Last updated December 8th, 2022.
I came to Japan on a working holiday visa in 2006, and found a job as a Ruby developer at a Japanese startup. At the time, options for English speaking developers in Japan were few and far between: I could only find two positions that seemed like they could be a match.
Since then, more and more Japanese tech companies have adopted a strategy of hiring international English speaking developers. On TokyoDev’s job board, I’m listing 100+ opportunities. But if you’re looking for your first job here, you probably have a lot of questions. This article tries to answer them.
Do I need to speak Japanese to get a developer job?
No, you don’t need Japanese to work as a software developer in Japan, but it’ll obviously help. I found that 26% of international developers never use Japanese at their job, and 31% use it rarely, implying the majority of them are working at jobs that don’t require any Japanese skills.
On the other hand, I’ve also found that lower Japanese ability among international developers correlated with more professional experience. This implies that it’s easier to get a job earlier in your career here if you speak more Japanese.
I see it as a balancing act: the more technical acumen and experience you possess, the less likely a lack of Japanese will be a barrier to getting a job here.
So that begs the question, if you’re determined in getting a job in Japan, are you better off focusing on improving your Japanese abilities or technical ones? I think this is a question with no right answer, as it really depends on what you enjoy and have aptitude for. If you’re someone who likes studying languages, Japanese skills could be your ticket to a developer job in Japan. But if you’re someone who has a hard time pushing themselves to put in the vast amount of work it requires, maybe focus on your technical skills instead.
Either way though, I’d recommend you do try to pick up some basic Japanese. While it’s theoretically possible to live in a city like Tokyo with no Japanese ability, daily life will go much smoother and more enjoyably if you speak it to some degree.
Can I get a job as a junior developer in Japan?
If you’re not already based in Japan, it’ll be almost impossible to get a job as a junior developer in Japan. For companies, it’s not worth taking the risk of relocating someone only to have to invest in them once they arrive. Unless you have at least a couple years experience, it’s probably worth not even bothering applying while you’re overseas.
There is an exception to this though. Some Japanese companies will recruit university students from abroad. They normally only target people who are fluent in Japanese though, through places like the Boston Career Forum, or those attending certain “elite” universities.
If you are in Japan though, not all hope is lost. I managed to land a job here with no professional experience outside a summer internship and only the most basic of Japanese abilities. You can read more about my own experience, but I think the biggest reason why I was able to do so was because I was already in the country on a working holiday visa, making it little risk for the company to try me out.
Beyond raw years of experience, signals that you are an exceptional developer are as if not more important. Unless you’ve worked at a prestigious and recognizable international company like Google, employers aren’t likely to be interested in you unless you can demonstrate your abilities. So working on marketing yourself as a software developer is something that will not only help you land a job in Japan, but anywhere.
What’s a typical software developer salary in Japan?
As of November 2022, the median salary for an international developer in Japan was ¥9.5 million, up ¥1 million from the previous year. A junior developer can expect to make ¥4-6 million, a mid-level developer ¥6-10 million, and a senior developer ¥10-13 million.
While salaries like these might not seem much by silicon valley standards, they’re among the top that a person working in Japan can expect to make. The average salary in Tokyo is ¥6.2 million, but that’s for someone with an average of about 20 years working experience. What’s more, 42% of international developers earned ¥10 million or over even though a 2018 report found that only 5% of salaried workers did.
Relatively cheap living costs mean that salary can go far, especially if you’re living like a local. For instance, when I was a single living in Tokyo, I spent about ¥3 million per year, and though I didn’t live extravagantly, it didn’t feel like I was skimping either. The main concession, at least by North American standards, was living in a relatively small apartment. Still, having the option of being able to pay ¥80,000 per month for a one-room apartment in good shape in a central area is something many other metropolises don’t offer.
How easy is it to get a visa to work as a developer in Japan?
Compared to other countries, Japan is a relatively easy place to get a visa to work as a software engineer. There’s no hard caps on the number of visas issued, and if you find a company that wants to hire you, there is little cost or burden placed on the company to get the visa itself.
If you have a university degree in a subject like computer science or software engineering, you are basically guaranteed to be able to obtain a visa. If you don’t have such a degree, it still may be possible for you to qualify, but it gets a bit more complicated. Japanese companies won’t necessarily know what visa you’re eligible for, so it’s up to you to educate yourself about the options. A good place to start researching this topic is my guide to visas for software engineers in Japan.
Will I need to work overtime if I work for a Japanese company?
Japan has a reputation for a working culture that involves working lots of overtime. However, it’s certainly possible to find opportunities that involve little to no overtime. When I worked for a Japanese startup, I never worked any overtime, and when I did contracting work for other Japanese development companies, they didn’t work overtime either.
More generally, I found that 74% of respondents to my developer survey worked 40 hours or less in a typical week, indicating that my personal experience wasn’t such an uncommon one.
I’m not in Japan yet, what’s my first step to a developer job?
The more attractive to an employer you are, the less risk you’ll need to take to get here. If the prospect of coming here, living here for a year, and not finding a job doesn’t bother you, there are plenty of options for you. On the other hand, if you need a job offer before relocating here, your options are more limited.
Receiving a job offer while overseas
The holy grail. More overseas software developers want to work in tech in Japan than there are companies willing to hire them. Because of this, and the extra risk associated with hiring someone and relocating them to another country, companies are only willing to hire people who are provenly exceptional developers, and aren’t looking for people who can grow into great ones.
Specifically, you’re only likely to get a job offer while overseas if you have extensive experience with technology relevant to the position, or if you can signal you are an exceptional developer. One signal is working at a company famous for their developers, say Google or GitHub. Another is having significant open source contributions. Having presented at a conference is another. Basically, the company needs to think you’re going to be an exceptional addition to their team to get an offer while overseas.
Even if you are a talented software engineer, you’re going to need to work harder to get an offer than you would in your own country. So I’d treat applying for a job here like you would as a junior developer, and be sure that your application demonstrates why you’d be the perfect person for the job, rather than sending them something generic and leaving it to the company to work out why they should hire you.
One thing that will increase your odds of landing a job from abroad is being able to demonstrate a strong connection to the country. Having a Japanese spouse helps, as it indicates to the company you’ll have someone to support your transition to life here, and makes it less likely you’ll get overwhelmed by life here and flake out. Any past experience living here, such as an exchange student, is also a big plus, as it demonstrates you have a more realistic picture of life here. On the other hand, if you’ve never even visited Japan, it will reduce the willingness of companies to hire you.
While opportunities like this are few, I run a small job board for software developer jobs in Japan that welcome overseas candidates, so this is a good place to start looking for opportunities.
Working Holiday Visa
I first came to Japan as a software developer on this visa. If you’re eligible for it, this visa gives you the best chances of landing your first job as a software engineer here. Only some countries countries participate it (as of writing this article, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Korea, France, Germany, The United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Norway, Portugal, and Poland) and you need meet the conditions which vary from country to country (typically that you’re under 30 years of age).
The great thing about this visa is that it doesn’t require a sponsoring company, and allows you to do basically any kind of work on it. The concept of the programme is to provide you a way to support yourself during a holiday to Japan, but there are no strict limits about how much you work, and you can get a full time job with it.
From a potential employer’s perspective, having this visa takes away the risk associated with an overseas hire. You’re already here in Japan, so they can just put you through their normal screening process. You’ve demonstrated you are committed enough to living here to take the leap on your own. Furthermore, should the company choose to hire you, you’re allowed to start working full time, without needing to change your visa.
One thing to keep in mind is that you’re only allowed to do a working holiday once in your life in a given country, so timing is important. I think there are two optimal times to take one: when you’ve just graduated from university and after you have a couple years working experience.
I came to Japan just after graduation. My thinking was if I didn’t end up getting a job here, it wouldn’t be a big deal to my future career, as it is fairly common in Canada to take some time off between graduation and your first job. I was lucky enough to land a job as a junior developer here. The combination of having a working holiday visa, having a natural aptitude for programming, and being able to convey to the company that I really wanted to work with them got me the job. If you’re someone who excelled at programming during University, and are willing to put in sustained effort to find a job here, you’ll probably be able to find one too.
The other option is to wait until you have some working experience. It will be much easier for you to get a job locally than in Japan, so if you aren’t so confident about your technical abilities, this could be the way to go. Most positions hiring international developers are looking for people who are already experienced, so if you’re battle-tested, it can boost your odds of getting a job here.
Should you go down the working holiday route, I’d approach it as the visa intends: as a one-year holiday. That way you’re prepared for the possibility you won’t manage to find something, and landing a programmer job becomes a bonus.
Teaching languages, especially English, is a relatively easy way to get an overseas job offer in Japan, and I know some developers who started their life in Japan this way. Though this is an area I don’t have so much experience with myself, if you’re someone without any teaching qualifications, there are two main paths: the JET Programme and teaching at a conversation school.
The JET Programme is a Japanese governmental programme that brings university graduates to Japan with the aim of providing exposure to international people to Japanese citizens, primarily school students. Most of the positions in the program are teaching related, though if you have strong Japanese skills, there are also some bureaucratic positions available.
Although you can have some influence of where you’ll be placed, you’re most likely to get a position in a small rural town, rather than a metropolis like Tokyo. This means you’ll likely make few job related connections while on the programme unless you really go out of your way to do so. The flip side is that it is a great opportunity to improve your Japanese abilities, as there won’t be many fluent English speakers around you, and you have a relatively large amount of time to use at your discretion, where you can work on bolstering your Japanese or technical abilities.
One restriction of the programme is that you agree to a one year contract, so you are making a commitment when you enter it. Because of the fixed recruiting cycle of the programme, should you drop out, there won’t be any replacement for you, so unless you’re serious about completing the full contract don’t join the programme.
I do know Japanese who through their interaction with teachers in this program became interested in English and life outside of Japan, so I think participating it is doing a service to Japan. Because it is a government run programme, I have a hunch you’ll also get a bit more respect from potential employers over a conversation school job. Had I not had a working holiday visa, the JET programme would have been attractive to me personally.
The other option is teaching a conversation school. While enjoyable to some people, others find it soul crushing. The quality of schools varies quite a bit too, ranging from caring about teaching to practically being scams. The advantage over the JET programme is there are more opportunities available, and you have a decent chance in finding a job in a place like Tokyo, where it is much easier to get into the developer community. Also, because these schools are businesses, and teachers frequently change, should a developer job opportunity come up, you’ll be able to take it.
While teaching at a conversation school for a year or two probably won’t affect your career much, any longer and it will put a blight on your resume. So if you go down this route, I’d put a deadline on yourself to transition out of teaching, or return to your country.
Attending Japanese language school
If you’re wanting to live in Japan long term, you’ll want to improve your Japanese skills anyways, so attending a Japanese language school is one option that lets you live in Japan and get into the local developer community.
While on a student visa, you can work part time, which theoretically would let you do some work as a developer. Because you also need to be attending school full time, finding employment might be a bit challenging, as you’d need to convince a company to be flexible on working hours,at least until you get a working visa.
If you do decide to enter a Japanese language school, I’d count on spending at least a year at it. This means you already need to have enough money saved up to both cover costs of tuition and your living expenses.
Attending a Japanese University
I know a number of developers who have came to Japan initially as a graduate student and then found a job. Japanese employers do place a lot of value on the name of the university you attend, so I’d aim for a top tier one.
Postgrad studies is a better way than doing an undergraduate degree in Japan. Generally speaking, the quality of undergraduate education in Japan is pretty low, with most students not taking it seriously. On the other hand, interesting research does happen at the graduate level. Furthermore, while an undergraduate degree at a top tier school would require you to do it in Japanese, at the graduate level you can get by with English (though don’t be surprised if some of your classes turn out to be in Japanese).
While a Japanese university does have the potential to provide connections, your best bet is still to find something yourself. So in addition to your studies, make use of your time to build up connections to the local development community.
Since you have a student visa, you’ll also be able to work part time. As a university student, you’re also more likely than someone just studying Japanese to be able to obtain a software-development related internship.
There are a number of scholarships available for international students studying in Japan. If you manage to obtain one of them, while you might not be able to save money, you at least shouldn’t be losing it.
Give a presentation at a developer event
Knowing what I do now about getting hired, a strategy I would use is giving a technical talk at a Japanese conference (or even more casual event). Doing a presentation is one of the most effective ways you can demonstrate your skills as a developer, and you’ll be able to meet many potential employers or colleagues in one fell swoop.
Most of the major programming languages have annual conferences where anyone can apply to be a speaker. The ones that come to the top of my head are Ruby Kaigi, PHPcon Japan, PyCon JP, Scala Matsuri, and Node Gakuen. If you get selected to speak at one of these conferences, you’ll be able to reach many of Japan’s top developers, and should be able to turn your presentation into getting multiple interview offers.
In addition to these major conferences, there are countless technical events that happen in Tokyo. While they don’t necessarily have as big an audience, most organisers have a tough time finding presenters, so you’re almost guaranteed to have the opportunity to do a presentation. This is a great option if you happen to visiting Japan on holiday. If you’re passing through and would like to present at an event, send me an email, and I’ll help you figure out what your options are.