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How Much Japanese Do You Need to Know to Work or Do Business in Japan?

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.

Anthony Griffin

Originally from California, I've been living and working in Japan, now my second home, since 2009. My work as a communications consultant lends a unique perspective to my writing, and I often explore the business behind Japan’s beauty. When I’m not working, you can find me hunched over a screen reviewing kanji flashcards in my never-ending quest to master the Japanese language.

4 Comments

  • Avatar

    Bohdan Tereta

    September 18, 2020 at 3:10 AM

    Nice short article, Anthony! And a good advice there! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Would you mind to fix the link to the ‘pick up some quick tips on business etiquette.’? It has extra ‘).’ symbols at the end

    Reply
    • Anthony Griffin

      Anthony Griffin

      September 25, 2020 at 4:30 PM

      Hi Bohdan,

      I know we touched base about this on LinkedIn, but I wanted to follow up here as well. Thanks again for checking out our articles and pointing out the link issues. Looking forward to hearing from you again soon!

      Best,

      Anthony

      Reply
  • Avatar

    Xue

    October 22, 2020 at 1:16 PM

    Stumbled upon your article after I came out from my first Japanese virtual business meeting where I caught nothing and am left a little shell-shocked. I hold an N2 and now I am worried that I am doomed in my career. Any further advice you would give for approaching such situation, would I be digging my career grave if I ask for people to comment in English for clarification?

    Reply
    • Anthony Griffin

      Anthony Griffin

      October 22, 2020 at 4:52 PM

      Hello Xue,
      Thanks for reading my article and for sharing your situation. I can relate to how reading, writing, and test-taking doesn’t always prepare us for actual meetings and conversations on the business scene.

      I wish I had a simple answer to your question, however, whether you can ask for clarification depends on the people and company that you are working with. For example, I typically work with companies that are interested in expanding globally and have employees that are open to using English in certain situations. On the other hand, there are (rarer) occasions where I work with traditional Japanese companies or speak with high-level executives where using English isn’t an option at all.

      In these cases, I’m fortunate to be able to rely on colleagues or project team members to help me clarify what was said during or after meetings. If a meeting is recorded, I can go over it afterward to confirm my understanding and follow up later if necessary.

      Whatever situation applies to you, I hope you don’t give up. I’ve embarrassed myself plenty of times and made plenty of mistakes (I’m sure my Kokoro Media colleagues can attest to that), but that is all part of the learning process. I understand that this is a difficult situation when our livelihood is on the line, but I hope this advice helps, and I wish you all the best.

      Sincerely,

      Anthony

      Reply

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