Internships in Japan: Japan's changing work landscape

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

By: James Cahyadi P.

Published date: September 23, 2019

The concept of internships is new to a country built on the idea of life-long employment beginning immediately after graduation, but more and more students turn to internships to gain job experience in an ever-changing employment landscape.

The idea of ‘internships’ in the west is an ancient one and by ancient, we're talking centuries. The concept of internships dates back to the 11th century’s system of apprenticeship. The modern version we know, however, has only begun to form in the early 20th century. Even then, it’s significance at the time was quite negligible, with only a mere 3% of the American college student body having completed one by the '80s. Despite that, it did not take long for the popularity of internships to skyrocket. By the turn of the century, a reported minimum of 80% of college students in the United States have completed at least one internship during their college years.

Are internships still as important? The picture painted by companies makes it look as if the answer is a resounding yes. Gradually, internships are changing to becoming the new entry-level job with a majority of the student body gaining their first work experience through one. A report by the Chronicle of Higher Education even claims that employers place experience (in particular, internships) as the most important factor they consider when hiring new graduates.

In fact, the internship craze has now reached a whole new level. On one end of the spectrum, employers are increasingly offering attractive perks to lure skilled interns (Walt Disney for example, offers free admission to Disneyland for their interns) and on the other end of the spectrum, you have students paying to just to get an internship, creating a whole new industry profiting from connecting students to businesses.

And yet, in the midst of all this craze, those of you who live in Japan might be thinking, “What’s that got to do with me?”. One of the reasons why western employers seek those who have internship history is because they value experience above all else but admittedly, Japan’s business culture is quite different.

Japanese companies, because of their unique lifetime employment and management culture, have long been known to value qualities like character and potential much more compared to experience or hard skills when hiring new graduates, they also care little about internship experience compared to western employers. In fact, it is a wide-spread belief of Japanese business leaders that, “skill can be learned later and anyone can acquire knowledge. However, character as a driving force for growth cannot be developed in a short time”, it is this mindset that has also stifled the growth of internship programs in Japan over the past decades.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, some actually take it a bit further and believe that those who have no work history can instead be a plus for Japanese companies, as the argument goes: “it is easier to mold someone in a blank state than someone tainted.” And for Japanese companies that care about character and affinity to the company above all else, it does seem to be a valid argument at first.

So with all these things considered, why exactly should you still do an internship in Japan? Below are the five major reasons.

This may be true, but...

For one there is little harm in doing an internship--the benefits outweigh the negatives. Beliefs such as “ a blank white paper is better than those filled with details” are, in the end, simply beliefs, and the work experience that one gains from a full-time job and internships will come in handy later on. It remains to be seen how much internships can taint oneself in the first place, with internships mostly only lasting short periods, allocated in more simple tasks, and simply not shouldering the weight a full-time job would pose.

Japanese employers caring little about experience does not mean that they do not care at all. Actually, having an internship experience in Japan (especially in Japanese companies) might be crucial for foreigners given that it will show them that you have experience working in a Japanese environment, and are willing to adapt to the Japanese business culture.

The landscape is changing.

Faced with challenges such as a shrinking labor pool and a continuously more progressive youth, Japan’s job-hunting landscape is rapidly changing. More and more companies are placing more importance on skills. This also coincides with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution pushing Japan to be more proactive with skill-based hiring. With that as a backdrop, more Japanese companies are now offering internships too, with a reported 40% increase in companies offering internships from 2015 to 2016.

It’s not only the companies that are changing. Today, Japanese workers are increasingly job-hopping, a change that could render the lifetime employment system invalid, thereby bringing Japan’s hiring practices closer to international standards.

While the old traditions mentioned above still hold, the trend is clear. If Japan Inc. wants to remain competitive in the global market, it needs to change and it is doing exactly that, albeit slowly.

Japan has its own version of “internship”

Although companies in foreign countries are also no stranger to this practice, Japanese companies have reportedly made use of this tactic even more in recent years, as the tough labor market forces them to be more creative in securing talents. What’s more, Japanese companies make this process even more fluid as they also have unconventional internships programs that are not really seen in the west. To read more about this, you can find information on other JPort Journal content Short-term vs. Long-term internship in Japan.

Foreign companies based in Japan or 外資系

It’s best to not forget that there are a lot of foreign companies in Japan, and as foreign companies, they are not exactly restricted to the Japanese hiring culture. In fact, for English speaking college graduates in Japan, foreign companies are incredibly attractive places to find jobs since most of them require bilingual skills, which would give foreigners an edge.

The process of doing an internship itself can be a meaningful experience and doing it in Japan is by no means different in that sense. It exposes you to actual, professional work that can be of great help in a lot of ways. Below are just some of the great benefits you can gain from doing an internship.

It can help you in deciding your future career

It can open up opportunities to network with career men and women.

Professional growth and personal growth tend to occur simultaneously.

All in all, considering the changing Japanese market and the benefits one can get from doing an internship, it really doesn’t hurt to try it at least once. On top of this, many long-term internships are also counted as part-time work and are paid, which can help ease your financial burdens.

The final piece of advice:

Although Japan is now known to be market-friendly for job seekers, this does not change the fact that the best companies often have limited slots, and an internship can be that final boost in your resume that might just make the difference in landing the jobs you want.

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