Making an Ikigai Connection with a Nihongo Jobs Expert

Yvonne Burton, Business Editor

I recently interviewed Kasia, the inspirational and dynamic creator of Ikigai Connections and the Nihongo Job Board, to get the story of her journey in Japan-U.S. business. Kasia is committed to helping people link their careers to their interest in Japan with Career Ikigai.

The full interview is below.

Kasia of Ikigai Connections

Tell us about your background with Japan and how you came to be where you are now.

Kasia: I started studying Japanese in high school but never really felt an affinity for it until I traveled to Shiga Prefecture as a high school exchange student my senior year. Being overseas for four months with minimal language skills and zero internet at such a young age was one of the most challenging things I have ever done, but it is why I am here today. From the welcoming homestay family to the amazing friends and experiences, I was able to see the beauty in different cultures, food, and history. Most importantly, I started to realize that there is more than one way of doing something “right.”

That experience led to me majoring in Japanese in college and attending graduate school in Tokyo. My first professional job was in the concert promotion industry of Japan, and that is where I first started using my Japanese language and cultural skills in a career. I was able to do the same in the electronics industry in Poland, freelance interpreting and translating in Italy, and the automotive industry in the U.S. Now I am creating a service that I always wanted in my younger job-hunting years: a resource for finding Japanese jobs in any country.

I want this job board to give hope to other Japanese language learners.”

— Kasia on NihongoJobs.com

What is Ikigai Connections, and why did you create it? 

Kasia:  Ikigai Connections began slowly in September 2018 with a blog to share my ideas and advice as if I were writing for my younger self. Many people who studied Japanese noticed me and started asking questions about job hunting and using language and cultural skills in a career. That advice developed into an online training program, Japanese Jobs 100, and now I focus mainly on my job board, NihongoJobs.com.

I want this job board to give hope to other Japanese language learners. Many people assume that learning Japanese is an expensive hobby, but having the language and business skills related to the world’s #3 largest economy is quite important in the US.

Most importantly, I want to help people attain their dream of using Japanese in a job. I define the Japanese word ikigai as your “passion” and use the phrase “career ikigai” when discussing how to blend your passion with a career.

After all, we work for so many hours in a day; it makes sense to enjoy what we do.

What is your mission with Ikigai Connections as a business? 

Kasia: My mission is to promote the benefits of being bilingual for both language learners and companies. Knowing another language opens up your world and is a fundamental step to a more open and respectful world.

Specifically, I want American companies to realize that in addition to native Japanese people with English language skills, there are non-native Japanese people with Japanese/English skills who want to find a bilingual job.

What are the challenges you face in building your business?

Kasia: Some voices tell me a non-Japanese person cannot understand the Japanese culture and therefore cannot be an asset in business. I am not saying that non-Japanese people can become Japanese; instead, I believe that non-Japanese people who love the culture and language are an untapped resource and can become excellent kakehashi (bridges) between the two cultures.

Although I am based in the US and have a job board for Japanese jobs in the US, this scenario applies to any country that deals with Japan. For nearly 20 years, I fought to prove to companies that I could help them by using my Japanese language skills, and now I am extending that fight for all of the people who study and love Japan. Anyone who learns the Japanese language can agree that we are quite the passionate bunch!

If you had a magic wand, what would you do in terms of Japan-US Business?

Kasia: I would resolve two pain points specific to human resources. The first is to fix the lack of a standard certification or recognition of Japanese language proficiency. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) exists, but it is only administered once a year outside of Japan. Many excellent candidates have not had the opportunity to take the exam because of the pandemic-induced cancellation in 2020.

Further, the test does not necessarily prepare you for the business world, so just because you do or do not have the JLPT on your resume does not indicate whether you are or are not prime candidate material. The Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT) is a better option, but it is not well known by either candidates or companies, and it is only available in specific locations.

Currently, many roles require the top level of the JLPT (N1). The Japanese language is complex, and standardized tests do not test business acumen, cultural understanding, nor industry-specific terminology. If a candidate has a driven personality, Japanese business experience, and a strong desire to learn, they can truly shine if given the opportunity. Having said all of this, I am still a proponent of taking the exam as it provides the test taker a challenging assignment and the employer a window into the candidate’s history of language learning.

The second is to clarify what it means to be fluent in a foreign language. (I wrote about this in detail for Schoolcraft College in Michigan: https://www.ikigaiconnections.com/do-i-need-to-be-fluent/.) Japanese is a tricky language to consider in terms of fluency because of the speaking, listening, reading, writing, and honorable (keigo) language components. It would be ideal if companies considered candidates with varying proficiency levels and if monolingual people could understand what goes into learning another language.

Companies assume they need someone who is “fluent,” but I would argue that candidates with three years of college-level Japanese could be excellent employees as long as they have the willingness and opportunity to learn industry-specific terminology on the job. After all, you learn these terms by working in the industry—not in a college course. If companies loosen their language requirements just a little, they might be surprised to find how many excellent candidates they may have overlooked. I want companies to give candidates the chance to prove they can learn. If companies realized just how vast their hiring pool is, their business, their local US/Japan community, and the business relationship between the US and Japan as a whole would be better off.

The Japanese word ikigai as your ‘passion’ and use the phrase ‘career ikigai’ when discussing how to blend your passion with a career.”

Why is it important for Japan and Japanese business to be more globally minded?

Kasia: All countries are inter-connected in this global economy. Japan is the world’s #3 economy with a footprint in practically every industry and nation. To remain successful and globally competitive, it is necessary to have an open-minded and global perspective.

Furthermore, the increasing speed that comes with digital advances is erasing borders when it comes to business. The pandemic, especially, has proved this to us. Documents are being signed digitally without the hanko, a historically significant stamp that serves as a signature. (I wrote about this in detail here, citing JapanCulture•NYC: https://www.ikigaiconnections.com/high-tech-and-hanko-in-the-wfh-era/.) Now we can hop onto a Zoom call with anyone in the world to discuss topics that typically would have occurred in an in-person meeting. I still believe business trips will resume because in-person meetings have immense value, but the normalization of Zoom calls has allowed businesses to move faster, regardless of location.

JapanCulture-NYC was mainly a cultural and social site. The business section was created due to the pandemic. How has the pandemic impacted your business? 

Kasia: Initially, I focused on serving companies in Michigan since that is where my connections are the strongest. I considered venturing out to Ohio, too, because we share the same Consulate. During the pandemic, I discovered the ease and flexibility in online networking and Zoom meetings, so I expanded my target audience to serve the entire US. My job board allows me to use an online platform for gathering Japanese job ads for the US, and I use automation tools to streamline the process in my solopreneur adventure.

I have never been considered a technologically savvy person, and anyone who has worked with me knows that well. However, the pandemic forced me out of my comfort zone, and I now enjoy creating my website, working digitally, and connecting virtually with people globally.

I believe that non-Japanese people who love the culture and language are an untapped resource and can become excellent kakehashi (bridges) between the two cultures.”

What are your future plans for Ikigai Connections?

Kasia: Currently, I have 1,000+ job ads and 5,000+ native and non-native Japanese followers, and I am growing my presence organically via word of mouth. My goal is to become the #1 job board for all Japanese jobs in the US, and I would be honored if recruiters and employers that need Japanese/English bilingual talent chose to use my job board to announce their job openings.

Thanks, Kasia, for sharing your wonderful story and business with us. We wish you continued success!

Please visit Ikigai Connections and Nihongojobs to see what is available for your passion and career.

Yvonne Burton provides services to Japanese firms operating internationally and companies operating in the Japanese market. To learn more, please visit burtonconsulting.biz.