Interviewing for a Position in a Japanese work environment.
Hello!! My name is Rachel and I am back to write about my personal experiences with the interview process for a position in a Japanese work environment. This entry is a general introduction and I plan to expand upon some of the key points mentioned in future posts.
Interview at the Embassy of Japan
I competed in public speaking in high school. I was used to being in front of large groups of people while delivering a ten minute memorized speech complete with gestures, fake laughs, and expressive eyebrows. I was not prepared to walk into a big meeting room and sit on one side of a table across from seven Japanese diplomats. They were unreadable. There were representatives from each section that was hiring. They were all staring straight at me with what I perceived to be stern expressions. I responded to this by smiling broadly and greeting them with all of the cheerfulness I could muster (being “genki” or energetic is extremely important). I bowed to each of them as they introduced themselves. I did not want to appear intimidated in the least. I sat down, gently flipped my hair over my shoulder and placed my hands delicately on my lap, looking at them expectantly.
Confidence is Essential
The key to interviewing well in my opinion is confidence and responses to questions that are backed by personal stories. It helps to have a big smile and wide open eyes. This makes you approachable and it makes you look interested in everything they say. Do not be thrown off if they do not smile or do not look directly at you when they ask questions. They are listening to you. In my case, they took notes on everything I said. One very important thing to remember is that embellishing and lying are two completely different things. Like in any interview, you will be asked follow-up questions and they appreciate details. Details are essential to a good interview. People remember you if you throw in a detailed but concise anecdote in response to a question (emphasis on the concise).
The Written Test
After the interview, which was about thirty minutes long, I had to do a written test. My written test was writing a business letter as if I was the Ambassador of Japan responding to an invitation from the President of the Japan America Society. I had to decline the invitation and be very vague about the reason why. Then I had to suggest rescheduling for another time and I had to be very vague about when that would be. I made sure to include lines about the importance of the US-Japan alliance as well as a line expressing my sincere regret for being unable to attend. Business letter format was a little tricky for me. I had to draw on knowledge I hadn`t used since high school. A few things to be aware of if there is a written part to an interview: the directions are not always written by a native speaker of English so you just have to decipher them the best you can. Also, do not worry if your response is brief so long as you have included all of the important points (they do not want to read a book).
Getting the Job
I left feeling pretty good about the whole experience and I was very excited to have had the opportunity to interview. Two weeks later I was informed that they would like to hire me as the administrative assistant in the Political section of the Embassy of Japan. I had to go through a security clearance check that would take about a month and then I could start working.
Interviewing for the Japanese
I learned a great deal more about interviewing while I was working at the Embassy. I was part of the hiring process for a new administrative assistant after working in the Embassy for one year. I screened all of the resumes and I spoke with the diplomats at length about the interview process. The following are the most important things I learned:
1. The interview process is highly subjective.
They will be judging you from the moment you send in your resume. Your resume should never exceed two pages. One page is vastly preferred over two. They do not have a lot of time and they will not read beyond the first page (sometimes they don`t even get beyond the first paragraph). First impressions can make or break you. It is an unfortunate truth that they will be judging you on appearance as well. Appearances are extremely important in Japanese culture. Make sure that you come to the interview with your best face forward.
2. Follow the directions.
If they say we will contact you, that means DO NOT CALL, DO NOT EMAIL. Sometimes this leads to an automatic no. You will be perceived as pushy and that is a very bad thing in Japanese culture. Many Americans are taught to do a follow-up call and be on top of keeping in contact with organizations that they are applying to but this is not the case for a Japanese work place. Be patient, be humble and wait.
3. Be polite and punctual always.
Even if you are aware that you are talking to an assistant and not the person who will be making the decision to hire you, BE POLITE. Most likely they are in direct contact with the boss and they may be asked their honest opinion of you. It is even more important to be polite in email because there is no tone of voice to aid you in the written form.
Do not be late. Punctuality is essential. In Japan, trains run on very detailed schedules. If the schedule says that the train will arrive at 1:43pm, the train will arrive at 1:43pm. To put it simply, they will not hire you if you are late.
4. Good posture is extremely important.
This is especially true in Japanese culture. Make sure that your back is straight and your shoulders are not hunched and you will be fine.
5. Excellent articulation is an absolute must.
You may not be interviewed by a native speaker of English. Pronunciation, articulation, and volume of voice are even more important in this case. No matter how nervous you are, do not speak quickly.
6. Be aware of the room you are in.
When you walk into the room, give it a quick once over. Sometimes, they will leave something purposefully on its side, like a vase, to see if you are the type of person who will pause and fix it. If you walk into the room and notice that something has fallen over or is in your direct path, right it/move it politely and then go to your seat. Do not make a big deal out of it. Do not sit until you are directed to sit.
7. “Good cop, Bad cop” is a game they like to play.
This is a common thing in Japanese interview situations. They want to see how well you can deal with “bad cop.” This means that one of them will intentionally be harsh or mean to you. Remember to always be polite and do not be intimidated by it. They will ask difficult questions and they will try to see if you will lie to save yourself. Lying is always a bad plan. For example, I was asked detailed questions about the economy and politics in my interview. I answered honestly by saying “I do not know the answer to that question because it is not my area of expertise, but my research skills are excellent and I have no doubt that I would be able to find that information.” It wouldn`t hurt to throw in an example of research you have done and it can help to change the subject. I talked about the research I did for my thesis topic and that redirected the conversation to Japanese literature, something I know a great deal about.
8. Most likely you will be interviewed by three or more people.
The set-up for an interview is rarely one on one. There will be at least three people if not more interviewing you. Typically, you will be sitting in a chair a little bit away from a table. They will be sitting at the table staring at you. This situation is designed to make you feel vulnerable. They want to see how well you can deal with being in the spot light. It is uncomfortable on purpose. You will be seated far enough away from the table so that they can see you head to toe and so that you have nothing to rest your arms on. Just remember, good posture!! Also, it is not uncommon for them to interview more than one person at once. We never did this at the Embassy, but it is a tactic that is used by Japanese companies.
So to recap: first impressions, appearance, punctuality, articulation, and posture are very important. Remember to be polite always and aware of the world around you. Do not be intimidated if they do not look directly at you or do not smile. Do not do anything that may be perceived as pushy: no telephone calls, no fancy thank you letters, no emails. If you have any questions for me about interviewing for a position in a Japanese work place, please do not hesitate to ask. If I do not know the answer, I am sure I will be able to ask someone who can answer the question.
Rachel Reed graduated from Gettysburg College in 2008 with a BA in Japanese Studies. She worked as an Administrative Assistant in the Political Section at the Embassy of Japan in Washington DC for two years (2008-2010) and later worked as an Assistant Language Teacher with the JET program, in Gojome, a small, rural town in Akita Prefecture.