Out of interest, I dropped into the head office of the Asahi Shinbun, one of Japan’s national newspapers, to find out what would be involved in becoming a staff photographer.
The young lady sitting alone at the reception desk was very kind, and after I had explained that I wanted to ask some advice about becoming a staff photographer she immediately phoned upstairs.
“There’s a gentleman in reception who would like to know how to become a staff photographer. Yes, Yes, Oh, he’s a foreigner by the way. Yes, thank you.
(looks at me) One of our photographers in on his way down to talk to you. Please wait in here.” “This is going very well”, I thought.
I was shown into a small waiting area and after only a couple of minutes was greeted by the photographer. I explained why I had dropped in and asked if he could give me some advice. Looking a little wary, as if he had not quite decided whether my language ability was up the explanation, he began to describe the application process.
Each applicant for a position within the company is required to take a ‘Nyu-sha shiken’, an entrance examination and a health check. After the test, comes an interview, and after that for the lucky few another interview and the chance to show ones portfolio. The brick wall in the process for the non-native Japanese speaker however comes right at the beginning. The test!
The test is a mixture of language ability, historical and general knowledge, reason and mathematics. It is unrelated to the position you are applying for. It requires a level of Japanese that even the top level of the Japanese proficiency test does not prepare you for and the mathematics test is at least A-level (high school) standard. It is difficult, and it is a test based on the Japanese system of education.
I do not know what it takes to become a staff photographer in other parts of the world, but to become a company employee in almost every large Japanese company you would have to take the test. This could be the point where I start whining about the Japanese system and the way it discriminates against foreigners etc but I will not for two reasons. Firstly, the level of ‘discrimination’ that I as a westerner experience is nothing compared to the experiences of other nationalities. The second reason is even simpler. This is just one of the things that makes living in Japan so interesting! Challenges you never expected. I suspect this is the reason some people stay for a long time, because they still didn’t overcome all of them.
Some people, the photographer told me, are hired because of their track record, and sometimes freelancers are used for specific tasks, but with an unusual hint of realism in my voice, I think that a staff position with a Japanese newspaper in any role is out of my reach….
…for the moment.