The Japanese Job Interview
Preparing for an ESL Interview in Japan
Job interviews can certainly be stressful endeavours. Any time that your worth as a potential employee is placed under scrutiny, the experience is often uncomfortable. Even when we know that we’re qualified for the job, the pressure to make the best first impression possible can always throw you off guard. As if all of that weren’t enough stress, tensions fly off the charts once you add in a move from your home country to a foreign land.
If you have applied for the job in advance from your home country—depending upon the city in which you live—the interview process could take place there. Generally, the larger English language schools and programs based in Japan—Gaba and JET, for example—tend to do their interviewing beforehand overseas. While these interviews do not lack their own type of pressure, the familiarity of being in your own city and country can work in your favor, as the feeling of disassociation from the familiar won’t be strong.
When your interview takes place in Japan, there is a whole new twist. The interview experience will most likely be the greatest initial glimpse into the difference between working in your homeland and working in Japan. When I first arrived in Japan, I did so without any job whatsoever. I have to admit that I attended numerous interviews before I actually got the hang of it and was able to handle the intensity. My hope is that the following basic guidelines will be of value to you once you have landed an ESL teaching job interview.
Whether you are interviewing in Tokyo or Tacoma, appearance matters to the Japanese. The degree to which appearance matters in Japan likely differs from what you are used to. The Japanese take first impressions very seriously. No interviewee can afford to be at an immediate disadvantage over mistakes that could have easily been prevented. Be well groomed. This means no Heavy Metal hair hanging in your face while you tell your prospective employer how vital you are to their school. If you have tattoos that are visible to the public, cover them up. Not surprisingly, tattoos and the Japanese workplace do not go hand in hand. Men should be clean-shaven – facial hair is okay, just be sure that it’s trimmed, not shaggy and unkempt. Clothing is just as basic and straightforward as well: The business suit. Bringing a suit with you to Japan should be just as important to you as bringing your toothbrush. Even if the job itself doesn’t necessarily require you to wear a suit (for example, teaching children), you should know that the interview process will. In other words, don’t leave that suit at home simply because you are not planning on seeking out employment as an investment banker.
Women would also do well to wear a business suit, although it’s not the deal-breaker that it is with men. Either a suit with a skirt or a pair of pants can do a great job of sending a strong message of success and confidence. This message can just as readily be sent wearing something as simple and formal as a blouse and skirt. Also, it is a good idea to be conservative about the amount of skin you choose to show. In other words, tank tops are best left in the closet; as the general rule of thumb here in Japan seems to be that when in doubt, dress as business formal as possible.
Shoes for men should be something that can be polished and that compliments a business suit. Sneakers, sandals or flip-flops are a resounding No for men and women alike. It is worth mentioning that if you plan on waiting until your arrival to buy clothing for future interviews, beware that sizing in Japan greatly differs from what you’re accustomed to in your home country. The pickings tend to get rather slim for men with shoe sizes beyond that of 10 (U.S.) or 28 (JPN), and for women sized 8.5 (U.S.) or 24.5 (JPN). Clothing can be especially challenging, particularly for women. If you think that you’re most likely taller or larger than the average Japanese, then it’s a good idea to consider buying your interview wardrobe in advance, at home.
Aside from working to your advantage at the interview, dressing appropriately will help eliminate unnecessary additional stress and provide you with a nice boost of confidence when the big day arrives.
It may seem rather obvious to bring up punctuality, as it is basically a given in any job interview process. We are all well aware of its value, but what we all may not know is how much time is enough and how to ensure that we are clear on directions related to our commute. First and foremost, arrive at least thirty minutes prior to your interview. Your prospective employers will expect as much and by doing this, you are shedding a positive light on your personality and attitude toward work. If you are going to be teaching and living in rural Japan, then most likely you will not have too many problems either finding the school or meeting up with a representative from the school. If however, you plan on living in the city—especially Tokyo—then finding a location can become much more complex. Because Japanese cities and towns do not label their streets with street signs like cities in the west, finding your way around the megalopolis that is Tokyo, for example, can be confusing and highly frustrating. If it’s summer, add Japan’s oppressively humid heat to the mix and hurrying around aimlessly in a business suit trying to find the location of your interview can be a downright tortuous affair. Taking this into account, the best course of action is to perform a dry run a day or two leading up to your interview. In Tokyo, it can take at least a month to gain a working knowledge of the city’s train network. A good idea upon your arrival is to purchase a detailed English train map. These can easily be found at large chain bookstores like Kinokuniya (www.kinokuniya.co.jp/english) and Maruzen. An absolutely indispensable resource for train directions and times is www.jorudan.co.jp/english/. The website provides detailed lists of the trains you will need to take to your destination, as well as different route options from fastest, to easiest to most economical.
Once you have an understanding of where you need to go to and which trains will take you there, set off on your dry run. If necessary, write down the directions as you find your way for future reference. Better still, try to time the excursion from the moment you leave your residence, so that you have a good idea of exactly how much time you’ll need. Trains in Tokyo are typically so punctual and their schedules so accurate that once actual walking time is factored in, a surprisingly faithful guideline has been created. If you don’t arrive in Japan with a wristwatch, buy one. It won’t take long for you to realize how vital of a role time plays in Japanese society.
Finally, don’t rely on maps sent to you by the school. In my own personal experience these maps will undoubtedly be bare bones and brief, ultimately telling you to turn right or left at the Lawson’s or AMPM or Family Mart—convenience stores which are literally peppered along every Tokyo street in unbelievable numbers. Use these maps as a guideline and not a guarantee.
The most stressful element of the entire process is definitely the interview itself. The good news is that the interviews tend to be relatively straightforward in terms of their lines of questioning. You are asked basic questions about yourself, your desire to work as an English teacher, and so forth. The bad news is that every interview can be different in how they are conducted, despite their common core themes. For example, I once attended an interview in Tokyo for a teaching job where the employer interviewed all the applicants in one room at the same time, basically playing everyone off each other, cutthroat style. It was a terrible experience, but it taught me to be prepared for anything, to focus on the facts and to not allow myself to be so easily thrown off in the future by superficial interview tactics. It also made me understand how hungry Japanese employers want their job candidates to be.
An important element to remember throughout your interview process is that smiling and an energetic demeanour typically referred to as genki (see my article The Japanese Workplace: What to Expect for further information on the concept of genki), are your best friends. Maintain this buoyancy to the best of your ability. Doing so can be challenging, particularly when your potential employer reacts to everything you say with a straight-faced, silent stare for what feels like hours on end. This rather stern, unsmiling dissection of applicants seems to be the norm when it comes to interviews in Japan. Ostensibly it is done to rattle you, to ensure that control over the proceedings remains firmly rooted with the superior. An effort is also likely being made here to discern your level of worth as an employee through your manner of speech and body language. Stick to your guns. Smile during those lengthy moments of poker-faced contemplation. Do your absolute best to show that you are not uncomfortable (even if you are) with the pressure. Remember that you are at this interview because you are qualified and serious about taking the job. You must portray that confidence in your outward demeanour, along with your eagerness to do a great job. Be firm and clear with your responses to questions. Do not waiver when asked why you came to Japan or why you want to be a teacher at this particular school. In the end, you will be respected for your professionalism in the face of scrutiny.
Being nervous or feeling mental strain over the prospect about a job interview is normal, but a well-planned and focused game plan will find you much more capable of seeing through the confusion and determining what needs to be done. Life in Japan—be it in the countryside or the neon frenzy of Tokyo—has a great deal to do with organization and hard work. Meet the challenge of your job interview in Japan head on and you will find yourself that much more adjusted to the demands of a new life in a new land.