The importance of Japanese language in the workplace

Richard Miller and Mike Parrish

One of the principal challenges in Japanese daily life is the language. The first thing that strikes many of us as we deplane in Japan is that even the simplest sign is unclear. Although Japanese language skills for daily conversation are clear, in the workplace we often hear, “I am an English teacher, why must I speak Japanese?” At first glance, the question may seem legitimate, but there are many valid reasons why employers prefer, or require, job seekers to have at least basic Japanese abilities to be considered for employment.

The most salient include dealing with staff members on day-to-day business matters, discussing important issues with students, and communicating with other non-English speaking faculty members. Moving up the university hierarchy, the requirements for Japanese become more demanding, and activities such as attending and contributing in meetings, and even writing documents in Japanese, all become essential.

Improving your Japanese skills starts with the basics, including study-at-home materials (such as Rosetta Stone ™ or Japanese for Busy People). A Japanese teacher would also be useful, especially for explaining nuances of workplace communication. Besides basic communication skills (for most work situations only the basics have to be mastered), you should be learning relevant vocabulary from your workplace, such as the names of faculties, education-centered terms, student-centered terms, and general workplace language (for example, calling in sick or changing classrooms). A practical way of learning these terms is to bring familiar documents (such as student rosters and workplace memoranda) to your Japanese teacher and learn key terms drawn from them. For some, proficiency tests can be motivating, and provide an external measure of your ability. Several widely recognized tests, such as the Japan Language Proficiency Test, JETRO Business Japanese Proficiency Test, and J-Test, are similar in style and scope to English proficiency tests and could have a wash-back effect on our teaching. The long-term goal would be to have sufficient proficiency to perform tasks that a Japanese instructor would be able to perform.

Many job postings require Japanese application documents, a CV, work history, and a summary of research. Although not often essential, adding a Japanese résumé, detailing your work experience and education with a philosophy of teaching that is written in Japanese, to your package of employment documents is valuable. Although each university has its own form, the basic information remains similar. MEXT has developed a standard form, which would be worthwhile to use as a starting point. This could be useful additional information, even if not required by the application process. The other document that is necessary is a teaching philosophy. It should be something that you wrote and had a native Japanese speaker help you clean up. If you write it yourself in Japanese, it ensures that you can talk about it in Japanese during an interview. Although a deep philosophical, professionally translated document might seem desirable, it will most likely get you into trouble once the interview begins. However, if you can practice discussing it with a teacher of Japanese, you could become fluent in that area of the language. In addition, make sure that any English documents submitted match verbatim those submitted in Japanese as inconsistencies invite red flags.

Remember, lacking a basic knowledge of Japanese could exclude you from many jobs, and added knowledge makes you a greater asset to any potential employer.