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Career Guide for Japan's Sogo Shosha 2024: Overview and Essential Job Application Insights

Updated: Jun 17

Japan's Sogo Shosha

Introduction


In Japan, general trading companies, known as 総合商社 (Sogo Shosha), are exceptionally popular. Renowned for their extensive business portfolios and global reach, these organizations are highly sought after by students eager to make their mark in international trade. Offering dynamic career paths, Sogo Shosha are particularly appealing to internationally educated students, who bring valuable global perspectives and diverse language skills to the table. Entities like Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsui & Co., Itochu Corporation, and Sumitomo Corporation rank among the top 20 desirable employers in CFN's "2023-2024 Employment Rankings Chosen by Students Studying Abroad," standing shoulder to shoulder with leading consulting and financial firms*1.


To successfully land a position at a Sogo Shosha, it is crucial to begin by thoroughly understanding the company's culture and operations. While domestic students in Japan often have direct access to company insights through employee visits (almuni visits, OB訪問) and informational interviews, students studying abroad face greater challenges due to limited connections. However, with the right strategies and preparation, overcoming these obstacles is not only possible but can set the stage for a rewarding career. This career guide about Japan's Sogo Shosha provides an in-depth look at the unique landscape of Sogo Shosha and offers practical advice on how to secure employment within these trading powerhouses.



What is a Sogo Shosha?


A Sogo Shosha, or general trading company, as the name suggests, is a conglomerate that handles a wide range of businesses. Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsui & Co., Itochu Corporation, Sumitomo Corporation, and Marubeni Corporation are referred to as the "Big Five" Trading companies. Together with Sojitz Corporation and Toyota Tsusho Corporation, these seven firms are collectively known as the "Big Seven" Trading Companies. Sogo Shosha operates across almost every industry sector globally, dealing in resources, food, energy, machinery, chemicals, as well as digital technologies and infrastructure. The phrase "from ramen to rockets" is a well-known expression that succinctly captures the breadth of their business operations, although each company has its unique strengths and strategies. For instance, Mitsubishi Corporation conducts balanced business operations with a strong emphasis on metal resources, while Itochu Corporation specializes in non-resource sectors, achieving an impressive average non-resource sector ratio of 72% excluding metal businesses*2.



Understanding the Dual Core of Sogo Shosha: Trading and Business Investment


Trading: At its core, the trading function of Sogo Shosha involves acting as vital intermediaries in the global supply chain, effectively matching supply with demand. These companies excel in connecting sellers with buyers, effectively matching supply with demand. This role is particularly crucial in Japan, a country with limited natural resources, where Sogo Shosha have historically facilitated the import of essential resources and ensured a stable energy supply. Similarly, they have been instrumental in exporting Japanese machinery and other goods, thereby supporting Japan's economic outreach. This dynamic of importing high-quality foreign products and exporting superior Japanese goods forms the backbone of their trading operations.


Business Investment: that Sogo Shosha engages in generally involves investing in companies to hold shares long-term, aiming to enhance the corporate value of the investment targets and create synergies. In this process, Sogo Shosha typically dispatch employees to their investment targets to help manage the business collaboratively. The goals of business investment are twofold: "direct benefits" such as profits from operations, dividends, and capital gains, and "indirect benefits" which include creating synergies as a group company and leveraging collaboration for competitive advantage. Profits from operations, an accounting concept, refer to the portion of the invested company's profits that can be accounted for as the investor's own profits under certain accounting rules (Only applicable to equity-method accounts and consolidated subsidiaries). This explanation will include examples of each type of profit to clarify their roles.


Examples of Direct Benefits in Business Investment


To better understand how Sogo Shosha realize direct financial benefits from their investments, let’s examine the investment of Sogo Shosha "A" in European startup Company "B."


Dividends: Company "A” holds 30% of Company "B's” shares. When Company "B” performs well, Company "A” can receive stable dividends annually. Specifically, if Company "B” earns a profit of 5 million euros in a year, Company "A” would receive 30% of this, amounting to 1.5 million euros as dividends.


Capital Gains: Several years later, Company "B's” technology is highly valued in the market, and its stock price doubles from the investment price. At this opportune moment, Company "A” decides to sell a portion of its shares, realizing a 100% capital gain. Specifically, the shares originally purchased for 2 million euros are sold for 4 million euros, yielding a profit of 2 million euros.


Profits from Operations: Furthermore, from Company "B's” annual profit, Company "A” also generates income that can be accounted for as its own profit, known as "profits from operations." Of Company "B's” annual profit of 5 million euros, 30%—or 1.5 million euros—corresponds to Company "A's” equity stake and can be recorded as its profit.


Thus, through investments in other companies, a Sogo Shosha can gain direct financial returns in the form of dividends, capital gains, and profits from operations.


Examples of Indirect Benefits: The Convenience Store Business


A notable illustration of indirect benefits can be observed in the convenience store business, showcasing how a Sogo Shosha leverages group synergies to maximize efficiencies and enhance market competitiveness.


Imagine that "Sogo Shosha A” owns a chain of convenience stores known as "C Store." Under this business model, Sogo Shosha A” can generate multifaceted synergies. Specifically, "Sogo Shosha A” can optimize "C Store” operations by leveraging its group resources, including its food manufacturing subsidiary "Company D,” logistics company "Company D,” and processing company "Company F.”


Optimization of Product Supply:"C Store” receives beverages and snacks produced by "Company D,” a subsidiary of "Sogo Shosha A.” By selling "Company D’s” products directly in "C Stores,” distribution costs are reduced, and the freshness and quality of products are better maintained.


Efficiency in Logistics:"Company E,” the logistics firm, is responsible for delivering products to "C Store.” It can manage efficient routes and delivery schedules, which improves inventory management and reduces instances of overstocking and stockouts.


Collaboration with Processing Companies: "Company F,” a specialized processor, supports unique product development for "C Store.” This enables "C Store” to offer differentiated products, which can attract customers and set it apart from competitors.


These synergies represent the "indirect benefits" of the trading company. By completing the value chain within its own group, the company can reduce costs at each stage, improve efficiency, and enhance competitiveness in the market, thus improving the overall economic health and growth potential of the entire group.


The convenience store operation is just one example; other business investments also create synergies. In each business sector, the Sogo Shosha utilizes companies within the group to build an efficient and economical value chain.


The dynamic and interconnected operations of Sogo Shosha present an attractive proposition for globally-minded career seekers, particularly those educated abroad.




Career Guide to Securing a Job Offer from a Sogo Shosha in Japan


How to get a job in Sogo Shosha? Achieving a job offer from a Sogo Shosha involves a comprehensive and strategic process. Below is a step-by-step guide for international students aiming to navigate this path successfully:


  1. University Life

  2. Industry/Company Research

  3. Entry Sheet (Application Form)

  4. Aptitude Test (適性検査)

  5. Interview

  6. Internship

  7. Final Interview

  8. Job Offer


Below, details on each step along with student responsibilities and tips will be provided.


  1. University Life (From about August of the first year of university to the application entry deadline)

    1. Overview

      1. Since the business is conducted globally, proficiency in English and other languages is required. This is both a strength and an expectation for students who have pursued their university education abroad. And of course, as these companies are based in Japan, Fluent level or above in Japanese is also required.

      2. Academic performance is also critical, as transcripts are required during the application process and may be discussed in the final interview.

    2. Tasks

      1. It is important to live and work with an awareness of these factors, not in terms of being overly conscious of job hunting, but in terms of enriching your university life.

      2. Gaining experiences unique to living abroad is crucial. Seek out and engage in experiences that require teamwork and interaction with people. Companies have certain expectations of students from overseas universities, such as the ability to cope with challenges abroad, a high level of acceptance towards others, and the experience of collaborating with foreigners who operate at a different pace (including group work in classes). Focusing on these aspects can be beneficial.

      3. You should actively explore areas of interest, and while it may be daunting to step into new challenges, you are encouraged to do so without fear.

    3. Tips

      1. When considering job hunting for a Sogo Shosha, last-minute, superficial strategies are generally ineffective. The most effective preparation starts early—value and invest in your day-to-day university life and studies right from your first year.

  2. Industry/Company Research (From around June of sophomore year of university to the application entry deadline): Thorough Comparison of Companies and Other Industries

    1. Overview

      1. Gaining a deep understanding of the business operations, key sectors, and current trends of Sogo Shosha is crucial for prospective employees. Understanding the corporate culture and strengths of each company is also vital. Enhancing knowledge about their business models and each company specifically can help demonstrate a high level of interest during interviews.

    2. Tasks

      1. Conduct desk research. Read extensively, including company websites, investor relations materials, industry columns, and news updates.

      2. Attend company information sessions and conduct employee visits. These activities offer direct insights beyond what can be learned through desk research. Use platforms like Jelper Club, LinkedIn, and BizReach to arrange visits with company employees efficiently.

        1. Jelper Club has many members who are employed by Sogo Shosha. It is possible to directly message these members through Jelper Club to arrange employee visit appointments.

        2. Members of the Jelper Club who work for Sōgō Shōsha often attend events like The Soirée Tokyo hosted by the Jelper Club. You are strongly encouraged to participate in The Soirée Tokyo and actively engage in communication with other members through the platform of Jelper Club.

    3. Tips

      1. Ensure that you read the securities reports and financial statements thoroughly. These documents often detail the focus and areas of expertise of various companies.

      2. At information sessions, it is common for only the information available through desk research to be discussed. During and after these sessions, in the question and answer portion, actively ask questions based on your hypotheses to obtain high-quality, firsthand information.

      3. Actively conducting employee visits can also serve as proof of your interest in a company.

        1. When sending emails to request employee visits or during the visits themselves, ensure that you adhere to business etiquette to maintain respect toward the employees.

        2. Requests for employee visits should be made via email rather than phone to accommodate the employees' availability.

        3. Prepare questions for employee visits that seek firsthand insights from the employees—information that isn't readily available from brief research. Develop some hypotheses related to your initial questions to facilitate deeper discussions and elicit valuable responses.

        4. To verify whether the reasons you are crafting for your interest are genuinely reflective of your stance, it is important to ask not only open-ended questions but also closed-ended questions based on your reasons for interest.  For example: "The philosophy of Company A is XX, and I am drawn to your company because of this philosophy. In practice, is this philosophy well integrated among the employees on the ground?"

  3. Entry Sheet Creation and Submission (From around May of junior year of university to the application entry deadline): Documenting Career Achievements, Self-Promotion, and Motivation

    1. Overview

      1. In crafting your self-promotion and motivation statements, it is crucial not to simply list your skills and experiences. Instead, you should elaborate on how your personal experiences and their contexts have equipped you to thrive in the general trading company industry. Specifically, demonstrate how your strengths align with the industry and the company culture.

      2. It is also important to customize your narrative to match each company's culture and the type of personnel they seek. This customization should be evident in your written applications and carried through to your interviews.

    2. Tasks

      1. Organize your personal history (reflect on your life, considering the thoughts you've held and the actions you've taken). It's beneficial to start from your early elementary school years. Write down everything you remember in a notebook or similar format as you summarize your experiences.

      2. Craft a compelling self-promotion statement and articulate your reasons for applying, drawing on your personal experiences and reflections. Also, ensure that your writing clearly shows how these elements logically link together.

      3. Have friends or seniors review your written content and style to receive feedback and make revisions. This step will help refine your presentation and ensure that your narrative is coherent and compelling.

    3. Tips

      1. When creating your personal history, obtaining objective assessments is incredibly important. This is an excellent opportunity to interview family and friends about your behaviors and actions, providing a broader perspective on how you are perceived.

      2. Receiving objective feedback on the content of your entry sheet can improve your writing and also help you discover characteristics about yourself (such as strengths) that you might not have been aware of.

      3. If possible, receiving feedback from seniors or acquaintances who have secured job offers from trading companies can further enhance the accuracy of your application.

        1. Jelper Club is a platform with many members who are either currently job hunting or have completed the job-hunting process at Sogo Shosha. Consider using this platform to seek "job hunting partners," "review partners," or "interview practice partners."

      4. Write in a manner that allows the reader to envision you thriving at a Sogo Shosha. This requires a clear understanding of the type of personnel the company is seeking. Insights from employee visits can be instrumental in this, as they provide a clearer picture of the company's culture and what they value in potential employees.

  4. Aptitude Tests (適性検査) (From around June of junior year of university to the aptitude test deadline): Taking tests like SPI and C-GAB

    1. Overview

      1. Aptitude tests such as online assessments can often be overlooked by students studying abroad. While these students may have an advantage in English language tests, it's not uncommon for them to miss passing the selection process due to verbal (Japanese language) or non-verbal (arithmetic, mathematics) test sections. It is essential to have a basic understanding of what these tests entail and the time allowed for them, possibly through study guides.

    2. Tasks

      1. Identify which tests are used by each company.

      2. Purchase study guides and familiarize yourself with the types of questions asked. Practice repeatedly.

        1. Click here for the SPI book

        2. Click here for the Tamatebako and C-GAB books

    3. Tips

      1. The challenge in aptitude tests often lies more in the short time limits than in the difficulty of the questions. Becoming well-acquainted with the types of questions and practicing under timed conditions multiple times can significantly enhance your performance.

      2. Since aptitude test results can sometimes be reused for applications to other companies, consider taking the same tests at other companies as a form of practice. If your performance is good, you can reuse the results for your applications to trading companies.

  5. Interviews (From around October of junior year to around June of senior year): Typically 3-4 Rounds of Interviews

    1. Overview

      1. First and second-round interviews are often conducted online, but later rounds, such as the third and beyond, usually switch to face-to-face settings. However, in recent years, some Sogo Shosha, considering students from regional and overseas universities, also conduct final interviews online. Companies like Mitsubishi Corporation and Mitsui & Co. may also include case interviews during the first and second rounds.

    2. Tasks

      1. Compile a set of anticipated questions and answers for the interview.

      2. Conduct Mock Interviews with friends or seniors, ideally those who have secured offers from trading companies, and seek their feedback.

    3. Tips

      1. Based on your entry sheet, imagine yourself in the position of the interviewer and think about the kinds of questions you would want to ask. Prepare responses to all conceivable questions in advance so that you can answer confidently and persuasively without panic.

      2. During the interview, aim to answer questions completely but without excess. Since responses can become lengthy, it's important to prepare answers that are clear and concise for the interviewer to understand.

      3. Unlike case interviews conducted in consulting, case interviews in Sogo Shosha emphasize dialogue skills and the flexibility to generate new ideas. The thinking time is shorter than in consulting cases, and the discussion time with the interviewer about the strategy is longer, so enjoy the dialogue with the interviewer rather than sticking rigidly to perfect logic.

      4. Actively engage in interview practice and receive objective feedback from others to improve the precision of your interview performance. Take this feedback seriously and use it as a basis for improvement, thereby enhancing the quality of your responses.

      5. Like your entry sheet, it is crucial to answer and behave in a manner that allows the interviewer to envision you thriving at a Sogo Shosha. Maximizing your understanding of the ideal candidate profile through employee visits is one of the most critical requirements for securing an offer from a Sogo Shosha.

  6. Internship (From around June of junior year to around June of senior year): Often Part of the Selection Process

    1. Overview

      1. Companies like Mitsui & Co. include a week-long internship as part of their selection process. This provides an opportunity to deepen understanding of the company while also allowing the company to evaluate the intern's performance. There are also online opportunities specifically designed for students from regional and overseas universities.

    2. Tasks

      1. Internships at Sogo Shosha provide an ideal opportunity to understand their operations and are often part of the selection process. Therefore, it's important to be aware of the role you are expected to play and to approach your tasks with this in mind. 

    3. Tips

      1. It is crucial to thoroughly understand the type of person a company is looking for and to consciously align your behavior with this persona, especially when working in a team.

      2. Qualitative information about the type of person the company seeks is best obtained by meeting with individuals who actually work at the company.

  7. Final Interview (From around September of senior year to around June of senior year of university): Interview with Executive-level Staff

    1. Overview

      1. In the final interview, although the types of questions asked are generally similar to previous interviews, the interviewers are usually at the executive level.

      2. By the time you reach the final selection round, the assessment of your skills is largely complete, and your level of interest and enthusiasm can become decisive factors in whether you pass or fail. Asserting a high degree of interest in the company, and supporting this assertion with your experiences, is crucial for adding credibility to your claims.

    2. Tasks

      1. The preparation for this interview does not differ from other interviews.

      2. Since final interviews are often conducted face-to-face, it is important to confirm job-hunting etiquette, such as knocking on doors. Although not fundamental, ensuring such details are correct can prevent regrets later.

    3. Tips

      1. It is vital to appeal your enthusiasm, desire to work at the company, and your strengths in a way that is not off-putting. Strive to communicate in a manner that allows interviewers to envision working alongside you.

      2. At this stage, it is crucial to reflect on your personal history before the interview. Arguments based on your own experiences tend to be more profound and persuasive, enhancing the overall impact of your presentation.


It is important to note that the selection schedule can change annually, and some companies set specific schedules for students studying abroad. Therefore, it is crucial to check the detailed schedule and application guidelines on the individual company’s career pages for new graduates. This ensures that you are up-to-date with the most current information and can plan your application process accordingly.



Conclusion


Throughout this article, we have explored the unique landscape of Sogo Shosha, the powerhouse trading conglomerates that rank among the most sought-after employers in Japan. These companies continue to thrive, bolstered by factors such as the depreciating Japanese yen and burgeoning sectors like renewable energy and digital transformation (DX). Given these favorable conditions, career paths in Japanese general trading companies are expected to remain highly competitive, maintaining a high level of competition in their recruitment processes in the foreseeable future.


Students from overseas universities may feel at a disadvantage compared to their domestic counterparts due to challenges such as non-aligned selection timelines and fewer opportunities for alumni networking (OB訪問) compared to domestic peers. However, these companies are keen to hire students who have unique international experiences and perspectives that cannot be obtained in Japan. For those contemplating a career with a Sogo Shosha, embracing these challenges can be a rewarding endeavor.


At Jelper Club, we're here to support you every step of the way for your career development in Japan. Our platform connects ambitious students from top universities worldwide with exclusive internships and full-time job opportunities in Japan with a variety of Japanese proficiency requirements. We also provide access to practical information, member-only events, and a professional community of like-minded individuals.

 

If you're ready to embark on your own Japanese adventure, visit Jelper Club today and discover how we can help you unlock your potential in Japan.




(Editor: Jelper Club Editorial Team)

 

Sources and Notes


1."Job Search Preference Ranking (Overall Ranking)"(CFN):


2. “The Four Strengths" (ITOCHU Corporation):


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