Updated January 29, 2023
Are software engineers respected in Japan?
Software engineering is one of the most sought-after jobs in the world.
Companies from all over the world are offering big bucks and great benefits. Countries are even creating special visas for engineers to come and stay permanently.
The demand is there.
But this demand doesn’t always mean software engineers will receive high regard and reverence from society — at least not everywhere.
Today, I’d like to answer a question that gets brought up frequently: “Are software engineers respected in Japan?”
The answer to this question is complex. Even the definition of a “software engineer” can vary by location.
So I’ll explain all the job titles in Japan that are related to software engineering, what they do, and how they’re viewed in the public eye.
Let’s dive right in.
Some Background: Software and Hardware Development in Japan
Japan has a long history of manufacturing and hardware.
It’s no secret. We’re surrounded by Japanese-produced hardware everywhere we go, and it’s been this way for a long, long time.
Be it musical instruments, kitchen appliances, or gaming consoles, Japanese brands have always been in our lives, one way or another. This is because Japan cares deeply about building hardware. So much so that sometimes Japanese companies forget that software is necessary to make hardware useful. For a lot of Japanese companies, software is simply an afterthought. Taken for granted.
Because of this historical emphasis on hardware, software engineering doesn’t get as much respect in Japan as it does in other places.
It doesn’t help that many people in Japan have the impression that software engineering jobs are stressful and boring, with long hours. It gets conflated with “IT” or “Information Technology”, which refers to things like managing networks and information systems for companies.
This mindset seeps into the cracks of many “IT” businesses, and coding is considered a menial task that can be done by just about anyone who’s been trained for a few months. I’ll talk more about this in a bit.
Let’s first take a look at the main distinctions between software engineering-related titles in Japan.
Software-Related Job Titles in Japan
As I mentioned, the title “software developer” doesn’t exactly translate well in Japan.
There are a few different job titles that have significantly varying requirements and duties. However, keep in mind that these titles aren’t set in stone. These are general categorizations that I’m making in order to describe the job titles and what they do. You might see varying or similar titles on job listings.
Also, if you’re wondering how you can find a job as a software engineer in Japan, I recently wrote an extensive post explaining all the ins and outs. I recommend you have a look to get a feel for how things work over here.
For now, let’s start by explaining the most confusing title in Japan, which is “software engineer.”
In the west, it’s common to talk about “software engineers”, but in Japan, the term “system engineer” is more common — at least historically.
Confusingly, this position actually isn’t that similar to a Silicon Valley-style software engineering role. Given the name, you might think that programming is an essential skill for a system engineer. But that’s not the case.
In Japan, it’s quite common for a lot of “system engineers” to not be proficient in any coding languages at all.
This is because a software engineer, or a “system engineer” as they’re more often called, is more akin to a project manager that oversees the progressions of software development processes.
Essentially, these people are the communication channel between the technical side and the business side of things. Yet, they’re more respected than people who actually develop software.
While system engineers may not know how to code, they are still well-versed enough in the technology being used to manage development projects.
However, it’s very easy to be fooled. Some system engineers still claim that they “know” coding languages and list these skills in their resumes. This is because they know that their actual job will probably never require them to write code.
While applying for jobs, you might see the title abbreviated as “SE.” This may be confusing as this usually refers to a software engineer.
Just know that it means “system engineer” in Japan. And while everyone’s goals are different, I usually don’t recommend working as a system engineer if you’re a foreigner. There are exceptions, but the positions typically require high-level Japanese skills, and won’t help you gain relevant experience.
Another confusing title that you may have thought was synonymous with “software engineer” is “programmer.”
In Japan, this word (プログラマー / “programmer”) has historically meant something very specific. It means the people who actuallywrite the code for IT companies. They do the coding, but that’s usually all they do.
Another unique thing about “programmers” in Japan is that their educational backgrounds are usually not related to computer science. Instead, these people learn to code on the job.
Also, most “programmers” are young people who are recent graduates. This is because, in Japan, the actual coding process is often seen as common labor. Programmers are considered replaceable workers that carry out a task that’s assigned to them by the managers of the projects.
Given the above, you may be thinking that software engineering isn’t very respected in Japan. And historically, this has been largely true.
But this is not always the case, and things are also starting to change, and we’ll see how in a bit. Let’s first look at one more job title in Japan, which is “web developer.”
A web developer may sound like a limiting title when describing a software engineer. However, this title may be one of the most involved with coding among all the other titles in Japan.
A web developer in Japan refers to a person who not only writes code but creates full products. These people usually also have a basic knowledge of design as well, as they often work on UI and UX design.
As opposed to software engineers who only carry out tasks, web developers pretty much work on every aspect of a project.
Web developers are usually more up-to-date with the latest technology compared to other software development-related jobs in Japan. This is because software engineers, or system engineers (SE), don’t work “in the field,” per se. They just oversee the process and act as a communication channel.
Sure, some of the young and eager “developers” out there may be more caught up with the latest tech than a software engineer. However, developers in Japan lack the foundation as they don’t have an educational background in coding.
It’s also important to note that Japan is a few years behind in terms of web and mobile development.
All in all, a web developer's reputation is somewhere between a software engineer and a developer. They are definitely less respected than a software engineer, but they’re also not seen as mere “workers” like developers.
What Is System Integration?
Now that I explained the job titles you’ll come across, there’s one more term that I want to introduce you to: “System integration”.
System integration (SI) is another style of software engineering that’s quite popular in Japan.
Remember how I mentioned that software isn’t considered as important as hardware? Because of this, most Japanese companies choose to outsource their software engineering needs rather than have an in-house development team.
As a result, many small-scale software companies that focus on providing software systems to other companies — System Integrators — have become the norm for developing software in Japan.
In time, SIs also started to evolve, and thus a few different types of SI companies emerged. Some became consultancy firms. These SIs provide consultancy on a wide range of IT issues related to businesses.
Some SI companies had a more holistic approach, which led them to become computer manufacturing system integrators.
There’ve also been others who wanted to work independently that took a simple approach. These independent SIs are similar to contractors that work on a job-to-job basis, and they provide all kinds of IT-related services.
Essentially, system integrators can provide any IT-related service that ranges from creating software by orders to providing consultancy on how to improve the workflow of a company.
Things Are Looking Up
As much as it's hard to believe after everything I told you so far, it’s true — things are looking up for software engineers in Japan.
Only a couple of decades ago, Japan was a country where taking a financial risk was considered a major faux pas. This is the main reason why so few people in Japan built their own tech startups. Many people were too afraid, or saw it as too risky.
But now, startups are becoming much more popular in Japan.
I wrote about this in my post about startups in Japan, but Japan — especially Tokyo — is making progress towards becoming a startup hub. It was only in 2016 that the country had its first unicorn (a private startup that reached a value of 1 million U.S. dollars), and now there are over 10 unicorns in Japan.
Moreover, there are 40 startups that are considered “hidden” unicorns. Japan is booming with successful businesses, and the recipe for this success is one that’s foreign to Japan. A software-powered business revolution is underway.
Better Work Conditions
This was an expected change, of course. Things are just a bit delayed in the world of software engineering, but Japan is surely catching up.
It’s also motivating companies to build their own internal development teams rather than outsourcing, adding to the rising demand for the job title. Software used to be something companies wanted to outsource as cheaply as possible. Now they’re investing in building in-house teams to focus on it.
This revolution also allows companies to provide perks that are provided to software engineers in the U.S. and Europe. In addition to higher pay, as software engineers are becoming more and more in demand, their work conditions are getting better, too.
As I wrote in a recent post about flex time in Japan, most tech/internet companies nowadays offer flex time to their employees. Software engineers can work whenever and wherever they want, and most companies don’t even care about the hours worked. Instead, they look at results.
In light of all this, I can safely say that maintaining a healthy work/life balance is possible in Japan if you get hired by one of these companies.
This results in an observable increase in the respect software engineers get in Japan. It’s definitely noticeable today, and this is only the beginning.
IT jobs don’t have the best reputation in Japan. In part due to the country’s reliance on hardware and system integration, software development simply wasn’t a priority for companies. The trend of hiring people from any background and training them on the job didn’t help either.
Many people in Japan had the impression that hardware manufacturing was more lucrative, and software was an unimportant component that could be outsourced from anywhere. Luckily, that’s not the case anymore.
Nowadays, you’ll have much less trouble finding a software engineering job with a competitive salary and benefits. More companies are offering the kind of work environment expected by highly skilled global engineers. It will take time to completely change the view of the general public, but at least it’s a good start.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a company where your work will be respected and valued, you’re in luck. Each company on the Japan Dev company list is personally vetted by our team, and there are some great options on there.
Check it out if you want to work in Japan, at a company that respects software engineering.
Latest Tech Jobs 🇯🇵
Explore the top developer jobs in Japan for foreigners
Get Job Alerts
Sign up for our newsletter to get hand-picked tech jobs in Japan – straight to your inbox.