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Can I work in Japan if I can’t speak Japanese?

Foreign language skills look good on any resume, but just how crucial is Japanese proficiency for expat bankers in Tokyo? The answer depends on the role.

Pete Millett, director of recruitment firm People Services International, says while Japanese language skills are always an advantage in the mainstream market, they are often not required in specialised functions.

Areas such as risk, quantitative analysis and structuring, as well as technology roles and hard-to-fill positions like product control, don’t always have language ability as a pre-requisite.

“[For these roles] the hired candidate will just as often come from Hong Kong, Singapore, London or New York, and have no Japanese language skills,” says Millett.

Mika Nomura, business director at Hays Banking, draws a distinction between foreign and local banks in Tokyo.

“At Japanese banks it can be very difficult without Japanese language ability, but if someone has a special skill set I think it’s very possible to get a job at a foreign firm without Japanese skills,” she says.

That’s especially true now that hiring demand is coming back. “We are getting lots of roles from Japanese banks and foreign firms. Compared to a year ago there are more opportunities for candidates with and without Japanese skills,” says Nomura.

Millett agrees. “The market for specialist candidates, roles and skill-sets is often less cyclical than for other areas, and certainly it is a better market than it was a year ago, in that we now have some actual growth hiring versus just replacement hiring.”

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