How Can Learning Japanese or Chinese Get You a Job?

According to the news, China is about to rule the world and the Japanese are poised for extinction via low birthrates.  With an ever-rising China and a Japan on the decline, one has to wonder:  Will learning Japanese actually get me a job?  And more importantly, will learning Chinese get me an even better job?

In my post “should I learn Japanese or Chinese?” I gave the cop out answer of “go with your heart.”  I still stand by this super cheesy advice.

However,  via this particular post, I received multiple emails from young college students asking for even more advice.  What kind of jobs can I get with these language skills?  What level of proficiency do I need?  And most of all: Are learning these languages just a massive waste of time?

The combination of these questions, and my recent job hunt, has led me to the following conclusions:

Japanese is Not Useless

Tokyo Time Square

When I first started learning Japanese, it was still the number two economy in the world.  Japan was going places.  They had Sony, Hitachi, Toyota, and a bunch of other recognizable and respectable companies.  I thought knowing Japanese would really take me places.

Then China surpassed Japan economically, took its spot at #2, and totally stole the country’s spotlight.  My graduate program not only slashed the number of Japanese courses in half, they fired all the Japanese professors until there was only one left and cut the Japanese foreign language track.  Just to spite Japan even more, they hired three new China professors and added an entire major that was wholly China focused.

Japan’s birth rates are low.  Their economy is sluggish.  Prime Minister Abe is kind of a jerk.  Earthquakes.  High suicide rates.  China.

All of these events led me to believe that my Chinese skills were going to get me that big job.

But guess what?  After applying to dozens of jobs, both of which needed either Chinese or Japanese, I was hired at a big firm for my Japanese skills.

AGAIN.

Japanese Skills Are Great For the Private Sector

China’s growth may be exponential, but it is still a developing country with a relatively unstable market.  China still has yet to produce reputable corporations and stable businesses to attract widespread investment.  Aside from Lenovo, there are few Chinese brands that households recognize and trust.  China, despite taking the number two spot in GDP growth, still has a way to go if it wants to stand on par with Japan as both a stable and trustworthy economy.

Japan’s economy may be sluggish, but its corporations are not.  I could write an entire post about this, but let’s just say a fair number Japanese corporations are rather profitable.  Softbank acquired Sprint.  Suntory acquired Jim Bean.  Uniqlo is rapidly expanding.  Japan is still making money and, most of all, is a huge driver for business.

All Japanese jobs I applied to were, largely, in the private sector.  Despite Japan’s “decline,” there were still a high number of jobs that not only demanded Japanese language skills, but also Japanese cultural aptitude.  Whether its linguistic or cultural, companies are constantly on the lookout for individuals who are familiar with Japan.

Why is this?  Well, I think it’s lack of supply.  It is very hard to find talent both bilingual in Japanese and English.  This could be due to Japan’s education system, the vastly contrasting linguistic differences between English or Japanese, or perhaps even the lack of Japanese immigrants.  Despite the reason, this lack of bilinguals creates huge demand from private corporations.

So just how good does my Japanese need to be to get this job?

Let’s just say… you probably need to be able to read half this sign at least

I’ll be blunt: your Japanese needs to mind-blowingly good.  Like, you can watch Japanese news, pick up a Japanese newspaper, and talk Japanese politics with a local–and all without picking up a dictionary.

At the bare minimum, I recommend passing JLPT Level 2. However, as I wrote in the Japanese or Chinese post, Japanese is WAY HARDER than Chinese.  Passing JLPT 2 could take years of your life.

Chinese, on the other hand, is great for the public sector

I lived in Shanghai for four years.  I met Chinese people from everywhere.  Anhui, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Sichuan, Ningbo, Beijing, the list goes on.

What did they all have in common?

Their English was AMAZING.

In general, Chinese people speak better English than their Japanese neighbors.  I don’t have evidence of this, it’s all from personal experience, but it was overwhelmingly evident during my stay in both Japan and China.  In Japan I only met a handful of locals who could speak English well.  In China, there was hardly anyone I met who couldn’t speak English.   In fact, some of my friends were so good they could pass as American Born Chinese (ABC).

And what do most Chinese people want to do with their English fluency?

Make money (aka work in the private sector).

Where does one work not for money, but for stability and a good cause?

The public sector.

When I was job hunting I found dozens of Chinese-speaking jobs for the US government.  I often wondered why these jobs were not being filled or how I had a chance in hell to even interview for these high-ranking positions.

But then it hit me: Only US nationals can apply for (most) federal positions.

And while the US has no shortage on ABC US nationals, many of them did not grow up fully bilingual.  In fact, beside my husband, I don’t know any ABC who can read and write Chinese characters.  They are in short supply.

So if you speak baller Chinese and want to work for the government–then I say your odds are pretty good.

So just how good does my Chinese have to be?

When I interviewed for jobs that required Chinese, they didn’t just interview me in Chinese.  Oh no.  It was much worse.

I wrote a three page marketing plan in Mandarin.  They still didn’t hire me.

I had to translate a four-page, hand written document on rubber tariffs from Mandarin to English in one hour.  they didn’t hire me.

I had to write a hand written essay in Mandarin about the Chinese economy in 45 minutes.  They didn’t hire me.

The demand is high, my friends.  HSK Level 5 or 6.  Minimum.

The Most Important Job Hunting Advice I Have to Give is….

The Ruby Ronin says…

Foreign Language will not get you a job (as I wrote in a previous post).  Foreign language is a supplemental talent.  If possible, first focus on a primary skill, a hard skill, and use foreign language to make that skill even more desirable.

I made the mistake of focusing purely on language, and I paid the price for it.  While my language skills have gotten me jobs I never even dreamed of, I would be fairing much better if I had gotten a law/medicine/engineering/business degree and then studied a language.

Even if you do just study a foreign language, though, I have to say… you will be ok.  Japanese and Chinese (and Korean!) are incredibly useful languages to know in this day and age.  They both clock in at #2 and #3 economies respectively, are hard languages to acquire, and can provide work in both government or business.

In the end, I just gotta give my cheesy advice again: go with your heart.  These languages are crazy hard to acquire.  You gotta love it to learn it.

To me, Chinese and Japanese just aren’t languages.  These languages represent food, culture and friends.  These two languages have given so much joy and excitement to my life that, hell, I probably wuldn’t have met my husband without them.

So, go with your heart.  You won’t regret it.

What Has Gotten You Ahead in Your Career?

15 thoughts on “How Can Learning Japanese or Chinese Get You a Job?

  1. Rosie Z says:

    It’s interesting when I hear others comment on how great Chinese people speak English in China. It seems that this may be the case in certain areas and circles but it was overwhelmingly not my experience in China! From my time spent in Hebei and even Beijing, I met few Chinese people who could speak English well enough to have a meaningful conversation. Could where you lived in Japan have influenced your perception of how well Japanese people speak English?

    • rubymary says:

      I guess I should emphasize that Chinese people in “the big cities” are better at languages. Comparing Shanghai and Tokyo, the young people in Shanghai speak English MUCH better than those in Tokyo. It was a struggle to find someone even slightly good at English in Tokyo, where in Shanghai I felt like every young person I met could speak halfway decent English.

      Also, maybe the place I lived in Japan did give me a slight bias (since I lived in the middle of nowhere and there weren’t exactly a lot bilingual Japanese). However, in graduate school the Chinese students were MUCH better than the Japanese students at English. Even when I worked at companies in the USA, the manager who was supposedly fluent in English still wasn’t half as good as many Chinese people I met in Shanghai (and had never even been abroad!). I guess I would have to rephrase it and say: Chinese, on average, have a higher and more advanced level of English fluency than their Japanese counterparts.

      I’m sure in the more tier-two cities it’s much harder to find someone good at English. Oh man, when I went to Zhangjiajie in Hunan province all I could think was: if I didn’t speak Chinese, I don’t know how I would even be here. Hats off to the travelers from abroad who come here without any Chinese.

    • rubymary says:

      Thank you! Glad it was helpful! Yeah, I had to do the same thing–go back to grad school to get ‘certified’ in an actual skill that’s not language. I think it paid off for me, though, so it will definitely for you!

  2. autumnashbough says:

    Fascinating info. We live in an area with a ton of Japanese and Chinese families. The Japanese-Americans are mostly 3rd generation and rarely speak Japanese, while there are plenty of other families working for Japanese corporations in Los Angeles — some for decades. They have weekend Japanese schools/ soccer. The Chinese nationals are just buying SoCal property. 🙂

    It would be hard to compete with the language skills of any of these bilingual children by age 14, but the local high school offers Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. When did you start learning Japanese?

    • rubymary says:

      Haha, I think I know what neighborhood you’re in/near 😉 And it’s one of my fav places in LA. If I’m right, ALLLLLL of my Japanese supervisors who came to the USA for their short stints would live there with their families. I also have a lot of 3rd generation Japanese-American friends in LA who can’t speak Japanese, but still have a very fierce Japanese pride (they all sent their kids to Japanese language schools).

      Yeah, Chinese people… buying our US property and driving up home prices! Harumph! My husband’s parents aren’t any better. They have like 5 properties in the bay area. When I told my Japanese friend about their house-buying spree, she replied: “why do they need that many homes? that much money?” I wish she could have asked the in-laws that to their face, haha. I feel like buying property is a Chinese genetic trait or something lol, as soon as they come out of the womb it’s real estate.

      I started learning Japanese in high school (self-taught!). I was one of those Japan nerds. I’ve been studying it THIS LONG and I’m barely fluent. It’s such a hard language… don’t say I can recommend it, but it HAS gotten me employed. I gotta be somewhat thankful!

      • autumnashbough says:

        Andy and I were arguing over whether Mandarin or Japanese was harder. I was all, “Well, MARY learned both and she says Japanese!” He said if you learned Cantonese you’d change your mind. I guess those extra two tones are the worst.

        Yeah, Andy’s parents own two houses in Hawaii and they insisted he buy a condo ASAP once he had a job. Then they were upset that we sold the condo to buy our current house because of course we should have kept it and rented it. It’s like a landlord gene.

  3. Lani says:

    Well thought out post. I agree, from what I’ve heard and experienced the Chinese are better at English and hungrier! SE Asia’s largest tourist sector is from China. It’s all about Chinese relations and the need for someone who speaks Chinese and is massive.

    However, the Japanese have not stopped coming over here either. They have been investing and they have such big humantiarian hearts. And since I just came from Hawaii, I know how important Japanese is, as the Japanese LOVE to come to Hawaii for holidays. I felt like everyone who worked at the airport was at least bilingual.

    • rubymary says:

      Thanks for your compliment! YES! I was amazed by all the Chinese tourists in Vietnam… The tour guide told me that English wasn’t the “hot” language to learn anymore, but rather, Chinese was more profitable. Chinese are willing to shop more and help them with commissions, whereas westerns are more concerned about the “experience.”

      I heard Hawaii is like… Japan no.2, haha. They love it there. I still haven’t been! I always thought if I ever moved to Hawaii I could find a chance to get a job! Wish I could go to Hawaii!

      • Lani says:

        Funny you said that because most Thais are infuriated with the Chinese tourists because the DON’T spend money. They’re all about saving money, cutting corners (like making ramen in the hotel room) – hahahaha, but perhaps that’s changing.

  4. Marta says:

    I don’t know Japanese so I can’t comment on which language is more useful, but I agree with you in that you should learn what you like. There are needs and markets for everything, and even if what you love is Norwegian or Albanian, you will find companies who need you. I also agree that if money/work is your main objective, better study something else and then learn a language on top.

    In my current job my most important skill is Spanish, because there are not many native ES translators in China. In my previous job, when I was in Spain, I was hired because I could speak Chinese. So it also depends where you want to work.

    • rubymary says:

      Yeah I agree with you! You gotta find your ‘niche,’ no matter what language it is. A lot of people emailed me and said they want to give up Japanese or Korean studies for Chinese, since it’s “so hot” right now, and I just wanted to emphasize that–well, you can still get a job with other languages. And knowing Chinese-English won’t land you a $$$ job.

      I think you have a great skill, Marta! I can’t imagine there are many Spanish-Chinese speakers either…

      • Marta says:

        I might have a strange way of thinking, but if it was me I would study any other “minor” language now instead of Chinese (if I was thinking about my future job) because there are so many people studying Chinese right now, haha. Did you read about the (British or American, can’t remember) literary translator who learned Korean because she thought there were not many KO-EN translators and 3 years later she was already translating novels?

        I don’t think my Chinese is too good, I will never be able to feel completely comfortable in that language. In my current job I actually translate from EN to ES! Although knowing Chinese is definitely a plus so I can check the original source in case the EN translators made a mistake or were unclear…

  5. Abel says:

    Hi, so I’m going to study International Business, I’m fluent on Spanish(mother language) and English, and I’m currently on an intermediate level of Korean, I can’t decide between Chinese and Japanese, What language do you think it would be more useful for International Business?

    • rubymary says:

      I think either language would be great for business! Choose the language you like 🙂

      Marta is from Spain and lives in China and she uses Spanish-Chinese for her job! Seems like it’s in demand 🙂

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