Why do so few young Japanese want to work overseas?

By Casey Baseel

Back when my college days were winding down, my job hunting had turned up two promising leads. One was with a Los Angeles-based fruit exporter, and the other was with a chain of English schools in Japan. As appealing as the idea of having an inside track to some of the world’s finest citrus was, in the end, the siren song of living and working overseas was just too enticing to resist.

Seeing as how that decision eventually led me to some amazing experiences, a wonderful spouse, and a job that occasionally pays me to drink beer, I’d say it was a good call. Still, it’s not all intriguing discoveries and delicious food, as culture shock and homesickness are also parts of leaving the country you grew up in. As much as I love it, living overseas isn’t for everyone, including more than half of new college graduates in Japan, according to one recent survey.

As part of its tracking of business trends and attitudes, the Japan Management Association does an annual survey of new hires at companies in Japan. Although there are exceptions, finishing college in exactly four years, finding a job and remaining with that same company for your career is still the norm in Japanese society. As a result, the majority of the workers polled can be assumed to be fresh-faced 22-year-olds who, given that both the end of the Japanese school year and beginning of the fiscal year happen in spring, are just now settling into their positions.

As a resource-poor country whose largest business entities are heavily dependent on exporting, Japan has long owed its economic prosperity to its profitable ties to the rest of the global economy. For most workers, an overseas assignment is both a feather in the cap and a shortcut to the next rung on the corporate ladder. So the JMA was surprised that, when they asked their survey participants if they hoped to someday work overseas, 57.7% said “no,” the highest figure the organization has ever seen in its regular poll.

Paradoxically, and no doubt somewhat troubling for their bosses, 75.3% of those polled said they believed that greater globalization is a major opportunity for Japanese enterprises. Even more, 78.2%, recognized that internationalization, if carried out successfully, would directly benefit them as individuals. Even so, they had no intention of actually going abroad themselves.

So if young workers can see the upside to working overseas, what’s holding them back?

The most common response, put forth by 54.5%, were concerns about safety, sanitation, and diet. For many new employees’ parents, an overseas post meant one of the economic capitals of the world, and a few years spent in cosmopolitan New York or London wasn’t such a hard sell. Recently, though, many Japanese companies are looking to expand their presence in the developing economies of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or Africa. For many people who’ve grown up enjoying the almost complete lack of violent crime in Japan, whether it’s a fair assessment to make or not, these countries seem terribly dangerous, not to mention lacking in cleanliness compared to a nation where high-tech toilets with automated bidets have become the norm.

While many satisfied expats say the local cuisine is one of their favorite aspects of living abroad, it’s important to keep in mind that enough people in Japan have such a narrow palette that you can find individual-sized dry packs of miso soup in travel shops, just in case you can’t make it through the flight to your destination without the Japanese staple.

And 52% of respondents cited worries about language and communication as a reason they’d rather spend their career inside Japan. While English is taught as part of compulsory education, it’s a lot like calculus or chemistry in that people tend to forget most of what they learned after graduation unless it directly ties into their daily work. Plus, as we mentioned above, an increasing number of foreign assignments are to non-English-speaking countries, which often just exacerbates the problem.

Some 38.5% said they’d miss their friends and family if they were assigned a position outside of Japan. While that seems like a straightforward enough answer, Japanese business and education practices make this concern particularly large in scope.

If, for example, a company needs its engineer to go to Dubai for a two-year project, the relocation package doesn’t always include the employee’s immediate family. Even within Japan, it’s not so unusual for a father to live apart from his spouse and children for months or even years. Japanese human resource management means that employees get bounced around to different offices with surprising frequency, and the system of entrance tests for schools means many parents don’t want to pull their kids out of a school they worked so hard to get into. Many couples have an understanding that if one of them were to head overseas, the other would stay behind to look after the kids and home, and this familial separation isn’t exactly the surest blueprint to a happy life.

The simplest answer, though, came from the 39.3% who said they have no interest in working abroad because they “like Japan.”

As for our two cents, we can’t help but feel the poll’s results are at least in part influenced by general shifts in Japanese values over the past several years. Not so long ago, throwing yourself into your job and ignoring everything else was considered respectable, even admirable. But the younger generation in Japan is in the process of reevaluating the kind of work-life balance it wants, with more women working and an increasing number of men taking on a larger share of household and child-rearing responsibilities.

Sending an employee overseas is a serious investment, and companies do so with the expectation that they’ll be able to recover an even greater amount of revenue from the decision, which usually means an increased workload for the employee in question. Perhaps the large number of new graduates who told the Japan Management Association they’ve got no interest in working abroad aren’t so much averse to living overseas as they are to living for their company’s bottom line.

Source: Career Connection

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- 8 reasons why Japanese workers are so slow at making decisions -- Expert weighs in with his ideas on what defines the Japanese character -- 6 things Japanese expats miss most about Japan

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To put it briefly, some disadvantages of working and living abroad for some people could include being located far away from family and friends, dealing with a unfamiliar culture and customs, feeling uncomfortable with a language barrier, and getting forced to uproot your current life. Also if something bad happens back home, it will be costly to fly back. Some even resent family members for moving so far away from them. For others living and working abroad is not what they envisioned and there is always an adjustment period when you return home. Additionally there are many different myths about working abroad such as: International living being exciting and exotic. International work involves a lot of travel with time to explore new cultures. Living overseas is dangerous and involves health risks. International development work is rewarding and I will make a difference in the country I work. The job pays extremely well and I can save much of my salary. In the end like anything in life there are a lot of pros and cons when it comes to living and working abroad.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Is this unusual? I would imagine the results would be far fewer American graduates would be interested in working overseas than this number. Living and working overseas just isn't something most people want to do in a lot of countries.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

Because they "like Japan" is possibly the most valid answer. To them it's about working in an environment that is familiar. Rather then adjusting oneself in a foreign country The biggest con of working and living abroad is completely starting life all over.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Whether they want to or not, these employees will do as they are told. If their company posts them overseas they will go, or they'll be transferred to Wakkanai the following week.

It amazes me how Japanese allow their companies to send them to random places around the country at regular intervals. Never mind if your wife has just had a baby, the children have just got into a good school, you have just bought a house etc, the companies care nothing for that and treat their employees like a piece of equipment.

12 ( +13 / -1 )

I've seen 3 highly-capable Japanese women leave our company and find work abroad in the last few years. All spoke good English, all science majors ( one with a PhD ) and all completely pissed-off with the male, oyaji culture which undervalued them. If I had a career-minded daughter, I'd tell her to get out of here like a scalded cat.

12 ( +14 / -2 )

JImizo, you are so on target. The fate of English capable women in Japan is truly dismal in general. Although.......from my own personal Tokyo experience, there may be some hope with the need for good English speakers for the approaching Olympics. After that, who the heck knows.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

They need miracle to learn and speak in english !

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Sheeps will always stay with the flock, a few will realize there's more to life than the pen where they grew up.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

Its the same in a lot of rich countries, it might be a shock to go from there to a less developed country like Africa or other parts of Asia... Leaving your family and friends, adjusting to a totally new environment and learning a new language is no easy undertaking.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

I work with and have many friends who are Japanese expats or company rotation workers in the U.S. Concerns about safety are just unfounded. Companies generally compensate workers very well. The best preparation you could make if you want to work in th U.S. is to develop good English conversation skills. Forget the formal grammer taught in most schools you won't use it.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I am currently living in Denmark, but I tutor a quite a few Japanese exchange students. These are generally kids who want jobs abroad or at the very least a job where they have to interact with foreigners. Still they all seem to have a lot of insecurity when it comes to living abroad. One guy completely refused to drink water from the tap here and bought expensive bottled water for the entire duration of his stay, a girl was very surprised when, upon visiting Paris, she discovered that it wasn't dangerous, as she had been told by some of her friends, and I have often had people express concern whether this or that place in Copenhagen is safe.

I have experienced feeling unsafe in Tokyo as well as in Copenhagen (more times so in Copenhagen, but I have lived here a lot longer). Crime happens in Japan, too, in fact there is not an enormous difference in crime statistics between Denmark and Japan, and as far as the general standard of living goes it's about the same (clean water, clean streets, technology, general hygiene, etc.), so I don't think that is at the root of the problem. Rather, I think the problem lies in the perception. The story of Japan is that it is safer and cleaner and more orderly than any other place, and so by extension any other place must be unsafe, dirty and chaotic. If this is something that you grow up hearing, naturally it is also what you are going to expect when you go abroad, which automatically puts your guard up.

Part of the reason for this is probably lack of any real experience with foreign cultures. In Europe we can hardly drive for more than a few hours before finding ourselves in a foreign country, and most of what's on TV is in a foreign language, so the differences become undramatized. We learn growing up that things probably aren't that different on the other side of the border.

8 ( +10 / -2 )

This is a shame. I would think the best time for Japanese companies to send employees overseas would be a couple of years after they join the company. Their minds are still flexible to absorb the language (mainly English) and more importantly to educate young employees of "global business" than just as managers sent to oversee expats & local staff (as with case of employees in their 40s). Japan, if any country needs to cultivate more open global mindset. because as history shows, they like to close off and isolate itself. Unless Japanese businesses implement such strategy and think globally, it will be very difficult for them to stay competitive in the long run.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Because most Japanese people are utterly clueless about how the world works outside Japan?

3 ( +6 / -3 )

I've pondered on this for a while and have come to the conclusion that it's simply due to the fact that they love their county. The food, the customs, the media (TV etc.) the familiarity and their family & friends, of course.

I think will change over time, though.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Makes sense. Compared to Japan, every other place is dirtier, most places are more dangerous, and a great many are less healthy. Add to that the falling birthrate and the result that a growing number of grandparents now have only one grandchild, and the pull of staying home becomes ever stronger. An overseas posting for a typical salaryman these days is to China, India, the Middle East or Africa, each of which entail a great deal of hardship. Japanese companies in North America and Europe now have mostly local employees.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

So many points to make. First of all, relative to whom and by what standard? You're asking this question about a country whose residents were almost hermetically sealed off from any contact with human beings from other places for more than 250 years starting in 1600?

Quality of service is, I would have to say, one huge reason. Hotels, restaurants, train stations, airports, department stores, resorts--you name it, you'll get damn good service in Japan. And you don't have to be some hotshot financial services industry type making 20-30 million yen per year or more to enjoy such high quality service (live in New York or London, and you will NEED to earn salaries of at least that much in dollars or pounds to enjoy anything above being treated rather shabbily by everybody and anybody). Japan's retail and service sectors cater to the middle classes in a way that has all but disappeared in many other OECD countries. So prices are higher, but you pay for intangibles that make things better. Compare this to shopping at Walmart in America and there is no comparison, period.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Quality of service is, I would have to say, one huge reason. Hotels, restaurants, train stations, airports, department stores, resorts--you name it, you'll get damn good service in Japan. And you don't have to be some hotshot financial services industry type making 20-30 million yen per year or more to enjoy such high quality service (live in New York or London, and you will NEED to earn salaries of at least that much in dollars or pounds to enjoy anything above being treated rather shabbily by everybody and anybody). Japan's retail and service sectors cater to the middle classes in a way that has all but disappeared in many other OECD countries. So prices are higher, but you pay for intangibles that make things better. Compare this to shopping at Walmart in America and there is no comparison, period.

this is the reason most of you here talk so bad about your own country and put your hands on fire for japan.

specially this quote "you don't have to be some hotshot financial services industry type making 20-30 million yen per year or more to enjoy such high quality service (live in New York or London, and you will NEED to earn salaries of at least that much in dollars or pounds to enjoy anything above being treated rather shabbily by everybody and anybody)."

that mean that you a looser in your home country? now i get it!

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

I worked for a Japanese company long enough to be considered one of the group by my peers. On a visit to Chicago to attend the consumer electronics show, we were caught in heavy traffic, and the local staff member based in the US began explaining to the rest of us in the car how bad American drivers were, and why. Gave me a good laugh, considering that traffic rules here are enforced in such an arbitrary manner, and that raising your hand in a jerking motion before cutting off an approaching car is considered "good manners."

0 ( +1 / -1 )

that mean that you a looser in your home country? now i get it!

I don't think Masswipe is a looser, maybe if his jeans are loose because he lost weight then, yeah.

I agree with him, though, that the quality of services in Japan is high compared to many other countries. Add to that the cultural and linguistic familiarity of Japanese in their home country (or anyone in their home countries) and they wouldn't want to live anyplace else. They'd be fine with travelling, like most people are, but long-term residing would be a different matter. Some people prefer to remain within their comfort zone, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Having worked and stayed in 6 different counties. I would stay it is worth while to work aboard. It is just something you will never gained locally.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Having recently uprooted and moved to a new community 40 km away from my old one in my own country, I have encountered many of the same challenges that moving abroad entails. Everything is new: I don't know where services are, the ones I find are not as good, I don't have a coterie of colleagues and friends and neighbours who know me, people don't open up and embrace newcomers, I must go out of my way to join groups and networks and after several years I am still very much an outsider. This is in spite of the fact that I can still speak, read and write my own language and I am within my own culture.

Add culture shock of losing the ability to communicate with ease and all that becomes alien that moving abroad entails to the mix--as well as the factors that gejuro, masswipe, simoneb and novenachama raise in their posts--and you've got a whole list of good reasons to avoid seeking work abroad. It's a huge challenge. Not everyone is up for it.

Others, after taking the plunge, thrive elsewhere. However, of those Japanese I know personally who have, many cling to their own cultural group and make no "foreign" friends, speak Japanese and move only in Japanese circles. (Like a good majority of the "foreigners" in Roppongi, I suspect.)

It's human to FEAR the unknown and cling to what's perceived to be SAFE.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think Japanese kids tend to be too timid. They are fine as long as there know the answer buy put them is a strange place with rules they don't study and they are lost. When I was in London I just wandered around the place. Even got stopped by a Bobby near the stock exchange. No problem though. Did find a nice fish and chip place. I did see a show at Piccadilly Circus. Best part of a guided tour of Europe was when I switched tours and had to meet the other tour in another city in Germany. That was fun. The trains were too punctual. And all the stores seemed to close at 6 or 6:30pm. Seems inconvenient to me but.... In Japan I just go where I feel like. I really want to climb Mt Fuji off season but I not crazy enough to try when there is snow up there. Though I would like to walk through Aokigahara and then climb Mt Fuji or vica versa. But my point is that the knew 2 Japanese kids who lived in NYC for the summer and hardly when out. I was going to drag them to Twin Towers and on retrospect probably should have. There are so many museums and interesting locations to explore. But I guess if you don't want to get into the culture, there is no reason to go.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Todays young Japanese are just plain lazy they want handouts when they come to the US they spend more time surfing and at disneyland than study for classes. Sad but true!

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

I dont blame them. JPN is safer for them, they risk being persecuted in other countries for being Japanese. Cruel world out there.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Knew a couple who were extremely unhappy the husband's company (Nikkei) forced them back home after several years in Silicon Valley, since they liked it here so much. The youngest kid had spent half his life in US. On the other hand, knew an older guy who wasn't especially happy to go back to Japan, either, but felt he had to because his daughter in high school was getting interested in American guys, also the dad had been laid off for a while.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

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