Interviewing for a Position in a Japanese Work Environment

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


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.

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17 Responses to Interviewing for a Position in a Japanese Work Environment

  1. Pingback: Interviewing for a Position in a Japanese Work Environment | JapanLike

  2. Phil says:

    Thanks for the article! These are some very useful tips

  3. Sameer says:

    Hi Rachel,
    Your blog was really informative and gave a pretty good idea about things which should be one very particular about. I have a interview scheduled after 2 days in a technical company based in Japan. Can u please guide me, over factors and things that keep motivating people to work and prosper in the Japanese environment.
    I communicated with a few persons there, who said life is pretty tough there, like accommodations issue and about vegetarian food especially. Then being very particular about timings and the dress code… its good to be punctual but is it like more of military sort of culture… Then last but not the least, nature has been pretty harsh with the situations there, then in those situations, how do people manage and overcome it so quickly… What is the factors that keeps their spirits so high and direct them towards such a prosperous, and independent lifestyle…
    Kindly correct me if i am wrong somewhere in my perspective…

  4. Zalee says:

    i noticed that the author did not reply to the last question…
    this message was made to kinda “buzz” Ms. Rachel and see if she’s still up and willing to answer some more questions regarding a job interview with the Japanese Embassy..thank u!

  5. reedra01 says:

    I have been traveling and working a lot lately and I apologize for not responding to the comment left by Sameer. I am still around and now that it is summer vacation for my students I will have more time to dedicate to the blog. Feel free to send your questions my way.

    Sameer, I feel unqualified to answer every question you posed but I can offer some answers that are restricted to my own experience and perspective. I’ll start with the easy ones.

    Finding accommodations in Japan can be extremely tricky if you are a foreigner with no connections in Japan. Many places still require a Japanese guarantor or at least some kind of recommendation from a Japanese person. It really comes down to where you plan to live and work.

    Vegetarianism is still a relatively foreign concept for many Japanese people. I am not a vegetarian but I do have friends who are. Many of them choose to be more flexible in Japan then they would otherwise be in order to make their Japanese co-workers more comfortable at events that include food. Your co-workers may worry that you are not getting enough to eat if you turn away every dish and this could cause unintended stress. My friends make exceptions for fish at these events since fish is a very prevalent part of the Japanese diet. The choice is up to you but be prepared to be asked lots of questions.

    The work ethic is very strong in Japan and that includes things like showing up on time and dressing appropriately for work. It is by no means a militaristic culture. If you are one minute late, you will not be fired. Foreigners have a reputation of always being late and it may be difficult to change this stereotype. Even if you show up on time everyday for a year people will still say that foreigners are usually late. Dress codes can be strict but more and more Japanese people are embracing concepts like cool-biz for the summer. Grey, black and white are the colors of choice for work in Japan. Soft blues are also widely accepted as business appropriate. Any extremely bright colors are often regarded as too showy and should be avoided unless you want everyone in the office to talk about what you are wearing in a negative way. Again, dress codes vary depending on where you work. Once you learn the rules, you should be fine.

    And now for the more difficult questions.

    What motivates people to work and prosper in the Japanese environment?

    Hmm. Generally, people find that there is a lot of job security in Japan. Once you have a job, it is very difficult to get fired. Salaries are also pretty decent and there are yearly bonuses. Benefits are very nice. Health care in Japan is particularly good. As far as prospering in the Japanese environment goes, I personally feel like there is very little motivation. Generally speaking, raises are few and far between and they are based on seniority as opposed to merit. Workers are not judged on output as often as they are judged on the length of the hours they work. This leads to an inefficient use of time. It is difficult to get fired so there is little motivation to improve, especially when things are based on seniority. All in all, I think this is a very difficult and personal question. I hope that my general response was somewhat helpful.

    What are the factors that enable the Japanese people to overcome natural disaster so quickly and move on? What keeps their spirits so high and directs them toward such a prosperous lifestyle?

    I am going to assume that this question is in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. I will also assume that this question was rooted in an admiration for the Japanese people which I also share. First of all, this is one hell of a question. I mean, WOW. When I first read this comment in December, this was the question that made me feel like I would never be able to respond. I will attempt to give a response now but I feel like it is inadequate.

    I just got back from a weekend trip to the coast of Miyagi. I visited Minami-Sanriku and Ishinomaki. People are still living in temporary housing there. I still saw mangled cars, shells of buildings left standing and the foundations of houses that were completely destroyed. I went to an elementary school were 74 children and teachers were swept away by the wave. As I was walking along the memorials and paying my respects, I stepped on something that felt very solid. It was a mangled spoon that the children used to use to eat school lunch. This was yesterday. Not a year ago. Yesterday.

    The truth is that the Japanese people responded to this tragedy with a phenomenal amount of grace and the entire world was deeply moved by it. There was no looting, people waited patiently in long lines for food and water and they took care of each other. But the idea that they were able to quickly move on and overcome it is incorrect. They are human beings who were devastated by this natural disaster and are still devastated. There is no “quick” about it. The tens of thousands who lost loved ones will always feel that loss. They will not overcome it. They will learn to live every day with it one slow and painful day at a time.

    The local economies of the towns that were affected are still suffering. Tohoku is still in great need of assistance. There is still a lot of rebuilding left to do. The rest of Japan is still in shock and those that were lost will never come back. In short, their spirits are not high. They have hope and they have an incredible will but this devastating tragedy will never be forgotten.

    There is a word in Japanese that is used often as encouragement in all occasions. That word is “Ganbaru.” There is no English equivalent. Roughly translated, it means “to persevere” or “to try your hardest.” It can also mean “endure,” “hang in there”, or “hold on.” The phrase “Ganbarou Tohoku” has been adopted throughout Japan to show support to the Tohoku region or North East part of Japan. The rough translation is, “Let’s persevere North East Japan.” It is a phrase of solidarity and it also encapsulates one of the key concepts of Japanese culture: to endure, to hold on, to try your best. This is how the Japanese people responded and this is how they will continue to respond.

    Please continue to keep Japan in your thoughts and just because it is no longer the number one thing on the news does not mean that the scar is healed or the work is done.

  6. Jane Doe says:

    Hi Rachel, I am enjoying reading about your tenure at the Embassy of Japan. I am curious: what did the month-long security check entail?

  7. whelms says:

    thanks u rachel you very nice tip.
    i have a question after enterview how many days result your aplication visa if you are passing enterview?

  8. parnil says:

    hello Rachel.A helpful article indeed.I have in interview in a Japanese company in a week.It is for an internship.Any advice?

  9. SG Krishnan says:

    I would like to know whether they allow the candidate to present a PPT ?

  10. reedra01 says:

    Hello and thank you for your comment! I do not believe they would allow a PPT presentation during the interview because the format is still fairly traditional. The interview is really an opportunity to meet with them face to face so that they can get a feel for your personality and compatibility. Focus instead on verbal communication and active listening. Best of luck!

    • Swaroop says:

      Hi Rachel,

      Thanks for the clear picture, it is fun reading and very informative…. and good to see you in 2015!!
      I understand the prospective-ness behind it, but I would thank you if you could provide me more info on “After interview” process in Japan.
      In my case, I am waiting my results of my second round of what they call “Mensetsu”. They have asked me to wait for 1 more week, totally it will be 2 weeks.
      So my question is,
      1>The results of 1st interview came out in a flash, but why are they taking so much of time for this.?
      2>HR said Hiring manager is on a business trip and he has not decided anything yet. Being a interviewer what is your angle of thinking when you tend to give such a feedback.
      3>Even though I know that I am the right person, should I not count on this?


  11. P K says:

    Thanks :’)
    You rock!

  12. ahmedmarey81 says:

    Thank you for your wonderful summery
    It’s very useful and helpful
    Appreciate it and if possible I might have few questions how can I contact you
    Thank you

  13. Hi Rachel,
    Your post has been so informative. I’m so glad I read it, particularly the part about not calling or emailing after an interview! My application to work in the political section was shortlisted, and I completed the 30 min writing component (only that- no interview) exactly 2 weeks ago. I was told they would like to conduct interviews a week or two later, but I haven’t received any calls or emails. I am wondering if I shouldn’t even expect to be notified that I’ve been unsuccessful? It seems very strange not to inform a candidate of the outcome, regardless of what it was, but I’d have thought I would have been contacted now.


    Hey Rachel? Thanks for the article. I was recently selected to do a written interview for the post of embassy secretary at the Japanees embassy in Kigali -Rwanda. kindly advise me about which questions are likely to surface in this interview. Kind regards, Charles

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