with both hands. When presenting your card, hold it so that it will be upright in the recipient’s view, and if it is printed on both sides (Japanese on one side, English on the other), present it with the Japanese side up. Upon receiving a business card, you should examine it thoughtfully for a moment.
Types of Questions
Your resumé or CV will be scrutinized during the interview, and it’s common for the interviewer to go through the document point by point to confirm information. Remain patient and consistent in answering questions. You should be prepared to explain if you have a history of frequent job changes, as this can be viewed negatively in Japan. Gaps in employment are likely to raise questions as well, so you also should be prepared to explain these. Many interviewers will ask personal questions regarding such matters as marital status, intention to marry and family background. Answer these questions briefly but courteously.
Salary and Benefits
Salaries usually are not discussed during a first interview; these discussions will occur later in the interview process. If the interviewer raises the topic, however, it is appropriate to answer a question about salary expectations. Salaries usually are discussed in annual amounts.
Many companies have a salary system in place, and the employee will fall into a set category. Most Japanese companies do understand, however, that foreigners might need support for relocation or airplane tickets to visit family back home. Housing allowances may be used to increase a salary indirectly without violating the company’s salary category system.
Many Japanese companies have a bonus system in place, and a salary as presented might not include those payments, which can be substantial. There usually are two bonus payments per year for full-time employees. Before trying to negotiate a salary, you should inquire about bonuses, housing allowance or airfare. Should the position be introduced through an agency, the recruiter can help with salary negotiations and clarifying details. Once the company has made an offer of employment, an offer letter that covers all details usually will be issued.
At the end of an interview, it is acceptable to ask about the next step in the hiring process.
It is proper and regarded as polite to send an email thank you note after an interview. If more than one person attended, notes with unique text can be sent to each of them. Do not cut and paste the same message to all interviewers or send one email to everyone. Personalized messages will show your interest in the company and the position.
Even if you feel you were unsuccessful at the interview, writing a thank you note shows good business style and may keep the door open for future positions or references. If someone provided an introduction for you that helped you secure your interview, it would be good form to write that person a thank you note as well, or even to call and thank him or her personally.
Companies usually will inform job candidates of hiring decisions, but the amount of time before these notifications are made can vary. If you receive no notification after several weeks, it would be acceptable to contact the company or recruiter to ask for a status update.