During the Tokyo Career Forum, I interviewed for three different Japanese companies. Held on June 29th and 30th, the Tokyo Career Forum caters to companies that wish to hire bilingual (Japanese and English) employees. With over 200 companies in an assortment of fields, it is a great opportunity to get some key job hunting in.
If you’re lucky, the website claimed, you can walk away with a job!
I didn’t (spoiler alert). But I’m ok with that.
On the first day, I interviewed for three companies at the Tokyo Career Forum. The first interview was a short five-minute interview after a job lecture presentation for a travel company. I handed them my resume, they asked a couple questions, and said they would email me to schedule a later, official interview. Those kinds of short interviews are rare.
The other two interviews were more typical. And I failed both of them. Massively.
The first company was for a technical consulting company that worked with other businesses. I didn’t know much about the company… but while I was walking by the booth, one of the attendants slipped in front of me. “Hi! Would you like to interview with us?” She was blocking my path.
I gave the company booth and quick look. It was a mixture of English and Japanese. That’s a good sign… Stopping was a mistake. She took my pause as a “yes, I would love to interview” and pushed their clipboard under my nose, asking me to schedule an interview for that afternoon.
“Excuse me, I don’t know what kind of company this is…” I started, trying to worm my way out of writing my contact information on the interview sheet.
“It’s ok. It is a business consulting company. You will find out more during the job lecture.” What? But what if I don’t like the company?
I pointed to their ‘Business English and Business Japanese’ language requirement sign.
I started feeling uncomfortable. “Excuse me… you see, I don’t speak business level Japanese. I only have ‘limited working proficiency’ Japanese.” I pointed to my resume. “So… you know, I probably shouldn’t interview…”
For some reason, she didn’t care. She pushed the clipboard closer, actually dropping it in my hands.
At the Tokyo Career Forum, you are supposed to list your English and Japanese language ability. There are four categories: conversational, limited working proficiency, business level, or native. I am a native English speaker with a limited working proficiency in Japanese. I wanted to make sure I didn’t over-reach when interviewing.
The woman laughed and shot back, “Oh that? We don’t really care how well you speak Japanese. You will be fine. Your Japanese sounds excellent!”
“Seriously, I really don’t think I should-“
“It’s fine, it’s fine, just sign up. I need to give the clipboard to the other woman. Please hurry.”
I felt madly uncomfortable, but I figured a free interview couldn’t hurt. It was 10:45am; I schedule a 11:20am interview. I wrote my name, phone number, and email address. They asked for two copies of my resume, and were a bit disappointed I did not have my picture attached to the front of the resume.
“Sorry,” I shrugged. I hadn’t had enough time to go get professional pictures done. Japanese resumes are required to have your picture on the front. Most schools will help you get these photos done – they are a picture of you in your business suit. A lot of companies don’t want to hire fat or unattractive employees, so they like to have your picture on the front (which, to be honest, offends me quite a bit).
She just smiled. “Alright, before your interview, please watch this presentation about our company.”
She ushered me into one of the seven plastic chairs in their booth, just as the presentation started. It was all in Japanese, but I could follow easily. Only four of the chairs were filled: three foreigners, one Japanese man, and me. While I was sitting, I saw the same lady track down each foreigner who passed, signing them up for an interview. That’s weird…
At exactly 11:18, I returned to the booth.
They had pulled the orange plastic chairs out, and replaced them with three small cubicle booths. The two other interviews had already begun both of them with the same foreigners I sat behind in the earlier lecture; I bowed, apologized, and sat down. However, before the interview started, I mentioned their Japanese requirement.
“I speak limited working proficiency level Japanese, NOT Business Japanese. Are you sure I should interview? I don’t want to waste anyone’s time…”
She assured me it would be fine. The Japanese level ability didn’t matter.
The woman across from me was wearing a white blouse with a large silver, somewhat gaudy necklace. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun and she was wearing limited makeup. She smiled politely, then launched straight into the questions.
“Can you please give me a five minute introduction?” She asked, staring intently at my resume.
I started along confidentially. I had given this same introduction a million times in Japanese class. While I was speaking, she jotted down notes. She seemed satisfied with my answer.
“Thank you, now can you tell me your best feature?”
Best Feature? I paused. I kind of wished I had read more books on job hunting. What was I supposed to say? “Well, I like working in groups and interacting with coworkers…” I started.
She interrupted, “No, I mean your best feature. Like your charm point.”
“My charm point?” What kind of question is that? “My charm point is that I am very energetic and passionate. Is that what you’re talking about?”
“Not really, I mean like your best feature…”
“I have pretty eyes?”
She laughed and moved onto the next question.
Wait, was that the right answer? I’m so confused!
“What is your biggest weakness?”
I gave the typical, ‘I work too hard and care too much’ speech. I stumbled over a couple of the words because I had never given this kind of speech in Japanese before. Every time I made a mistake, she would frown a bit, but keep writing.
“What was your biggest challenge in your life?”
I told her about the time, when I was 14 and we lived in Ghana (West Africa), I wanted to go to boarding school in Japan because Ghana was too hot, too humid, too dangerous, and I kept getting malaria. I ended up filling out most of the applications and only really telling my parents when I got accepted into the boarding school.
She whistled. “Wow, that’s impressive. But I was hoping you would give me something a little more recent…”
Crap. Messed up again. “Well, I had a lot of difficulties renting an apartment when I was in Japan, since I’m a foreigner.”
After that, she sort of lightened up a bit. We also switched to English. That’s how I knew I wasn’t going to get a job. We spent the next ten minutes cracking jokes. She told me about her job (what she liked and didn’t like); I told her about my blog. She asked me to write the website onto the back of one of her business cards.
The interviews on either side of us remained somber and official, while we were chatting.
When the bell rang, she thanked me for coming by, and told me they would email me later to schedule the next interview – if I passed.
“Are you actually going to email me?” I asked, because I kind of already knew the answer.
“Maybe.” She replied, diplomatically.
“My Japanese is too poor for this position, isn’t it?”
She paused, looking around to see if anyone was listening, before replying “Maybe next year…” Then she put her mask right back on, with that saccharine smile, and shook my hand.
On one hand, I appreciated her honesty. I feel like “Maybe next year…” is the closest thing anyone at this Tokyo Career Forum might get to a “no.”
But at the same time, I was frustrated about the waste of time. I knew my Japanese wasn’t business level. I told the women who tried to make me sign up; I told my interviewer. Both of them told me “Japanese language ability doesn’t really matter.”
But obviously it does.
I wish companies would be more upfront about it. My second interview with an electric appliance company went about the same.
That was the most frustrating thing at the Tokyo Career Forum – the lack of qualifications for an initial interview. Anyone can interview. Anyone at all. While I can understand the merit of such a system (Hey, let’s not count someone out just because they have a plain resume), I think it is an incredible waste of time for people who obviously don’t qualify for the position. Furthermore, the people who actually want to work for the company have to wade through and compete with a bunch of other people that just got “pulled in” from the streets of Tokyo Career Forum. That day, I ended up wasting nearly an hour and a half with interviews that I, quite honestly, never had a chance of passing in the first place.
That’s frustrating. I would rather be told an outright “no,” than an implied “no” hidden behind a “maybe” after thirty minutes of interviewing.
These are the times I miss America the most. I miss the days where a company will look at my resume and only call me if they think I’m qualified.
I want companies to say what they mean. But I’m in Japan…
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