It felt like a fever dream when I got the job offer to move to Japan. This was it, I thought. My chance to rebrand myself and seek better opportunities.
I was twenty when I left my entire life behind in my hometown in the municipality of Kalibo to get a shot at working for an IT company in the capital city of Manila. Two years later, I found myself moving out of my home country in search of a better opportunity in a country whose language I barely even spoke.
This article aims to provide insight and help for foreign software developers, specifically Filipinos, looking for a job in Japan and is based on my own experience and that of five other Filipino software developers who uprooted their entire lives and moved to Japan.
Why are there so many Filipinos in Japan?
According to the Japan Times, Filipinos are Japan’s fourth largest foreign population after Chinese, South Korean, and Vietnamese communities.
Why is this so?
Aside from the spouses and children of Japanese nationals and the ever-increasing population of international students, many Filipinos have come to Japan seeking work.
In 1993, Japan established the Technical Intern Training Program. According to JITCO, the project’s main objective is “to transfer skills, technologies, or knowledge (skills, etc.) accumulated in Japan to developing [countries] and other regions and to promote international cooperation by contributing to the development of human resources who can play roles in the economic development of those developing regions.” Included in the list is the Philippines, which has many skilled workers who just need the right job opportunity to flourish. It is also worth noting, however, that many foreign technical trainees have suffered under this program due to human rights violations, prompting proposals for it to be abolished.
Not only were there a lot of opportunities present in Japan due to the shortage of manpower in the country, but Filipinos also had a good impression of the Japanese, seeing them as well-disciplined, respectful of rules, and polite.
Aside from the fact that Japanese goods and shows were prevalent amongst the Filipino youth, Japan was also the Philippines’ top Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) Source and Major Trade and Investment Partner.
Likewise, Filipinos also seem to be leaving a good image for their Japanese employers. Just recently, the Philippine Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) said that around 80 Japanese employers were looking to hire more Filipino workers because Filipinos were known for their “excellent work ethic and friendly disposition”.
With Japan still experiencing a worker shortage due to its aging population and declining birth rate even though there is a looming economic crisis, inflation, and a fluctuating yen, the country has made it easier for non-Japanese people to work in the country by providing a point-system to get a “Highly-skilled Professional Visa” without having to spend more than a specific number of years as a resident of Japan.
For software developers specifically, those belonging to the “Engineer” category are usually granted a “Working Visa” for one to five years. This in itself presented an opportunity for more Filipino software developers to come to Japan for work.
But why Japan?
Why move all the way to a different country instead of staying on your own?
“Mahalin ang sariling atin” (love your own) be damned, making a living as a worker in the IT industry in the Philippines just wasn’t going to cut it. Dreams and hopes can only do so far to fuel someone when the odds are stacked against them.
To most of the software developers I interviewed, Japan has always been a dream country to visit because they were fans of anime, culture, and a lot of other things. But it was more of getting the job offer to work in Japan first which drove them to actually choose to work here instead of in other countries.
TokyoDev found that the median annual salary of international software developers in Japan was 9.5M JPY, while based on Glassdoor the average monthly salary for a software developer in the Philippines is around 98,600 PHP, (roughly around 2M JPY/year). Despite the fact that the cost of living is lower in the Philippines, the quality of life between a third-world country and a first-world country is still worlds apart.
Better pay, better living conditions, and the opportunity to become a permanent resident in Japan rather than going back to the Philippines—those three were mostly cited as the benefits of coming to work here in Japan by the people I interviewed.
In a 2022 survey conducted by TokyoDev for international software engineers in Japan, it could be noted that 2% of the 558 respondents are Filipino. This is quite low considering the Filipino population in Japan. However, there might still be an improvement in numbers in the coming years seeing as Japan has completely ended its current border control measures for overseas travelers.
Life in Japan
The application process
A common way to get a job opportunity as a direct hire software developer in Japan is through job hunting sites. It’s easier to get an offer through recruitment agencies or employment agencies, but it’s important to check the background of the company that you’ll be working with.
“Do your research about the company. Make sure to check if they’re a black company or not.” Jonas advises. These so-called “Black companies” are notorious for having shady workplace practices and making employees render unpaid overtime that exceeds the 30-hour limit mandated by the Japanese national government.
It would be good to talk to previous employees of the company if you could get in touch with them through professional networking platforms like LinkedIn or other meetup opportunities. There are also websites like Glassdoor or OpenWork (Japanese) where you can check company reviews.
“Expand your network,” says one developer. “There are online boot camps and meetups available on Meetup, Discord, and other platforms out there where you can find like-minded people.” She discusses how she was able to get help getting her resume reviewed and got lots of advice from Code Chrysalis, where she previously attended an online boot camp. She was also able to connect with one of the presenters, who ended up referring her to her new company. “Referrals are helpful to boost your application since the companies you’re applying for are probably going through several applications at a time.”
On a personal note, I was able to get in touch with and meet up with some foreign developers from the TokyoDev community, who gave me lots of insight into technologies and have been overall helpful with questions I had about living and working in Japan.
A tip that one developer shared was to “learn to negotiate your salary,” in relation to Japan having the maximum possible offer of a company being related to an applicant’s age and their previous work salary. He also wanted to emphasize how it was important to skill up while working through your applications and to not give up despite the barriers you encounter while applying.
Preparing the documents
Preparing documents to go from the Philippines to Japan proved to be a difficult challenge for some of the developers. There’s so much lobbying and red tape around that, even for companies who already have a rapport with the government offices.
There are five government agencies in the Philippines that are mainly associated with the different processes throughout a Filipino worker’s employment overseas before they become a fully-recognized Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW):
- Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), which is concerned with protecting the welfare and rights of all Filipino workers
- Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), which is an executive department of the Philippine Government, which aims to help “every Filipino worker to attain full, decent and productive employment”
- Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA),*where the OFW has to register as a member in order to receive benefits like health, burial, and scholarship benefits.
- Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), which implements DOLE’s labor policies and programs overseas through its several overseas branches
- Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), which is a newer executive department effective under the Department of Migrant Workers Act (RA 11641) to help “facilitate the overseas employment and reintegration of Filipino workers, while taking into consideration the national development programs of the National Economic and Development Authority. All of the aforementioned agencies are technically under this department.
These agencies were initially created to protect OFWs (more specifically caregivers and housekeepers) from abusive bosses and to avoid illegal recruitment, but it has now been extended to cover more employment fields as more and more Filipinos look for jobs abroad.
To ensure the legalities of your employment, make sure to check the requirements of all these agencies with the POLO Office in Tokyo and go through them with your company. “I’m so glad our HR [personnel] was kind and helpful with the process,” a developer says, knowing full well how tedious the process could take.
Thankfully, there’s a community of OFWs dedicated to helping out and guiding fellow Filipinos with the necessary processes. Two of the developers I talked to mentioned that they were able to get insights on how to proceed with processing their working visas thanks to a Facebook group comprised of OFWs.
The rarity of overtime work
I’m happy to report that all of the Filipinos that I’ve interviewed responded that they had a good work-life balance. Despite being a country known as one of the “world’s most overworked nations” and for “Occupational sudden Mortality” they had a term coined for it—Karoshi, or death by overwork—everyone made it clear that they rarely work overtime.
“Our company has flextime so as long as I render the required hours per day, I’m good. But I’m kind of a workaholic…” one developer (who decided to remain anonymous for this article) sheepishly admitted. “But I do have time for my hobbies and spending time with my family.”
“I was actually surprised, to be honest.” Miguel—who has been working in Japan for more than four years now— says when he talked about how, despite working for a traditional Japanese company, he didn’t have to work overtime every single day as he had feared before coming to Japan.
On fluency and learning the language
The developers I interviewed also had varying levels of Japanese fluency, but they all responded with the fluency level not being important to getting a job opportunity. Despite having a JLPT N1 certification, a developer says that he’s still not near native-level fluency since he still has a hard time communicating in a business context or with hospital staff.
Three developers mentioned that they had free Japanese lessons at their previous and/or current companies, but at the end of the day, reaching a better level of fluency all comes down to personal motivation and grit.
On the other hand, communication at work is one of the main concerns of a developer who had to work in a more traditional Japanese company as his colleagues only communicated with him in Japanese, with no English at all. “For the first two years of living here in Japan, I only focused on getting better at Japanese,” Miguel recalls.
Although it is common for traditional Japanese companies in Japan to require JLPT N2 or Business-level Japanese for foreign applicants, this is not the case for global companies. Of course, there would be an additional consideration for applicants who have JLPT N3 or daily conversational level Japanese or better, but it is not completely the deciding factor when getting the job.
Miguel also picks up on the importance of learning the language. ”It’s easier to market yourself if they know that you’re trainable. Especially since not a lot of Japanese developers could communicate in English.”
When asked what about living in Japan they liked, the number one most-mentioned thing was the “convenience”
Whether it be the 4 million vending machines installed all over Japan that sell different things from drinks to food and towels, the varied convenience stores (that 100% live up to their title), or the effective public transportation system, everybody loved the convenience of things in Japan.
Despite still mainly having a culture of making cash-only payments, there are also a ton of mobile payment systems being implemented around Japan like Paypay, Line Pay, Merpay, dPay, Rakuten Pay, au Pay, and the like.
For those who have already traveled or lived in Japan, you might already be familiar with IC Cards being used for transportation systems for those who don’t like buying tickets repeatedly. This would include PASMO (for those living in the Kanagawa Prefecture) and SUICA (for those living in Tokyo). Aside from being able to integrate these services into your mobile phone instead of always carrying a card with you, you can also use these cards to pay for services.
A culture of respect
How orderly the people are and how often they followed queues and were respectful of everyone were also additional points that were raised when talking about what the developers liked about living in Japan.
But of course, not every single Japanese person is like that, and there are still some cases of unruly Japanese nationals reported around the country.
It’s true that Japan has a low crime rate (which got even lower as the pandemic began), especially compared to other countries’ statistics.
However, there were several cases of police officers randomly stopping and questioning foreign-looking people whom they see walking the streets or riding their bikes and minding their own business. So far, I have personally known three Filipino software developers who were stopped on the street and interrogated, so I asked them for permission to share their experiences here.
Frae, a Filipino software developer who only came to Japan recently for a personal vacation got stopped by two Japanese policemen while he was taking a stroll around Shinjuku Nichome and taking photos. Initially, they only asked for his name and passport so he obliged, having heard about Japanese policemen doing this to catch illegal aliens.
However, he started to feel uncomfortable when they pried him for more questions and asked him to do a body search and check the contents of his bag. When he asked him what it was for, they explained (via a translator device) that someone had lost their debit/credit card. “That’s when I knew I was racially profiled. Of all the people they could’ve searched, they chose the brown guy.” he shares. After looking through all of his wallets to verify that the contents reflect the name on his passport, the policemen left, but the memory of the bad experience will always stay.
On the other hand, Sam—one of my previous Filipino coworkers—just brushed it off when he was interrogated by a police officer who thought that he stole the bike he was using. He was also asked about his name and personal identification, his address, company name, the number of foreigners in his building, and the length of his stay in Japan, among others.
“No bad experiences. Just good stories,” he repeated his mantra later on. Apparently, there were lots of reported incidents of stolen bikes around their area but he just laughed it off saying he might have looked suspicious that day.
Another Filipino developer who mentioned that he was also stopped and questioned by the police while biking around his neighborhood just shrugged it off, saying that it was bound to happen since he looked different from everyone.
There were also microaggressions—the side-eyeing, the judgmental looks, the moving away from the trains. I have personally experienced some of these, but I have gotten used to them over the years that I learned to just shrug them off.
“I think some of my coworkers were talking about me behind my back.” shares one developer. When asked if it was because he was a Filipino or just because he was a “Gaijin” (foreigner), he responds with a shrug, “I think it was because I was a foreigner. Not specifically targeted to me being a Filipino.”
Of course, I’m wary sometimes. Despite the good impressions, there’s also bound to be some backlash about the bad impressions the Japanese have on Filipinos. But so far, none of the developers I’ve talked to have personally experienced any passive-aggressive or direct attacks on them just for being Filipino.
Lack of diversity
Japan is still also lagging behind in numbers when it comes to diversity in the workforce. In the 2022 Basic Statistical Survey Report presented by JISA, only 23.2% of women work as IT Engineers, wherein only 7% of them are in managerial or higher positions.
Despite having lively bars all around Shinjuku Nichome, Japan is still notably behind other G7 members when it comes to developing relevant laws aimed at helping sexual minorities in Japan. For example, same-sex marriage is still not recognized in Japan. They also do not have laws banning discrimination against sexual minorities.
A gay Filipino friend mentioned to me in passing how he doesn’t see himself living here in the long term because of such discrimination. And if he might want to get married in the future, there was no way of having that legally recognized here in Japan yet. I also have a few other Filipino friends who identify as sexual minorities but don’t really choose to discuss it with their Japanese friends due to fear of discrimination.
Adjusting to the culture
Despite working in a Japanese company in the Philippines before getting a job offer to get deployed to a client in Japan, Miguel cites that there still had to be some adjustments to the workplace culture aside from having to speak purely Japanese. “They were always on time. You had to start and end meetings at a specific time. If the meeting was going to exceed the allotted time, you had to book the schedule for an extension of the meeting.” he adds. Although in most cases, more notably in Global companies in Japan, they’re a little more lenient with this
As Japan lifts travel restrictions imposed due to COVID and downgrades COVID-19 into a Class 5 disease, more and more foreign nationals seeking better opportunities are getting the chance to work in the country.
However, despite Japan’s seeking to get to a higher scale of globality, there are still a lot of barriers that foreign applicants need to overcome when coming here.
I myself had to go through more than 80 failed applications, around 20 recruiters, and 30 or so interviews. And after 4 months of waiting, I was able to get a new opportunity here in Japan.
And yet once you’ve arrived here, there’s still a need to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. Having to live away from your family and the country you’ve known your entire life is no mean feat. Whatever your long-term plans may be, to some degree, you need to establish your roots in the country as well.
Even introverts might have a need to have a sense of community. “No man is an island” and all that pizzazz about having to interact with people for your well-being. I would say this is true—Filipinos are tribal people, after all. Maybe this is why I always seem to find Filipinos in almost every social gathering I go to in Japan. Now I have a network of Filipino friends whom I’ve met through random opportunities.
“You cannot make a community unless you make an effort,” one of the interviewees said.
Thanks to the people who have lent their time and shared their experiences with me in order to write up this article: Jonas Villanueva, Miguel Dalmacion, Sam R.R. Jayme, Frae Valdehuesa, and two other Filipino developers who have decided to remain anonymous for this article.
A huge thanks to Paul McMahon for this opportunity and for helping with the grammar and format checks, and to the TokyoDev community for their insights.