The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

An internship can be a tremendous advantage for students. More than 59 percent of interns in the United States were offered positions at the end of their studies according to the 2018 Internship & Co-op Survey Report, published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Moreover, an internship in Japan is a great way for students to see work culture firsthand, and to prepare for a career at an international company.

However, internships in the United States and Japan are not the same. To find out how they differ—and how the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) is working to change the experience—The ACCJ Journal spoke with member com­panies who are participating in the ACCJ Internship Portal to get their thoughts and insights.

CULTURAL DIVIDE
Frequency and duration are perhaps the two biggest differences between internships in the United States and Japan, where they are not as common and are woefully short.

“Japan-style internships are more geared toward providing companies with resources,” said Pontus Häggström, president and CEO of FCA Japan Ltd. “I would like to think that US-style internships are set up to provide more of a win–win experience, involving the intern more deeply in the goings-on of the corporation, its challenges, and opportunities.”

In a previous issue of The ACCJ Journal, Dr. Stephen A. Zurcher, professor of management at and dean of Kansai Gaidai University and ACCJ vice president–Kansai, said that internships in Japan—as we conceive them—do not exist for the most part. “The word internship is used to mean a visit by students to a company office for as a little as one day,” he said. “In contrast, internships in the United States are the path for nearly 50 percent of all new hires involving college graduates. These internships generally last one or two months.”

Asked to expand on this, Zurcher explained that Japanese corporations have historically seen the training of prospective employees as something that takes place only after graduation.

“This is a key difference between the US and Japanese views of internships,” he said. “Outside Japan, internships are now made mandatory at many US and European colleges I work with, and are, in a real sense, on-the-job training.”

Shukatsu, the traditional practice in which students in Japan hunt for a job before graduation, puts those who study abroad at a disadvantage. This is because they are not in Japan when companies vet and employ graduates to entry-level positions.

“If they go abroad during their junior year—which is such a valuable experience for any student—they miss the window to look for work during shukatsu, and often are not able to even apply for work when they get back from their exchange program,” Zurcher said.

 

WINDS OF CHANGE
For most students in Japan, internships at global companies are the only way to secure a position outside the shukatsu period. A 2017 study by the Japan Association of Corporate Executives found that only 13 percent of Japanese companies recruit students throughout the year.

But Japan is slowly coming around, and more companies are breaking tradition. Earlier this year, representatives from Japanese universities—together with members of Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation—met to finalize a policy to promote year-round recruitment.

During the lead up to the finalization, Keidanren Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi, who is also chairman and executive officer at Hitachi, Ltd., told The Nikkei Asian Review that traditional practices—including lifetime employment and mass hiring of graduates—are outdated.

Zurcher cited another major company that is changing: Fujitsu Ltd. The Kawasaki-based information technologies and services company recently announced that it will start hiring year-round. The move was planned, in part, to benefit foreign students studying in Japan and Japanese students studying abroad, who far too often miss the cut-off date for recruitment.

Others already hiring year-round include SoftBank Group Corp., Rakuten, Inc., and Mercari, Inc., developer of a secure online marketplace app for smartphones.

“Some schools and companies are realizing that longer-term internships are valuable for both the student and the organization, so the hiring process in Japan is becoming more flexible, which is good for all students,” Zurcher said.

INTERNSHIP PORTAL
To support students looking for opportu­nities, the ACCJ—together with the Embassy of the United States, Tokyo, and the US–Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON)—launched an online platform where ACCJ member companies can post internship openings.

Integrated into the chamber’s website, the ACCJ Internship Portal connects Japanese students with internships when they return to Japan, therefore improving their prospects for being hired.

Companies also provide tangible assistance to those interested in international careers and encourage Japanese students to study in the United States and US students to come to Japan—and the companies benefit, too.

“The portal has proved highly effec­tive in attracting some of the best and brightest Japanese students studying in US universities to join us for internships,” said Mark Davidson, director of government and external affairs at Amway Japan G.K. and co-chair of the ACCJ Education Committee. “Supporting the Internship Portal is a powerful way for us to help cultivate global talent.”

Morgan Laughlin, managing director and head of Japan at PGIM Real Estate (Japan) Ltd., agrees. “We have been running an internship program for several years and are always looking for additional ways to identify talented students for our program. The ACCJ portal seemed a sensible additional channel for us to utilize.”

REAL WORLD
US-style internships allow students to gain real-life work exp­erience without sacrificing their studies. ACCJ member companies value their interns’ time and individuality, and offer a chance for these soon-to-be graduates to gain the knowledge and confidence that will set them apart as they build their careers.

“We want our interns to experience what it’s like to pursue a career in international business, working in multiple languages with people from diverse backgrounds,” said Davidson. “Aside from helping teach practical skills, we love to see our interns grow personally as they grapple with new ideas and ways of seeing the world. It’s an empowering experience for them to feel as if they have made a genuine contribution to the workplace. That builds confidence and purpose that will serve them well in the future.”

This is in contrast to Japanese-style internships, which are generally too short for students to gain any valuable experience.

As Laughlin explained: “We find that anything shorter than 12 weeks does not provide the opportunity for the intern to develop any meaningful skills.” PGIM offers a 12-week summer program and a longer six-month option. “With time, they can take on increasingly complex assignments, which makes their internship more interesting and rewarding.”

ACCJ member SThree plc, a leading global recruitment company specializing in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, also sees great value in such longer programs. Managing director Grant Habgood said that US-style internships are simply a more enriching experience. “Hopefully, by the end of the internship, the individual has more of a sense of where they want to take their career. People who discover a passion during their time with us and go on to become our top performers and leaders of the future.”

SUCCESS STORIES
Without a doubt, the opportunities being offered through the ACCJ Internship Portal are getting results.

Rebecca Nashe Mutenda interned with Amway’s Government and External Affairs Department in summer 2017. “This experience was exactly what I needed to conceptualize what working in Japan with a degree from a US school could mean for someone like me—a bilingual Japanese national studying abroad,” she said.

Arlette Bouzitou, who came to Tokyo from Paris to improve her language and knowledge of Japanese customers, interned for ANA InterContinental in 2016 and worked there as a human resources assistant until 2018. “Understanding what the implications of a human resources department are, what it deals with, what solutions it brings to workplace problems and internal communication is truly instructive,” she said.

And another participant, still early in her studies at the University of Chicago, found out about the ACCJ portal through her high school’s alumni internship page.

“I had a previous internship, but it was unpaid and only about two months long. I feel that this internship at PGIM Real Estate is a lot more structured and comes with more responsibilities,” Erin Yamato-Chang said.

“I’m learning new things every day and becoming more involved as time passes. The people are very welcoming, and it didn’t take long for me to become comfortable with the new environment. I’ve gained a ton of knowledge about the industry and the company, but I think it is equally important that I’ve been able to truly feel and understand what it’s like to work in a professional environment. This experience has definitely gotten me more interested in the industry, and will surely guide me in future career decisions.”

As these stories show, a US-style internship is key for students who desire a deeper, more meaningful work experience while learning more about Japan’s business culture. Häggström summed it up well: “They’ll establish a more long-term relation­ship with the company. I hope that we can provide them with a firm grounding in the business realities of today, enabling them to match and contrast theories in books with real-life challenges.

Aaron Baggett is a staff writer at Custom Media for The ACCJ Journal.

Photos: Embassy of the United States, Tokyo
To support students looking for opportunities, the ACCJ . . . launched an online platform where ACCJ member companies can post internship openings.