Given the current climate in tech globally, people often ask me what the current situation in Japan is. Overall, my impression is that it is nowhere as bad as places like the US, but nevertheless I have been hearing stories of developers struggling to get jobs here. In this article, I’ll lay out my theories for why it is more challenging for international software developers to get jobs in Japan in 2023 than it was a couple years prior.
Relaxing of COVID-19 related border restrictions
For much of the period between April 2020 and March 2022, border restrictions meant that it was nearly impossible for non-resident foreigners to enter the country. Japan publishes data on visas issued, and looking at the data on the most common one for software developers, the Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services visa, we can see just how drastically things changed.
|Year||# of issued visas|
This meant the supply of international software engineers in Japan was incredibly constrained during this period, and so even people without professional experience, such as new coding bootcamp grads, had a relatively easy time finding a job.
While data for 2022 has yet to be published, as of this article, there are no longer any COVID-19 border restrictions. As new people have entered the market, both on new working visas, and hopefully job seekers on visas like working holiday or student, there’s simply more competition for jobs among international job seekers.
US tech giants boom and bust
With COVID-19, the US tech giants expanded hiring incredibly. This extended to Japan, where the constrained supply of international developers coupled with demand helped drive salaries to record levels.
Now that the wind has shifted, the US tech giants freeze and layoffs has sent ripples through the international job market in Japan. We found that in 2022, only 63% of English-speaking international software developers worked at Japanese companies. A not insignificant fraction of the remaining 37% worked for US tech companies. While Japan labor laws do make it hard to lay off someone, there are ways around them, including offering tempting severance packages, which has lead to a number of these developers leaving their jobs to look for new ones.
Hiring slowdowns among major Japanese tech companies
As the US tech giants were going into a hiring frenzy, there was a pickup in hiring among the major Japanese tech companies, but not to nearly the same degree. Over the last six months, I have seen a number of prominent Japanese tech companies slowdown or freeze their hiring. On the other hand, small and medium sized Japanese tech companies seem to be hiring at the same rate as before. Through TokyoDev about the same number of people have been hired so far this year as over a similar period last year, and so it’s not like there’s been a catastrophic shift.
Less fluidity in the job market
What has changed though is the job market has become less fluid. Without US tech giants tempting developers away from their jobs with astronomical salaries, international developers in Japan are more likely to stay in their existing jobs. As less people are job hopping, they aren’t leaving behind opportunities for new people to fill. This means companies can afford to be pickier with who they hire.
Embracing remote work
Pre-COVID, I found that only 33% of international developers worked remotely at least one day per week. In my most recent survey, I found 70% of them could work completely remotely. While many “fully remote” Japanese companies want all their employees to live in Japan, not all of them have this requirement. As these internationally-minded Japanese companies turn to hiring remote developers globally, they decrease the demand for the international developers already based here.
More people applying for jobs
Whatever the reasons, one thing I can say with certainty is that companies advertising their job opportunities on TokyoDev have seen a huge uptick in the number of applications they receive. Whereas a couple of years ago, a typical frontend developer position on the site got 40 applications in a month, more recently 200 applications is not atypical.
While I think the overall job market for international developers in Japan isn’t terrible, and if you’re a talented and experienced developer, you should still be able to find something without much trouble, people at the beginning of their career have it tough.
Junior developer jobs have never been a thing in Japan, but during the border closures, companies were forced to consider candidates who didn’t match their experience requirements. I don’t think that’s happening right now, and so I think it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a job through an online job board like TokyoDev if you aren’t experienced.
So what should inexperienced international developers wanting to work in Japan do?
If you’re a fluent Japanese speaker, I’d target companies that aren’t specifically looking to hire international developers. My impression is that these are still hiring as before, and you’ll have more of a chance to stand out. Wantedly is one place to discover these opportunities.
If you want to get a job while living abroad, but aren’t a fluent Japanese speaker, I’d bide your time, work on gaining some experience in your own country, and pick up some basic Japanese skills. In a couple of years, hopefully the job market has picked up again internationally, and you’re in a better spot to get hired.
If you’re already living in Japan, I’d get involved in the developer community. In person events have started happening again, and TokyoDev’s Discord has a listing of them. Look for ways to contribute to them. Give a presentation. Volunteer as staff. Be genuinely interested in the other attendees. It might take some time, but eventually it’ll lead to a job opportunity that isn’t advertised anywhere.