Working in Japan

Working in Tourism & Hospitality

For aspiring individuals eager to carve out a slice of the tourist industry pie, the fundamentals of job hunting still apply. First, you must have the right to live and work in Japan, meaning you

For aspiring individuals eager to carve out a slice of the tourist industry pie, the fundamentals of job hunting still apply. First, you must have the right to live and work in Japan, meaning you should hold a valid visa permitting employment. Most tourism-related jobs typically do not offer visa sponsorship. Secondly, some proficiency in Japanese language will undoubtedly impress potential employers more than having no language skills at all.

Apart from airfare, tourists visiting Japan allocate most of their budget towards lodging, shopping, dining, with entertainment and other services following closely behind. Don’t despair, even industries in fourth place generate significant business activity, offering promising opportunities for job seekers.

Joining the Ranks of Tour Guides

Tour guiding is a thriving sector within Japanese tourism. Even with the availability of Google maps and other helpful travel tools, visitors still look to join short city tours that last just a couple of hours or even weeklong excursions. Time is precious for travelers, so visitors are willing to pay to expediate their activities by joining up with an organized group which helps to reduce the information overload when organizing on their own. Like all activities in Japan, guiding is governed by rules and regulations. The Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) is responsible for setting guidelines for tourism and travel. Initially, JNTO established two categories of guides: the National Licensed Guide Interpreter (National Tour Guide) and the Regional Guide Interpreter (Regional Guide). The key distinction is that Regional Guides specialize in specific regions within Japan.

To attain a National Licensed Guide certification, candidates must pass an exam offered only in Japanese. This comprehensive test covers topics such as Japanese history, geography, tourism laws, regulations, and culture. Naturally, Japanese language skills are essential for studying and preparing for the exam.

For those aspiring to become a Regional Guide Interpreter, the recruitment process and exam formats can vary by region, so individuals should check specifics with their local government office. Encouragingly, as of January 2018, JNTO revised its guidelines to allow interpreting and guiding services without the exam. However, individuals using this pathway cannot claim official titles like “National Guide Interpreter” or “Regional Guide Interpreter.” JNTO has provided guidance [JP] on the do’s and don’ts on the titles that can be used. This link provides more info from JNTO on this topic.

Profiles of Guides

One National Tour Guide examinee who successfully studied for the exam is Diane Neill Tincher. She is originally from the United States and has been a resident of Japan for the last thirty-seven years. She passed the JNTO National Tour Guide exam on her third try. Without hesitation she will you tell that studying for the exam was particularly challenging due to the language hurdle. The endless note cards she created are testament to her herculean effort. Most Japanese people pick up history and geography thru school and TV so learning from scratch was challenging. In her own words, she says that having passed the exam, the certification gives her the full confidence and knowledge to be a guide for visitors.

Guiding visitors involves other skills than just knowing the history and geography of an area. Since guides work with groups of people of different ages and backgrounds, sometimes up to ten days or more, understanding how to work with groups and communicate effectively are important skills as well.

Another long-time resident in Japan, Tony Everitt, went the extra mile to establish his own tour agency Hakonehachiri. He reiterates that leading tours is well suited to people with extrovert personalities since guides will be communicating with people daily. However, running a tour business or even managing just a one-day tour involves additional skills of organization, preparation, and facets of negotiation. Both extrovert skills of being sociable and friendly and introvert traits such as good listening skills and being fact driven are the perfect mix for the tour industry. However, not everyone has both abilities so partnering up with someone who complements your weaknesses makes for a successful team.

A successful day as a guide is easy to see since the participants are engaged on the tour and leave with happy smiles on their faces. On some days the guide needs to help manage expectations of participants since it may be a foggy day, and no one will be able to get the perfect Fuji San photo they were hoping for.

A Glimpse into the Short-Term Rental Business

Other residents in Japan may be considering turning their homes into a vacation rental to tap into the travel spending. Many of us have experienced staying in a non-traditional lodging like Airbnb, so the question arises: how feasible is it to find a property and start earning money by renting it out to visitors?

In the early days of the Airbnb-like trend in Japan, it was easy to list a property on platforms such as Airbnb or HomeAway and start generating income. However, as the popularity of short-term rental (STR) lodging increased, so did the associated challenges, prompting the need for government oversight. In 2018, guidelines were implemented that not only restricted the number of days a property could be rented but also required owners to collect guest identity information along with other responsibilities.
These new regulations significantly raised the barrier to entry into the short-term rental space, causing many individuals who were running rentals as a side gig to withdraw from the market.

Tracey Northcott, a seasoned expert in the short-term rental (STR) market, has been navigating this field before the 2018 regulatory changes were implemented. In the early stages of her career, Tracey had challenges with accounting, disorganized processes, and experienced burnout from managing STR properties. Recognizing the need for improvement, she took steps to enhance her operations.

One crucial lesson Tracey emphasizes is that entering the STR market does not guarantee passive income; it requires active involvement. She wears multiple hats, from marketing (targeting ideal guests and tailoring strategies accordingly) to acting as a concierge, offering recommendations for local dining and experiences to guests. As the travel landscape and STR market have evolved, strong business acumen has become essential for success in this competitive field.

To combat burnout, Tracey adopted a strategy of outsourcing certain tasks and prioritizing activities that add the most value to her business. For those interested in entering the STR industry, Tracey recommends working with established property managers who can offer opportunities to get a taste of the business. Additionally, she highlights the interconnected nature of the STR ecosystem, which includes businesses such as home renovation, restaurants, and tour companies, underscoring the vast network within this industry and the jobs that are created.

Next Steps

Some of the work within the tourism industry, such as guiding, is not always full-time so other income streams may need to be considered. Spring and fall are the busiest seasons for outdoor tours since the weather in Japan is best during these months, so this is another consideration.

As with any job, how can you get the knowledge and experience to work in the field? Throughout Japan there are clubs organized by JNTO called the Systematic Goodwill Guides (SGG) and these groups are made up of volunteers who offer free tours within their areas. Getting involved in these groups can help with making connections as well as gaining firsthand experience. I belong to an SGG club in Shizuoka and, even though the club has not been active with guiding, through my membership I have met people from the local community and have had many opportunities to participate in unique events which otherwise I would not have had access to.

If you are seeking training in English, educational institutions such as Temple University Japan in Tokyo offers a class on leading tours and covers a broad range of topics, including current tourism trends, overview of travel companies, practical skills and knowledge for tour guides such as establishing rapport with customers, managing a group and building cohesion, logistics, entertaining, handling difficult situations and emergency situations, and lastly designing tours.

While tourism and hospitality may not be the career choice for everyone, it may be a good match for some so get out there and start networking and building your skills.

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