Moving to Tokyo as a Software Engineer (after two years, 2019)
In early 2016 I decided to leave my Job in London, I was part of a brilliant team in a cool startup, going to work was really fun with interesting problems to solve, and smart as well as kind team mates. London is a very international city but a few things made life there a bit tough: lack of sunlight and quality of housing drove me out.
I spent most of 2016 seeing old friends, catching up with books and technical topics I always wanted to cover, going to as many meetups as I could. By the end of that year I was already looking for a new full time job, I was recruited by a Japanese company and was brought to Tokyo. In the rest of this post I will share the tips, difficulties and insights I have gained from my two years living in Tokyo, as well as insights I learnt after trying to change jobs in Tokyo.
*At the point of writing this blog post is January 2019*
*I am moving to my 2nd job in Japan, for which I did some job hunting*
If you live in any major city that is a tech hub in Europe (Berlin, Amsterdam or London) most likely you are struggling to find a good balance between price and quality house (or even just struggling to find anything).
This is not a problem in Tokyo you can certainly find good properties for affordable prices, everything ranging for tiny apartments for one person, bigger apartments with one or two rooms, to big houses.
As a foreigner you won’t have access to the full real state market, but certainly there are many properties which you will be able to rent. Finding them is also not very difficult.
As a reference in London (~2016) I was paying £800 for a room in a not so good share-flat, that same money can rent a very nice, small, well located mini-apartment in Tokyo.
Bare in mind that apartments are usually empty, you have to buy furniture, AC, Stove. There are some side costs: key money (~1 month of rent), deposit(~1 month of rent).
There are companies like www.oakhouse.jp and www.sakura-house.com which offer accommodation for foreigners: everything is in english and apartments are furnished, they are a bit expensive and there are less options/locations to choose from.
Your company will provide insurance. In most cases this insurance covers 70% of medicine and medical services. Language is not a problem, there are many places offering health services in english, service has been in my experience very good.
Company will take care of it. Most people I know who have a university degree have got a 5 years long visa. Visa process took around ~2 months, from the very first moment I accepted the job offer.
Getting a bank account can be difficult. It is good if your company gives you a hand. Friendly banks for foreigners are: Shinsei bank and Rakuten bank.
Don’t expect to get a credit card unless you are super lucky.
Software engineering is one of the best paid roles in Tokyo, unlike London where Finance and investment banking are the top paid jobs, so I would say this have a huge impact in your lifestyle as you would tend to have more income as your disposal. That being said, salaries are indeed lower than in the West. There is a lot of demand for Software engineers and thus many companies are relaxing usual strict Japanese working culture.
Innovation culture is still behind, there are big cultural gaps between Japanese and Westerners in terms of managing style, and team dynamics. This is a huge drawback. I assume you are here because you are interested in having a taste of it. Japanese companies are trying to change because hiring talent is getting really difficult for them, however they are struggling implementing those changes.
“Should I really go there?” I certainly do not regret it, but expect frustrations, expect to change how you approach people, and load yourself with lots lots of patience. There are nightmarish stories I have heard from developers (and experienced myself), but also there are success stories. I can certainly see interesting business and professional opportunities.
I learned a lot on a variety of topics I had ignored before but that now I find fascinating. I reflected a lot on previous bosses, CEOs, CTOs, team mates, software engineering practices, and management practices. I will not lie to you, Japanese working culture can be very different and it can take a toll on you, but it is still interesting, and I plan to be in Tokyo for some years ahead.
At the moment of writing, I would say that for experienced engineers salaries are between [¥6M-¥15M] per year. There are not that many surveys out there, existing ones were not carried out by people in the industry for people in the industry. Most of them are made by recruiter companies or by research institutes whose data seems a bit skewed because they ignore small and medium size companies. In my opinion this survey  is a good approximation of salaries, given the information I know from other experienced developers.
Japanese companies usually offer `Bonus` two times in a year. This is included in the total offer you are given. It essentially means you get less money per month but two times in the year(July, December) you will get the rest of your advertised salary.
Make sure you understand this when you get an offer.
For example if you leave the company before the date of bonus payment, you won’t get that money, even though you worked for it.
Also depending on the company, in your first year you might not get full salary as advertised, because first bonus is assessed by your first 6 months performance, and company can claim you were not part the company at that time.
As in any other place make sure you negotiate your salary well, in my own experience, as well as talking to other developers, it seems to be a common thing for Japanese companies not to be so transparent thus leading to huge salary gaps for people carrying out the same tasks.
Holidays / Schedules
Many companies are going for flexible schedules, and remote work once or twice a week, this is common nowadays even for big corporations, and even more common for small sized companies.
Many companies brag about flex schedules and remote work, don’t pay much attention, it might not be common for non IT people, but it is a common perk for us .
Flex time means you can pretty much decide at what time you arrive in the morning, and at what time you leave, as long as you cover 8 hours a day. However expect lots of weird rules and constraints for remote work.Expect remote to be constrainted to a few days per week in the best case.
Interviewing is vastly different here from what you are used in the west. It can take some time and it can be a long process with many interviews. Here are some tips for someone who is just not looking to live in Tokyo but also looking for an interesting job:
Poke recruiters, Many positions are only available through recruiters, and they can severely speed up the process for you, do this from day one instead of applying by yourself. This is how the game is played in Tokyo.
At the time of writing this blog post there is a high demand of software engineers and landing an interview as well as getting sponsored for a visa should not be very difficult
Companies will ask (i) your current salary and (ii) expected salary in the first interview. It is a bit strange to be asked your current salary, but they do, so be prepared for it. They will also ask how much are you expecting to get from their offer.
Early in your job search you will need to choose if you want to immerse yourself in Japanese working culture, or you want a more western style. I would say most of us will go crazy in a Japanese working environment with lots of organizational politics and very slow pace.
Be on the look for red flags, there are many shitty companies here, so as much as they are interviewing you, you should be interviewing them and on the look for red flags. Here are some that I tried to look for:
- Make sure they have interesting problems to solve: It seems a common story from developers here that they are hired, arrive to a company eager to write code and solve problems, just to sit there for 8 hours with almost nothing to do.
I have discussed this with friends, we think it might be possible that some companies hire talent to avoid competence from hiring them. Ask interviewers what kind of cool problems they have been solving.
2. Ask about their services, vision and product. Many companies are based on the premise that other Japanese companies would prefer them for the mere fact of being Japanese. This is a red-flag for me as they usually don’t seek to improve their services or to innovate, their whole value proposition is just : “Japanese companies will buy our services because we are a Japanese company”.
3. “Diversity”, many companies preach this all over the place, Usual red flags are:
(i) even though they have many foreigners only Japanese are interviewing you.
(ii) there are near to zero foreigners in management. This is a red flag, because companies are having a hard time finding people, yet they are not willing to change their working environment.
4. Ask about 1:1’s, as strange as this might sound, 1:1s are not a very Japanese thing. Ask if company does it, how often, what is it usually talked about. Good 1:1s correlate with transparent and healthy work environments.
5. Look up some people who used to work in that company (use linkedin), ask pros and cons. You would be surprised how kind and honest people are.
6. Consider looking up your company in this map of black companies 💀https://blackcorpmap.com/ 💀💀
Conferences and Tech meetups
Sadly most of them are in Japanese. Not as many Meetups as in London or Berlin. Quality is not as good either. There is an opportunity to take the lead and organize them, many locals would be more than happy to help you
If you are looking for meetups please check : https://connpass.com/ most events get published there.
On the good side there is always cool tech people visiting Tokyo and you can ask to show them around and get into a good conversation.
I landed a job now what?
I recommend you to take a look at this book “The culture map” by Erin Meyer.
The book discusses traits in different cultures, you can see how Japanese culture sits in various topics with respect to your culture.
Common pitfalls from what I have seen, as well as pitfalls from other developers’s stories:
- Boasting is not very well seen either, this will be familiar to you if you have worked in countries like Sweden.
- Trust is gained over time, deliver some value early on and then use the gained trust to propose changes
- Negative feedback is really hard to digest in Japanese culture.Any feedback on corporate culture most likely will be taken as a personal attack.
- This culture avoids confrontation, if you find yourself isolated, then it means you probably stepped over some cultural boundaries.
To wrap it up, if you are interested in moving to Tokyo there are lots of jobs available. It is a unique experience, there are for sure cool companies and teams. However before leaving your current job make sure to have a strong network back at home in case your adventure in Tokyo does not go as happy as you expected.
If you found this useful, or you have got any questions, feel free to poke me on twitter @ dav009
 Robert Walters 2019 salary survey : https://www.robertwalters.co.jp/content/dam/robert-walters/country/japan/files/salary-survey/E-Book2019.pdf