Exclusive Interview is a series where we interview expats about their experiences. This time, we contacted Heidi (Heidi Sarol on YouTube, @heidisarol on Instagram). She started her journey in Japan as a Japanese language student and now continues as a full-time worker.
Country of Origin: The Philippines
Live in Japan since: 2019
Japanese Level: N2
Working Industry: Marketing
Why did you originally come to Japan?
I came to Japan because I’ve always liked Japanese culture and wanted to learn Japanese. I had a friend who became a language school student and then worked as an English teacher in Japan after that. So, she kind of showed me the pathway. I thought I would go to Japan to study first, and it wouldn’t hurt if I found a job after.
How did you find a language school in Japan?
On one of my trips to Tokyo, I decided to go to the language school I’d heard of before. I asked if I could apply, but they told me their school doesn’t deal with direct applicants from the Philippines. I had to use an educational agency back in Manila, and that’s how I could apply to the language school I wanted.
How was your Japanese skill before coming to Japan?
It was pretty bad. I think it was barely N5. I did take Japanese classes in the Philippines because it’s a requirement for Filipinos who want to go to Japan to submit proof of studying the language or JLPT. I spent over 200 hours, but I feel it wasn’t enough to get by when I first came to Japan.
How long have you studied in your language school?
I took a one-year course thinking it would have been enough, but it wasn’t. After a year, I got my English teaching job but felt like it was a waste to go to language school and still not reach the N2 level. I enrolled again independently in a short-term course in another language school. I already had my working visa, so I didn’t go through the process of extending my student visa. In total, I studied for a year and a half.
Is there a maximum period of staying in Japan as a language student?
It would depend on the course you apply for at a Japanese language school. They have one-year courses, one-year and six months courses, three-year courses, etc.
Do you think there’s a difference between language schools in a big city or suburban area?
Where you attend school determines how the rest of your life in Japan will go. In my opinion, if you did a Japanese Language School in the middle of a very remote area, it would accelerate your Japanese language skills. Then, you can try to work for a Japanese company that uses Japanese as its main language. Whereas, if you’re in bigger cities, it’s easier because you can network with others and speak English more.
Do you have any recommendations on how to study Japanese outside of school?
I have a friend who speaks Japanese fluently and her best piece of advice for me was to use the language for my hobbies. If you don’t look at it like something you’re studying but instead like a part of your life, it will ease the burden of trying to memorize many kanji and words.
I’m interested in lifestyle and fashion, so I watch Japanese vloggers in Japan talking about their life. Even if I don’t understand everything, it’s still nice to know how natives speak in Japanese not only from the JLPT recordings. When I watch them, I can understand the context even when I don’t know the exact meaning of the words.
Since I started looking at how Japanese can be part of my daily life, it’s taken off the burden to master all the skills quickly. I came to absorb the language naturally. It speeds up the process much better than pressuring yourself to memorize things.
Did you do part-time jobs while studying?
Yeah, I did quite a few. I did part-time or internships in social media marketing, English teaching, and content writing. I also worked in a restaurant, but it was very short.
Did those part-time jobs help you when you were looking for a full-time job?
I think all of them did, except the restaurant job. I had a mindset that if I was going to work in Japan, my part-time job should be within my interest, like jobs related to English and foreigners in Japan. Somehow it worked out. I built a clear path, which helped with my resume.
I was tempted to work at the convenience store to improve my Japanese. But then, my teacher in language school pointed out that if you work a service job, like at a restaurant or convenience store, you’re going to say the same phrases again and again instead of learning various Japanese words. So I might as well have just focused on a language I was good at, English, and improved my Japanese at language school.
How did you find your first full-time job?
I found it by chance, really. I tried LinkedIn and other job search websites to look for a job. Because I’m Filipino, there are a lot of restrictions in terms of issuing a work visa, which, understandably, would make employers not want to hire Filipinos.
I was on a teaching language app I found online, and one of my Japanese students approached me. He was going to make an English conversation school with only Filipino teachers. He knew about the visa issue and was willing to work with me to get everything done. So it just happened by chance, and I think I’m really lucky in that regard. I worked for them for around a year and six months.
Yeah, it sounds fake, but it’s true. This Japanese student already established some English conversation schools in Manila for Japanese students. So he knew how the Philippines government worked. I think I had four other teachers with me when we started school.
What kind of work do you do in Japan right now?
I’m currently an editorial assistant for a media company targeting foreigners who live in Japan or people abroad who have an interest in Japanese culture.
Would you recommend that people who want to work in Japan go to language school first?
Yes, I would totally recommend people to. Not just to go to language school but to have a deep understanding of Japanese because it’s tough to job hunt without it. It’s possible, but you need to put in the effort and show that you didn’t come to Japan just to live in a bubble. You came to Japan to understand and appreciate the culture and blend in with the society.
The advantage of Japanese language schools is that they have teachers to contextualize everything that happens around you. They explained many things to you so you can understand why people in Japan do something. Also, it’s nice to come to Japan as a student first. Because you are a student, there’s not much pressure if you make a mistake. You have teachers to correct you and give advice kindly.
I feel that studying Japanese in your home country is totally different from immersing yourself in the community and seeing and experiencing things that wouldn’t happen back home. The schools also have events to experience traditional Japanese activities.
Based on your experience, what are the most important things to have when looking for a job in Japan?
I think it helped me to go to a Japanese language school or job hunt in Japan after I’ve already established a career in my home country. If I came to Japan fresh out of college without real work experience, it might be a lot harder for me because the only thing I’m banking on is my Japanese skill, which after a year isn’t really enough.
When job hunting in Japan, make sure you have something to offer the company. I have my social media, English speaking, and content creation skills. I think the more niche skills you have, the better opportunities will open up for you eventually.
Do you have work experience in the Philippines before coming to Japan?
I worked for about four years in the Philippines. I was a social media community manager in a multinational advertising agency doing content creation, response management, and a little bit of analytics. After that, I was the in-house photographer for the agency. I helped them make social media content as a photographer.
Did you feel any difference when you worked in the Philippines and Japan?
Well, I think it depends on the company. The difference for me is that I work in a bigger agency back home with fixed rules and workflows, but it’s not necessarily the Philippines’ thing.
One thing I love in my company compared to before is that everyone has a commonality. We’re all interested in Japanese culture and are exposed to it, so we have the same understanding. In the Philippines, I feel we don’t have any other commonality besides working in the same company.
Was it difficult to change a student visa to a working visa?
It’s very, very difficult for Filipinos. I think it’s just for us, though, because our government kind of discourages Filipinos overseas from switching their activities from studying to working.
If the company has no experience hiring Filipinos, it will be complicated for them to go through the Philippine bureaucracy. The embassy of the Philippines would send a representative to check the workplace, interview the employer, see the contract, etc. The company also should sign a contract with the Philippines Overseas Labor Office. Due to the tedious process, many companies felt iffy about getting the visa even though they like the candidate’s skill set.
I feel like not enough people are talking about it. Some people get trapped into coming to Japan thinking it’s really easy to change their visa. But then they get here, run into that wall, and are forced to go home. The whole process is complicated.
What’s the most significant difference you felt when you were a student and now as an employee in Japan?
The biggest difference was paying all the taxes and insurance for me. When the ward office sent a notice to pay about 20,000 yen, I was like, what? I’m shocked because we don’t have that much tax in the Philippines. Students in Japan also have taxes and insurance, but it’s not as expensive.
I think people should talk more about it. People who move to Japan should be aware that they won’t receive their full salary as full-time employees. Taxes and insurance are real things in Japanese life you can’t run away from.
Another big difference I felt is taking breaks or holidays. When I was a Japanese language school student, I had a lot of leisure time. My class was from 9 to 12.30, and then from 12.30 onwards, I was free. I also had summer and winter break. I could travel to many places as long as I had the money. Whereas when I’m an employee, I’m making more money but I don’t have the time.
Does the Japanese environment match your expectation?
I think so. I expected everything in Japan to be efficient and fast, and people were disciplined. Japanese people are very by the book and don’t want to change from that. For example, you can’t customize your order at McDonald’s in Japan. In the Philippines, if you ask nicely enough, they might be able to accommodate you.
I also expect Japan will be so different from the Philippines but it’s a good thing. That’s what I was looking forward to because I’m so used to how things were in the Philippines, and I wanted a change of pace.
I think, for the most part, it matches my expectations. But there are little things I run into from time to time that I realized, oh, okay, I wasn’t expecting this, but it happened.
What challenges did you face when you first came to Japan?
The language barrier, definitely. When I moved, I lived in Shinjuku, so I had to go to the ward office. I remember that, even if I saw so many foreigners around me of all different nationalities, there was nobody who could help them in terms of English.
So, if you’re coming here and you have a very low understanding of the Japanese language, it will be difficult to open a bank account, get a cell phone contract, and such. It’s not just in the countryside where fewer people speak English, but also in Tokyo, the capital city with many foreigners.
Do you have difficulty making friends in Japan?
I get many questions from my subscribers about how they can make friends in Japan as Filipinos do. We’re really social so we can hang out at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, I know Japanese people have to plan at least a week or a month in advance, which is something I was shocked about. It’s not like people are not busy in the Philippines, but we like to make time for our friends.
When I moved to Japan, I knew nobody. So, I was starting from zero. Luckily I found the Bumble BFF app. It was a good way to make friends because I was the oldest in my class when I went to language school. My classmates were 18 to 19, fresh out of high school, and had nothing in common with me. I met my circle through Bumble BFF. Making a friend in Japan is important because you will need that support system.
What Japanese things do you like the most after living there for a few years?
What I especially love is that the trains usually come on time. I like planning when I want to go out, and it’s fascinating to know when the train will arrive precisely at what hour and minute. Another thing that I like is when the postman leaves that note on your door if you’re not home to receive the mail. We don’t really have that in the Philippines. They only tell you that they will be back, but you don’t know when they will come again.
I love the convenient side of Japan. I found it interesting that people in Japan consider the train station to choose where they live. They consider if the nearest station has multiple lines and if it’s an express train route. People want the convenience of picking a more efficient route depending on the destination and taking a faster train. This is not happening in the Philippines because we only have three train lines, which don’t work most of the time.
I’ve also come to appreciate the quietness or the silence in Japan. It’s really quiet, even on the trains. Sometimes I look around, and nobody is talking. This would never happen in the Philippines. Everyone’s talking all the time. In the morning, I would hear roosters and people just yelling.
Do you have advice for people who want a marketing career in Japan?
In marketing, I think it would be much easier if you could hone in on one specialty and have proof from your previous experience. If you can prove that you’ve done that before, especially if you’ve done it in English, and have some Japanese skills, then it would help boost your resume. Marketing is a broad area, so you should have a specific strength. Choose one thing that you can sharpen to shine above other applicants.
Do you recommend marketing jobs to people with a lower level of Japanese?
In terms of writing, I think as long as you can write articles with value for people living in Japan, then you can get paid. Although having Japanese skills will help when researching because some vital information might only be available in Japanese. If you write the article in English but contain information that readers can’t find on other English sites, your article will be highly valued.
Do you have any tips for those who want to work in Japan, especially other Filipinos?
I think it depends on your field of study, but it might be best to consult with BOE or the agency in advance. Otherwise, you might run into a wall where you might be unable to return to the Philippines. Other than that, I think the best advice I would give is to ensure that you already have career experience before moving. You don’t have to get five years of work but show some proof of what you can do. If you’re serious about building a career here, you already have a good foundation or base to do it.
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