I’m with a good law firm in New York. It’s not top tier, but we punch above our weight and do some solid corporate work.
I’ve always been interested in Japan; the culture, especially anime and manga, and the food. I would love to work in Japan for a few years and, if things go well, perhaps even for the long-term. However, while I am learning Japanese (with what little time I have!) and can survive in Japan with my current level, it’s not great and I cannot do business in Japanese.
Do I need to speak Japanese to have a real shot at working in Japan?
In brief, you don’t. There are jobs for non-Japanese speaking lawyers in Japan. Quite a few, in fact. Experience is king and is typically the most important (or one of the most) factors in finding work in Japan. That said, speaking Japanese is always preferable to not.
Even if you cannot speak enough to advise clients in Japanese, being able to have social conversations in Japanese will certainly help to build relationships with clients (and colleagues) and will help you get the most out of your life in Japan. People anywhere appreciate others who make an effort to speak in their own language – even if all of your deals are done in English.
However, many more doors of opportunity will open to you if you speak Japanese. Non-native Japanese speakers will rarely be in competition with native Japanese speakers (the roles are typically distinct), although the better one’s Japanese the more trust a prospective employer will have in you in terms of fitting in, especially for an in-house role and staying for the mid/long-term.
I’m often asked what level of JLPT one needs to get a job in Japan, and the answer is that it depends. The minimum that law firms will typically accept is N2, however, the top tier firms usually expect N1 or equivalent ability. Generally speaking, spoken Japanese is most important; i.e. the ability to participate in meetings and speak with clients in Japanese, although some firms, depending on the practice area, do seek non-Japanese who can review Japanese documents. Having a JLPT certification on your resume is certainly useful in getting interviews, the simple test remains the same; whether you can do an interview in Japanese.
So…in a long-winded way, while it’s not a must that you speak Japanese to be able to work in Japan, it sure helps. However, your experience remains the most important factor in your search (timing too, of course), especially for law firms. In-house can be a trickier market and more dependent on timing.
Anything else just bark!