TOKYO, Japan – For young graduates and seasoned designers alike, it sounds like a dream job. Getting hired to work in the Tokyo design studio of Comme des Garçons, Sacai or one of Japan’s many cult streetwear brands gets people like Ellie Connor-Phillips very excited.
“If I was given the opportunity to work as a designer in Japan, I would absolutely pursue it. There’s so much about Japanese fashion that makes me want to work there,” says the London-based menswear student. “[It] would be such a massive privilege.”
While there are probably no current vacancies at studios as in demand as these, Connor-Phillips’s chances of living and working in Japan could get significantly better. According to recent reports, the Japanese government has expressed a commitment to make the recruitment pathway for specialist and skilled foreign workers clearer and easier, and changes are already underway.
“As the current laws stand in Japan, foreigners are allowed to work here as designers, but the guidelines that today’s immigration sector have in place are quite vague and need to be changed,” says Shigeru Furuichi, the deputy director of the creative industries division at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).
Furuichi is working to bring more fashion designers to Japan in an effort to internationalise the country’s famous but somewhat contained, closed-loop fashion industry. To achieve this, however, many changes need to be made, he says, emphasising the various grey areas in Japan’s immigration guidelines that discourage employers who might otherwise consider hiring foreigners.
Japan quivers on the edge of massive change
“Legally, fashion companies can [already] apply for their employees to get a working visa, but because the guidelines are not precise, in many cases the companies view these procedures as complicated and difficult, and will avoid it,” he explains.
Demographic Time Bomb
Last year, the World Economic Forum highlighted the fact that Japan’s population shrank by one million people in the previous five-year period, aggravating the country’s already acute labour deficit. But Japan’s immigration and nationality laws are notoriously strict.
Japan quivers on the edge of massive change: in 2020, the Olympics will arrive in Tokyo, putting additional stress on an already burdened system. Due to an ageing population, a declining birth rate, and a nationwide labour shortage, the country is under increasing pressure to start sourcing more workers from elsewhere.
Retailers have been bearing the brunt of hiring troubles. Last month, department store chain Lumine cut back its opening hours by closing twelve of its stores 30 minutes earlier due to staff shortages, and concerns that late-night shifts may deter potential employees.
Chinese-speaking shop staff, for example, are already in high demand in Japan’s luxury districts to cope with an influx of wealthy Chinese and Taiwanese tourists seeking fashion and beauty products. Last year, Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido reportedly hired eight non-Japanese employees, a record high for the company, and the number of Chinese speakers working for Kanebo has more than quadrupled since 2012, albeit from a very low base rate.
According to reports from The Japan Times, the number of foreigners (gaijin) working in Japan has almost doubled in just eight years, from 486,000 in 2008 to 908,000 in 2015. But while the number surpassed one million in the last year, it remains relatively low in a nation of 127 million people.
For starry-eyed creatives with their sights set on a job in Japan, there is reason for cautious optimism. While the Japanese government debates legislation and drafts policy, some big companies are already ahead of the curve.
Uniqlo, the Tokyo-based retail behemoth, has support systems set up for foreigners to work at the design studio in Japan, and a talent acquisition team scouting young designers from institutions across the world, including London’s Central Saint Martins.
“Once hired, we encourage talent to transfer within the company, and this often means transferring from one country to another, including the opportunity to work in Japan,” said an official spokesperson for the company. “[So] on account of our global hiring approach, we don’t believe the … labour shortage crisis is affecting us.”
Opportunities and obstacles
Japan’s high fashion houses have their own set of obstacles for would-be recruits. Yusuke Koishi, chief executive and founder of fashion consulting company Kleinstein, is a former lead planner at Comme des Garcons, and continues to work with Rei Kawakubo and the team. In organisations as exclusive as Comme, a labour shortage becomes moot: “Companies like Comme des Garçons and Yohji [Yamamoto] are very competitive," he says. Though it is difficult to find foreigners of the right calibre who also speak Japanese, it is not impossible.
Without that language ability, says Koishi, working as a designer at these places is extremely difficult: “At a creative level like design or production, because you need to communicate with manufacturers and subsidiaries, it’s impossible to do the job without learning Japanese. If the talent is super or they can offer something unique, then maybe. The roles at these companies are open to everyone, but it’s very hard to survive, and people need specific skills to stand out.”
He cites the Italian designer Ennio Capasa, who worked with Yohji Yamamoto for two years before founding Costume National, but concedes that was over 30 years ago and that these kinds of hires are increasingly rare.
The cultural barriers and the idiosyncrasies presented by the Japanese market could mean that, although foreign designers could bring an element of fresh thought to design houses, they might also struggle to capture the zeitgeist like their Japanese contemporaries. Consistent success would require in-depth market understanding and experience of the way Japanese consumers think; a tall order for a young gaijin graduate.
That Japanese companies traditionally promote from within is also an issue, and hinders potential employees that might otherwise be outsourced for more senior roles. “Companies like Beams, for example, often require that employees first work for three or four years on the shop floor before they can be hired by the design team. Today’s immigration guidelines say that this is forbidden and a designer should be a designer immediately, but in the Japanese fashion industry this is not realistic. We’re currently working so that, in the future, foreigners can be hired in this manner. It’s not just designers, we want to apply this rule for producers and stylists too,” says Furuichi.
Jason Lee Coates is the director of H3O Fashion Bureau, a rare Tokyo-based gaijin-founded fashion business. Coates says he started his own PR, sales and distribution company when he couldn’t find a job in Japan. “I’d talk to magazines here and they would laugh because I couldn’t speak Japanese, so in the end I took a job in Dubai before coming back to Japan to set up H3O.” Despite the difficulties, Coates says there are pros to being non-Japanese: “It’s what makes us different, and when my buyers come to my showroom, they come for that foreign element.”
It’s very hard to survive, and people need specific skills to stand out.
Some domestic companies are only just waking up to the idea of hiring foreigners. La Foret, the youth-orientated department store in the heart of Harajuku, recruited its very first foreign intern last year. Nobuo Arakawa, the chief executive and president of La Foret, made the hire in a bid to learn more about the global market. “[The intern] worked by doing research on other retailers to compare their good and bad points, through the eyes of a foreign consumer,” he says.
The advantage of having a foreign perspective at a company like La Foret, which is a go-to destination for international shoppers, is not lost on Arakawa: “I want to hire foreign staff to learn which of our brands will do well with foreign consumers. To stimulate our brand we have to expand and learn more about the foreign markets, [so] it’s becoming more important to hire and collaborate with foreign people.”
In other words, foreigners stand a better chance of working in Japan if they take up a collaborative role to help bridge the many gaps that exist between Japanese companies, international markets and consumers they are targeting. Because of the gaps between Japan and the West in terms of business culture, language and market intelligence, Westerners have particular advantages when it comes to job hunting.
“The best way for Western people to get employed in fashion here is to be a window of communication,” says Koishi, referring to the go-between role of a madoguchi, or "window-opener." “It’s a great advantage for Japanese companies when employees provide connections or doors to the West.” And while these doors remain uncommon in Japan, they’re finally, slowly, starting to open.
Editor's Note: This article was revised on 30 April, 2017. An earlier version misquoted Yusuke Koishi, saying it is easy to find Japanese-speaking foreigners. This is incorrect. In fact, he said otherwise.