Although I spend most of my time working with Japanese companies and individuals that want to market or communicate with the rest of the world, I occasionally give presentations or write content for those who aspire to work or start a business in Japan.
One of the most common questions I receive is, “How much Japanese is necessary to work for a Japanese company or start a business in Japan?” Like many challenges one encounters while living abroad, the answer to this question is complex, and individual results will vary.
If I were forced to give an objective answer, I’d say you should aim for achieving a score of N2, at the minimum, on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Keep in mind, however, that more and more people in the job pool have earned N1, the highest score. On the other hand, if you are in a technical field (i.e. software engineer), you may be able to get by with N3, which is my minimum recommendation for living a relatively comfortable life in Japan.
That being said, the genuine answer to this question is much more complicated. Studying the language is critical for success. However, it’s equally important to actively network in and outside of your industry to develop long-lasting relationships.
More and more Japanese companies, especially startups, are internationalizing, and there are more opportunities to do your core work in English. That being said, it’s a good idea to know enough Japanese to deal with administrative tasks such as meetings, emails, and office conversations.
So, don’t throw out your Japanese textbooks just yet. But, don’t put off your job search or delay your business plans until you achieve a certain test score. Simultaneously build relationships, network, and learn the language. These activities are complementary, and together they’ll give you an excellent shot at achieving your professional goals in Japan. And, while you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to pick up some quick tips on business etiquette.