You Can Do It…Teach English in Japan!
Honest and Practical Information
At the end of the day it came down to one fundamental question, did I or did I not wish to teach English in Japan? Ever since the idea first popped into my mind, the thought of moving, living, and teaching English in Japan became ever-more-seductive. Fortunately, there is much useful information out there to help anyone with any and all aspects involved in a journey of this kind. There also exists some outdated advice given the ever-changing economic environment, as well as some very cautious and almost tedious advice.
So here is the latest information—as of July 2009—that is practical, honest, and attempts to help you read between the lines. It is best suited for someone who is thinking of moving to or has arrived in Japan very recently and is most specifically interested in teaching English.
What to Do First
Just come here: Fortune favors the brave. Most employers want you here in any case. While coming to Japan without a job might be a scary concept for some, if you follow a few of the following simple tips they should assuage your fears, as there are a plethora of jobs to be had soon after you arrive.
The key: When applying for work, just say you are already on your way to Japan and start emailing for jobs two weeks or so before you arrive (I did so while backpacking in Laos). Say you are currently traveling and will be available for an interview immediately upon the date of your arrival. Sure it is a bit on the mischievous side… but if you are definitely arriving when you say you are then you are saving yourself precious weeks and money job hunting once you are actually here.
I had eight interviews lined up for first five days when I arrived here (I did send about 30 or more applications). I was offered all the jobs, including a couple without an interview. Often it seemed that employers were trying to convince me to take them, and I could have started work within a week of arriving.
Reality: My experience will not be the same for everyone. A big factor in my favor was that I wanted to live in the countryside and experience that side of Japanese culture.
Also, if you are a “non-native” speaker of English finding work can be quite hard, even with a TEFL certificate. The term “native English speaker” loosely means someone who has grown up in an English-speaking country or has attended at least two years of high-school or university classes conducted in English.
How to do it: Take your time before you arrive and put together a good CV, or perhaps even a blog (if you use www.Gaijinpot.com, put together a great profile). A great article about preparing your application is Creating an ESL Web Resume. I only used Gaijinpot and Dave’s ESL café as my search databases. Other great articles which discuss how to find databases or where to search are Live, Learn, and Teach English in Japan, Teaching English in Japan: Point Your Cursor to a Job, and Teaching English in Japan: The Internet Job Search
The Secret: Make your cover letter your strongest weapon. It should read much better than your CV—this is key! Make the first and last paragraph specific for each application and company, as this demonstrates that you have taken the time to care about your application and recruiters will be more likely to take the time to read it. This is advice straight from the recruiters’ mouths! Explain why you want to live in Japan, and what it is about the culture that interests you most. This was actually the most common question in all my interviews, No one really cared about my “teaching philosophy” or Japanese proficiency. Also having TEFL or a similar degree can help you but does not make any substantial difference in Japan, and definitely does not make any difference in terms of your actual pay. You just need a degree, the right personality for the job, and a great cover letter.
Where to look: Find a prefecture or five that you want to work in and apply for as many jobs as possible. Apply for some you might not really want as you never know if you might need them, and it provides you a better idea of what is available out there.
Now remember: Sell yourself as a fast learner and an enthusiastic individual who would relish the opportunity to immerse yourself in a unique culture that is both traditional and modern—it is really that easy in my experience.
Teaching Jobs: Types, and Packages
Getting Started Teaching English in Japan provides recent and in depth information about the options available.
Initially there are two basic job types:
- Work as an English teacher for a corporation or Eikaiwa. Such a job means you can start work more quickly and you can perhaps have a more flexible work schedule (you are more likely to work late afternoons/evenings and one day a weekend). With an Eikaiwa you are more likely to teach students who are interested in learning. The downside of such jobs are fewer holidays, less cultural immersion, and the likelihood that you will be working in bigger cities. Also, such jobs are disappearing at the moment due to the economic environment.
- Work as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). Such jobs will mean that you work in schools and only assist in classrooms. The benefits of such jobs include better holidays, full culture immersion while at school, easier working days, and the chance to be develop and practice the Japanese language (then again you are in Japan). The downside includes the fact that you can become a human tape recorder, and Japanese schools are not full of saints. Japanese schools are like those in many other countries—some are lousy, some are good, and some are really difficult. Many days you will have nothing to do, yet you must still attend school where you may not be many people to talk to. The article Working in Japan delves much deeper into these and other such issues.
The current situation for ALTs: To supply ALTs, many Boards of Education are changing from the government-run JET program to privately-run ALT recruitment companies. Such a change means that now it is easier to find a job once in Japan, but it also means that pay levels are dropping as large companies compete for contracts. Private companies do not find you a job for a fee, but supply ALTs to schools for a fee. Also, as of April 2011, it will become compulsory for English to be taught in Elementary school, which will mean even more jobs will become available as an ALT.
How to read between the lines of contracts when looking at ALT positions. When you are paid per diem you are not paid for holidays. This makes a huge difference in pay, so be very careful before accepting such an arrangement. Accommodations, key money, and the rental deposit will cost you dearly. For example, one company wanted me to pay three months rent in advance—one month of which I would not get back. It would have been six weeks before my first paycheck, which would mean four months rent before my first paycheck. So be sure and ask plenty of questions, as a good company will find you a place, sort your key money, help you settle, get set you up with a cell phone, a bank account, etc. On the other hand, if a company is trying hard to sell you the job instead of seeing how suitable you are for the position, then there is probably a reason for that. You may be asked to work in a small town or it may be a bad school/company etc.—so be very wary.
JET Program: If you want to be an ALT and are still months away from going to Japan then, look into JET, as it is touted as the best deal. The program offers much better pay and better perks as long as you do not mind being cotton wooled a bit. There are still nightmare stories out there, as an older article points out about the JET program in Teach English in Japan with JET.
Caveat Emptor: All companies advertising for jobs as an ALT are private companies. You basically need to go through one to get a job as an ALT if you do not use the JET program. So they may hire you out at ¥400+K (roughly $US4,000) per month and pay you ¥200-250K ($US2,000-2500), or something in that range. This is what explains the many jobs available and why the agencies are trying to sell them to you. There are great companies out there, and I am sure there are dodgy ones as well, but look into it as best you can while using your common sense. Smaller companies tend to be more personal and larger ones more impersonal, so do your research and always, always try to talk to the person you are replacing.
Money: The main reason people seem to discourage you from moving to Japan is money. Yes, it does cost a lot to get going here. The cost of cell phones, transportation, and accommodations before you get a job, having to wait for that first paycheck, shelling out advance money for an apartment, expensive all-nighters in Tokyo… it is hard. You do need to have some savings before you come to Japan, something in the neighborhood of about ¥200 000 ($US2,000). But if you have a half decent company employing you, they should offer you some help with this initial moving expense. If you can get through that first two months or so, then you will be fine financially. Getting a job quickly once here is possible, as I have described, and money should not be your reason for not trying. Just try not to go on all-night benders every night in Tokyo once you arrive.
Timing is Everything
The school year begins in April, so this is when there are the most ALT jobs. Companies start recruiting as early as December, and it is during this period that you are most likely to get employed if you are still living overseas. The next busiest time is mid-August, which is the end of their summer holidays. If you do not get a job while overseas, try turning up at the start of April or August and sending out applications again (even to the same job if it is still available), saying you are in Japan and you should be fine. If you are really serious about an ALT job and intend to just turn up, these are the times to do it. There will even be jobs available right up until a week or less before school starts. For corporate work it is much the same all year round, but there are a few more jobs available in August and March when people leave for summer or after the ski season. Again Teaching English in Japan: Point Your Cursor to a Job outlines the specifics regarding dates and timing very well.
If you are just arriving to make a go of it, the best Visa to arrive on is a working holiday visa (WHV), if you can get one. The visa can be easily changed to a Work Permit once you have a job and will allow maximum flexibility. There are many people who have turned up on a tourist visa and get sponsored for a Work Permit by their company. My girlfriend was one. She turned up with a Tourist visa in a Temporary Passport (hers was stolen two weeks before arriving in Japan) and was still offered three jobs before we both were offered one with the same company. So getting a visa is possible. Do not believe people who say otherwise. Also, you need an outward ticket to get into the country for Tourist and WHVs. This is not always checked on arrival, but if caught out you will have to buy one to get in. The best way around this if you plan on staying longer is to buy a cheap, fully refundable, ticket via your credit card.
What do you need once you are here?
Gaijin card: The card helps with everything and you can acquire one on any visa with any address so long as you smile sweetly and offer up a good excuse, such as needing it for a cell phone, or for a bank account, etc. To get the gaijin card just go to the city office nearest your hotel, and sign-up. It takes two weeks to process and you have to return to the same office to collect it.
Cell phones: A discussion of this topic could be an article in itself. You can rent a phone for starters if needed. Companies are always changing the rules, as many foreigners leave and do not honor their contracts, so patience is needed. Remember, it is not the salesperson’s fault that they are suspicious, it is us foreigners. You definitely can get a prepaid phone with just your passport for about ¥12000 (roughly $US120). They can be quite hard to track down, or some people just won’t sell them to you, though Softbank is usually the best bet. For a contract you need your gaijin card and you can get the phone free on a 2-year fixed contract. You can also pay at best ¥23000, but be ready for more like ¥30000 min. and to receive a weekly discount from your bill. If you do not speak Japanese you will almost definitely need someone there to help you. Again, companies are tightening up the rules due to foreigners opting out on contracts, so here your patience is needed.
Banks: Bank accounts are easy as to set up and are not needed until you get a job, so no there is no need for stress at al--just your gaijin card and your passport.
Clothes: For the interview definitely wear a suit. As an ALT it varies, but the dress code is generally pretty lax—ust dress trousers and polo shirts. At my school a full umbro/nike tracksuit is fine for guys and smart casual for girls. For corporate work a suit is generally mandatory.
Yes, it does cost a bit to get yourself set up here, and that is perhaps the hardest part in making the move to Japan. In order to get the right idea about the type of company and the area you are comfortable with, you really need to come to Japan first to make the most of the cultural experience. Again, most of the companies give major priority to applicants already here. Get yourself a great cover letter, start applying just before you arrive, and read between the lines.
At the end of the day, get out there, and give it a go! If you are dead set on coming to Japan you will make it. All you need is a little preparation, some common sense, a bit of luck, and you will sail through it all.
Andrew “Maps” Curtis is a nomadic kiwi and freelance writer who is currently living the dream while teaching in Japan.
Andrew is a New Zealander who has been traveling and working abroad for five years; 18 months in Canada for a Masters Degree, including 18 months in Europe working, living and playing from Iceland to Malta, three months in the Middle East and Nepal, six months at home living like a traveler, two months in Southeast Asia, and now more than 12 months in Japan.