Teaching and Living in Japan
How to Do It and What to Expect
By Lindy Sinka
|Bridge in Japan as Spring arrives.
After several years working in financial services, I decided I had had enough; more than anything I wanted to travel. I spent many late nights on the Web searching for ideas and opportunities in order to work and live in another country. I had always been interested in Japan and Japanese culture and fantasized about living in the country. When I found a job listing for a company looking for teachers in Japan, I immediately put together my resume and all the information that was requested and then waited. Not hearing back, I phoned them up. They hadn’t received my email, but I set up an interview date in Miami for the following week.
As it turns out they took me. After one giant garage sale, including selling my car, I was off to Japan. Mind you, I did buy a return ticket which I could use in the first month just in case things didn’t turn out so well. Luckily, I did not have any reason to use it.
I taught in Japan for nearly three and half years—a conversation school, two universities, an English Camp, private businesses, and even a kindergarten. I often get emails from friends and sometimes friends of friends asking for advice about teaching in Japan. With that in mind, I put together a guide to provide you with the information I think is most useful.
Earning Money, and Spending It
English teachers in Japan can expect to make a base salary of ¥250,000 per month. (106 yen is currently roughly $1; xe.com offers a good online currency converter). Depending on what type of housing you choose, your monthly housing can range from ¥50,000–¥80,000 including utilities. The biggest variant in your expenditures is going to be food and entertainment (that includes drinking). You will at least spend ¥60,000 even if you live modestly and do a fair bit of cooking. If you hit Tokyo for all-nighters on the weekends, you will be lucky to have change in your pocket by payday. You can save money or you can go hog wild, but not both.
How to Land a Teaching Job
The easiest and safest way to get a job in Japan is through a language institute, such as ECC, provided you have a university degree. Once they hire you and send you the paperwork it is very easy to get the visa from the nearest Japanese consulate. The amount of time you are given on your visa will vary depending on how generous they are feeling. It may range from one year to five years. Of all the Asian countries I have worked in the Japanese work visa is by far the easiest to get and to keep.
It is very easy to find work with a language institute which hires year-round, sponsors your visa, offers a 1-year contract, and helps with accommodations. They will not usually pay for your flight, but they can usually find you a cheap airfare. Do your own research first; I actually found a better deal for myself on the same flight they offered me.
ECC — Teach in Japan will also take care of your visa and housing, though they don’t tell you how much it is gonna cost you. As far as a company goes, they are probably the best company in terms of charitable deeds. They do a lot of charity work and make hefty donations to various causes. If that is important to you this may sway your decision. The pay is a base of ¥270,000 a month, but they do give seven weeks of paid holiday.
The JET Programme is geared towards young university graduates and works in conjunction with the Japanese Ministry of Education. With JET you will work as an ALT, assistant language teacher, and teach English at Junior High and High Schools. Typically, you teach at several schools and commute between them. Schools and the locations vary from extremely rural to the madhouse that is Tokyo. Don’t always expect to be greeted with open arms as some of the Japanese teachers feel threatened by you. That is not the norm and more than likely you will have a positive experience. They do provide airfare reimbursement and help with accommodation. The monthly salary starts at approximately ¥300,000 and you work about 35 hours a week. You may be expected to participate in special events, which may occur on the weekend or on holidays. Oftentimes the Japanese teachers don’t speak much English, so learning a little Japanese would be beneficial.
If you don’t want to make such a big commitment and take things in smaller steps, Westgate English teaching options might suit you better. Westgate offers very short contracts, from three months to one year. Most of the placements are at Japanese junior or technical colleges throughout Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, and Tochigi. Westgate is one of the only companies that provide a short-term contract in Japan. The application process is very lengthy and involves answering hours and hours of questions via the internet. You have to have solid teaching experience to be considered for employment. They will reimburse you fully for your airline ticket up to US$1,200. The salary at the moment is ¥275,000 and the apartment runs about ¥83,000 fully furnished. If you aren’t keen on having roommates you can ask for a single. You normally work about 40 or so hours a week and have a week off at the end of your contract. The contracts on offer are in the spring and fall and you will probably be granted a 1-year visa, which allows you to seek a better job once you have finished up your contract and have decided to stay in Japan.
Please see the section on teaching in Japan on this site for more experiences.
Job Opportunities Once In Japan
Those are the easiest ways to get the coveted visa you need. You can’t get one once you’ve arrived. The upside is that once you have your visa you can pretty much do whatever you want. If you find that your job is boring you to death or you find a better opportunity, you can quit your job and change with no problems. Your visa does not tie you to your job. Once you’re here with visa in hand there are more opportunities available to you. Many companies do not provide visa sponsorship and many require you to already be in the country. If you are lucky, you can land a university job though they are becoming increasingly difficult to get. But don’t get discouraged. Give it a go. The holidays are great and the hours can’t be argued with. GaijinPot.com is a great website for jobs once you are in Japan (there is also a section for applying for jobs, including teaching English, while overseas). There is a lot of part-time work listed there if you need to earn some extra cash. It is very easy to earn extra money by taking on private students—you can register on their website. Various companies offer student-teacher placement and you get to set your own fees. Also, check in the Japan Times on Mondays. They have a pretty good classified section. If you want to make extra money there are a lot of ways to do it. The beauty of working at a university is the holiday time. When you work for a language institute you are working during all the holidays and don’t have time to enjoy the culture. I hated being at work on Japanese holidays because there was always so much going on and I was missing it.
Festivals and Holidays
Japan is a country of festivals and they are truly spectacular. One of the most beautiful celebrations is “Shichi Go San” which means seven, five, three. On November 15th, Boys and girls dress in special traditional kimono and hakata and travel to the nearest Shinto Shrine with their family to pray for their good health and growth. It is amazing to see the little ones dressed to the hilt walking around the temple grounds. In addition to the many national events, there are just about as many local or regional festivals. It is well worth the effort to seek these things out and truly enjoy your Japanese experience to the fullest.
Teaching and Culture Shock
As far as Japanese students are concerned…. well, they are special. Keep in mind that culturally things are very different in Japan. A quiet student is considered a good student so they do not like to stand out. At times you may feel frustrated but remember it is due largely to the system. In traditional schooling, students only learn English grammar and translation. They have no opportunity to listen or speak, and although they have studied English for six years their speaking and listening ability is quite low. Creative thinking is not highly valued in education and is not encouraged. You will have to work hard and deploy massive amounts of patience in order to foster creativity. A lot of teachers feel very frustrated, especially in the beginning; if you are prepared mentally for the average Japanese student, it won’t come as such a shock. Pronunciation dilemmas may prove quite embarrassing at times. After teaching for about a month it came time for local elections. I was in a class with two middle-aged gentlemen and one lady and they were talking about the city elections. Many Japanese cannot pronounce the “l” sound and it inevitably turns into an “r”; they also do not have a simple “s” in their own language but only “shi.” I was sitting in my very small classroom with these very high-level students who kept saying the words “shity erections.” I really wanted to correct their pronunciation but could not face having to explain the difference between what they meant to say and what they were actually saying…over and over.
Japan is expensive but it is manageable. Western food is much more expensive than Japanese food and it is not always easy to find. Much of the non-Japanese food you do find will be prepared to match Japanese tastes. If you happen to live in Tokyo you can pop over to Roppongi and find pretty much any kind of food you are craving. Do be prepared to enter the red light district. One of the best places to find food to cook yourself is in the basement of any large department store. They typically have huge gourmet food sections where you can find what you are looking for. You will become very adept at tracking things down. A good source of information is www.japan-guide.com for loads of information about the cost of living, customs, transportation, festivals, and more. If you want to find your own accommodations or need some help, these websites cater specifically to foreigners:
You Should Know
Japan used to be the top location to teach English, but that has changed. The number of college-aged students is decreasing and many colleges and universities have had to shut their doors in the past couple of decades. So the competition for jobs is increasing, but it is still easy and pleasant to live and work here. Japan is extremely safe, and it is easy to navigate your way around. It is also a good place to be for traveling. During the low season, it is very cheap to fly out of Tokyo to places like Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam. Your yen will go a long way in those countries. Japanese people are friendly and often overly generous. Once you make friends they will do anything to help you. I think as long as you have some idea about what to expect and an open mind, you will make the most of your time in Japan—and even save a fair bit of money.
Lindy Sinka has been living and teaching in Japan, Korea, and Thailand for more than five years. She enjoys traveling, cooking and scuba diving.