Working in Japan — Give Japanese Startups a Chance

Derrick Gee
Feb 28 · 7 min read
Photo by Louie Martinez on Unsplash

Have you ever wanted to live in Japan? Have you ever wanted to work in Japan? I asked myself this a couple of years back, and have realized today that I have reached my goal of working and living in Japan. While this article will revolve around being a software engineer, the resources I mention also offer other positions like HR and sales.

Requirements

Before getting into any details, I will briefly go over some requirements for successfully integrating yourself into Japan as a resident:

Obviously having a high level of Japanese at all communication aspects is ideal, but having only speaking/listening skills alone has personally gotten me several interviews and offers. Which I don’t think would have happened if I were only able to read/write. You can get through an interview if you can speak/listen, but not with only reading/writing.

Why Japanese Startups?

If you read Japan work experiences from Reddit and other sources, you will find that the baseline for the work environment in Japan is not that great compared to other places in the world. Lots of social rules, long work hours, and even bullying at the work places might be common depending on your situation. While my reason for wanting to join a startup would be the same as if I were in the US, one of the most important reasons is to get away from the average Japanese work environment.

You will find Japanese startups to be on a spectrum of silicon valley-esque, some very similar and others less. This kind of vibe includes freely expressing your opinions, being able to change things regardless of position status, flexible hours, remote work, and 0 dress code. Which is pretty much the opposite of your standard Japanese company.

A major reason why I prefer startups in Japan is that during the application process, recruiters/engineers will actually look at your Github and analyze it to a certain point. It could have been just my luck applying to bigger companies, but I can count on my hand how many big companies asked or mentioned my projects on Github: 0. At least a few interviews I’ve had with startups in Japan has mentioned or asked me about my personal projects. This gives me a better feeling of joining the company, as I have in the back of mind that they at least put some thought into having me join their team.

Lastly, as an engineer that is just starting out, I think that Japanese startups is a great “foot in the door” path to take. From my experience of over 500 applications in Japan, startups here are more willing to take a new person who can learn fast. As widely known, large companies in Japan are very risk-adverse. This gives fresh new software engineers (especially those with non traditional backgrounds), a higher chance of an opportunity at a startup that already has a high tolerance for risk.

You also just get to meet really cool people along the way when visiting several startups.

My Current Experience

For context: I learned programming through a 1–2 year bootcamp in San Francisco back in end of 2018. After working for quite some time at an American company with a branch in Japan, I started targeting specifically Japanese startups. Eventually, I landed a position as a backend engineer at a startup through Wantedly. This Japanese startup that allows flexible work times on a monthly salary basis. Japanese law forces all companies to have their employees turn in a timesheet, and I do indeed work less than 40 hours a week. They let me work remotely starting from day 0, and also always ask for my opinions on things so that they can improve the current situation. This company is also my highest salary offer as of writing this, which is way above the average salary in Tokyo.

Does this sound like a Japanese company? Does it even sound like an American company? Job hunting is truly a numbers game, where luck and timing has a very huge impact on your success. I think this idea really shows when taking a look back at my own offer history.

My Past Startup Offers

After giving out a few hundred applications, all I can say that getting an offer is heavily weighed by timing and luck. I’m here to tell the truth, and not to sell a course on how to land a software engineering job. Having a good resume and application plays a great deal in your chances, but it is not the end all be all of getting hired. It is truly just a numbers game, as cliche as that sounds.

My first Japanese offer came from a startup incubator startup (I know, that sounds odd), and it was for $45k/year with no bonus coming from Wantedly. It took me around 100 applications to get this one. They had an “English day of the week” where they all tried to use English on that day, if I remember correctly. The CEO also gave funds for the employees to get certifications, which is actually rare for a startup in Japan.

My second Japanese offer was from actually a meetup. They were holding a party for celebrating a milestone, and also for networking. I hit it off with one of their lead engineers, as he used Gentoo Linux and I was on Arch Linux at the time. This obviously meant that he was the Chad Linux user compared to me. The offer was $38k/year including bonus and equity. Recently this company was in a bloomberg article, and actually IPO’d in 2020. So their equity became to be actually worth something.

My third offer was one I took for around $36k/year from Wantedly. This was an American company with a branch in Tokyo. I was a full-stack engineer for around 6 months with these guys.

Fourth was through a recruiter at a sister company of a fairly large company. This one came in at $48k/year with bonus only, but I had refused this offer in place of a stipend paid internship at a fairly known company in Japan (internship offer came from tokyodev). To my surprise, this was a good move as the things I learned at the internship landed me a position that is probably better than any offers I’ve had so far.

Startup Hunting Resources

My first recommendation will be to use Wantedly, which is not limited to software engineers only. Use their Japanese English site, not their English version. I have gotten a total of 3 offers from startups on this site, and dozens of video interviews. Note that most companies here will have their postings in all Japanese, but filter your search with the tag “foriegner friendly” and your interview will have a higher chance of being in English.

Second is tokyodev, I actually got a 6 week internship from this site. Note that this site is software engineer specific. While this site has limited postings, their postings are pretty fresh compared to other sites. The articles and forum section is pretty helpful too.

Third is recruiters. You can find them on Linkedin by searching for them or setting your “looking for a job” settings to Japan. If you are in Japan, the other way is to meet them directly at meetups. Keep in mind that from my personal experience, I have dealt with only 2 good recruiters out of dozens that I have spoken with. Your luck may vary when trying out this method. Remember to ask if they have startup clients if you’re targeting them specifically, as most of their clients will be large companies.

Fourth is Justa. I actually haven’t had much luck from this site, but my previous coworkers have told me that they’ve gotten offers from here. It is not only limited software engineers, and has good English support.

Lastly are meetups (obviously you need to be in Japan for this), a lot of startups will hold meetups at their office usually. This is a good opportunity to talk directly with specific people within the company, which will more likely let you land a not so cold interview with them.

Conclusion

For fresh new engineers like myself: I think if you’re a non traditional background software engineer, targeting startups in Japan is probably your best bet in getting your foot in the door. If you have a CS degree, prioritize large companies over startups. Large companies are obviously more stable and have better benefits, whereas startups will most likely just offer a lot more salary. The compensation will probably get reversed if you have good experience under your belt (large companies > startups). Coming from San Francisco, yes the salary does look a bit low. However, it is quite reasonable in comparison to the living cost. Personally speaking, living cost in Tokyo is 5–6 times less than back in San Francisco. Some people will say to start your software engineering career in the US first, and then decide if you want to move to Japan. But I think times have changed, and starting a career here in Tokyo isn’t that bad.

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Derrick Gee

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Software Engineer living in Tokyo | Linux | Cats | https://github.com/kai-dg | https://haruspace.dev | https://ko-fi.com/harukai

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