Programming can be a great way to break into Japan.
It’s one of the most appealing jobs due to its demand, job security, and solid salary. Not to mention the prevalence of “No Japanese required” tags you'll find on programming job descriptions.
Are you an IT professional with solid work experience? If so, working as a software developer in Japan can be rewarding. But this doesn’t mean it's without challenges, especially in the workplace.
Here’s everything you need to know about the state of programming jobs in Japan. We’ll give you an honest take on what you should expect when working as a programmer in Japan.
The State of Software Development in Japan
Before you start working as a programmer in Japan, it’s crucial to understand Japan's software industry. It's not too different from the west, but there are some things you need to keep in mind.
Local and foreign companies compete for a limited pool of IT pros in the country. According to Tokyo’s Office of the Governor, their IT industry had a projected $130 billion value in 2019. The country itself is the third-largest economy in the world after US and China.
The Japanese IT industry is vast. It's made up of a mix of traditional Japanese companies, modern Japanese startups and international companies with branches in Japan. And your experience will vary greatly depending on which type of company you choose. At Japan Dev, we recommend a modern startup or international company for most English speaking developers.
Many more "legacy" Japanese companies will have a formal hierarchy, strict rules and a culture that can be hard to break into for non-Japanese developers.
Japan is particularly well known for certain industries. For example, you'll find some of the biggest game development companies in Japan (Nintendo, Sony Playstation, Konami). If you want something technical but creative, Japan can be an excellent place to work.
What about salaries? Programming jobs in Japan are globally competitive, but they're not as high as salaries in the US on average.
Payscale lists the average salary at JPY 4.8M per year. Glassdoor lists software engineer salaries in Tokyo at JPY 6.1M.
Check out Software Developer Salaries in Japan: The Ultimate Guide for a full rundown on programmer salaries in Japan.
What Is The Demand For Programmers In Japan?
Whether for international tech companies or local firms, the demand doesn't change. Japan has a consistent demand for programmers. In fact, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry estimates a deficit of 789,000 software engineers by 2030.
This is due to a few issues. One is Japan's aging population. Another is the inability of universities to meet market demands. According to data, there was already a shortage of 150,000 human resources in 2015. Due to this, companies cannot ignore that human resources are in short supply.
Most companies need IT services, so the need for programmers continues to grow. In particular, the demand for artificial intelligence, blockchain, and net security is skyrocketing.
However, there are a limited number of IT engineers with the required skills for these jobs. And it takes time for software engineers in Japan to obtain the skills they need. Growing a pool of talented IT engineers is getting more difficult. Without foreign programmers coming in, Japan will start to lag behind.
The good news? This creates a major opportunity for foreign developers who want to work in Japan. The constrained supply coupled with the enormous demand has been pushing up salaries and forcing companies to compete for talent.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, foreign workers within the IT industry tripled between 2008 and 2017. This comes in response to the overwhelming shortage within the Japanese market.
The demand is so high that companies softened their requirements for non-Japanese talent. Being a software developer in Japan is not as strict as in other fields. Some companies don’t even need their IT talents to know Japanese, though it is a solid plus.
Understanding Computer Science Education in Japan
Historically, computer science has not taken off as a major for university students in Japan. In the past few years it's started to become a little more mainstream, but even then a relatively low number of Japanese natives choose to study computer science.
The computer science programs also tend not to be as cutting-edge as you'll find in places like the US.
Until recently, Japan's education system did not include career questions related to CS. For many (especially older generations), computer literacy stops at the basic use of a PC, browsing the web, and word processing. The interest just wan't very high — but that's starting to change.
Starting in 2016, the Japanese government intervened to help introduce programming into school curriculums. They're starting to push it into all levels of education, which is promising for the future.
High school students will have it as a required subject starting in 2022. This will help improve the technological knowledge of the Japanese workforce.
This, however, will take a few more years to grow. The movement is young and will only take off over the next decade.
So, what about current Computer Science education in Japan? Students can access CS programs within many top universities. Even smaller colleges provide CS education in Japan with similar instruction.
Most computer science degrees are either a full 4-year Bachelor’s Degree or a 2+2 Associate Degree that you can continue to a Bachelor’s Degree. The problem, however, is the clear lack of solid interest in the craft.
What It’s Like To Work As A Programmer In Japan?
When moving to Japan, it’s vital to forget all your preconceived notions about working there. The Japanese work environment can be different from its Western counterpart. Depending on the company, it will either exceed your expectations or fall flat.
For starters, work conditions as a software engineer in Japan vary. This depends on several factors, which include:
- Your skill level
- Type of company
- Your workplace’s policy
- Work culture
Depending on your skill level, many companies in Japan will offer more leeway in how you work. Companies tend to accommodate the needs of those with more technical skills. For example, Japanese companies looking for skilled software devs forego local language skills.
We recommend you focus on modern, vetted companies to ensure you find a position at a good company.
These companies will generally have good work-life balance, similar to that in the west. In fact, the top companies for programmers in Japan use work-life balance as a selling point. However, many "legacy" companies are still notorious for issues within traditional Japanese workplaces. Some of the worst offenders are known as black companies and should be avoided.
For example, many offices still force workers to do unpaid overtime. Many still believe that working longer hours means productivity. This tends to be more prevalent in Japanese companies without a global presence so focusing on international companies is a good way to help avoid this.
Usually as a foreign worker you can ignore the worst parts of the work culture, but you still need to be careful and choose a good company. For example, at some companies being the first to leave the office can affect promotions and salary increases. And software developers at these legacy companies in Japan are prime candidates for power harassment in the office.
How To Find A Good Job As A Software Developer In Japan
Now that you understand the reality of programming jobs in Japan, the best move is to find a good company. The entire process of finding them is straightforward.
To find a good job opening, you have two choices. Either:
- Find a modern Japanese company, or
- Work with foreign tech companies
Finding a modern Japanese company should be easy to do. You can use curated job boards for software developers like Japan Dev. We recommend curated boards rather than more general ones. You can also use recruitment firms to help land you in a good company.
The secret is to ensure the company meets all your needs. As we said, modern Japanese companies use work-life balance as a way to attract talent. Use these terms to get details in black and white. You want assurance that the company pays overtime or follows regular working hours.
Another way to do it is to work with foreign tech companies that use different policies. These companies tend to hold better workplace environments for their employees. The big issue for you will be relocation.
Many foreign-friendly companies concentrate their operations in Tokyo. While some have headquarters in other cities, most of them are in the capital.
Outside Tokyo, you can find some of them in Fukuoka and Osaka. Studying in Tokyo gives you a better chance of finding a modern company with good workplace policies.
What Is The Skill Level of Japanese Programmers?
Given Japan's technologically advanced image, it might surprise you that there is a lack of skilled programmers compared to places like the United States.
Sure, the Japanese have the skills and work ethic needed to exceed as programmers, but the number of talented people choosing it as a career is too low. In the USA, software development is one of the hottest and highest-paying jobs, so many of the top university grads choose to pursue it. But in Japan, this is far less common.
Most Japanese programmers only learn to code later in life, and over half don't actually study it in universtity. Instead, many kids spend their time on activities. These can be sports, club activities, and others. It’s rare, however, for Japanese kids to spend it learning code.
Most households also don’t have a PC they can use to write code. This puts Japanese students at a disadvantage compared to their Western counterparts. It also creates a society that does not encourage developing PC skills as strongly as they are in the west.
Despite the relative lack of interest in programming, there are many incredibly highly-skilled, even famous Japanese progarmmers (for example Yukihiro Matsumoto, creator of the Ruby programming language). It's not that Japanese programmers lack talent.
As programming becomes mainstream, I expect more and more world-class programmers to emerge from Japan.
What Are The Popular Programming Languages In Japan?
So, what are the popular programming languages in Japan? What languages should you learn or focus on?
Across several job postings, the most in-demand programming languages in Japan include:
Java is among the most in-demand programming languages. This is mainly due to its utility in web applications (especially backend/server-side engineering).
It’s also valuable for companies that focus on Android mobile development, although Kotlin is gaining ground here too. Many companies need Java developers, especially the larger and more established companies.
The C/C++ and C# family of programming languages are also popular with software developers in Japan. C and C++ are versatile and have been in use since their development in the 70s. These work well with legacy systems and the high-speed processing that companies need.
Recently, Go has become another popular language for various kinds of IT companies.
What Programming Languages Pay The Most?
Demand for programming languages does not equate with pay. How much companies are willing to pay for them varies on technical skills. In contrast, some languages that have less demand are higher paying due to scarcity.
Some of these programming languages include:
Go is the highest-paying programming language in Japan. It nets a range of JPY 6M to a high of JPY 16M. In Japan, Go is a software development language used to replace C. Its value in tool development, and Web server makes it in demand with internet companies.
Other companies are also adopting Scala and Python. Python is a fantastic choice for machine learning and artificial intelligence. On the other hand, Scala is useful for companies building on their cloud computing capabilities.
The Bottom Line
If you’re looking to work as a programmer in Japan, preparation is the key. Research the skills that companies need and how you can apply for a programming job in Japan. Whether you pick Tokyo or another city, you need to be ready.
Use curated job boards like Japan Dev to avoid the legacy companies with poor working environments and focus on top-tier modern companies.
Understand the landscape of the Japanese workplace. The best places to work for are modern Japanese firms or foreign tech companies. You want to apply for businesses that value work-life balance and see programmers as an asset — not a cost center.
If you play your cards right, programming in japan can offers great opportunities in Japan — a country that many fall in love with.
Just make sure you take advantage of the knowledge that other foreign software engineers in Japan have. Build your network through tech meetups, keep researching and applying to jobs, and keep learning.