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Job-Hunting While Japanese


February 25, 2019

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能ある鷹は爪を隠す [Translation: The skilled hawk hides its talons.]

我慢 [Translation: perseverance, patience, tolerance, or self-denial]

Growing up in Hawaii, a state steeped in Japanese culture, it never occurred to me that one day my Japanese heritage would somehow make job-hunting more difficult. These two Japanese concepts have largely shaped who I am. I was taught never to brag about accomplishments or skills, never complain about hardship, and to always persevere despite circumstances. While I didn’t grow up speaking Japanese, the aspects of modesty and perseverance bled into my upbringing. I always thought these traits would get me ahead in life, but in reality, quite the opposite has been true. It has been screwing me over.

Job-hunting is tough as it is, writing resumes and cover letters are hard, interviewing is stressful, and the whole process is just a nightmare. I have learned very quickly that in America, modesty will get you nowhere in a job interview. This trait, which is highly valued in Japan, is something that shapes how people perceive you in America. When you are humble in an interview, the interviewer isn’t giving you points for modesty, they are perceiving you just as you are describing yourself — as less than.

In Japan, there is a special form of speaking known as 謙譲語 (kenjōgo). This language is used to show respect to the person you are referencing by humbling the speaker. There is also 尊敬語 (sonkeigo), which shows direct respect to the subject of the sentence. There are also phrases that are set for when you receive compliments and have to deny them (そんなことないですよ), or when you give a gift, but have to say that it’s not much (ちょっと詰まらないものですが). Knowing how to use respectful language and being modest is incredibly important in Japanese culture, but in America, it is all about flaunting your plumage.

Recently, I went into a job interview. One of the reasons the hiring manager told me I didn’t get the role was because I didn’t have enough experience with pushback. He came to this conclusion because when asked about how I would handle a situation where someone was to give me a task despite me already having a full plate of tasks, I answered by saying that I would prioritize these tasks and get them all finished one way or another. Apparently, this was not the answer they were looking for. They wanted to see that I could say “no” to more tasks being put on my plate and pushback. The trouble is, I grew up with the sense of 我慢(gaman), or perseverance without whining. I always thought this was one of my strengths, but in fact, not being able to say “no” against authority is one of my weaknesses.

Being at the intersection of Japanese and American makes for a difficult job-hunting experience in the Mainland US. Traits that would be applauded in areas with a big Japanese population are now the very traits that are costing me opportunities. It is incredibly frustrating, but I am learning little by little, about how to carry myself in an interview where I am going toe-to-toe with White men who have been raised with confidence in their blood. In the end, I hope to find a company that will value the Japanese side of me — the side that is modest and perseveres despite difficult circumstances.

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