If you head to Japan to find a legal job, you’ll realize something pretty quickly: What school you went to, what you did there, and what work experience you have, all trumps your Japanese ability. Easily. A person from a top-20 school who speaks no Japanese at all is miles ahead of a person from a second or third-tier school who’s totally fluent.
That’s not to say language doesn’t matter at all. It can save an otherwise crappy resumé (mine comes to mind), and it can qualify a person for a better job. If you have an Ivy League degree and speak Japanese, the town is your oyster. But it’s not nearly as important as the other qualifications that law firms look for back in the US.
I used to think this was just a matter of priorities: firms value nice schools over language ability, since the schools woo clients more easily, there’s no shortage of translators and interpreters to bridge the language gap, and many Japanese clients don’t expect to see a gaijin speaking their language anyway. No doubt all of these factors play a role.
But I was recently talking to a seasoned lawyer from a big American firm in Tokyo, and he said that language skills can actually be a problem for many clients. That made no sense to me, so I prodded him on. “It’s actually pretty simple,” he said. “In many cases, they don’t want you to know everything that’s happened on their side of the case. If you know Japanese, you have a way of independently finding out. So if you don’t know Japanese, they figure they have more control over you.”
So what’s the best solution? Know the language, but don’t make the fact readily apparent?