How This Chartered Accountant Started a New Life in Tokyo, Japan as an Expat

We all know that the benefits of international work experience are far-reaching.

For starters, making the decision to work abroad forces you to step outside your comfort zone, which opens up opportunities to develop new skills and have new experiences.

In fact: In today's article, Prathamesh Deshpande a Chartered Accountant from ICAI, India shares with us how he got an opportunity to work in Japan. He also tells us about the work culture, the interview process, job opportunities in Japan for expats. 

Presently he is a Controller - Investment Accounting Reporting at AXA Life, Tokyo Japan.

My Journey Moving from India to Japan as an Expat

A lot of my friends ask me why did I choose Japan out of all the countries in the world - I should say, instead of me choosing Japan, Japan chose me (Lucky me!).

I started my career at AXA Life, India. After two years I was being recruited for a US Team but a surprise opening in the Japan team came up.

My personal flexibility to give up on a finalized position and reappear for all the interviews once again proved beneficial in the long run.

Also as a child, I had seen many documentaries on Japan and was always fascinated by its uniqueness.

I was welcomed in this country without any prejudice and with so much warmth.

My journey has been amazing so far and getting better.

What is it like living in Japan as an Expat

It is a unique experience living in Japan as a foreigner. The stuff you heard about Japan is true - The Japanese dislike chaos and love peace.

They are very well organized and realize the importance of punctuality and always put others before self.

They mostly keep to themselves, and would not speak until spoken with.

The people of Japan are very peaceful and polite at office as well as outside. I haven't heard people swearing at one another, maybe because I don't know the language fully.

I have always been treated with respect and dignity here and never had an unpleasant experience here. So, stay assured that you will be meted out the same treatment.

There is a substantial Indian community in Japan, mostly concentrated in the Edogawa district of Tokyo. This has brought many Indian restaurants and specialty grocery stores to the region. Most of them are of an IT / Engineering background.

There are many places of interest in and around Japan. Tokyo has some great nightclubs and bars to hang out.

Living costs and expenses in Japan

The cost of living in Japan depends on where you live.

I live in the city of Tokyo so I almost spend JPY 200k a month on rent, food, utilities, and transport.

Eating out is costlier than cooking. The restaurants in Tokyo have different prices for lunch and dinner. However, with higher salary levels, it is manageable for a single person.

In case you have a family to support, the expense increases as much.

Savings depend on your lifestyle, however, I should say that you can expect to save more in Japan than in India in absolute terms, primarily due to salary levels being 4x than India.

House Rents in Japan

  • The spaces are limited and come at a premium here. So for someone used to living in a 1500 sq ft flat, it can be difficult. Keep in mind that living in a convenient area of Tokyo can be a 30-40% increase in rent. On the other hand, in cities other than Tokyo, the cost of rent can be 20, 30 or even 50% lower.
  • I would recommend Gaijinpot.com. It is a one-stop for all issues a foreigner might face in Japan. They have an indicative listing of vacant apartments and the expected monthly rent.
  • Rent varies by location, size, and age of the apartment as well as it's proximity to the metro stations.
  • For people on a budget or backpackers, there are many BNB's, shared houses and capsule hotels to choose from.

 Mode of Transport in Japan

  • I don't drive in Japan. Like most of the population, I commute by the Metro trains which are convenient and on time (every single time!).
  • Japan has a well-connected metro and bullet train network so travelling is super easy and convenient here
  • You'd find many taxis plying on the streets, however, they are pricier.
  • Some people also use bicycles to reach nearby places.

What is it like to Work in Japan as an Expat 

I was already working with Japanese clients in my home country (India) before moving to Tokyo. So I had an idea of their work style making it easy for me to adapt to the work culture when in Japan.

If you are considering to work in Japan it would be nice to observe this:

  • In many ways, it is similar to a typical Indian company but the importance of perfection, punctuality, and honesty cannot be undermined.
  • The people of Japan are one of the most – Honest, Punctual and Selfless.
  • They are very particular and try avoiding mistakes. They are perfect in the truest sense.
  • Work culture in Japan is centered around the corporate.
  • People are usually addressed by their last names suffixed with­ -san, -sama, -chan depending on the age, position, and relationship.
  • Formal wear is commonplace and even in the most sweltering summers, you would find the Japanese donning their suits replete with the necktie.
  • They also think like a community, which is amazing. So, a question to a particular person would first be discussed and debated within his / her Team before being replied.
  • The communication is mostly in Japanese and can be a little difficult for someone who doesn't know the language. The language itself has three scripts and requires a lot of effort to master.
  • Since they believe in the concept of community - Usually the team members leave after the manager. Hanging out with colleagues after office hours is considered good manners in some cases. There is a lot of respect for one another in Japan.
  • In fact, in Japan, junior members of the team also support in logistical aspects like arranging a farewell or hosting some events in the company.
  • Some people do take power naps during the lunch hour. It helps in maintaining performance levels during the day.

Behaviour in Japan

  • The Japanese are well researched and knowledgeable about their work. They would expect the same of you.
  • They look into the minute aspects of things and work on a schedule.
  • Being late for meetings is frowned upon and could lead to a reprimand from the Manager/seniors. In various degrees, these aspects are necessary across countries.
  • Being organized and taking the effort to help someone would be highly appreciated by the Japanese.

Working hours in Japan

  • Japanese are the most hardworking set of individuals. Filled with discipline, integrity, and honesty towards their work.
  • Working hours in Japan are long. Many work overtime (overtime is mostly unpaid).
  • The working hours in Japan are generally long with people leaving for work at 8:00 and returning by 19:30.
  • Recently Japan has recently introduced a concept called "Premium Fridays" where employees can leave office by 15:00 on one Friday every month. This is an effort to bring more work-life balance and drive consumer spending.
  • Weekends (Sat and Sunday) are holidays.
  • Additionally, there are 10 public holidays, some paid vacations and sick leaves. Maternity and Paternity leaves, Condolence leaves are available depending on the circumstances.

Job opportunities in Japan for Expat Finance Professionals

The Japanese economy has seen steady growth over the past decade. They have become more acceptable to the idea of employing foreign labor for longer duration's.

Many people opt for Temporary positions to get an overall experience. Foreign interns too join our offices to experience the corporate life.

The immigration requirements have been considerably relaxed as the country faces a shortage of skilled workers.

Opportunities for Finance Professionals:

  • Based on my own experience, I receive calls from recruiters hiring for diverse positions such as Transfer Pricing associates, Finance analyst positions, Financial Controllers, Investment Reporting lead, etc.
  • Recently, I've seen a lot of demand in Transfer pricing and Financial planning and analysis (FP&A) roles.
  • The maximum openings for Finance professionals would come from the Big 4 firms having offices in Tokyo and Osaka. Investment Banks and AMC's too hire a good number of foreign professionals.
  • Of course other domains such as Assurance, Advisory services will definitely have a need for talent.
  • I would recommend getting in touch with Recruitment consultants instead of dropping CVs on websites. Robert Half, Hays, Michael Page have their offices in Japan.
  • You can connect with their Consultants on networking platforms like LinkedIn etc to discuss suitable opportunities.
  • Bilinguals remain high in demand as the official language of communication in most companies (even foreign MNCs) is Japanese.
  • Employees usually work in the same company for long periods. Job changes are infrequent, although I have seen people changing teams within the same company.
  • Many companies also offer internal work-profile changes as part of their career advancement strategies.

What Finance Qualifications are Recognized in Japan

  • My colleagues hold the JICPA Certification. Many have done their MBA's or MS Finance from local Universities.
  • Being in Investment Accounting, CFA is also considered a valuable certification.
  • ICAI does not have a Mutual Recognition Agreement with the JICPA (Japanese Institute of Certified Public Accountants).
  • The Japan CPA exams are all in Japanese. However, I don't see the necessity of having to do the local CPA courses.
  • Previous work experience and a fair knowledge of the language should bring good opportunities for Chartered Accountants and other finance professionals.

Salary in Japan for Expat Accountants

  • The average salary for an Expat Accountant in Japan depends on the experience. However, a newly qualified Accountant should expect upwards of 5.5 MN JPY per annum.
  • People joining at Executive / Managerial levels should expect upwards of 10.5 MN JPY per annum.
  • Annual increments aren't more than 2% generally since it's not an inflationary economy.
  • Payscale will change by 10-20% on promotions and job changes. Again, this entirely depends on the interviews and negotiations between the candidates and the recruiters.

How To Find a Job Opportunity in Japan as an Expat Accountant

I was an internal hire. So, I only appeared for the HR interview where the HR Business Partner asked me about my background and my knowledge of the organization.

However, based on the feedback from my friends I understand that there is a similar recruitment process in Japan like India and other countries.

Below is the basic process when interviewing an expat:

Level Of Japanese

  • For expat Accountants, the first question would be the level of Japanese.
  • If it's a job where the knowledge of the language is essential they'd be keen to know if you're certified as well.
  • Like I stated earlier there are JLPT exams and the levels are N5, N4, N3, N2 & N1, N5 being the beginner and N1 being the native.
  • Now usually they'll expect at least an N2 level certification.

Visa Status

  • Thereafter they will ask about the visa status.
  • Usually, the company's are more keen to hire locally or from the pool of people already in Japan.
  • Thus, applying from overseas might be a bit challenging.

Apply for courses in Japan

  • I suggest to enroll for some course in Japan and simultaneously pursue a career search.
  • Usually, foreigners will opt for Japanese language courses to start with.
  • However, there are some very good universities in Tokyo like Keio, Waseda, etc which offer reputable MBA courses.

If your skills are relevant

  • Applying in unrelated fields implies setting unrealistic expectations. This would also mean that you are disregarding your current experience.
  • They will question about what you did in your previous roles and if that is relevant to the job they have on hand.
  • Thus it's best to apply in fields where you have an actual experience which you can prove.

Current Compensation

  • They are also keen to know your current compensation. I'd suggest to tactfully avoid this question or ask about whether they have a budget for the position.
  • Of course, the salaries in India and Japan are incomparable being different economies and the recruiters would usually factor in this.
  • But it's best to do your research by looking up salary guides published by respectable manpower consultants like Robert Walters.

Having confirmed that the candidate can speak Japanese, has a good period of visa stay and the relevant experience and skill set, they'll proceed to fix technical interviews with the Line Managers followed by interviews with Directors or senior Management personnel.

Interviews in Japan

Interviews are generally a formal process with at least two or three interviewers questioning you about various aspects. They are very considerate and appreciate honesty in responses.

In case of a vacancy, the Consultant reaches out to the candidate and schedules an interview with the Human Resources officer (HR).

Following that, a Technical interview with the process managers occurs. Post completion, the HR confirms the employment.

Everything is a bit more formal in Japan.

Also in stark contrast to some of the Indian companies, the HRs in Japan do communicate the acceptance/rejection of the candidate. This is something Indian professionals should learn from the Japanese.

Interview Tips:

  • Be Honest: Personally speaking, being honest with my work and myself, helped me immensely. It is alright not to know all the answers to the questions posed. Many times, the interviewers pose the same questions differently. They assess whether you change your answers to them.
  • Be Punctual
  • What to wear: While attending an interview a business suit should be fine for both men and women.
  • A good thing about them is they confirm the next steps at the end of the interview itself.
  • I recommend going through some more websites to know more before appearing for interviews in Japan.
  • Knowing a few words of Japanese is really appreciated. It would be great to start with a quick introduction of oneself in the Japanese language as it gives an impression of your willingness to learn things.

Visas for Expats in Japan

I have been here for almost a year, so everything about this is what I have heard from my friends who have been here for a while.

I  moved to Japan from my home country on a company-sponsored visa. It was an internal move.

Permanent Residency requires a person to have stayed in Japan for at least 10 years consecutively. Additionally, one should prove sufficient income and funds to defray the expenses.

In some cases, the stay requirement is shortened when the applicant scores enough points on the Point calculation Table.

How to learn to speak Japanese

No, I don't speak Japanese. Of course, a few words of greeting and a little here and there I do speak, but nothing more! Fortunately for me, most of my Team is fluent in English. So Japanese communication is easy.

My company has encouraged me to take up Japanese lessons, however, due to my busy work schedule, I only find time on weekends to go through some Japanese basics books to learn more.

Currently, I refer to Japanese language books such as - Minna no Nihongo and Genki.

The language app - Duolingo is helpful for practicing what you've learned.

There are many language schools in Tokyo offering customized courses in Japanese. I plan on taking up lessons later this year. For someone who would like to come here for work, I would strongly recommend learning the language before arrival.

The standard language test is the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) and there are five levels - N5 through N1, N5 being the lowest.

A little more about Japan

Japan has a culture of politeness and hygiene. So, anything against that is bad manners.

People are especially observing the following:

  • Keep on the left side of the escalator to allow people in a hurry to pass on the right.
  • Not speaking on phone/ eating/drinking on metro trains
  • Proper disposal of garbage in the designated bins separating combustible and incombustible wastes.
  • Not passing food using chopsticks as this is associated with death.
  • Removing shoes when you enter someone's home.
  • Refraining from unnecessary honking, following the traffic rules and Pedestrian signals.
  • Some of these, especially pertaining to public hygiene and consciousness can easily be adapted in India.

Places to visit in Japan

  • I moved to Japan in Oct'17. This was one of the busiest months for us as my company was into its Quarterly closing. So, I was occupied with work most of the days. I did go on some one-day trips during the weekends to nearby places. I also went around Tokyo to get a feel of the city.
  • Japan is full of interesting places. The Hanami or Cherry Blossom festival which occurs in March-April attracts many people to witness the pink flowers in bloom.
  • In Tokyo, there are many good nightclubs and shopping districts like Akihabara and Shibuya to indulge oneself.
  • Kyoto offers a more relaxed environment where you can see the old world Japan. It is recommended to go there during Autumn to see the leaves turn red.
  • Sapporo in the north is famous for the snow festival which happens in February where enormous structures of snow are made for a competition.
  • Okinawa in the south is also popular among tourists for its relatively warmer climate.
  • The Shinkansen (bullet train) network is great in Japan and if planned in advance, one can even find reasonably priced flights.
  • Besides, this there are many Onsen (Hot Springs) where one can relax in the soothing waters.

In Conclusion...

I am still the same person I was when I left my home country. So, I don't see a major change in my attitude or personality after moving here.

One thing I've noticed though is my ability to freely interact with people. As a child, I was always willing to speak with unknown people and extroverted.  Moving cities has made me embrace change instead of resisting it.

I have learned to trust people and I believe everyone is good inside. This has made me generous to other situations and understands things from their perspective.

I was welcomed in this country without any prejudice.

Japan has suffered a lot due to disasters - manmade or natural. They lost so much in the World Wars, Earthquake's, the Tsunami and Nuclear disasters, yet, they stay strong, kind and honest. Such great lessons for mankind!

In the end, we are all blessed with limited time and while we wander the realms of this earth, let's enjoy and cherish what we have as long as we breathe.

Now It's Your Turn...

Have you ever considered moving to Japan? Or are you an Expat in Japan.

I would love to know more about you in the comments. Also if this article has helped you do comment and let me know.

I could be reached on LinkedIn at Prathamesh Deshpande.

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