I work as a software developer in Japan and I love it. Most developers I know seem to enjoy it too. They tend to work at global companies or progressive startups, they earn good money and they're relatively happy.
And yet, spend time on any online community about Japan and you might never know people like us existed. Because there's an enormous amount of negativity and misinformation out there when it comes to Japan's IT industry, and as someone who genuinely enjoys working here I find that disheartening.
In my previous post I shared some tips on finding foreigner-friendly tech companies, and now in this post I'd like to drill down on one of the biggest sources of contention when it comes to IT jobs in Japan: salaries.
I'll present what I consider to be a good salary range for each experience level, supported with as much hard data as I can find. My goal is to offer a nuanced view of this opaque and misunderstood topic, and hopefully prove that it's possible to earn a good salary as a software engineer in Japan once and for all.
Use the links below if you'd prefer to skip to the data itself:
Here's a more detailed rundown of what I'll cover in the rest of this post:
Let's begin by looking at the overall average for software engineering jobs across Japan, as this data shouldn't be too hard to find. As expected, if you search google, you'll find countless resources claiming to know the average salary of software engineers in Japan. Let's look at some examples.
Glassdoor says the average is 5.7 million yen ($57k) per year. Payscale says it's 4.9 million ($49k). A survey from Japanese service DODA found it to be 4.6 million ($46k). Heikin nenshu says the average for "system engineers" is 5.5 million ($55k).
Quick aside: I'll use a rate of 100 yen per USD for simplicity. The current purchase power parity is closer to 103:1 so the USD values might be slightly high, but the yen values are exact.
Looks like the figures converge at around 5 million yen ($50k). This is for all experience levels, so we can assume averages for new grads to be lower (maybe 3-4 mil?) while more experienced engineers will earn a bit more (6-7 mil?).
On the whole, I believe this value is mostly accurate when applied to Japan as a whole.
The problem with relying on this data is simple. It's not relevant for foreigners.
Only one in ~48 people in Japan is non-Japanese. And the majority of those come from the surrounding Asian countries, so if you're from anywhere else you're even more rare than that. That means being a foreigner here puts you in a very small minority.
What about engineers specifically? A recent report from Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare found that there are 52,038 foreigners working in the IT industry Japan. Another government report says that in 2019 there are 1,045,512 people working in IT overall, which means the foreigner percentage of IT workers is actually a bit higher than the average for the general population. But it's still only 5%.
It's clear that the foreign population represents a small portion of the data behind macro-level statistics like average IT salaries in Japan. So I'd argue that there's pretty much no point in looking at them if you're not Japanese. These values aren't directly relevant to us and we shouldn't be held back by them.
Because for better or worse, foreign engineers in Japan are unique.
Being a foreigner here makes you an exception. The average non-Japanese engineer in Japan has followed a very different path to end up at their job than a Japanese engineer, and this impacts salaries.
Companies in Japan don't hire foreign developers without a good reason; bringing someone over from abroad is usually a bigger commitment than hiring a Japanese developer. We're more likely to incur extra costs like visa sponsorship and relocation assistance. We're much less likely to speak Japanese well or understand the subtleties of Japanese culture, and there's a chance we'll give up and move back to our home country.
In short, hiring a foreigner is a liability. It's taking a risk, and most companies don't take risks like that without a good reason.
The distribution of IT jobs done by foreigners is different than that of Japanese engineers. Historically, IT in Japan has been a different beast than in many other countries, with unique positions like "SE" (system engineer) and a higher prominence of "SIers" (system integrators) with fewer "in-house" engineers hired directly by companies. Attitudes towards IT here are different than in places like the US.
We also tend to have different educational backgrounds (e.g. only 23% of Japanese engineers have related college degrees, compared to 72% for Indians and 44% of Americans). In the US (where I'm from), Computer Science is a top major that pays some of the highest salaries for new grads. In Japan, it's not particularly popular and the average salaries of CS graduates are just okay. There's also the fact that, as foreigners, we're more likely to work at established, international companies and much less likely to work at small domestic startups (which tend to pay a bit less).
So how does this impact salaries? It's difficult to quantify, but one Japanese blogger says that companies should expect to pay an extra $10k/year to hire a foreign developer over their Japanese counterpart at the same skill level. I have no idea if that's accurate or not, but I can say that anecdotally, I've found that foreign developers earn a bit more on average (I'll introduce a few more sources to support this assertion in the next section). I think this makes sense when you consider the scarcity of foreigners here combined with the exceptional circumstances that tend to precede our hiring.
Alright, so country-wide salary data isn't relevant for foreign engineers. In that case, where should you go to find salary ranges?
Foreigner-specific salary data for developers is scarce, but it's not completely non-existent.
Paul McMahon's recent post from TokyoDev is one example of an article aimed directly at foreign engineers. He surveyed over 200 foreigners living in Japan and found that their average salary range was 4-11 million yen ($40-110k). He breaks this average down based on years of experience and programming language (for example Go and Java developers averaged 10 million yen ($100k)). His post contains a lot of other insights so I highly recommend checking it out.
Certain recruiting firms have also published reports about foreign IT workers in Japan. Michael Page's 2018 Salary Guide lists the average salary for web developers as 5-15 million yen ($50-150k) (excluding bonuses). Similarly, the Hays 2019 Salary Guide finds that developers earn a base salary of 5-12 million yen ($50-120k) per year.
I've also read a few individual reports over the years. As one example, Juanito Fatas says that fellow international developers around him make more than 8 million yen ($80k+).
In the next section I'll go ahead and present my own personal ranges for what I consider to be a good salary at each experience level.
Honestly... it depends. There are many factors that can affect salaries here. I'll try to cover a few of them and then give what I think is a "good" salary for each experience level.
One big factor is your Japanese skill level (the better you are the more you'll earn). Already being in Japan will also give you a leg up because more companies will be willing to talk to you. And of course the more relevant programming experience you have the better.
A degree in a related field like Computer Science will also help, although it's not a necessity, in fact I feel like Japan is a good place for self-taught engineers.
Foreign companies will also generally pay more than domestic companies on the whole (though there are exceptions). And while this isn't specific to Japan, soft skills like being able to sell yourself and knowing how to negotiate your salary can also make a big difference.
Given all of the above caveats, here's what I think foreign software developers should aim for in terms of salary.
New graduate salaries
As a new grad, you should be looking to earn 4-7 million yen ($40-70k) per year. Top companies like Indeed can pay around 10 million yen ($100k) or a little more for new grads, but they're an exception. Most foreigner-friendly companies (i.e. those listed on the Japan Dev company list) will pay closer to the lower half of this range for anyone with less than a couple years of experience.
One more caveat for new grads is the fact that fewer companies will be interested in bringing you over from abroad. So if you're still living overseas and can't find an offer in this range, I recommend postponing your move to Japan and gaining some experience in your home country instead. Japan's not going anywhere.
By the way if you're a bootcamp grad (or considering joining a bootcamp) there's data for that too. Code Chrysalis co-founder Yan Fan has stated that their graduates start at 6 million yen ($60k) on average, with the full range being from the "high" 4 millions to over 7 million.
International mid-career software engineers in Japan (let's say 2-5 years of experience) can earn in the range of 6-12 million yen ($60-120k). Once again, companies like Google and Indeed can pay more, but most companies will be in this range. Pretty much all the companies hiring through Japan Dev can pay somewhere in this range, so be sure to check out our current offerings if you're in the market.
Senior developer salaries
Senior developers (6-10 years of experience or more) in Japan should expect to earn anywhere from 8-15 million yen ($80-150k). However, the sky's the limit for those with truly exceptional tech skills. I hate to keep using the same examples, but I've heard of people earning 30 million yen ($300k) or more (total comp) at Google, and "Principal Engineers" at Indeed can earn a base salary of up to 22.4 million yen ($224k), so probably something similar when you factor in stock and bonuses.
Most of the companies on our company list should also be capable of paying senior developers salaries in this range (especially those near the top of the list).
I've offered a little bit of data here and there to back up my claimed salary ranges, but I don't blame you if you're still not convinced. What follows is a data dump of resources (in a mixture of English and Japanese) with over 60 salary data points that hopefully prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the ranges I presented are in fact achievable. Keep in mind that not all of these include bonus and stock incentives, and many are aimed at Japanese developers.
I won't provide specifics about every data point, but they should all be for software development roles or similar (e.g. backend, front-end, dev ops, iOS/Android, ML, data science etc). You can visit the links for more info if you're curious.
Many times companies' own websites are the best source of official salary data. Here are a few examples of data points:
There are lots of other examples out there if you search.
Findy's kind of a cool service. It's in Japanese, but it analyzes your Github profile to give you a rating and an expected salary range. I got a score of 72 which correlates to an expected salary of 8.1-9.1 million yen ($81-91k), but they said I could increase that by 1-2 million yen by improving my Github. Looking through the list of offers, I saw some ranges for companies I hadn't seen anywhere else. Here are some examples; I think they're personalized so I can't link to them but you should see similar results if you create an account:
I'll stop there but there are lots more data points to be found there.
Job Draft is a little-known (in the foreign community) Japanese site that requires you to create a free account, but rewards you with a goldmine of salary data for hundreds of Japan's most well-known tech companies. Here are the ranges for some top companies:
Not all the companies listed here are English-friendly, but hopefully this helps drive home my point that developer salaries are higher than many people think.
OpenWork used to be called Vorkers. It's the closest thing Japan has to a domestic version of "Glassdoor" and it contains one of the largest databases of salary information in Japan, but it requires you to either pay a monthly fee or write a company review yourself to access this data. It's also not specific to IT, and it's targeted towards Japanese users so the data's not super focused. It can still be a useful resource though.
I can't link directly to the data because it's behind a paywall, but here are a few data points from there:
Note that these aren't official numbers and I'm cherry-picking some of the higher values here in order to show what's possible. Still, almost all their data is from Japanese engineers and I suspect high earners are less likely to share their salaries here so I bet the data actually skews a bit low if anything.
Not all the jobs on TokyoDev's job board have salary data, but the site is focused on foreign developers so the ones that do should be directly relevant. Pretty much all companies listed are willing to bring applicants over to abroad, and most don't require Japanese. Example data points:
Stackoverflow Jobs hosts job posts from companies that are likely to be English-friendly, so the salary ranges found here are usually pretty relevant to English-speaking developers. Here's an example data point:
Levels.fyi is similar to Glassdoor; it's a good resource for big foreign companies like Google, their data is limited for smaller companies. You can search for Japan (or Tokyo) to filter the data points down to the Japan-specific ones. Here are some data points:
This site has recently stopped working, but I took note of some unique salary data for a few well-known companies from there there so I'll include a few examples:
Forkwell Jobs is another Japanese site with salary ranges for some Japanese companies; it has a focus on startups. A few data points:
If you really search, personal blog posts can be a great resource when trying to find salary data. I recommend utilizing twitter's advanced search to help find interesting ones (understanding Japanese definitely helps here). For example, "IT engineer average salary ranking" includes the following data points:
"I'm leaving Google" is a great post from an ex-Googler in Tokyo. In it, the author talks about how they made over 20 million yen ($200k+) at Google and expresses a desire for more people to realize that this salary level is possible in Japan.
Glassdoor is definitely worth checking for larger, international companies. Be sure to try filtering by location as it might give you a better signal-to-noise ratio.
Jobtalk requires an account to see all of the data, but can still be useful for finding data points here and there even if you don't sign up. For example:
EN-Hyouban is yet another Japanese site with some useful data, but it's not targeted at engineers either so there's kind of a lot of noise. Here's an example:
This is only a sample of the salary data out there, but hopefully it's enough to lend some credence to my assertion that it's possible to earn good money as a developer in Japan.
Even though I don't think most average Japanese IT companies are very attractive to foreigners, I have a positive outlook on tech in Japan. I've been here since 2013 and I've noticed a lot of positive trends in the tech industry in that time. And while my perception may be skewed by my own increasing experience and knowledge, I have no doubt tech salaries in Japan are increasing.
It's clear that the demand for developers has never been higher, and the gap between supply and demand is forecast to keep growing for at least the next decade or so. It stands to reason that this will continue to translate to higher salaries as companies become more and more desperate for engineering talent.
The above graph shows the estimated software engineer deficit at around 300,000 people and increasing every year for the next several years. It also shows that the number of in-house software engineers is increasing, which is an important metric.
Japan has a long history of using dispatch companies for engineering tasks rather than hiring developers directly. The fact that more companies are hiring engineers shows that companies are taking software development more seriously and engineers are becoming more respected as professionals.
The need for skilled developers is clear, and the foreign developer community is expanding as a result. In just the last 3-4 years, bootcamps have gone from non-existent to relatively mainstream (see Le Wagon, CodeChrysalis). English developer-focused communities like Japan Dev, TokyoDev, TokyoTech and others have become more popular and the meetup community has become way more vibrant, with tech events happening pretty much every night in Tokyo.
I'm confident that all of this growth will lead to higher salaries for international software developers.
In addition to the increasing number of startups, quite a few larger Japanese tech companies have also made strides toward increasing salaries for tech workers. Many of them have done away with strict salary ranges (which used to be the norm in Japan) and moved to a more meritocratic salary structure where even new grads can earn high salaries. They've also begun investing more into emerging tech like AI with companies like Sony, NEC and DeNA all sharply increasing their new graduate salary ranges for AI roles (to as high as 10 million yen ($100k) starting).
Fujitsu is also apparently going all in on AI, reportedly offering salaries of 30-40 million yen ($300-400k) to AI engineers. These moves by large Japanese companies are another clear sign that salaries in Japan's tech industry are on the rise.
Several top companies have also expanded their new grad hiring beyond Japan. For example, companies like Mercari, TRI-AD and SoftBank have begun participating in hiring at India's IIT campuses. A lot of other global tech companies like Microsoft and Uber also go to IIT to find top engineers, and Japan joining them shows a realization by these companies that they need to start looking beyond Japan for talent.
To be 100% honest, I still feel that a lot of the older, traditional Japanese companies have a ways to go before the average foreigner would find them to be attractive options, but I do genuinely believe that they're making an effort to improve.
I'll be honest: not every Japanese tech company can pay salaries in the ranges I' suggested above. In fact the majority probably can't. The fact is there are way more domestic, traditional Japanese companies than there are progressive international ones, and these ranges are only relevant for the latter.
The Japan Dev company list is my attempt to share what I believe to be the most comprehensive online list of the foreigner-friendly tech companies in Japan. I'm confident there are at least 100 such companies, and the salary ranges I introduced above should hold true for pretty much all of them.
I personally believe ~100 or so good companies makes Japan worth considering, especially for people who value the cultural experience of living here, learning the language and all the other benefits. But I can't recommend coming to Japan to work in IT unless you can secure an offer from a progressive company.
If you've educated yourself about companies in Japan and followed the best practices for finding a job here and still can't find anything but low-ball offers, then it might not be a good idea to come to Japan just yet. There are thousands of domestic companies here so if you send enough applications you'll probably get an offer from one if you drop your standards enough, but I'd advise against doing this.
Here's my rule of thumb: if a company can't pay at least 4-5 million yen per year, it should be avoided. Because as we've established, this is the bottom of the range for skilled engineers at the better companies. Go below this value and the chances of a company not respecting their engineers goes up sharply. So do the chances of using outdated technologies and not gaining transferable skills, having to work lots of overtime and all the other negative things associated with IT companies in Japan.
If you want to come to Japan no matter what and you're willing to do what's necessary to improve your situation once you arrive this might be a valid stepping stone, but I recommend that most people avoid companies that low-ball them. It's usually better to stay in your home country and gain some more experience or work on your Japanese and try again in a year or two.
It's possible to find a high-paying job in Japan as a foreign software developer. It requires diligent research and you have to choose a good company that pays market rates for foreign developers, but it's possible. I know this for a fact, and I'm going to keep repeating it as long as I have to because we need more positive voices in our community to drown out all the negative ones.
It pains me to see people who could've had a great experience here giving up on Japan because of what they read online, so my hope is that that those with an interest in working in IT here will give it a chance. It may be true that not every software engineering job will be fulfilling or high-paying, but that doesn't matter. You only need one. Even if the "average" IT job in Japan isn't very attractive, that's okay. You don't have to work at an average IT job. So don't.