“Most Japanese universities don’t have programmes in place for students to take internships”

A valuable experience

Internships can bring numerous benefits to businesses


FEBRUARY 2022 Feature/ Text by Gavin Blair

At their best, internships will offer students or other young people valuable experience and insight into a company, industry, and the world of work. In perhaps the most celebrated example, Ursula Burns interned at Xerox in 1980, was hired, and went on to be appointed CEO in 2009, becoming the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

As Japan’s workforce continues to shrink, internships could be an important way for firms here to get more students interested in their business and, potentially, secure promising talent.

In some parts of Europe, internships are built into education curricula and widely offered by companies. The approach in Japan is very different, with many domestic firms offering what are effectively extended recruitment workshops. There are, however, a number of European companies in Japan that do run meaningful programmes.

“In Germany, internships are understood to be very important in getting real, hands-on experience,” says Matthias Pfeiffer, senior HR manager at Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus, a Daimler group company.

An internship Pfeiffer took after graduating from Ritsumeikan University indirectly led to him joining Mitsubishi Fuso. But arranging the internship was challenging, with the university initially suggesting he either did it during his holidays or delayed graduation. It also required a special permit from immigration.

“Most Japanese universities don’t have programmes in place for students to take internships,” he explains. “It is often only possible if someone has all the credits they need for graduation early.”

Mitsubishi Fuso doesn’t see its internships simply as a recruitment tool, but “probably 20% to 30%” of interns do end up joining the company, notes Pfeiffer.

“We can learn so much more about someone during a three-month internship than we could in a one-hour interview,” he adds.

The company tries to ensure interns are given meaningful tasks that will help them learn, rather than simple admin work. And interns are sometimes assigned to employees who are being considered for management roles, giving them an opportunity to practice leadership while the intern gains valuable experience and knowledge about how the company works, explains Pfeiffer.

Most of the interns at Mitsubishi Fuso are non-Japanese, so Japan’s strict border controls during the pandemic have cut numbers over the past two years. The same is true at Arqis Foreign Law Office, which usually accepts around 10 trainee lawyers a year from Germany, as well as from other European countries, including Finland and Austria.

In Germany, an internship placement at a law firm is a compulsory component of legal training, part of which can be done overseas. But Arqis also takes students from the German School of Tokyo Yokohama for shorter internships of a few weeks, says foreign attorney at law Tobias Schiebe.

The main purpose of internships at Arqis is not recruitment, though Schiebe reports that the networks created can lead to employment opportunities.

“They also act as a kind of knowledge exchange that helps us to keep in touch with what is happening in academia and other new topics in Germany and Europe, such as recent trends in legal tech,” he adds.

For European companies in Japan, internships can be a good chance to promote themselves among prospective Japanese employees, as they often face the challenge of competing with better-known Japanese firms, Schiebe suggests. They can, for instance, show the merits of an open office culture with looser hierarchies and a good work–life balance.

The EBC has recommended that Japan introduce fully fledged internship programmes for university students, as this could deliver a wide range of benefits to both interns and companies.

“We sometimes hear complaints from foreign companies that many of their new graduates hired in Japan lack any practical experience, which limits them in their scope of activities in the beginning,” says Schiebe.

With the lack of a framework for Japanese students, asset management firm Amundi offers internships mostly to overseas applicants.

“At Amundi Japan, we have been welcoming interns through the VIE international internship programme organised by Business France,” says Marina Koiye, director of human resources at the firm. “This provides opportunities to young talent and allows them to build their skills through on-the-job training on a temporary assignment of six to 24 months away from their home country.”

The interns are “extremely talented”, according to Koiye, who reports that some later join the office in Tokyo or one of the firm’s other locations.

“During their assignment, the interns are treated the same as our employees, having exposure to various functions within and outside the country, depending on the job or project they are assigned,” adds Koiye.

This is in stark contrast to what often happens at domestic firms.

An HR manager at a major Japanese financial group explains that its one- or two-week internship programmes consist of lectures introducing the company and “group game-style tasks that let students experience our businesses”, while they are evaluated on their abilities.

Due to internal rules, interns are not allowed near the real-world business, reports the manager, who acknowledges the internship programme is effectively a “company information session with simulated work experience”.

The situation is similar at a leading Japanese advertising agency, according to a staff member formerly responsible for organising internships for international graduate students, many of them MBAs. Although the programmes did attract some international talent to the agency, the staff member admits that many left relatively soon after starting, finding it difficult to adapt to the strict corporate culture and punishing working hours.

“We also run what are called internships, but they are actually closer to workshops that last one or two weeks,” he explains, referring to initiatives aimed at domestic students. “Because of the confidential nature of the creative work on advertising campaigns, interns can’t be in the office around actual work being done. It’s then very difficult to teach real copywriting or creative processes as they can only work on fictitious campaigns.”

The German word for internship is praktikum, and it is the practical elements that make it meaningful.