Saturday, July 05, 2008

Career Forum (キャリアフォーラム)

This past Wednesday and Thursday I attended the Tokyo Summer Career Forum (hereafter referred to as CFN) at the Tokyo Big Sight International Exhibition Center near Odaiba. This post contains my experiences and observations from the two-day event, some of which are positive, others of which are negative.

Please note that all of the following personal observations are from the Tokyo CFN, and as such, the candidates in attendance and overall event atmosphere may vary significantly if you attend one of the forums held in either the United States or Europe.

What is the CFN?

CFN is a giant career fair put on by the Disco Corporation of Japan. Every year forums are held across the world in locations such as London, Los Angeles, Boston, and Tokyo. Regardless of location, the premise is that companies big and small from across Japan (and some from abroad) set up booths to conduct informational sessions and interviews in order to attract internationally minded, bilingual candidates. This year, there were around 180 companies in attendance at the Tokyo forum.

Know Your Competition

Since the event is geared towards candidates with bilingual (or business level) Japanese and English language ability, those in attendance were overwhelmingly international students. More specifically, they seemed to be Japanese students who had studied for a few years at an American university, or better yet graduated from a degree program abroad.

Unlike my Capcom event, I saw quite a few Westerners like myself milling about the conference hall floor, though judging by the accents I would say that most were from Australia or the UK. Though I by no means have hard data, it seemed that most were business and finance types who spoke little Japanese. They could almost exclusively be found mobbing the Bloomberg and Goldman Sachs booths, since these companies (along with Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson) were the only ones to have English speaking representatives.

On the employer side, most of the booths were for large Japanese companies. I would say the breakdown was roughly half electronics / manufacturing companies and half finance / banking related companies. Though I was able to attended events for a resort company, a vitamin supplement drink company, and a videogame company, these were by far the exceptions in what was otherwise a quite tech-focused event.

For the record, I did my duty and visited both mega-money Western booths. My visit to the Goldman Sachs booth was just another reminder that no matter how much money there is to be made, I will never be a finance person. Meanwhile, the snooty Japanese girl at the Bloomberg booth, speaking the stilted English that she’s paid the big bucks for, said that the company won’t hire any non-native Japanese speakers to participate in their media departments within Japan. She said I should apply in New York or London where "English was desired" and promptly walked away. I threw away my orange Bloomberg folding fan out of spite.

Get Ready to Sweat!

The overall event atmosphere can be summed up with the words “crowded” and “hot!” I’ll just get this out of the way right now; wearing a full suit in the Tokyo summer is excruciatingly painful. Add in the constant nerves that are present at an event such as this, and you can imagine the bucket loads of sweat pouring from every pore of my body.

Even with stuffing tissues in both socks, my dress shoes still absolutely mutilated my heels. By the end of the event I was hobbling around as if I had two peg legs. My final seminar of the second day, an info session hosted by Johnson & Johnson, came with a care package of product samples. Flipping through the skin cream pouches, I came across “manna from heaven” in the form of sample moleskin patches to attach to your feet so your shoes don’t rub. Too bad the event was just about over by the time I got them.

"Here, let me give you a pamphlet…"

My main criticism of the CFN is that it wasn’t exactly what was advertised. I was under the impression that you would be able to stand in line at your company of interest, complete a short first round interview, and then leave to repeat the process again at another company. While this was definitely possible with some companies, I quickly found that most booths had an entirely different idea in mind.

The majority of the companies in attendance (I would say more than 2/3) were actually not granting interviews at all. Rather, all they were offering at their booth was a 20 minute informational spiel about their company’s organization and job structure. This was immediately disappointing, as I desired to interview with as many companies as possible, and had a long list of those I was interested in.

Many companies that I visited such as Konami (videogame), Ajinomoto (food), and Alpine (audio), simply passed out application materials after the informational event, instructing you to fill them out and mail them in by hand. Sometimes they didn’t hand out any materials at all, and instructed you to simply visit the company’s website for additional hiring details.

Curiously, several companies had me submit my resume online prior to attending the forum (this was the case with Canon and Alpine), yet these same companies weren’t even offering interviews. Better yet, both of these companies handed me another application that I was told to complete and mail-in in addition to what I had already submitted.

If you are going to be told by a company to simply visit their Japanese website and apply, what exactly is the CFN providing other than the opportunity to hear a company spiel? This was a question I was constantly asking myself.

"You went to which school again?"

Being a American (White Boy) at the Tokyo CFN presented its own unique set of challenges, mainly because no amount of preparation will allow you to assimilate into a hiring system with which you are unfamiliar.

While the expectations are likely different if you attend a forum held in the U.S. or Europe, for this Tokyo event, Japanese was understandably the lay of the land. Everything was conducted in Japanese and Japanese language resumes were required.

The Japanese resume, called a rirekisho, is a brief and to-the-point personal profile more than it is a list of achievements. One fills out a set form that is available for purchase at stores and attaches a head shot. The idea is that the hiring agent will glance over your set profile in a few seconds and get a basic idea of what you are all about.

Prior to the event, I had a friend in Japan send me the official resume form. I then scanned the document, typed every line entry in Japanese, and even had a Japanese native proofread it for accuracy. What more could I do? Despite all these steps, my rirekisho was still met with curious glances and furrowed brows by interviewers. It seemed to take them a long time to “get it.”

The most frustrating result of this inability to understand my resume was that my education was always glossed over. WARNING: Here is where I put on my educational elitist hat, and for that I’m sorry. But, if I’m speaking honestly, I wanted credit for the fact that I graduated from Stanford University - unarguably one of the finest universities in the world.

We all wore badges on lanyards that had our name, school, and degree printed on them. Looking at some of the Japanese students’ badges, I’d swear they were from make-believe universities. Did these places even exist? An example would read:

Yukiko Suzuki
Pebble Cove University
Nautical Sticker & Uniform Construction

What does that even mean? I grew even more upset when I began to feel that Yukiko would likely be getting a position over me, because of her “internationalism,” having studied at Pebble Cove U. Meanwhile, my rirekisho likely appeared as a jumble of katakana characters and foreign sounding words. What is this “Stanfoordo?”

The Interviews

In total I interviewed face-to-face with three companies (Toshiba, Ricoh, and Panasonic), as well as submitted my Japanese resume (whatever that ultimately means) to several more, such as Konami and Hitachi. Because the Japanese adhere to a strict hiring schedule that favors “new graduates” (those candidates who literally just graduated college a few months ago), I was unfortunately denied interviews by a few companies because I graduated last year. The interviews I did participate in were conducted entirely in Japanese, and I consider them to have been a very good learning experience.

Of the three, I would say that the Toshiba interview went the worst. This was mainly because the interviewer simply did not understand my resume at all. We spent most of our twenty minute slot going over my resume line-by-line. I had to explain just about every item as he furiously scribbled notes in the margins.

After seeing the entry from my internship at Columbia and inquiring as to my interest in music, he went as far as to tell me flat out that I shouldn’t work at Toshiba. Figuring that this was my cue to express my interest in the company, I started to mention my enjoyment of their products, such as the Xbox HD-DVD player we have at home. He stopped me dead in my tracks with a cold, “we don’t make that anymore.” Needless to say, I doubt I’ll be hearing back from Toshiba.

My interviews at Panasonic (Matsushita) and Ricoh went considerably better, as both of these interviewers seemed to understand my motives and my work history. Since the interviews were very brief, it is hard to know whether they liked me or were just being polite. However, I had nice conversations with both representatives from Ricoh and Panasonic, and could foresee the possibility of moving forward in the hiring process with either company.

In true Japanese fashion, all the companies said that they exclusively contact those candidates with whom they are interested in "moving forward."  That being said, by the end of the event, you’re very much left with a “don’t call us…we’ll call you” feeling. As weeks passed with no company-initiated correspondence of any kind, it became increasingly clear that I would not be moving forward in the interview process.

Closing Thoughts

All things considered, I have very mixed feelings regarding the CFN. At the conclusion of the first day, I felt very disappointed as my high hopes for interviewing with many companies were ultimately dashed. That being said, I do not regret my attendance at the Tokyo Summer Career Forum, as interviewing with companies in Japanese was a positive experience.

However, especially given the current state of the global economy, I would strongly caution against entering the forum with the mindset that you are going to secure an offer in a few days. Indeed, most of the companies present seemed more interested in holding informational sessions and handing out application materials than conducting onsite interviews. I believe that the CFN can be a useful addition to a job hunting plan, but I would not recommend relying solely on the event to get a job, nor traveling to Japan (or another city) specifically to attend the event.



Eva Dehlinger said...

Ben, I still give you credit for being the Academic God that you are.



Zhi Liang said...

hi I stumbled upon your column via google and was wondering if you could give me some advice. I was planning on trying out for Konami, and was wondering if interviews are conducted in English or Japanese. If you happened to remember any of the interview questions, would you mind divulging?

Thanks and keep up the blog!

Ben Whaley  said...

The interviews / tests / hiring materials you have to fill our will all be solely in Japanese.

Regarding questions themselves, since you will begin with a first round interview, you should be prepared to speak (in Japanese) about your work history, school, and your specific interests in the company. Also, what is it you want to do at Konami and what experience do you bring to the table.

Anonymous said...

I was one of those mobbing the Goldman et al. companies, since I wasn't particularly interested in working at a Japanese company and since I saw it as a futile endeavour and would prefer to work at home than at a Japanese company in Japan.

I must say I can understand your experience with the woman at the Bloomberg booth. The Japanese HR woman (she spoke perfect English though) at the Deutsche bank really struck me as being really obnoxious, openly mocking prior candidates with a friend of hers right next to the the booth where everyone could hear...

Anonymous said...

Hey Ben,
I was wondering, when you went to the career forum did you find it useful to stay for all three days?
Rumor is that there's not very much going on on the last day?
(You were a really fun TA btw :) )

Benjamin Whaley said...

Hi "Anonymous,"

When I went (and this was a number of years ago now), I did stay both days. In my case the Tokyo event was only two days. The Boston event has an extra day.

Companies do definitely start packing up and shipping out by the second half of the final day. I'd assume that most of the interviews and callbacks are usually scheduled for the first two days as well.

So, you could probably get some stuff done in the morning on the final day (like resume submission), but I don't think attendance then is essential.


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