Although salary levels in New York and London are now comparable with those in Tokyo, and setting up a Japanese operation is no longer the prohibitively expensive business that it once was, problems still remain regarding recruitment and the retention of staff when compared to the rest of the world or, indeed, when compared to other Asian locations such as Hong Kong and Singapore.
Thus the ever-present question of “expatriate” versus “local hire” presents itself, and even when the decision has been made to use “local hires,” the additional question of whether to hire Japanese or non-Japanese personnel raises its head. In Japan, it cannot be automatically assumed that the English language will act as a lingua franca between customers and the Japanese subsidiary of a foreign enterprise—indeed, it may not be possible to operate the Japanese operation using English as the common internal language.
These linguistic and other cultural barriers afflicting newcomer businesses to Japan influence hiring decisions and, to that end, many smaller HR consultancies and hiring agencies have sprung up in the past, often serving niche markets (for example, financial IT staff). As a result, competition was fierce, without much of the global brand leadership pattern that exists outside Japan.
Recently, however, more global players have entered the Japanese market, one of them being Robert Walters, whose Australian Managing Director and head of recruiting, David Swan, talked to the Journal.
Robert Walters in Japan
This UK-based recruitment agency set up shop in Japan ten years ago, with the Japanese office specializing in the recruitment of Japanese mid-career staff, mainly, but by no means exclusively, for multinational companies operating in Japan.
Swan, with 13 years of experience in the field, explains that the larger overseas recruitment companies’ profile has increased considerably from what it was in the past.
Previously, several smaller local Japan-based firms were doing the work until the larger “brand name” foreign companies, one of the first being Robert Walters, entered the market at the beginning of the century and raised the level of competition.
“When you have a market with fairly low competition, you don’t get a rise in standards,” he points out, claiming that clients are better served in the Japanese marketplace by these heavy-hitting entrants.
Other major longer-term players in Japan include Michael Page, Hudson, and Wall Street Associates, with other players, such as Hays, Robert Half and others coming at a later date.
Prior to this, the Japanese “lifetime employment” system was often perceived as being inviolable, discouraging any attempt by London and New York head offices to break into the Japanese market, which was held, to a large extent, to be an impossible nut to crack.
“I don’t think we [the foreign recruitment firms] have caused the changes in Japanese business culture, with traditional bonds between employers and employee breaking down,” he says, while pointing out that these changes have made it easier for foreign companies to recruit Japanese staff to fill the gaps in their organization charts, and thereby have increased demand for recruitment services of a global standard.
Despite some recent changes, Japanese business culture is still very different from that of other parts of Asia which means, according to Swan, that the expectations related to doing business in other countries do not necessarily apply to Japan.
For example, he says, “It tends to be a little harder to get candidates in Japan to change jobs than in Chinese-style cultures like Hong Kong and Singapore. Candidates there are often more driven by monetary concerns, while Japan workers tend to take into account factors other than purely monetary ones when considering a job move.”
Such mid-career “bilingual Japanese professionals,” in Swan’s words, form the mainstay of Robert Walters’s work, and he also emphasizes strongly that Japanese language ability is of paramount importance in the majority of cases handled by Robert Walters, unless it is for a post with very specialized skill requirements.
“Otherwise they need pretty much native Japanese,” he explains. “Fluent Japanese is sometimes acceptable, but fluent Japanese doesn’t equal native Japanese in terms of ability to do business.”
There are exceptions to this rule, and Robert Walters does recruit from outside Japan to fill those specialist positions where it is impossible to find a suitable candidate from inside the country. Chiefly, though for foreign clients, Robert Walters acts as the “boots on the ground” for head offices who need to appoint local staff to fill the needs of the Japanese office, typically at “specialist mid-level.”