For Japanese job seekers, overseas study can be deal killer
By Hiroko Tabuchi
New York Times, May 30, 2012
TOKYO >> Ronan Sato, a graduate student in applied statistics at Oxford University in England, has always been keen to work in his native Japan. But at a careers fair for overseas Japanese students, he found that corporate Japan did not reciprocate his enthusiasm.
In meetings with a handful of Japanese financial trading firms at the forum in Boston last November, none would offer him a job without further interviews in Tokyo.
So Sato, who received three offers on the spot from non-Japanese corporations, accepted a position in Tokyo with a big British bank.
“I really wanted to gain experience at a Japanese company, but they seemed cautious,” Sato said. “Do Japanese companies really want global talent? It seemed to me like they’re not really serious.”
Notoriously insular, corporate Japan has long been wary of embracing Western-educated compatriots who return to the homeland. But critics say the reluctance to tap the international experience of these young people is a growing problem for Japan as some of its major industries — like banking, consumer electronics and automobiles — lose ground in an increasingly global economy.
Discouraged by their career prospects if they study abroad, even at elite universities, a shrinking portion of Japanese college students is seeking a Western education. At the same time, regional rivals like China, South Korea and India are sending increasing numbers of students overseas — many of whom, upon graduation, are snapped up by companies back home for their skills, contacts and global outlooks.
“Japanese companies here are missing out on the best foreign talent, and it’s all their fault,” said Toshihiko Irisumi, a graduate of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and former Goldman Sachs banker. He runs Alpha Leaders, a Tokyo-based consulting firm that helps match top young talent with employers based in Japan. “They really need to change their mindset.”
A United States-born graduate of Brown University who has a dual citizenship in Japan, one of about a dozen foreign-educated Japanese nationals interviewed for this article, said she was told she “laughed too much” in interviews for a technology job in Tokyo.
Others with Western educations recall being treated with suspicion by Japanese recruiters, who referred to them openly as “over spec” — too elite to fit in, too eager to get ahead and too likely to be poached or to switch employers before long.
What is more, Japanese students who study overseas often find that by the time they enter the job hunt back home, they are far behind compatriots who have already contacted as many as 100 companies and received help from extensive alumni networks. And those who spend too long overseas find they are shut out by rigid age preferences for graduates no older than their mid-20s.
In a survey of 1,000 Japanese companies taken last June on their recruitment plans for the March 2012 fiscal year by the Tokyo-based recruitment company Disco, fewer than a quarter said they planned to hire Japanese applicants who had studied abroad. Even among top companies with more than a thousand employees, less than 40 percent said they wanted to hire Japanese with overseas education. That attitude might help explain why, even as the number of Japanese enrolled in college has held steady at around 3 million in recent years, the number studying abroad has declined from a peak of nearly 83,000 in 2004 to fewer than 60,000 in 2009 — the most recent year for which the figures are available from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In some ways, the Japanese snubbing of Western graduates is a testament to the perceived strength of their own universities, seen by many here as more prestigious than even the best U.S. and European schools — despite their mediocre showing in various global college rankings.
At U.S. universities, only 21,290 Japanese students were registered last year, less than half the number a decade ago. U.S. universities last year had 73,350 students from South Korea, even though it has less than half of Japan’s population,
“There is an awareness that Japan’s competitiveness is falling, and we need a more global workforce,” said Kazunori Masugo, head of the Senri International School in western Japan and a member of a central government committee on education and training. Lessons at Senri are taught mostly in English and the school sends a handful of students to colleges in the United States and Europe each year.
“But the environment in Japan is such that if you go overseas to study, you have to be prepared to go your own route, find your own way,” he said.
Ryutaro Sakamoto, who paid his way through the University of Toronto and returned to Japan at age 30 with a business degree, found he was too old to apply through standard recruitment programs. He sent resumes to the likes of Panasonic and Sony, anyway, but never heard back. Eventually, the Japanese unit of the U.S. insurance company Prudential was happy to put his bilingual skills to use.
“In Japan, taking the time to study overseas sets you back in the shukatsu race,” Sakamoto said.
“Shukatsu” refers to the system in which Japanese companies typically hire the bulk of their workers straight from college and expect them to stay until retirement. Not getting a job upon graduation is seen as a potential career killer.
So competition is fierce. In the last three years, the percentage of new graduates in Japan who found work was the lowest since the government started collecting comparable data in 1996. As of Feb. 1, with two months left in the recruiting season, a fifth of students in their final year at college had yet to find jobs.
“Shukatsu is like Kabuki theater,” said Takayuki Matsumoto, an Osaka-based career consultant. “It’s difficult when you don’t fit the template.”
His advice to returnees: Don’t be too assertive or ask too many questions.
Kenta Koga, one of only a handful of Japanese undergraduates to enter Yale in 2010, violated many of the unwritten rules when he came back last summer for an internship at a big Japanese advertising agency in Tokyo. As he made client rounds with his boss, who was advising on the latest trends in technology or social media, Koga, a computer science major, felt the urge to speak up.
“Some of what they were discussing was old or plain wrong,” he said. But he was careful to steep his language in the appropriate honorifics reserved for elders. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said he would murmur. “My deepest apologies if you already knew this.”
Still, his supervisors were annoyed. “You are being too scary and preventing other people from speaking,” one boss said, according to Koga. On another occasion, he said, he was censured for crossing his arms in front of senior colleagues. He was eventually excluded from meetings and assigned seemingly dead-end tasks. He now says he would never work for a Japanese company.
Some Japanese companies have made a point of reaching out to returnees. U-Shin, an auto parts maker, attracted attention in February when it placed a prominent ad in Japan’s largest business daily offering twice the normal starting pay to candidates with overseas degrees.
“We plan to expand aggressively overseas, so we need recruits who were themselves bold enough to go overseas,” said Koji Tanabe, U-Shin’s chief executive.
But U-Shin seems the rare exception. The Japanese financial giant Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi more closely fits the norm. Each year, it hires about 1,200 fresh graduates. Usually, fewer than 20 have studied overseas or are non-Japanese, said Keiichi Hotta, a recruiter for the bank.
Hotta said careers were built differently in the West. “We’re cautious because we emphasize continuity and long-term commitment to the company,” Hotta said. “Especially in finance, we don’t want people who are focused on short-term gains.”
No wonder some returnees play down their exposure to Western ways. Norihiro Yonezawa, who studied for a year at the University of Maryland, said he did not emphasize his overseas experience or English skills when he interviewed — successfully — for a coveted job at Panasonic.
“I didn’t want to come across as a showoff. So I stressed how I worked hard and overcame that,” he said. “And I made sure to emphasize that I would still fit in.”