With the US CPA license frequently appearing in job descriptions, Brendan Walsh, Manager of the Finance and Accounting team, answers 10 questions about this highly respected qualification and its place in globalising Japan.
How sought-after is the US CPA in Japan?
For financial and accounting roles in international companies in Japan, the US CPA is the most sought-after qualification. Generally speaking, if the company has international operations, the US CPA requirement is very often there.
In what industries do you see demand?
In-demand industries right now include pharmaceutical, medical devices, luxury, retail, and consulting, as well as at the Big Four accounting firms. Recently, we have also seen rising demand for CPA-certified cost accountants in automotive and manufacturing.
Importantly, we see demand at every level. Even entry-level, staff-level accountants, and financial planning and analysis professionals are generally expected to have the certification. At the senior level, when we introduce CFOs and finance directors, global and regional offices typically expect them to be certified finance professionals.
What type of roles and opportunities are there for US CPA holders?
There are multiple career paths for US CPA-holders in international companies. The traditional path of starting in accounting and moving eventually into a CFO role is only one of many options.
For careers in accounting, financial planning and analysis, tax, audit and assurance, it is increasingly seen as essential. Also, hiring managers also often look for the qualification for roles in corporate finance and even management consulting. Increasingly, Japanese finance directors also expect their finance team to be qualified accountants.
How does the US CPA compare with the Japanese qualifications?
The Japanese CPA and the Nissho Boki are highly respected by Japanese organisations and may help you with an international firm. That said, overseas hiring managers probably don’t know these qualifications and may need convincing, while the US CPA is instantly recognised. Also, many people will have studied for these qualifications entirely in Japanese, so language ability may be an issue. US CPA holders tend to have better communication skills in English.
What about the MBA?
It is certainly a good qualification, but it doesn't appear on as many job descriptions as the US CPA. An MBA will be optimally used if you are aiming for a higher position, where you will take on more team or project management responsibilities and there is greater need for long-term strategic thinking.
However, even when you get into more senior and strategic positions, having a firm grasp of how day-to-day operational finances work tends to be more important than having a bigger picture view, so the US CPA is certainly relevant for these positions as well.
Is the US CPA mainly for mid-career professionals, or for younger age groups too?
The earlier you get the US CPA, the more helpful it will be at every step in your career. I wouldn't say you should wait until you are mid-career.
There is actually strong interest among younger demographics. Many of the established finance professionals in Japan who built their careers in the 80-90s did so by qualifying through experience, often without formal qualifications in finance. That has changed, and certainly with international companies, you are now expected to have the right badge to do the job. As in the IT sector, you need the right kind of qualification to be successful.
How would the US CPA help you change your career direction?
Japan is moving from a strictly accounting-based approach to finance toward something more strategic. A lot of the basic accounting work is increasingly being outsourced or consolidated into shared service centers that may not even be located here.
What’s left are the more strategic roles, and for them our clients typically require problem-solving and analytical skills. Rather than just making sure that the numbers are correct, roles might involve providing insights to sales, supply chain management and marketing. You might be required to participate in projects that are not necessarily only part of closing the books.
For someone looking to take the next career step, perhaps into a senior role, the US CPA could provide an important piece of the puzzle. But it must align well with your past experience. For instance, someone with a sales background could go for a sales controller or sales analysis role so that they can effectively use their experience together with the new skills gained with the US CPA.
Interesting in this context is that we are increasingly seeing a kind of organisational “blurring of the lines”, for instance financial planners who sit with sales teams. This happens mainly in foreign companies, but there are some Japanese companies that are serious about fast globalisation have created similar set-ups toward international clients in Japan.
Is the US CPA a good way for professionals to certify their English skills?
Certainly for mid-career roles, overseas managers, who may well be US CPAs themselves, want employees to be able to report back to them confidently in English. So, in that regard, the US CPA will certainly reassure higher-ups overseas that you can not only understand the world from an accounting perspective, but can do so in their language. But again, the qualification must be backed up by relevant experience.
What advice can you give to those who seek international careers but feel discouraged by the language gap?
One problem we encounter among Japanese professionals is that even in many international companies, the working language is Japanese and people may have few opportunities to use English.
To overcome this gap, I would suggest that people who find themselves in this situation seek out opportunities where they can build language skills and work more internationally. They could for instance volunteer to assist a foreign executive with reporting to international offices, or take on project that requires reporting in English. Putting yourself in the right environment is important. If your current company doesn't offer such opportunities, other companies may take you closer to where you want to be.
"Demonstrating a willingness to learn and an international mindset is more important"
I should add that companies usually don't require native-level fluency in English. Demonstrating a willingness to learn and an international mindset is more important. Seeking out opportunities where you need to use English shows such a mindset, and is something you can include on your CV and mention at interviews.
Any final words for those studying for the US CPA or considering taking the plunge?
Go for it! There is no time like the present!