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Teaching English in Japan: Point Your Cursor to a Job

A Comprehensive, Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Work

Ganbatte: How to Become an English Teacher in Japan

In the heyday of teaching English in Japan—way back in the 1980s, while the Internet was still just a twinkle in Bill Gates’ eye—the best way to find a job in Japan was to buy yourself a plane ticket to Tokyo’s Narita Airport, pick up a copy of the Japan Times at the train station kiosk on Monday morning, and apply in person for any of the dozens of jobs listed in the classified section. But all that has changed. While the Japan Times is still a great way to find yourself a job in Japan, the World Wide Web is now the quintessential “Jobs in Japan” resource. A simple keyword search, such as “jobs Japan” or “teach English Japan,” will yield a bonanza of web sites that cater specifically to job seekers with a wanderlust. The problem is that the dazzling number of job sites, some of which feature hundreds of listings, might leave some Japan-bound “newbies” feeling more than a little bewildered. Do not despair. With a little patience and persistence and a well-thought-out game plan, finding a job in Japan is a relatively simple process. Here’s how to do it.

Get Your Ducks in a Row

When searching for resources and opportunities online, you will need the following:

  • Access to a computer with a web browser, Internet dial-up service, and a printer.
  • A file folder and a notebook dedicated to your job search
  • An up-to-date resume with a professional-looking photo of yourself
  • A well-written job query cover letter
  • A map of Japan and maps of major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya.

Throughout your search, be sure to keep detailed notes on your findings, print out copies of all promising leads, set up links and bookmarks on your web browser, and create shortcuts to your resume and cover letter for immediate e-mail responses to prospective employers. The more diligent and organized you are, the more effective your search results will be.

Zero in on Your Target

Almost every city or town in Japan offers some kind of job opportunity for foreign workers. The greatest abundance of them are for English teachers, although there are jobs in the fields of information technology (IT), consulting, writing, editing, translating, acting, modeling, voice-over narration, and travel hosting, to name just a few. So your first task is to determine what type of work you’re qualified for, and then decide where you would like to live.

To teach English in Japan, you will need a college degree, preferably in English; and although it is not required, an ESL teaching credential will greatly enhance your chances of getting hired. For these and all other jobs, you will also need a work visa and a Japanese sponsor to vouch for your character, integrity and good conduct while you’re in Japan. In most cases, your new employer will help you apply for your visa and act as your sponsor.

As for deciding where you’d like to live, the job itself will most likely dictate that. Typically, large cities offer the greatest number of employment opportunities, yet there are hundreds of others in the suburbs and rural areas as well. So before accepting any job it is important to consider the lifestyle that will accompany it and choose according to your individual temperament. Do you love the hustle and bustle of the city, or do you prefer the pastoral life? Do you enjoy an alpine terrain, or is the coast more to your liking? Are you in it strictly for the money, or are you looking for the richest cultural experience? Once you’ve answered these questions, a little effort invested in researching the various cities and regions of Japan before submitting your first job application will be time well spent.

Mark Your Calendar

Deciding When to go to Japan is nearly as important as Where or Why. And although there are year-round job opportunities, certain times are better than others, depending upon the area in which you plan to settle, what season you arrive, and what kind establishment you choose to work for.

Throughout the year, in corporate as well as academic venues, the Japanese people celebrate a series of holidays during which most businesses and schools are closed. If you arrive during any of these times, there may be no one available in the office to interview and hire you. The three major holiday seasons in Japan are:

Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year Holiday, December 25 - January 5. During this time, the Japanese people celebrate the end of their work year and the beginning of the New Year. All schools and many companies are closed during this holiday season.

Golden Week, April 29 - May 5. This season of celebration is actually a combination of several holidays, including April 29, former Emperor Hirohito’s Birthday (now known as Greenery Day); May 3, Japan’s Constitution Day, and May 5 - Childrens’ Day. During this week, most schools and businesses are closed, and many people take the opportunity to travel. So not only is business on hold, but planes, trains, and hotels are fully booked.

Obon, the Japanese Festival of the Dead, August 10 - August 15. This is a time of many festivals and widespread travel. According to ancient tradition, the season celebrates the return of the spirits of the deceased to the land of the living. On August 13, the Japanese people visit the graves of their ancestors, and on the 15th special foods are prepared, with places set at the table for departed relatives. Streets and parks are decorated with colorful paper lanterns to mark the path home for deceased loved ones, and special dances called bon odori are performed in temple gardens and public parks. It’s a lovely celebration. However, it does affect day-to-day business.

Other Holidays in Japan:

  • January 15, Coming of Age Day. Honors young adults turning 20 years old.
  • February 11, Foundation Day. Celebrates Japan’s first Emperor Jimmu (660 B.C.).
  • March 22 /23, Vernal Equinox. First day of spring.
  • September 15, Day for the Aged. Honors Japan’s elderly population.
  • September 23, Autumnal Equinox. First day of autumn.
  • October 10, Sports Day. Celebrates health and physical fitness.
  • November 3, Culture Day. Celebrates Japan’s culture and history.
  • November 23, Labor Day. Honors Japan’s workforce.

The academic year in Japan: The school year begins in March, so if you hope to find work in a school, it would be wise to seek employment in the late winter months just before the new school year begins.

An insider’s secret: Although the major holiday seasons are not optimal for traveling and seeking employment, many foreign workers choose to terminate their employment and leave the country around those times, creating more job vacancies. Therefore, arriving a few weeks before a major holiday may increase your odds of getting hired.

Use a Proactive Strategy

Although veterans of the quest for jobs in Japan strongly advise that you apply in person only, another effective approach is to target your prospects via the Internet and send your resume a few weeks ahead of time to any schools or companies that appear promising. Let them know when you will be arriving in Japan, and parlay that initial contact into an appointment for an interview. This vanguard effort may enable you to land a job without pounding the pavement. It certainly worked for me.

Choose Your Web Sites

Once you have decided when, where and why to go, it’s time to begin your Internet job search in earnest. However, the process of navigating the Internet and poring through the plethora of information—not to mention trying to make an informed and intelligent choice from such an array of options—can be overwhelming.

When performing a keyword search, the more precise and literal, the better. For general employment opportunities, use “jobs Japan,” and for teaching English, use “teaching English Japan.” If you have a preferred region or city, try including that in you keyword search as well, for example “Teaching English Kyoto.” Your keyword search will manifest literally hundreds of web sites, as did mine. But be advised that not all of them are particularly well organized or updated on a regular basis. The following is a list of the sites that appeared to be the most informative, reliable, and offered the most current and abundant list of opportunities.

  • Ohayo Sensei (www.ohayosensei.com). By far the best source for finding teaching opportunities in Japan. You can download the current issue online; for a modest fee of $12 annually the latest issue of Ohayo Sensei will be sent automatically to your e-mail address twice a month.
  • TEFL.com (www.tefl.com). This web site features an extensive list of teaching opportunities worldwide and regularly posts a promising list of Japanese help wanted ads. You can also subscribe to the Job Link bulletin and have new job postings sent to you by e-mail on a daily or weekly basis.
  • Jobs in Japan (www.jobsinjapan.com). Another good source for seeking employment online, this web site features a substantial list of current job opportunities in many fields.
  • Career Cross Japan (www.careercross.com). This site features a searchable database with which you can specify your preferred location, your field of expertise, your level of experience, and other criteria to find a perfect match. And Career Cross Japan includes many listings for jobs other than teaching.
  • Gaijin Pot (www.gaijinpot.com). An excellent resource devoted exclusively to working in Japan, with an impressive list of current jobs in all career fields and an option to have new job listings sent to you by e-mail. However, to apply for jobs here, you must post your resume on their web site.
  • Interac (www.interacnetwork.com/recruit/). Interac specializes in recruiting English teachers for schools and corporations throughout Japan. If you meet the criteria, you may succeed in getting advance job placement and all the requisite amenities such as travel expenses, living quarters, and a work visa. Several other recruiting agencies—such as Aeon and Geos—may be found using a simple keyword search.
  • The Jet Programme (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program). This government-sponsored program is designed to help Japanese junior and senior high school students improve their spoken English language skills through exposure to native English speakers. The hiring criteria are quite specific and recruitment happens only once a year. Complete details are available at the JET website, www.jetprogramme.org, and the. JET Programme information for Canadian applicants

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

Now that you have done your homework and dived into the milieu, it is time to begin submitting your first job applications. Of course, please don not proceed under the naïve assumption that you’re going to get hired sight-unseen over the Internet. You’ll still have to go to Japan for a personal interview before anyone will hire you (except perhaps Interac and the JET Programme, who recruit their candidates stateside). The Internet is still intended as a discovery tool and a means of making initial contact with prospective employers.

Before submitting an application, you will need to do three things:

  • Decide upon a tentative date on which you plan to arrive in Japan
  • Compose a well-written cover letter explaining who you are, where you saw their online classified ad, an overview of your qualifications, and the date on which you plan to arrive in Japan.
  • Compile a concise, up-to-date resume that includes your contact information, your educational background, your previous work experience, your personal achievements, and several reliable professional or academic references.

Be sure to make a good first impression by using impeccable spelling and grammar, and by all means include a high quality photo of yourself with your resume. A professional-looking photo will make you appear especially job-worthy and will help keep you fresh and foremost in the minds of potential employers. You can paste a JPEG photo directly into the upper right corner of your word document and attach it to your e-mail. Be advised, however, that some companies do not accept e-mail attachments and therefore it would also be wise to paste your photo and resume directly into the e-mail text as well.

Make the Call

Most employment opportunities listed online include a web site URL and an e-mail address at which you may contact them to submit a query and a resume. However, in your search you may also discover many listings which specify that all applicants must already live in Japan. Don’t let that deter you from contacting them if the job looks promising. Many large companies, especially the corporate English language schools, have a perpetual need for competent staff and would gladly schedule a personal interview with a qualified candidate.

If a telephone number is listed, don’t hesitate to make the call, since long distance rates to Japan are so affordable these days. Do take into account the time difference.

On rare occasions, a classified ad may specify that resumes be sent by postal mail. In that event, if the job looks interesting, go ahead and print out your resume and photo and send it, along with a cover letter, to the designated address. But don’t hold your breath. In the interim, you should continue to seek more accessible sources of employment through the ads with Internet contact information.

If You Still Insist on Doing It the Old Fashioned Way

Each week, the Monday edition of the Japan Times features several pages of employment classifieds. You can get your hands on a recent copy of the Japan Times in one of several ways. Large public libraries may offer the latest copy in their international newspaper section. Or if someone you know is traveling to Japan you might ask them to bring back the latest issue. The Japan Times also has a website, job.japantimes.com, where you may search for online jobs..

A Word to the Wise

Regarding the recruiter method of finding a job: It is with great trepidation that I would accept a teaching job from a Japan recruiter. My book, Ganbatte Means Go For It….or How to Become an English Teacher in Japan, has come under fire from certain critics for not devoting more time and space to using a recruiter as a way to for find work in Japan. And there is a very good reason why this is so: I did not find my job in Japan that way, so I have no firsthand experience in that realm, and I have heard horror stories from those who did. So I downplayed that element in my book and focused on the method that worked for me. I did some stateside outreach before I left for Japan and looked for a job once I got there. And although I interviewed with several schools with classified ads in the Japan Times, I was hired by the company that I sent an advance resume to before I left California.

With the job market much more competitive than it was when I was in Japan a few years ago, there is much more potential for exploitation of foreign teachers. And while the recruiter method might be fine for a naive, fresh-out-of-college teacher looking for an easy ticket to a travel-and-teach job in Japan, a veteran ESL teacher might be miserable under the same terms and conditions.

However, should you decide to go that route, you would be wise to examine and question every clause of your contract and be sure that you have a crystal clear and failsafe exit strategy in the event that you get over there and find the conditions unacceptable (shabby apartment, monster of a boss, unpaid overtime, way-beyond-the-call extracurricular obligations, gestapo-like limitations on personal freedom, etc.)

You should also examine closely the penalties that some recruiters may exact for early termination of your contract, such as demanding repayment for your airline allowance, recompense for your living expenses to date, denial of bonus money, withdrawal of your visa sponsorship, etc. If it were to be compared to a tax-deductible IRA account, it would be like the "severe penalty for early withdrawal". So if you choose to accept a position from a recruiter, just be sure you know what they will extract from you if you fail to fulfill the duration of your contract.

Generally speaking, the recruiter method may not always be the cakewalk that it appears to be. While it’s tempting to go for the guaranteed salary, furnished apartment, paid airfare, and visa sponsorship that they promise, there are lots of other ways to accomplish the same end, with perhaps a little more effort but with much greater rewards.

My book is available on Amazon.com, and there are also lots of other excellent texts on the same subject. Therefore, I recommend that you do your homework before you sign on the dotted line.

A Place to Stay

Now that you are on your way toward landing your dream job in Japan, you will need to find a place to stay until you settle into your own apartment. Here are two excellent web sites to help you in your search.

  • International Tourist Center of Japan (www.itcj.or.jp). This site is maintained by the International Tourist Center of Japan and features an impressive list of lodgings in all price ranges and all regions of Japan.
  • Japan Youth Hostels, Inc. (www.jyh.or.jp). This web site is dedicated exclusively to youth hostels in Japan. It is well organized by region and city and features hundreds of low-cost lodging options.