The Natural Limitations of the Specialist HR Career in Japan

In many ways, the Japan HR market is not dissimilar to any other in the region: when a company is on the look-out for a senior HR specialist, it’s always a surprise to discover how rare they are to find on the market. Promising leaders in recruitment can often get ‘burnt out’ by a certain stage in their career, because the repetitive demands of the role do not lessen over time, and the variety of a generalist HR career can seem very appealing. Compensation & Benefits Directors tend to stay the course in their specialisation, but they become very well looked-after by their employers and do not seek external opportunities lightly. Talent Management and OD professionals tend to look for more consulting opportunities once they reach a certain seniority, where they can specialise in veryniche areas such as leadership coaching or change management across a number of companies and industries rather than continue in a more corporate career.

In the case of Japan, there are a number of extra factors that can also play a contributory part in making the specialist HR career path seem less appealing or indeed less available. We discuss three of these below.

The Length of the Specialist Career Path

The career path for the true specialist can be much more stunted in Japan when compared to other ‘hub’ markets such as Singapore or Hong Kong. Someone who is passionate about recruitment in Singapore can start their career as a researcher in a search firm, gravitate towards becoming an agency recruiter, move into an in-house country-based recruitment role, then go into any number of different sub-specialisations such as graduate recruitment, diversity or metrics, before later moving into a sub-regional role followed by a regional role down the track. For those that plan their careers properly, this allows for a 15-year approach to truly becoming a master in the field.

In the Japanese context to this example, the recruitment specialist can sometimes find themselves hitting a career ceiling much sooner. Once you have gravitated into a Head of Country Recruitment role, there is often nowhere else to go except to leave your employer and find a new challenge elsewhere. Regional specialist roles are relatively rare in Japan, and those that do exist are usually a ‘double hat’ that’s been given to a generalist who wants to take on more responsibility. So while the true HR specialists do still exist in Japan, the lure of the generalist career is that much stronger, and usually kicks in after only a five to eight year career in the specialist role.

The Tradition of Job Rotation

Japan also has a much stronger tradition of job rotation than in other countries in the region. Many HR practitioners reaching the height of their HR career in Japan now would have first started their career in HR by being rotated into it from another part of the business. The proportion of people ‘falling into’ the HR profession rather than seeking it out has therefore been a great deal higher than in other countries. This is changing in more recent times, and there are more HR practitioners entering the market who have chosen it as their career from the outset. But it will take a few more years before this generation of HR Leader is at the top of the tree.

The knock-on effect of this tradition is that in certain companies it is still seen as a weakness to stay in one specialisation for too long. So while the practice of job rotation is undoubtedly an excellent way to teach true depth in a variety of specialisations to the future HR Generalist, it does not cater well to those who already know very early in their career that they want to stay in a one niche function.

The Relative Isolation of Japan from the Corporate Matrix

In the past, Japan has often been seen as the most important market of Asia. Having been the world’s second largest economy for so many years, many companies chose to create a Japan ‘region’ in its own right, allowing for the Japan HR Director to report directly into the global headquarters as a peer of the Asia Pacific HR Director. The advantage of this system to Japanese HR Directors has been that they have enjoyed a disproportionately loud voice in international HR circles, and can make sure that the Japan HR priorities continue to get high visibility within the organisation.

In some respects, this great advantage can also be seen a relative weakness in terms of the ability of Japanese HR practitioners to influence others in the region. The relationship between Japan and head office can be too ‘one-on-one’, which can be a disadvantage to HR practitioners who wish to widen their specialisation across countries outside of Japan. A Compensation & Beneftis Director in the Philippines or in Indonesia will have a much better understanding of how to put their notion of C&B within a regional context. Moreover, they would already have been exposed to many more of their regional counterparts throughout their career, allowing for a greater cross-fertilisation of ideas andbest practices. The Japanese HR specialist can feel much more ‘boxed in’ and can often not imagine a career beyond Japan.

In recent times, the situation is changing. With India and China growing in importance, as well as more focus being put on emerging markets such as Vietnam and Indonesia, Japan is being brought more into the regional fold than ever before. To some HR practitioners in Japan this is a tough change, because there is a sense of ‘demotion’ about reporting to a regional HR Director when they used to report into a global headquarters. But the far-reaching effect of this move will be to give Japanese HR talent, particularly in niche specialisations, the greater chance to grow beyond the constraints of one geography in the future.


For now, it still remains relatively tough to find true senior specialists who would be willing to take on a newly created role in your international organisation in Japan. But the future signs are good. As HR continues to professionalise, more practitioners will seek to specialise. As Japan becomes more integrated with the rest of the region, the ability of domestic talent to be developed into regional careers will grow. And as such the career path of the HR specialist will be extended to allow for the truly passionate practitioner to reach the natural pinnacle of their career.


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