Monday, 13 October 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 4: Becoming an English teacher 3/3


Private lessons

It's common knowledge that the quickest, easiest and most profitable way of making money in Japan as an English speaker is to have private lessons, or cafe lessons as they are called too (guess why?). At first I was very reluctant to engage in this kind of work, mostly because it's actually not about teaching English when you are a good-looking white guy in Japan, it's mostly about (young) women looking for a nice chat partner or even future boyfriend to practice their English. Not that I wouldn't enjoy the company of an attractive women, but getting paid for it and having some sort of a pressure to conduct at least some sort of a good lesson was making me think; nah, I'll pass...

But as you read before perhaps, things were not easy and money was scarce, so I registered myself at a couple of websites like, and The results varied. While didn't get me a single student, quickly got me my first private student. And guess what, it was for German classes even!

So my first student was Midori, a piano teacher in her 20s who spoke German extremly well. Her pronounciation wasn't that good, but since I'm not bad a teaching phonetics, I was able to help her out. With next to no teaching experience apart from tandem/language exchange back in Germany with some Japanese friends, I tried to balance out the casual talk and actual lesson-type practice. She brought her own textbook and practice material, so I didn't have to prepare anything. I didn't want to actually because my lesson fee was only 2,500JPY including travel expenses which is rather low, especially for teaching German. But I told her and the students who followed, that I just won't prepare anything in particular for the lessons, hence the cheaper fee. But on the other hand, I offered to help out outside of a lesson by mail, LINE message or else. For me that was the best balance of time and money investment, for both parties.

Our lessons were quite fun sometimes, even though I had the feeling that she was not only looking for improving her German, but maybe for something more. I kept it professional though. But spicing the lesson up with a liiiiiitle bit of flirty talk is part of the game, and I wasn't so bad at it ;)

The risk of private lessons is that a student will cancel or stop completely at short notice and your income for that week or month is gone in an instant. That happened with Midori too. All of a sudden she stopped emailing me. So it's always better to have a couple of students and surprisingly enough, I found myself with 3 students at some point.

Another one was Yuka, a young girl who would go to Germany on a working holiday and spoke next to no German, but some English. She was super fun to talk to and because I was explaining in Japanese most of the times, it was great practice for me too. Her plan was to stay in Berlin for one year and she was totally into electronic dance music (Minimal, House, etc.), so I enjoyed talking about my city and the club culture of course. She even introduced me to her sister Sachiyo, who actually studied German at university but forgot basically everything. But she wasn't interested in learning German again but English I thought. I turned out that she just left her boyfriend and needed someone to talk to, in English. Which is very typical in Japan I think. So as a private English teacher you have to be entertainer, counselor, teacher and object of desire (to some point). I heard about some teachers who get paid 6,000JPY just to talk for 1h with some middle-aged women who are bored by their always-working husbands.

A memorable moment was when it was time for Yuka to leave to Berlin, they invited me to join them at Sangenjaya (三軒茶屋), which is the place in Tokyo if you like small bars and izakayas, hidden in a steamy, red-light-district kinda labyrinth with the smells of a thousands food places. Good times.
Pretty cool people in pretty cool places
Crazy sisters!
Usually guys like me only end up teaching women, and to be honest, that's a lot easier for me. But I also accepted a male student once and after my first doubts on why he would choose me as a teacher or in general, why he would want to pay for English lessons, he became almost like a friend to me. Sure, it's English teaching alright when you correct grammar, pronounciation and teach vocabulary, but having your students talk about their obstacles and big choices in life, honestly asking for your advice, is what really makes a private lesson special. It makes both parties forget that this is a paid service and not just two friends hanging out.

But it's definitely not for everyone. With some students you maybe don't really want to get close or share private information. My rule always was and still is not to become Facebook friends for example, no matter how enjoyable the lessons are. Western women in Japan who want to do private lessons always have to deal with the "horny old men", which is an accurate unfair generalization of all the guys who enjoy the company of a younger woman while practicing English or any foreign language. The blogosphere is full of horrible and amusing stories about that, I'm sure.

By the way, in case you wondered. It's possible to easily make 30,000 to 40,000JPY per month with a minimal time investment. All you have to find is the right student, the right price and the right place to get the most out of it.


Around June I found a job ad for German instructor on and I applied immediately. Unfortunately, it was very short notice and required me to start working the next week or so. I had to pass on that but my mail contact suggested that I come to their office and register with them, so I thought why not.

Cosmo is a medium-sized company who places English teachers in a variety of educational institutions, ranging from standard K-12 schools to Juku or cram-schools (塾) or even private companies. They've been around for quite some time and their office is located in Shinjuku, not far from the station, so I knew right away that I was dealing with professionals here (which was a relief, having just left the amateurs at GA behind me).

The main native English speaker contact was a fun American guy named Catch, seemingly from Hawaii. Even though he was in Japan for a long time already and working in a Japanese company, he was the most open, honest and straight-forward person I had met in a professional setting so far. He was not beating around the bush, he was giving me all the facts, the good and the bad ones. He even listened to my bad stories about GA, which is not really what you should do on your first interview, talking bad about your former employeer that is. But he was super cool about it and assured me that I won't have any of these problems with Cosmo. He was right :)

The interview was great, I liked them, they liked me. Even though there was no formal contract, I became a Substitute English Teacher at Cosmo. The way it worked was that they'd send me a possible substitute job offer by email, including date, location and type of lesson/company and I could decide if I want it or not. If I decided to go, all I had to do was to be there in time, do my lesson or two, and head back. In and out, easy. The payment was also higher than average, some lessons even going for 5,000JPY (50min lesson). But they often required me to be on the train for 30 - 90min.

My first lessons were at Inter TOMAS, one of the big players in English after-school education. I was subbing for a Danish girl which turned out to be someone I already met online over a year ago! Her dream was to become a singer in Japan and she was a little bit too crazy for me to become friends back then (no joke), but when both found out that we know each other, she was cool about my earlier "rejection" and we had a good laugh about the whole thing. Another almost magical coincidence, showing me that there is a path I need to walk that I don't really understand yet. Talking about understanding, I didn't really have a clue what to do, even after she sent me a lof of info about her classes and possible students that day. The very first lesson was about strenghtening reading skills with three students on different levels. I was quite confused and nervous, and felt stupid for asking. The staff there didn't even know that this was my very first day working for them and I felt bad for asking, but luckily another teacher was able to help me out. The working  atmosphere was really nice too, the different English teachers and Japanese staff going to and fro, preparing and conducting their lessons. Seemed like a good place to work to me.

The second lesson was almost shocking. Originally I was told to have a singing (!) lesson with a young girl. We were supposed to sing and practice the words of Let it go from the movie "Frozen" which is extremly popular in Japan. I was actually looking forward to that lesson because I love the song and sing at Karaoke everytime....seriously. But unfortunately, that lesson was canceled and instead I had to watch a little boy taking some sort of placement test in English. It was another of these standardized test accompanied by a CD. Poor guy had no clue and was super sleepy. It was Saturday evening, around 6pm and this little fellow couldn't stay awake. I felt so bad that we had to force him to take this test. There was another Japanese staff with me who tried to have him listen and stay awake. If it would have been just me, I'd let this poor boy sleep and tell the parents or whoever was responsible that they should try another time. I'd call it the dark side of Japanese education.

Picture unrelated...
I also had a couple of lessons in Juku, the cram-schools of Japan who force even more education on young and already exhausted minds in the evening. Even though I liked the not so serious school atmosphere, they way they were pressuring kids to study even more was somewhat sad to witness from my European education background. In Japan it's all about standardized tests, entry exams and memorizing. There is next to no "natural" learning in this system. Even English is taught by Japanese teachers who sometimes have only a minimal understanding of the language. Grammar and vocabulary is studied in a systematic and repetetive way, almost with no self-speaking or independent thinking in class. It's all about memorizing. But what do you expect of a 8 year old kid who just completed 6h of school, just to continue studying at a Juku in the evening? A young mind can only take so much per day. Juku, definitely not my favorite type of educational system. Having said that, not all companies were the same and the ones I was subbing at usually had a little bit of a different approach. While the goal remainded the same (the entry exams), their unique selling point was the better learning material, the different type of classes and a more "natural" learning experience.

Since I was a substitute teacher, I could also try a different approach myself and not follow the syllabus so strictly. So instead of making the kids suffer I tried playing games to wake them up and enjoy themselves while also encouraging them to use their memorized English vocabulary. After I got a hang of it, it turned out pretty well. But I still was kinda strict in my classes. I expected them to participate, listen and not disturb. Japanese kids are usually extremely well behaved, so that wasn't even a problem.

Some funny things I remember. Once I had to teach a single 5 year old girl who was surprisingly good at English. But the way she was used to the classes before made her repeat almost everything I said to her, even if it was just a question. It took her some time to realize that I want her to think herself, not just repeat.

Me: "My name is Michael. What is your name?"
Her: "My namu is youanamu.." (with a cute voice of course)

Over the last couple of months I was able to see different types of Juku and schools with classes from 1 kid only to sometimes 6 kids in a classroom. A very fascinating experience and it made me really respect the work of teacher more, especially in childhood education. This work can be tough, trust me.

Another good thing was that I was able to travel to some places I wouldn't usually go to. I went to Odawara (小田原) and headed to the beach right after my classes were finished. The city is famous for it's large castle but the beach was more impressive.

Oh and by the way, Cosmo was that cool of a company that they offered me to sponsor my visa without me even asking them! While I write this I am still waiting for the results though, so wish me luck ^_^


I live very close to Ryogoku station and whenever I take the JR train, I could see the windows of a small English school named easyeigo right next to the station. I was always thinking; it would be nice to work there, it's not even a minute on foot from my place. So one day, I remembered what sales taught me ("always fill the funnel") and so I emailed the owner via his website. Bryce is from Australia, in his early 40s, married with a Japanese, two kids and in Japan for over 10 years, running this school for more than 7 years. I was extremely lucky because he was actually looking for someone to help him out with classes once a week. He asked me to come over after his classes to have a talk/interview and we ended up having beers and being quite drunk in the end. Did I mention he's Australian? Not sure how to phrase it, but if it wouldn't be for my Australian housemate, who I got to know pretty well after some time, I wouldn't know how to handle the "bluntness" of Australian guys. I probably became a little bit Australian myself, I don't know. But it is almost a moment of tranquility, a divine-like mutual understanding and brotherly acceptance when two men call each other "cunt" in the face and laugh it off. Needless to say, this interview was great fun. A hell-of-a, no-bullshiting type of guy.

His way of teaching was even more impressive. His adult classes always had a maximum of four students and he strongly focused on maximizing speaking time for the students. With a reliable set of excercises and learning materials, the classes were all about engaging in discussions, independent thinking and of course, lots of fun. He gave me a quick rundown on what to do and then threw me into the cold water. As usual, I was rather nervous in the beginning but managed to teach some good classes. When in doubt, speak about yourself as a teacher. Since I was a new face, the students were naturally interested in me in the beginning. But only a week later, I already forgot most of what he showed me and felt stupid for asking again. First I thought he just needed a temporary guy but as he kept on listening to my classes and asking for feedback, I started to believe he really wanted me to stay. Which was a great compliment and, of course, additional pressure for me. Some lessons I taught were really bad in the beginning, almost always when he was around to hear it. But what he did was really cool though, he saw my weak points and simply told me what to do better. Problem -> solution. No shortcuts. I was able to give him feedback whenever I wanted and he told me where to be careful (keeping track of the time, e.g.) and where to apply easy excercises to make my classes more interesting.

That did the trick mostly. After a couple of weeks I got the hang of it and was able to conduct some good and fund classes. Still, I wasn't really satisfied with it. Whenever I walked by his classroom (we usually taught at the same but in seperate rooms), his students seemed more engaged, classes generally more active. Oh by the way, maybe I should write a bit about his students. Most of them are female I believe, with an age range around 30-50 and different levels of English. Most of them were Japanese but also a lot of Mongolian, Korean and Chinese students. They were from around the area mostly, a lot of them from Sumida-ku directly. Ok, back to classes again. So after I felt somewhat comfortable with teaching my classes, I wanted to raise the bar and adapt some more of Bryce's teaching methods. I sat in on a couple of his classes as a guest and took some notes. Great way to learn from a pro.

A typical class. Bryce is the strict-looking guy on the left.
Another very fun and important thing regarding this work was what happened after classes. Bryce was always up for a beer and a talk and even though his life and my life so far as well as characters are quite different, we got along extremyl fine and shared some good stories and laughs over a lot of some drinks. Believe it or not, drinking was an important factor in this school. The so called "beer classes" were about drinking a different type of beer each class and talk about it. For example, if it's a beer from outside of Japan, people could share their travel experience about that country besides talking about the beer's taste. I think everyone who likes to drink from time to time and is learning a language would agree with me when I say that it's way easier to speak a foreign language while being a biiiiit tipsy, でしょう?;-)

Every couple of months there was also a school party where all students gathered and mingled while having food and drinks. Bryce asked me to join and do a bit of face-marketing (being a new teacher and stuff). It was fascinating to see that all of these students with the most diverse backgrounds came together because they loved to learn English. One of the best nights I had in a long time. Free food and drinks too, which is always a good thing for broke student me.

Teachers also get invited to birthday parties sometimes, yay!

Ooooh, and I forgot to mention that Bryce is an archer! He has bow & arrow and a small target bag in his school and allows me to practice sometimes. That alone makes him my best friend already, haha. I love all traditional types of sports (as in medieval; swordplay, archery, horse-riding, etc.) and I never really practiced archery, so that was a cool bonus to working there.

Behold the office archer!

Beer & office archery, good times

Currently I am working there every Thursday for three lessons, sometimes helping out on different days too if Bryce has other plans. I'm hoping for more working days though. Not because of the above-average payment but because it's the best and most fun job in Japan I had so far.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 4: Becoming an English teacher 2/3


3 months at GA

After being accepted into this newly founded school, I was in high spirits and super motivated. Being really nervous about interacting with kids at first, I quickly became confident in my work and tasks at hand. I learned at lot from my co-worker Grace and Ayumi, who not only loved kids above everything they were also skilled and educated in what they did. In addition to that, working with them was incredibly fun and always with a cheeky, not too serious touch. If it wasn't for them, I would have quit the job way earlier than I eventually did.

I usually came to work after my language school had ended, did my homework while having a coffee and enjoying a chat. I even got some help with my Japanese, something of extreme value for me (it was free, haha). Around 2pm my shift started. After doing some preparation work (yeah, even cleaning toilets), we had until around 5 or 6pm with 2 or more kids. They first thing was always playing in the ball pool which was usually my job. I had to keep them entertained and watch them not to kill each other (more difficult than you might think). Because the never seem to get tired of playing there, we sometimes ended the day with the pool too, watching Lazy Town, Disney shorts or AKB48/Psy music videos (they loved to dance and sign to it, so hillarious sometimes).

The actual lessons were a mix of Grace's infamous science experiments, playing games, eating snacks and basically doing fun stuff while speaking English to them and challenging them to interact with us in English. It was more than the usual colors, numbers and feelings stuff that you see these days, GA had some pretty high goals on diversity of lesson content and encouraging positiveness in the kids. Writing about this now reminds me how much fun this lessons actually were, how super unique and fun it sometimes can be to talk to 4 year olds in a foreign language. It's hard to describe but all in all, these moments were the best memories of my job. Early childhood education is definitely not an easy job but it's so rewarding and a crucial foundation to becoming a good person in your life. The teachers and staff at GA truly did a good job and I tried my best to follow their example.

But as you already guessed, not all was gold in the land of cheap part-time labor there. If I would have to name the major problem of this company during my time there, I would say management. First of all, there was a manager who was more of a cook and had no (visible) management experience with staff and education. Second, on top of him on the hierachy map there were two owners, one being the main owner (社長) and basically the guy with the money and the other the sister of the manager. Both owners were good friends too. Then there was Miho who was an external consultant and quasi manager, again a good friend of both owners. So the friend and family ties in this company were strong. This could have been a good thing, but maybe because this is Japan, it turned out to be extremly difficult, not only for me. This was my first experience and insight in a Japanese company and what I experienced from the point of view of an part-timer (アルバイト) was definitely not pretty.

Having said that, I should mention that I'm definitely not the shut-up-and-smile type of guy. I had a good relationship with my bosses in the past, but not a harmonic one. There were disputs and arguments, but all in a professional manner and always with respect. In Japan, it's important to follow the rules and just do as being told, without questioning and without wondering when you are waaayyy down on the hierachy. As a part-timer, I was the lowest creature of them all, a fact that I realized too late or tried to not see until it was too obvious.

I loved working at GA because I could interact with the kids and have fun while also being part of something growing, a start-up. From the start I threw in all the professional experience I had, shared ideas and how to improve things. I created a LinkedIn and Facebook page, urging them to make use of the power of social media to boost their business. But all I was met with was relucantcy. No matter how hard I tried to convince them of the positive impact of my ideas (Facebook stuff was just one of them), the general response was a "nah, I don't think we need that" in 8 of 10 cases. In addition to that, the above mentioned triangle relationship left the staff with a manager with all the responsibility but not decision-making power, insufficient multicultural relations skills and a two-headed direction-giving entity (the owners). Oh and everything took soooo long to get done. It's common knowledge that decisions in Japan take their time to be made because people want to be sure to have every aspect and impact fully understood before. While from a strategical and quality management point of view I like that idea, in our case and being a start-up, things took way too long. Painfully too long.

Patience is what you need in Japan, I knew that fully well. And I was willing to go the extra mile, bite my lip and follow the rules. After all this was a great chance they were giving me, with a prospect of a visa sponsorship or even a management position if the business goes as planned. So I held on to it, remembering the simple promises they have made in the beginning like an average 20h work week, a real contract, a part-time friendly payment system. Oh right, did you know that in Japan it's apparently pretty common for some companies to pay you a month later than you the month you actually worked in? For example, you worked in February but get paid at the end of March! And here's the dealbreaker, for some mysterious reason the full-timers get their payment earlier. Sure, part-timers work by the hour but no matter how you put it, this payment system just plain sucks in my opinion.

There were other problems too. Without enough kids in the school, the bosses became a bit nervous and desperately thought of ways to become more profitable. So that was when they had the idea of me teaching adult students. Great stuff and honestly another big chance for me to proof my worth. I did a couple of lessons before we even discussed the payment, which luckily in my and their understanding should be a bit higher than the hourly pay I already received as a part-timer. But what they eventually offered me for teaching was ridiculously low. I challenged them to raise their offer or give me at least more security for my future, being in month no. 2 already with no written contract and more and more unresolved issues stacking up.

On top of that, they even raised their expectations and demanded more of me. All of a sudden I saw myself with the task of developing a student curiculum, lesson plans, special TOEIC lessons, and so on. They expected me to show some effort, which felt like a slap on the face for me sometimes, considering my position and the many unresolved issues. It felt like they expected the work of a full-timer but only paid me like a part-timer. Oh and of course I was also treated like one. But I did as requested and got stuff done. Of course I put less heart into it and only did the minimum, but I got it done in a professional way, only to see that the requested documents or ideas already excisted within their folders. Nothing I hate more than doing redundant work. So I asked a couple of questions on the way too.

But here's the catch. In my position, I was not entitled to questions. I remember a long talk with my manager in half English, half Japanese, about where I stand and what people expect me to be like. He kept pointing out situations which were, almost unbeknown to me at that time, showed my relucant behaviour and basically flawed performance. Here's one situation he mentioned:

The entrance area / cafe was full with staff and even one of the bosses was there. We were having relaxed chats, one of the things I really liked about working there. Outside, a couple with a baby stroller walked past and stopped briefly before moving on. They were already past the windows when my boss mentioned in a informal way "You should go out and say hello, give them our flyer and so on". Not feeling too confident about both my Japanese and approaching-people skills in that very moment, I refused and explained in all honesty "Sorry, but I'm way too nervous to do that now. They are already gone anyways, I would have to run after them which would make me feel even weirder. I'll do it next time for sure!"

So for my manager that situation was obvisouly a good example of my refusal to work. He said that in Japan, when your boss tells you something, you do it and you don't question it or argue with it, no matter what. He had similar examples pulled out of thin air who made perfect sense to him but left me puzzled with how much I DON'T understand Japanese thinking (or his?) sometimes. Maybe he wasn't the best example of that, but the long talks with him were both inspiring and shocking each time. As I mentioned before, his social and multicultural-relations skills were almost invisible to me because he treated me and others in an unprofessional way. But hey, I'm a foreigner in Japan, right? Who am I to complain or question these things?

But I did question them and only received more heat for that. I even made the horrible mistake to openly ask my boss(es) about the unresolved questions and correct false statements they have made regarding my work situation. Of course, in Germany I wouldn't email my CEO right away if I have a problem with something but if said CEO told me to always contact him/her when there is something up, why would I not do it??! I was literally told to shut up via email by my manager, an unprofessional behaviour I haven't experienced before in all my life. But I also sucked that up, hoping things will calm down once my contract is all set and the promises were fulfilled.

But that day never came...after 3 months, I had obvious health problems. I couldn't sleep and completly lost track of my Japanese studies. I couldn't focus on anything, all I did was worry about the future at GA and what else would make the atmosphere at work worse. I tried to get external help, a negotiator, but that didn't help either because of the complicated triangle they called management. When they finally hired another part-timer who happened to be the cousin of an important business relative, they gave him MY shift and cut down my hours instead, without any explanation before or after. So I realized that there is no future with people who treat you like that. It was like having a relationship with a person you love and hate at the same time.

Even on the final day, when I had another long talk with my manager about my intention to quit, I still had doubts and hoped for a more positive outcome. If there is one thing he is brilliant in than it is motivating people with colorful, almost lyrical expressions. But he was talking to me, a man of 35 years, 13+ years of that being business experience and with no time to waste, so it always had the condescending ring to it, sometimes even plain ridiculous.  Naturally and maybe luckily, he ended up explaining again what my position in this company is/was and how this is the Japanese way. He basically said what I heard so many times before: work your way up from the shit-filled pits and then one day you eventually get what you deserve and can treat others the same way. We don't need your skills now. You have to learn all the skills first. I nodded and finally understood his (Japanese) way of thinking. But I decided, in my current situation, understanding does not equal accepting and finally decided to leave.

In one of my attempts to resolve my open questions I once wrote to them in a less formal tone:

"I'm still absolutely committed to GA, so if you want to make me happy before my birthday (April 11th), please let us sort this out soon."

They took it wrong and apparently their opinion was that it's not their job to make me happy. There I think they were wrong. I believe they are good people, working for a good cause with the right heart, but as I often noticed in the past, poor management can sabotage the most valiant endeavour. They made the mistake of not seeing what is most important in a company. Namely the people working for them. Unhappy people are not good workers. I was very unhappy in the end...and I was/am not the only one.

Hey, I like lists, so here's what I learned and what I am truly grateful for:
  • How to teach an adult lesson
  • How to interact with kids in a learning environment
  • How not to mistake informal interaction with your higher-ups for professional opinion or behaviour
  • How hard but rewarding early childhood education is
  • How important happiness and a peace of mind is to function for someone being away from home
  • How working with emails is totally different in Japan
  • ...or social media
  • ...or conducting business meetings
  • How much I don't fit into a typical Japanese company, at least not until I haven't mastered the language
  • ...

Note: This is already too long so I left out a lot of things, good and bad. There really is a lot more to it but as always, everyone made mistakes and that included me. I tried my best to adapt but I failed. It was a valuable experience and I learned a whole lot of stuff. This post is in no way meant to denounce an individual person or my former employer, it simply reflects my personal experience during these short 3 months. I am not in touch with them anymore so things might be totally different now...or not, I really don't know. Or care.

To be continued...

Monday, 18 August 2014

Finding work in Tokyo: Resources and advice

Here's a very small and incomplete list of resources and possibles websites for your job hunt in Tokyo:

Things you need to eventually obtain a job in Japan:

  • CV/resumé in English (standard rules for an English/International CV apply)
  • CV/resumé aka 履歴書 / りれきしょ in Japanese
    The format is totally different from what you might be used to, so be careful. Some employers even require a hand-written one! I found this blog post very handy:
  • Passport photos for your resumés and for whatever comes your way (visa applications, official documents, etc). Format is usually 3x4cm.
  • A mobile phone (to confirm interviews etc.)
  • Your Japanese residence card
  • A working visa or working permit. If you are a student, you need to have a special work permit. It is a "Permission to engage in activity other than that permitted under the status of residence previously granted".
    I was able to hand them my application form right at the airport immigration both when I received my residence card, so I saved a lot of time and didn't have to go to the immigration office in Tokyo (loooong waiting times there).
  • Knowledge of Japanese manners and rules for an interview (dresscode, who and how to address, when to bow, etc.)
  • Some skills in polite Japanese (greetings, etc) and preferrably a fluency in Japanese (conversational is ok, business is of course better)
  • A bachelor's degree or higher, just to be safe. It doesn't really matter what major or field, just the degree is usually enough since it's a basic requirement for most visa types. Most part-time jobs don't require you to have a degree though.
  • But most of all, you need a clear idea of what you want to do (see below for more)
  • Equivalently important: patience, a thick skin and a positive attitude

Career/HR company websites:

Part-time job websites:

Teacher job & private student websites:


General advice:

The two "easiest" jobs out there for people new to Japan and with none to little Japanese language skills are English teacher and HR recruiter/consultant. The latter actually requires some more Japanese than the teacher jobs but usually speaking Japanese is only considered a plus, not a strict requirement. As teaching is not for everyone, so is becoming a recruiter which to me is working in sales all over again, just with a different "product" to sell. So if you're not the type for a sales job, maybe becoming a HR consultant is not the best idea. If you interested in meeting new people, connecting them, helping them and making some good money on the way, then it might be the perfect job for you to start.

But one thing is imperative for your job hunt in Japan. Actually for any job hunt but especially for Japan since you are a foreigner in a not-so-foreigner-friendly environment.

You need to be at least be somewhat sure what you want to do and what you do not want to do. What you can do and what can not do. What you are good at and what you are not good at. Assess your strengths and your weaknesses. Make sure you know where you want to be in a couple of months and a couple of years in the future. Be confident about it, even if you're in a state of flux or insecurity. Match your skills to the possibles jobs and choose your path. Don't expect others to choose for you or a job magically fall from heaven. Be honest about your goals in life and for pete's sake please have some when you want to work in Japan.

I made dis!

Don't expect anyone to hire you just because you speak English or because you are a foreigner brave enough to try work in Japan. No one cares if you love Japan sooooo much and enjoy the Ramen and Sushi and the Anime and Manga and the culture and blablabla. Basically, no one gives a shit. Would you hire someone just for their love for your own country? No? I thought so. It's a big plus if you play your cards right and show some understanding and preferrably insight for the culture, but what people ask for here is skills or at least a fancy representation of possibly obtained skills (aka certificate). The rest is all about how you adapt to their system, sell yourself at the interview and eventually perform at the job...more or less ;)

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 4: Becoming an English teacher 1/3

Note: It's been a while. Life is fast in Japan and there is always so much to do, even if it means to do nothing but watching TV or playing Mario Kart on the WiiU (our newest addition to the shared house family). But it's my school's holiday, so I have to catch up on stuff.

In case you forgot, before coming to Japan I always told myself and others one thing; I will never become a recruiter or a teacher in Japan. But here I am now, a teacher. A bloody good one too, I dare say.

It all started back in November 2013 when I decided to send in an application to Berlitz and GABA, both of them big English conversation schools or Eikaiwa / 英会話 here in Japan. It was becoming more and more difficult to obtain a job or internship, so I became kind of desperate. I also met a lovely girl who was an English teacher down in Chiba, who really changed my mind about the stigma to English teachers in Japan. She was a passionate teacher and she loved teaching her kids. We had many eye-opening discussions about teaching in general and it was her, among other people around me, who encouraged me to try a teaching job. Not just because of my English, but also because of my character. Indeed, I have been called "Mr Teacher" on many occasions in the past, but mostly because I just patronized them too much. Kind of a bad habit. But having worked successfully as a Consultant for years, I felt that teaching wasn't that far from what I already did. So with enough practice and support, I could do that I thought.

So surprisingly enough, both my applications were returned with a follow-up message, but I turned down Berlitz rather quickly because I didn't want to settle with them for a full year. So instead I went for the interview at GABA.

The first part of the interview was rather tough. I was in my finest suit and had too many layers in order to relax. So I was sweating, as usual when coming from a mild cold outside into a aircon-blasting heat inside of a building. Damn you Japan and your air-conditioning. Of course I was nervous. I never had a job interview for a teaching job, so I just tried to give my best professional impression. We were given a presentation about GABA first and I was quite impressed on how much they integrated IT in their workflows. The system worked on individual lesson, bookable by the students and accessable by the teacher online with full control and insight. They had computers in every booth and all lesson reports and feedback were accessible via computer.

And the best part was, they were not only employing native English speakers. The presenter itself was not a native but from Singapore. He did a pretty good job in having cast away his Singlish accent. He had a funny habit though. Whenever being asked a question, he always replied with "that's an interesting question" first before actually answering or mostly avoiding a real answer actually. Another fun part, there was a guy from Scotland or New Zealand, I can't remember. I could barely understand his English and I'm definitely not bad with accents. But his was unintelligible.

So the tough part of the interview was actually planning a lesson. We were given a text example as well as a choice of two different tasks and had 30min or so to work on it. One was "teach the student the difference between bored and boring". The other one I forgot, but it was more difficult. I had no experience whatsoever in laying out a lesson plan, so I just followed my instincts and tried my best. The bonus question about idioms was almost too difficult for me, two of 5 idioms I had never heard of before.

The one-on-one review of our task was great. I managed to impress the guy in front of me and he quickly gave me the (tentative) go for a 2nd interview in a week. Needless to say, I felt like a million bucks after.

The second interview was quite great too. My interviewer was a women from Wales with a loveable accent. I totally nailed the task of teaching a 10min lesson to a Japanese low English level mid-thirties business lady who liked to travel. Of course the lady from Wales was pretending to be the Japanese student and she did that eerily well. I think I looked at her cleavage a bit too often and I also think she noticed it. But anyways, the interview went really well and her feedback was really great. It gave me absolute confidence that I could do this, namely teaching one-on-one.

But yeah, maybe because of the cleavage-staring but probably because of some other stupid reasons I didn't get the job in the end. They didn't even care to state why and only gave me standardized crap. So I asked them/her again by email, naturally frustrated with the outcome of this great hope of mine. All I could find out from her was that the competition was strong and the better candidate apparently got the job. Bummer. Total bummer.

This was around the beginning of December 2013. I tried a couple of other things but nothing really worked so I kept on working at the restaurant and the only promising thing was a small job ad on craigslist for a hostel near Asakusa. Normally nothing on craigslist should be considered legit or safe I think, but this guy turned out quite cool. I'll write about it in another post.

Fast forward to the end of January 2014. Via Verena and the Internship Japan LinkedIn group, I was connected to a Japanese guy who was looking for part-time English teachers for his brand new International Preschool named Global Academy. It was in West-Asakusa and therefore not far from my school, the perfect location for a part-time job. So I went there for a first interview and was overwhelmed by the positive and friendly energy at the place. They even had a ballpool! How awesome was that?! So I had my chat with the manager, a Japanese guy who clearly enjoyed eating. He was super friendly and funny, so we shared some good laughs during our talk in a mix of bad English and bad Japanese. He explained to me that they were looking for someone who could play with the kids (age 3-6) while teaching them English and other stuff. Because I had an IT background, they wanted to use that for the lessons as well. The interview was really nice and I was quite interested in the job, yet unsure if I would be good enough with the kids. I mean I love kids and I love to play with them, but the only experience I had so far was with my nieces. Being their uncle was something else than being a teacher, a stranger.

My colleague Grace, the ballpool and two kids
I expressed these concerns during my second interview with Miho Saijo, who was an external education consultant to the young start-up, fluent bi-lingual, education professional and not to mention an attractive business lady. The interview was extremly enjoyable and challenging, and because there was no language barrier between us, I could express myself in normal English. I was able to speak freely and give my honest thoughts and opinions to her challenging questions. She stressed the point of a good early childhood education and how to listen to the child's needs vs. the wants. She obviously had a lot of experience in this matter. At that time I didn't know a lot about childhood education in general or Japan in particular, other than what I heard and saw my brother and sister-in-law doing with their kids (my nieces). Both were childcare workers and great parents. Apparently they did it just right, so what I learned from, the combination of my total work experience and maybe a bit of my charm (and less cleavage staring this time) did the trick. We shared some good laughs and interesting discussion points during the interview. Luckily, my soon-to-be co-worker Grace (an adorable American-Chinese women with a big heart for kids) gave me a little heads-up on some of the tougher questions and later did a great job in showing me how to engage with the kids in a fun lesson. The lesson after the interview was the final test so to say. The kids were adorable and surprisingly good in English. I was nervous as fuck in the beginning, oh boy.  But eventually and officially, I became part of GA and a part-time English teacher for kids.

This sounds like the beginning of a happy story and in the beginning, it actually was. It felt great to be part of something growing, a start-up, where I could throw in what I already knew and learn what I don't know yet. Exactly what I imagined my dream job to be. Working with kids was so rewarding, so much fun. Oh yeah, and don't forget the ballpool!! And the free coffee!! And my colleagues Grace, Ayumi and Ivan!! As you can see below, our very first big meeting in an awesome Brazilian restaurant was really a team-building moment.

The whole gang, including the big boss.

But unfortunately, this story had no happy ending for me and was over just after 3 months. It was a tough ending, a bitter ending for me, just like when a relationship ends that just isn't good for you now but you can't, you won't give it up because there is so much good in it too. It was my very first experience on how different Japanese thinking sometimes is when it comes to work and business. I will write more about it in part 2. Stay tuned.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 3: Job interviews and lowered standards

Time to post about some of the job interviews I had in Japan.

Internet business

The first and most promising one was at Hivelocity, a Japanese online marketing and social media company. Again, the connection came via Verena and Internship Japan. Fabian, originally from Peru and in Japan for over 10 years, was looking for someone to assist with marketing and sales and posted about it in the LinkedIn group Internship Japan. We agreed to an interview date even before I left Germany. Fabian is a nice guy and definitely a party animal, which we soon found out after going clubbing together.

The interview itself was quite interesting. I was given a colorful and impressive company presentation, completly in Japanese. I didn't understand anything because I couldn't read shit at that time, but Fabian explained it to me as well as what the company was looking for. The interview quickly became more of a chat than an actual interview. He sure knew how it feels to be a foreigner in Japan and having to work under tough working conditions in addition to the language and cultural barrier. I told him what I did in the past and what I can do in the future. It was all Internet talk and I really enjoyed it. They had a pretty impressive tool in use and I was quite curious what I could do with (see: Hubspot). He definitely saw some potential in me but not in the originally drafted internship position. I told him openly that I'm more a consultant than a sales guy, even though I believe you always have to play both when you work in IT. He, in fact, was looking for a wingman, a partner, a guy who he could work together, and not a inexperienced subordinate. Needless to say, I liked that idea more than being an intern. I even ended up doing some free sales strategy consulting for him, basically giving him ideas on how to gather potential customers from their database and how to go forward with their future projects.

At the end of the interview however, we weren't sure on how to work together exactly. Would there a position for me or not? Could he convince his boss to facilitate my skills or not? Fabian gave me some homework, which was a Hubspot publification on How to find the perfect inbound marketer. There were some pretty private questions but I felt obliged to answer them all. Some of the questions were:
  • Who was your favorite teacher and why?
  • What is your "super power" that would be crazy not to use?
  • Tell me about an important project and the outcome the project drove.
  • What was one of the most difficult decisions you've ever made?
  • What or who is the most inspirational thing in your life?
  • How do you inspire and motivate others in your everyday life?
It was a pretty interesting self-discovery trip and looking at my answers now after 8 months in Japan is even more. I tried to answer them all, even if I didn't really want to answer some of them. But I wanted to work in this company, with this tool and with this guy. It had the perfect balance of things I knew already and things I would have to learn, so I felt that this could be the perfect start for my time in Japan.

In the end, it was the prototype example for the honest intentions of a nice guy who couldn't convince his boss to follow through. Instead they hired a WordPress programmer or something like that. Quite a bummer. But at least we enjoyed some great party nights together after, haha.

From dishwasher to...

The second interview was at the German restaurant "Zum Einhorn". Not only Verena but many other Germans worked at this restaurant before. Noda Sensei was quite a famous chef in Japan, well known for his German cuisine and knowledge about Germany. His restaurant was definitely upper class, the location in Roppongi Ichoume alone was speaking for itself. Mercedes-Benz was in the same building too.

I spoke almost only Japanese during my interview, which was good. But I didn't bring my CV, which was bad. The chef seemed like a super nice guy though and like a young grandfather or older uncle. The interview was short but ok and I was rewarded with a suprise call the very next. They asked me if I could work at a party and of course, I said yes.

Being November already, it was rather cool outside and that always seems to trigger the average Japanese person's instinct to blast the aircon on hellfire mode. Or in other words, I was sweating in seconds because of the heat in and around the restaurant and because I wore way too many clothes on my body. But at least I looked rad in the kitchen uniform. Everyone thought I was a cook, not just a dishwasher.

My face when I was told not to WHISTLE at work...
Oh yeah, that was my primary work. I washed dishes. Well, I pre-washed them mostly, then put them in the big automatic dishwasher and then dried up the dishes, glasses, pans, whatever. If we had a full restaurant and larger groups, this meant a constant flow of dirty dishes and cooking utensils to be handled in time. If I was too slow, the whole process was delayed, so I had no time to waste.

Team Unicorn
Putting everything back at the right place was quite a challenge, finding things they needed was also one. I got a hang out of it after a couple of days but after a two-day break I already forgot where this dish was stored and that pan should go to. First time working in a kitchen guys, give me a break. The breaks were actually the best part because I was served a huge German meal before I started work every time. Meat and/or fish, rice or noodles, salat or soup, I never started to work hungry and I never left the place hungry. There were so many leftovers to eat, I was seriously putting on weight after a couple of months.

Soon I was even allowed to help with some basic preparations like the starter salad. Even though the chef was always changing a detail, I could pretty much do it on my own. I learned how to properly cut onions and how to make icecream. I washed around a million potatoes and tossed a lot of salad. Wait...what?

Working was still a bit hard if I sum it all up. The constant steam of the dishwasher, the strong soap, the sharp knifes, the stress that some certain cook couldn't handle so well and tried to vent on me, the dull work in general and my lack of Japanese communication skills did not make me love this job very much. I usually worked from 5pm to sometimes 11pm, so I was pretty beat up afterwards, not really in the mood to study or up for other activities. The kitchen was also a bit too small for me. Well, I am obviously too tall for Japan, I know. But still, it was nice to work there and people were generally super nice and friendly. My other German colleagues made it worthwile too. Katja (in the picture above) even ended up being a language student at my school by my recommendation.

Oh and they had the best self-made chocolate cake ever! That alone was a reason to work there sometimes.

Mein erstes Essen im Restaurant

Who needs the Kwik-E Mart?

Around December, without making ends meet for months already, I became somewhat desperate and even considered working in a konbini, a 24 hour convenience store like the thousands of other under-qualified workers and foreigners in Japan. One of my housemates who improved her Japanese greatly by working in a konbini kinda talked me into giving it a try. Again, Verena was making the connection, just as before, so I thought I might as well try it.

So I dressed not too smart, not too casual for the interview and went to the store. The talk took place in a cramped backroom / office and pretty informal. I stumbled through the interview with my nervous Japanese, not really impressive but still ok. Two huge surprises though. For working in a konbini I had to shave my beard, completely! No way, I thought. He even showed me the page in the store manual stating this rule. Also, the manager seriously believed that the Japanese cash registers are far more complicated than actual personal computers. He kept stressing the point that there are soooo many features and even though I assured him that I have used cash registers in Germany before (in addition to the hardware and software skills I have anyways) and that I'm pretty confident in knowing how to use them, he still felt it might be too difficult for me because it's Japan and things are more complicated and complex here, right? Sure, whatever. In the end he was giving me his thumbs up and wanted me to talk to the main boss right away. So we took a short bicycle ride to the next store and I had the same talk with the female boss.

That second talk wasn't so good. She was a super hectical and nervous women. She mainly had a problem with my Japanese level and that customers wouldn't be patient enough to wait for me to understand. I told her I'm still learning it and that there is no better place to learn it here, i.e. polite Japanese (敬語). While talking she kept waving her hands in a dangerous manner, almost hitting me once with her gestures. In my guts I felt that she would be a really bad boss and probably super moody. We didn't click at all and the longer we talked, the smaller my self-esteem became and the less I wanted to work there. I felt bad that my Japanese level wasn't good enough yet and that I couldn't convince her that there wouldn't be a problem, not with my working hours, not with my Japanese. She was definitely making a mountain out of a molehill there.

Before I left she said in a jokingly manner "Don't shave your beard just yet, we will call you tomorrow about the job." They didn't. They just send back my CV without a note or further word. No surprises there.

I keep telling myself that I probably would have become crazy at this place, saying the same stuff all over and over again, hearing the doorbell and repetitive music and basically being an obediant faceless drone for a bunch of ungrateful customers. But then again...

Next up:How I reluctantly became an English teacher

Friday, 9 May 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 2: First "job" / Early business suit business

My first "job"

Sometimes it's all about the people you know and to be there at the right time. My 1st actual job wasn't a job I applied for or thought about in the first place. A friend of mine, Hirofumi, who happens to be a talented Jazz guitarist (see his blog and schedule here), contacted me on Facebook and asked if I could help out a friend of his. It was about a medial research and they appearantly needed some Gaijin for a study about some facial cleaning or exercise device. I was a bit sceptical at first but the 19.000 Yen for doing work from home told me to look into it.

I was contacted by his Japanese friend and we quickly exchanged the necessary details for the study and I got registered with their web system. It was all in Japanese and I barely had an idea what it was about. After I was approved I was told to come to their office for an initial screening. When I was on site, I needed help from the Japanese staff who could speak a bit of English, without her I would have been totally lost and given up on the intial questionnaire already. I tried though. To take a picture with Google Translate and translating the Kanji-heavy text did the trick most of the times...well, sometimes. Given the nature of this questionnaire (like: "Do you understand Japanese?" or "Have you had any major operations in the last 12 months?"), I had to answer it precisely get my point.

Before I was given the plastic abstrusity I had to use every night before going to bed from then on, my face was photographed from different angles thoroughly. They had me smile and say "weeee" all the time, so they could see how my cheeks and wrinkles look like. The "weeee" part was the funniest one, especially because they asked me to do more "weeeeee" all the time. もっと!もっとウイイイイイください!It was like the "more cowbell" joke.

The device I was given was hillarious. It was like a mouthpiece looking propeller with exchangable weights at both ends. I had to put it in my mouth, hold it with my lips only (don't bite it) and then move my head up and down so the weights at the ends would wiggle and excercise my face. If you made it this far without laughing, congratulations. Unfortunately, I didn't keep a picture of it or the description I was given. If I'll find one, I'll upload it. It just looked too silly ^_^

I was meant to use it every single day for before going to bed and check off a short questionnaire online after, 2 months in a row. Altogether I think I used it maybe around 10 to 14 times but then just left it in the bag and filled out the questionnaire each night instead. Well, not even each day. They reminded of my missed days every bloody time by email. But how would they be able to tell the difference if I used it or not? It was a useless product anyways. Maybe it wouldn't even work on Gaijin, hehe.

Do I feel bad about not using it and basically cheating on the study? A little actually, yes. But seriously, do they really expect people to use it and even have visible results?

Given the situation I was in, money-wise, I had no real regrets. I used it when I could, filled out the daily questionnaire and went to the "photo-shoots" ("weeeee") before finally giving the device back to them. I still receive a lot of invites every month for various research studies and maybe one day there will be another one I can do.

Early business suit business

Before I even arrived in Japan I had two business events scheduled. One was an event of the Deutsch-Japanischer Wirtschaftskreis and the other a business party of the large LinkedIn group Business in Japan.

The first event was more face-marketing, showing myself and getting to know the German players in the Japanese business world. Unfortunately, I had no business cards ready at that time, but I hoped I would leave an impression anyways.

It felt like being back on the sales grind in Germany. Important looking people speaking about important things and patting each others backs more or less. I didn't like it much. Some speeches/presentations were quite interesting though, but afterwards ruined by long questions from a certain Japanese business guy who liked to hear himself speak in English, basically not even asking a question but only showing his insight on the topic.

Being in the room with a lot of top notch companies working with or interested in working with German companies made me hope I could get some contacts for my future career. Talking to them wasn't easy at all. Verena, who accompanied me pointed out some faces to me, most of them German of course and she even introduced me to some of them. Soon however I was left alone and had to find people to talk to again. Boy, that's why I hated my old job somethings. With the pressure of thinking "I have to talk to them and make a good impression" I wasn't relaxed and felt uncomfortable, so it was even harder. I did meet some nice people, one being a sophisticated German guy who worked in the stock exchange. Quickly after exchanging facts about ourselves, he offered to show me the "real side" of the Tokyo nightlife and I wasn't really sure what he meant by that. Needless to say I was intriuged.

In the end I collected a couple of business cards, met a couple of interested people and plundered the buffet. The beforementioned Japanese business guy made another speech later, praising the glorious economy and future of Japan. I'm not sure if this was meant to be a motivational speech or if he really believed in what he said. To me it sounded a bit far from the truth and very typical for Japan. But what do I know about the Japanese economy?

The second event I went to was a fancy business party at club Le G.A., organized by the LinkedIn Group Business in Japan. Before coming to Japan I reached out to one of the co-founders and most active members of the group, Jason Ball. I was looking forward to meet him in person too since he kind of seemed to be somewhat of a foot in the door into the Japanese IT business sector.

Because I arrived way too early and ended up being one of the first guests, I was approached by another early bird named Johan (Dutch, web-developer, in Japan forever, came for a woman) and we ended up talking a looooong time about many different things. It was a business party so there were drinks too, which clearly helped me in relaxing a bit more this time. The speakers did a better job this time, but unfortunately the later the evening, the less people in the audience cared about the presentations and no one could understand a word anymore. But at that time, everyone was happily mingling and mixing. The overall topic was "On the way to 2020", meaning what business opportunities there are in the future with the upcoming Olympics coming to Japan again. I even had a few chats in Japanese with familiar faces from BiJ. Jason hooked me up with a seemingly random IT contact of his after I told him what I could do and what I need. One interesting thing he said was that my timing to come to Japan is perfect. One year before, he wouldn't have said the same, the opportunities were rare and the possibilities declining. Anyhow, this guy's body language and other responses clearly showed that he wasn't interested in a part-time worker / language student combination. A common reaction in the next months...

One of the Japanese guys I talked to introduced me to an attractive HR lady from one of the bigger players in Japan. She seemed interested in my background but confused me when she asked why I would wear a business suit tonight. As in "You don't work yet, why do you come in a business suit?". After a moment of confusion I replied "Uhm, because I look good in a suit of course. Why would I wear jeans and t-shirt for a business event like this?"

I still don't know why she had asked that question...

After 3 drinks and the bad feeling of wasting my money (entrance fee was already around 2000 Yen inlcuding a drink), I left the scene. I collected some business cards and met a couple of people, that was it. Contacting them later didn't help much. The HR lady lost her interest the second she realized I couldn't fit into one of her categories, meaning she couldn't "sell" me easily. Another common reaction in the next months...

I left the party relatively early because I saw no point in staying there and mingling with the others. I didn't feel part of it and I wasn't outgoing enough to throw myself and my professionality at them...yet. But at least I looked fly in a suit.

Another business suit moment was the Daijob Job Fair the day after in Akihabara. A couple of interesting employers had booth there to speak with interested applicants. The Japanese job world consisted of distinctive groups, one being the pre- and new-graduates and the mid-career people. The pre-graduates were basically college students without any work experience who started their job hunt sometimes 20+ months before they would graduate. It was like a race, thousands of desperate boys and girls (literally) in black suits would join job fairs, send out resumes, attend complicated, multi-level interviews to find that one company and job for the rest of their lives. It was the most stressful time for these young minds, for some it proved even fatal if they couldn't get a job within a certain time. But more about that in a later post.

I counted as a mid career person, even though I didn't have a job. This job fair was particulary targeted at bi-lingual people, so international companies were present as well. Best of all, it was free! I surely wouldn't impress them with my Japanese so I focused less on job/internship hunting but instead on the task that I was asked to do by Verena, namely to hand out flyers for the Internship Japan idea of hers and talk to companies who would want to join the cause. A promising cause it was, but my part in it was rather small at that time, but would ultimately change during the upcoming months.

After registration I did some rounds in the mid-sized fair hall. All companies had booths with at least two seats behind and two to eight seats in front of their booth table. Ralph Lauren had the most of them, people were lining up and waiting for over 40mins to hand over their resumes and have a 5min talk with the HR people at the booth. Some other companies had bigger booths with many small tables for closer conversations. I sat down with a couple of interesting companies and had chats about Internship Japan, getting mixed reactions. Of course I did some promotion for myself, talking to a Spanish guy who ran a solar cell and/or renewable energy company.

I noticed a booth by Mitsubishi FuSo/Daimler, which is one of the bigger companies with German ties in Japan. The HR lady in front of the booth had a German name tag, so I approached her and did my best professional flirting (as in trying to get a job, alright?). She was pretty nice and we talked for more than the polite 5 minutes It turned out that the IT department of FuSo/Daimler might be the perfect spot for me to do an internship. The company culture, work environment, the Head of IT and everything seems like a perfect fit. On top of that, we connected on a professional level with how we approached our mission in Japan and so on. This felt very promising!

Being back home, I emailed her, registered myself on their job web-portal and submitted formal applications for the IT Controlling internship starting January 2014. I kept my fingers crossed and stayed in close contact with the HR lady over the next couple of weeks.

But in the end, it was all hot air and one of the poorest ways of communication I've seen. The HR lady couldn't give me any updates because the Head of IT didn't get back to her about me. Even the sophistaced web-portal they used for the application wasn't any better. The status of my application was unchanged for the whole time. After 3 phone and 2 email inquires over 6-8 weeks I decided to give it up. During the last call she said "actually, but we already had some interviews, but we haven't decided yet". I wasn't even invited to one, but no one bothered to tell me if I'm still a possible candidate or not. Very dissapointing and quite unprofessional communication, in my honest opinion.

Fast forward to January 2014. I just came back from Taiwan after a short break over Christmas and New Year's Eve. To my surprise, the Head of IT emailed me, apologizing for not coming back to me earlier. He wrote (quote):

Dear Mr. Meyer,

Sorry for not being able to come back to you on an earlier timeframe. The reason for this is that we didn’t have any open internship positions at the time.

I would like to inform you that we have a position open at the IT Controlling department. I was wondering if you’re still available for an internship.

I would like to attend you that if you want to be applicable for this internship you have to be enrolled into a University. If this is not the case I’m afraid that you can’t apply for this position.

Please let me know if you’re interested.

Kind regards,

Now that was a serious surprise to me. I was kind of happy that I still had a chance and kind of annoyed in how poorly they communicate with each other and the candidates. But I wouldn't leave this opportunity pass me by, so I replied:

thank you for your message and a happy belated new year to you!

I am still very interested in a paid internship position, yes. However, I am not enrolled in an university but a private language school in Tokyo. Technically I qualify as a student since my visa status is also that of a student (留学生).

Maybe I am not the right candidate by your internship rules and regulations but with my 13+ years of work experience in the IT business I might be the better candidate for your company after all. Since my intention is to stay in Japan with a full-time job later, chances are also higher this internship would benefit the both of us in the future. I leave it up to you to decide that of course.

Thank you again and hope to hear from you soon.

Best regards

Michael Meyer

Guess what happened?


No. Reply. Ever. Again.

Even after I sent another reminder, there was no reply again. In my book, this is an absolute no-go, especially in IT. Definitely not worth my time and energy. So I had to move on with a bitter feeling inside me.

Part 3 will cover four various job interviews. One of them got me my first real part-time job in Japan. One got me really close to it. Stay tuned.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 1: Foreign talent / NHK

Note: It's already May 2014 and I didn't have much time to update my blog. Apologies for that. In fact I had to quit one of my jobs, so now is the best time to finally post about the most important thing I am pursuing in Japan: a proper job.

I will not report about my endeavours in a chronological order this time but sum them up instead. So here you go:

Trying to find work as a registered "foreign talent" / model

Upon arriving in Japan I already had a couple of meetings arranged with several people. Some of them being referred to me by Verena or others. One of the first things I did was to take a trip to a foreign talent/model agency to get myself registered. You never know, I thought. Having read the book Tokyo Diaries, I must admit I had some hopes of landing a decent job with that type of work.

My visit to FreeWave was a short but enjoyable one. I had my pictures and measurements taken and was officially registered as a foreign talent in their database. Even though I didn't have a lot of acting experience apart from the extra job when I was 13 and my general "sales skills", I hoped for some small extra role in the future. A day of work as an extra is said to be a good source of income, making around 10.000 - 20.000 Yen.

Yay, I know....but I was fresh from the boat...
Usually the agency would send a mail with a short (very short) description of the job and the possible days and I had to reply to them if I'm available for the castings and shootings. Mostly there was a picture selection before the actual casting, so if you made it past that stage, good riddance. In the beginning I said yes to everything I could get, curious and excited about that unusual kind of work. My very first casting however wasn't via the agency but via a job ad I saw on craigslist. The guy seemed legit and friendly, so I thought why not go there and give it a try.

That very first casting of mine was quite strange, but somewhat fun. The director, three business people and 4 or 5 guys with beards gathered in a small basement room. Yeah, the beards were part of the requirements, probably because scruffy looking Gaijin would use the product. After signing a disclaimer and non-disclosure agreement. We were given strange and heavy looking goggles that would remind you of Google glasses if they weren't so bulky and ridiculously heavy. They covered both eyes and looked more like night-vision googles. They were supposed to play movies and stuff. The idea of the ad was to do every-day tasks but being so taken by the things on the "screen" that you'd forgot about it, like vacuuming the room and slamming the vacuumer against the wall all the time. Or brushing your teeth while watching a football match, with all the emotions and hilarity.

Some guys were doing pretty well on the teeth brushing thing, but I wasn't so much. Not much of a sports watcher. Also, the product was so annoyingly heavy and uncomfortable, I already doubted it would ever sell well. Needless to say that I didn't convice them with my performance.

Funny thing was that the business guys obviously responsible for this idea didn't really have a clue how it would look like or what they actually wanted. They just watched and commented on what they saw. So the better you'd improvise and the more they'd like that, the higher your chances of getting the job I guess.

Another casting I went to was quite a big one. The original description said it was for Toyota and that they were planning a big campaign with a Steve Jobs looking kind of guy. I wondered why they let me go to the casting with my looks, but I didn't question it. It was really a big one. There were probably over 30 people already waiting and more coming in throughout the day just to have their 3min of casting time in front of the camera. Almost everyone had their agent with them, even me. Yes, being a registered model means you have your agent supporting you during the casting, even entering the room with you and standing by your side. Quite convenient if you ask me.

This casting was more like a class reunion. Half of the people knew each other from other castings or jobs in the past. There were professional actors, professional extras and professional nut jobs too. I remember this one guy clearly who kept talking the whole time, mostly to himself in various English accents, making random statements about stuff and trying to talk to everyone within his reach. He was the craziest character I have seen in a long time and I was feeling uncomfortable simply being in the same room with him. But he and some others had something that I didn't have. Confidence and uniqueness. They clearly stick out of the crowd.

While I was waiting for my turn to talk about stuff in front of the camera I talked to a more humble and friendly fellow who told me that he's doing this for years now, mostly for the fun and the experience of meeting new people everyday. He came well prepared, wearing a lab coat and asking specifically about the required role (the details changed during my 1.5 hours of waiting). He just finished doing a shoot on the Bali bombing in 2002 where he was playing an investigator. A couple of months later I even saw him on TV in that very show, the world is small indeed.

My casting took around 1 minute only. I had to do two sales talk about a new phone, first to my colleagues in a technical way and then more a motivational sales talk. It was just like back in Germany when I had to explain stuff about a new server technology, so I was actually not even bad at it. I was running out of bullshit to say though and because I was a bit nervous, I talked quite fast. In the end I was ok with the results and left in a good mood, knowing fully well though that I will never get this job.

Other, more famous actors in the waiting crowd complained about the casting and the long waiting periods in fact. Apparantly this was the second casting already and everyone was unhappy about how it was carried out before and now. A strange group of people in a strange marketing machine I thought.

My next and last casting a couple of weeks later pissed me off quite a bit. It was just another casting for some TV ad and it happened to be in Roppongi, close to my work in the German restaurant (more about that later). I asked to leave work earlier to take part in the casting and received some heat for it, but they let me go nevertheless. I was a bit late and couldn't find the address right away so I hoped into a cab even though my money was tight.

I arrived on time and was allowed into the camera room rather quickly. Here is what happened then (for the record, the job description said "guy around 30, able to play the piano or at least pretend to play the piano", nothing more)

I did my self-introduction, trying to look cool and motivated. Then the director asked me:

"Can you sing?"

First thought: "Wut? Why do they ask this?"

"Uhm, yeah, I think I can sing. At least at Karaoke and with some alcohol involved. But I'm not a real singer. Sorry, I don't think I can sing right on cue here and now." I replied.

"Can you dance?"

First thought: "WTF? What kind of casting is this? I thought I'm here to pretend-play piano?!"

"Uhm, yes I can dance. In a club. With music. But not without it and not right now if you want me to do that." I replied, becoming obviously annoyed with these questions.

"So..." (long pause...the director became annoyed with me as well I guess) "What can you do really well?"

"Uuhhmm...(long pause)...Iaido for example. That's one my most important hobbies.....(director wasn't happy with that reply)...and eating. I think I'm quite good at eating." I said with a winning smile.

The director chuckled a little and said he's good at that too. Then he said thank you and I was finally freed from answering more stupid questions.

I talked to my agent right after that embarassing encounter and told her that this was a complete waste of my time. Everyone's time actually. If they are looking for people to dance and sing on cue, they are clearly not hiring me for that job. I also send a mail to the agency, making very clear what I am not interested in doing and since then, not many mails showed up in my inbox. Fair enough.

All the above mentioned happened near the end of 2013 and since then I haven't pursued this "career", simply because I felt it was a waste of time and money. Going to the casting costs money, waiting at the casting costs time and then having to act like a fool for something you wouldn't want to do anyways is another waste of time and effort. If you have seen how foreigners are depicted in Japanese TV ads, you know what I mean.

But in 2014 there was another moment when I almost reconsidered my choice. A scout from another agency came to my language school and was looking for western people to extra in a big baseball movie shoot. It was set in the 1920s, which was quite intriguing, not to mention the 14.000 Yen payment per day. But when the admittedly cute agent explained the details, I felt almost insulted by the offer. Of course she tried to sell it as a fun and awesome thing, but I begged to differ.

The shooting took place a bit outside of Tokyo, about a 2h drive. So their plan was to pick up all the people from Shibuya at 11pm, then drive to the location, unpack and assign the people, do their make-up and clothes and then wait until 8am to begin the actual shooting. Then you'd have an 8h day of shooting, which as an extra basically means 3h of doing something and maybe 5h of waiting altogether. Then everyone hopped on the bus again and was dropped off at Shibuya around 8pm. Since this was an all weekend shoot, you could do this from Friday night till Sunday night, having only 3h between drop-off and pick-up time. And no, it was not possible to stay at the shooting location.
For me the calculation was simple: being away for almost 20h per day in comparison to the 14.000 Yen payment was so ridiculously low, it was not even funny.

Of course, if you don't mind the waiting and being away for so long, this is probably a fun thing to do. In fact, some people I know did it and really enjoyed meeting random people and being part of a movie shoot. I for one, couldn't be bothered. Money talks and in this case it talked bullshit.

So my conclusion on finding work as an extra or model is: if you have the outgoing personality, the looks, the dancing/singing/acting skills and the time to go to the castings, go for it. After a couple of jobs it probably gets even easier. Having the right agency is also very important. I felt mine wasn't really doing a good job (for me). So in summary, this was not my cup of tea.

Random shot, Roppongi business district

The NHK interview

Last but not least, there was the very interesting and very promising looking job interview at NHK. Yes, that's the biggest TV station in Japan and also known for a German program called テレビでドイツ語. Again, this opportunity didn't come through my own research but through connections and friends of friends who I talked to directly. Germans in Japan tend to help each other out, something that I learned to appreciate more and more.

Here is the original description in Japanese and German:

The show is a rather low-budget production but running sucessfully for years already. Almost every Japanese interested in speaking German has already heard about it. Funny coincidence: Max, a German friend back in Berlin and skilled Aikido teacher (Aikodokan dojo) did the same thing back in the 2000s. He gave me some valuable advice. Yet another coincidence: Caro, another German friend currently living in Tokyo was also invited for the interview.

The odds were in my favour I felt and since this job was about presenting myself in a good way by speaking German, I had no doubt I'd perform well. I wrote that in my application even, boasting about my interesting voice and attractive appearance (I had to get their attention, right?). So I was motivated, only slightly nervous and ready for the show.

Some of you may not know that interviews in Japan aren't usually one-to-one. In my case, there were 5 people sitting in front of me. Two of them fluent in German and helping with the translation, one head interviewer (boss?) and two others with random questions. Unfortunately, I couldn't do this interview in Japanese but the translator was so fluent in German, she got everything across perfectly I felt.

I was charming, I made them laugh and enjoy the interview. I gave clever replies, even to the trickiest questions. At first they were asking about my brave statements regarding my voice and appearance. I played it humble and said that I was just writing down the feedback I received from others and that they are free to judge themselves now. A tricky question was: "What would you do if you would be told to do something you don't like to do? Like wearing only swim wear?" That was the Gaijin question. They were afraid I wouldn't follow orders properly. I talked my way out of it, acknowledging their hierachy while also keeping my right to refuse morally intricate behaviour. Maybe mentioning my tattoo wasn't a good idea, but in my mind I though "hey, you wouldn't even want to see me in only swim wear when I have a tattoo, right?". I gave long explanations about what I feel is the big difference between Germans and Japanese but also how similar they are and how this could benefit the working environment. The head interviewer was quite a tough lady and I couldn't really judge her reactions most of the times, but I was sure I won the others, especially the ones who understood German. They were basically smiling the whole time to what I said.

Last part of the interview was to read a short text in German. I did my best reading voice and put an extra bit of emotional pronouncation on top of it. Did the trick, they loved it and I left them in awe, no kidding.

I felt like a million bucks after that interview, almost being sure that this would be my job for the next couple of months.

But well, I didn't get the job, neither did Caro. There were no explanations given and their mail wasn't helpful either. Up to now I don't really know who got the job. But if you see some of the episodes of the last years and the terrible, cringe-worthy acting in it, I fear that they picked the wrong people again ;)

Up next: my first ridiculous job and my first decent part-time job.