For many years it has been my dream to live in Japan. Now that I’m finally here, I thought it would be a good idea to share what I’ve learned with those who have the same dream. In fact, it was a question by my friend Ilona that gave me the idea to write this. This article will focus on becoming an English teacher, but the basic advice can apply to any industry. Simply replace “English teacher” with your field, and there you go. Let’s get started.
Part 1: Getting to Japan
Step 1: Start saving money.
This is the first step because you need to have as much time as possible to save up as much as possible. You’ll need a bare minimum of $2,000 when you move to Japan, and $4,000 is recommended. You’ll have expenses when you move in, you’ll need to buy furniture, dishes, toiletries, etc., and you’ll need to have enough money to live off of while waiting for your first paycheck.
Usually, if you’re working a full-time job you won’t get your first paycheck until the middle of the month after you start (so if you start April 1st, you won’t get your first paycheck until May 15th). Your setup costs–first month’s rent and deposit, utilities and utility deposits, furniture, etc.–will eat up half your money right away, and then you need to survive 45 days with the other half. I don’t mean to scare you, of course, but it’s serious. Don’t leave until you have enough money saved up.
Step 2: Work toward a bachelor’s degree or alternative.
With a few exceptions, generally you’ll need a bachelor’s degree (any major is fine) to be eligible for a work visa. If you manage to find one of the exceptions and you get in without a college degree, then you have my admiration and envy.
Of course, it’s best to get a degree directly related to your field. If you’re going to be a teacher, then a degree in teaching is optimal, and some jobs require a teaching degree or certification. But most companies won’t care, and it definitely won’t be a problem when you’re starting out. My degree is in Asian Studies and I have only come across a handful of jobs that I’m ineligible for.
Step 3: Get more than a degree.
Very few things are required, but many things are desired. Anything extra that you have will make you stand out from the crowd and please prospective employers. A few things that employers like to see are TEFL certification, JLPT scores, teaching experience, special skills, and so on.
Don’t sell yourself short. Everyone has special talents that can make them a more attractive candidate for a position. Can you play a musical instrument? Well, then a job at a nursery might be right for you. Some of them encourage or even require applicants to be musically inclined. Make the most of what you already have. Can you get certification in music pedagogy? That will make your musical ability even more attractive to employers! Look around.
The JLPT is proctored at least once per year. You can find plenty of study materials online. TEFL offers many different courses. You can take online courses at your own pace. I took mine during my last semester of college. The 120-hour premier course is the industry standard. There are other English teaching organizations and different acronyms, so don’t get confused. TEFL.org actually has job listings for their certified teachers; it’s possible that you could find a job through them after getting your certification.
Step 4: Research Japanese life, and life as a teacher.
Simply put, you want to be well-prepared. Adjusting to life in a foreign country is difficult no matter what, but you can make it somewhat easier by learning as much as you can beforehand in the comfort of your home. There are many writers and vloggers who inform their audiences about life in Japan. A few famous YouTubers include Caradventures, Abroad in Japan, Rachel and Jun, and DaveTrippin.
It’s important to also learn about customs and expectations in Japan so that you can quickly assimilate into the culture. Please don’t be one of those self-entitled jerks who refuses to respect the country they’re moving to. Learn Japanese and learn about Japan.
Be warned, however, that no matter how much you study Japan before leaving, you will inevitably be surprised by something. It’s important for you to learn how to be flexible and adaptable so that these surprises won’t throw you for a loop. And that leads me to the next step.
Step 5: Learn which qualities employers value.
So now you have the qualifications, but do you have the characteristics? Flexibility is among the most-desired characteristics in an English teacher because English teaching is usually not one of the more stable, predictable jobs.
If you work as an ALT (I’ll explain what that is later) then you’ll be working with several different teachers who could have drastically different personalities and teaching styles, and you may even work at multiple schools from week to week. If you are a teacher at an Eikaiwa (I’ll explain what that is too) then you may have a schedule that differs from day to day or week to week. You may teach at several schools. You may be teaching babies in the morning, toddlers at noon, teenagers in the afternoon, and adults at night. It’s very important for you to be able to quickly assess the situation, adapt to it, at get into teaching. This is a skill that requires practice, but you can get it before you leave. Just look for opportunities.
Employers also like to see the obvious things such as reliability and punctuality. If you often show up late, cancel plans at the last minute, or flake out, then Japan is probably not the country for you.
Step 6: Learn about different jobs and companies.
There are two basic divisions of English teaching jobs: ALT and Eikaiwa. ALT stands for Assistant Language Teacher. In this job you will assist a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) in a public school, probably a junior high school. You will probably be employed by a contractor which buys contracts from the Board of Education and then hires whomever they choose. There is little to no choice as to where you’ll be working, and you might not know where you’ll work until a week before you start. This is another reason that flexibility is important. No matter what you get, you have to smile and say “OK.” I’ll get more into the job details later.
Eikaiwa means “English conversation” (英会話). In an Eikaiwa school, you’ll be working at a private company giving private lessons to students. The setup can differ drastically. Your schedule could differ from day to day, but it will usually be in the evenings. Since most of the students are children, you can only teach them after school. You will typically have to work on Saturdays because there’s no school so it’s an Eikaiwa’s busiest day of the week. But on the plus side, you’ll get Mondays off. This means that you can go to the bank or do whatever else you need to do during regular business hours. As an ALT, if you need to go to the bank, you have to take time off from work. It sucks.
For a first-year worker, it doesn’t really matter which option you choose. Either one is good for getting started. You could even do both–work full-time as an ALT and work at an Eikaiwa after work or on Saturdays. That way you’ll have double the work experience!
To be blunt, you can’t be picky your first year. If you have no visa and no work experience in Japan, you’re not in a position to make demands. Nevertheless, you can be savvy about which companies you apply to. And you’ll have better prospects if you apply to jobs earlier. It’s better if you’re not in a hurry. When I applied for jobs in Japan, I entered very late into the game (end of March). I managed to make it to Japan three days before I started my new job in June (most jobs start at the beginning of April). I was also very blessed to be employed by a good company. But it could have gone differently.
The optimum situation is one in which you plan to begin work in April, and start applying to jobs in November or December of the year prior. And before you start applying to jobs, you should develop an eye for what makes a good or bad company.
The big ALT dispatch/contract companies are ALTIA Central, Borderlink, Joytalk, Interac, and Heart English School. These companies are listed from best to worst in my opinion (although I’ve never worked for any of them, so don’t take my word for it). ALTs can also be hired directly by the Board of Education (“direct hire”) but this position is highly competitive because almost everyone desires it. Direct hire is preferable because there’s no middle man, and therefore no overhead. Dispatch/contract companies buy contracts from the Board of Education for $35,000 and then pay teachers $20,000 each. If you’re direct hire then you get the full amount. Don’t hold your breath for this position, because someone with connections will beat you to it. There’s also the JET Programme, but it’s a whole other can of worms so I’ll talk about it on its own page.
Among Eikaiwa schools, the big five companies are Berlitz, AEON, ECC, GABA, and NOVA. Again, these companies are listed from best to worst in my opinion. NOVA actually went bankrupt recently and are trying to recover.
There are thousands of smaller Eikaiwa schools and ALT companies dotting Japan. They tend to be hit-or-miss. On the one hand, a smaller company might treat you better because they don’t belong to massive, greedy corporations. On the other hand, a small company is more likely to get away with mistreating you because they’re small and therefore off the radar. So don’t let size be your deciding factor. Read reviews, ask former employees, and find whatever resources you can.
On Glassdoor you can find reviews of companies written by current or former employees. Keep in mind that some complaints are not necessarily the company’s fault. Also bear in mind that how much you enjoy a job can often be up to you and your perspective. Usually “lucky” people only seem lucky because they can see the opportunity in any situation and seize it. While you’re working, never stop learning, looking for new opportunities, or networking. But I’m getting ahead of myself. You have to get hired first. So let’s apply for some jobs! But before that, we need to prepare some PR.
Step 7: Update your résumé and write a cover letter.
There’s a world of advice out there about what makes a good résumé, and most of that advice is conflicting. One source will tell you to do the opposite of what another source tells you. When it comes down to it, unless you’re applying for a highly-competitive and high-paying job, just using your best judgment is enough. You want your résumé to be simple, straightforward, and to concisely explain why you’re a good candidate. Here’s mine.
Be sure to include a headshot, as those are standard on Japanese résumés.
As far as the cover letter, you’ll do well to include the following points while also making sure that you stand out from the crowd:
Introduce yourself. Briefly state your background and how it has prepared you for this job. What makes you a good candidate? And what makes the company you’re applying to a good company? (They like to hear that you value the company, not just the paycheck.) Next, talk about how your presence will benefit the company, and tell them what you hope to get out of the job. What are your goals and how is working here going to help you get there? Be sure to address any and all special points in their job listing. Did they stress the importance of Japanese conversation ability? Then tell them very briefly about your Japanese skills. Finish with a polite expression of gratitude for reading your cover letter. It takes time for them to wade through all these applications, you know.
Step 8: Apply for jobs
There are many good websites as far as job listings go. The two biggest ones are GaijinPot and JobsinJapan. There are also sites such as O-Hayo Sensei with more traditional Classified Ad-style listings. GaijinPot is my favorite site for two reasons.
One, you can also find apartments through the website. Apartment searches are highly customizable and do a good job of letting you know what to expect for a given city. They even have a service that lets you apply to apartments directly through GaijinPot. Whether your company will help you find housing or not, it’s good to have this information.
Two, after you apply for a job, GaijinPot lets you know how many candidates have applied before you. If you apply to a job and see this:
then you’re probably not getting the job. (The funny thing is that I actually did get an offer for this position. I was not expecting that!)
The best way to make sure that you’re one of the first ones to apply, of course, is to search for jobs in reverse-chronological order.
In order to apply for any job, you’ll have to first make a resume and a cover letter on the website. The great thing is that once you make them, you can simply click to include them with every job application. If you save your cover letter, you can use it as a template. For every job, you simply choose the template and then submit it. Make sure to tailor your cover letter for each position, because not all of them are asking for the same thing. And mention the company by name in your cover letter! If they can tell that it’s a form letter, they won’t be very impressed.
Next, you need to wait. You might get a response the next day or after a fortnight. Apply for every job you’re qualified for. It only takes a few minutes to apply for each additional job, so go ahead.
Step 9: The Interview
If a company likes you, they’ll email you either through GaijinPot or directly and ask to schedule an interview over Skype. Of course, it’s good to make sure that your room is tidy and well-lit for the interview. Wear a collared shirt or equivalent business-wear. Prepare some questions beforehand. Try to put as much thought as possible into them. It shows that you care. Good questions might include,
“Will I be able to use my own teaching materials/worksheets/activities?”
“Will I have the opportunity to observe another teacher’s classes and take notes?”
“What’s the best thing and the worst thing about working there?”
The following questions can be good, but they can’t be all that you care about:
“How many days off do I get?”
“How much will my average pay be after taxes?”
“Do you subsidize housing?”
These are legitimate questions but if they’re the only questions you ask, you’ll seem greedy.
If you prepare your questions beforehand (and tweak them based on the company) then you’ll be in good shape. Another thing to keep in mind is that you’re going to the interview to solve a problem. The company’s problem is that they need an English teacher, but they don’t know who it is yet. You’re there to solve that problem; you’re there to let them know that their search is over. It’s natural to be nervous during an interview, but you’ll be much less nervous if you have the right mindset. You’re not the one under pressure–the hiring manager is. You’re there to confidently and politely let them know that you’re the solution to their problem (without coming across as conceited, obviously).
If you did steps 2-7 then you’ll be justified in your confidence. You spent months honing your skills and picking up new ones. You know how to effectively advertise your skills and character because you already wrote a cover letter about them. Now it’s time to charm your way into a new job!
During the interview you’ll be asked about your background, future goals, etc. You might be surprised by the variety or depth of the questions. They might ask very personal and probing questions such as whether you have tattoos, or what your religion is. Labor laws are different in Japan, so be aware that they are allowed to ask these questions. And they have good reasons for doing so. If in doubt, just politely ask them to explain the reason for the question. If you have tattoos, then don’t be nervous. Just answer honestly. They need to know. If you have tattoos, they’ll require you to conceal them with band-aids or patches. That’s all!
Your interviewer will probably be a foreigner, but at some point a Japanese person will come over to have a chat with you in Japanese. Now, an important part of being confident is to not shy away from your limitations. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to speak poorly in Japanese. Just train-wreck your way through it with dignity and grace. No one is there to judge you. They just wish to gauge your level so they know where to assign you.
After that will come your chance to ask questions. Pull out your notepad that you wrote your questions on beforehand and go ahead. Try to limit yourself to two or three. Usually, interviewers are very personable. As a result, their answers to your questions might lead into a conversation or a long story. A good interview ought to feel like a lively chat with a new friend. If your interviewer is stone cold and the office looks like a gulag, then take that as a warning sign.
Indeed, you can tell a great deal about a company by the interview. If you already have five interviews scheduled, don’t hesitate to schedule a sixth. The interview experience might change your assessment of a company, and besides, it’s good practice. Honestly, I’ve had so many interviews that I don’t even get nervous anymore.
Step 10: Getting hired
The company might schedule a second interview, might ask you to send a video of you giving a demo lesson, or might ask for you to send personal documents (passport, college diploma, etc.). Some companies will demand that you fly out for an in-person interview. I wouldn’t recommend doing that because if you don’t get the job, you just wasted over $1,000. If all goes well, then you should get a job offer and a copy of the contract within a month or so.
TAKE YOUR TIME READING THE CONTRACT!!!
TAKE YOUR TIME READING THE CONTRACT!!!
TAKE YOUR TIME READING THE CONTRACT!!!
Contracts are legally-binding. You do not want to sell a year of your life to a two-bit clown school. Once you sign the contract and send it in, all the CEO has to do is sign it and then you’re theirs. If possible, wait until you have multiple contracts so that you can compare them. If you see something that looks fishy, ask someone about it.
Now, many contracts appear overly strict but in practice are not all that bad. The company I currently work for has a very strict, perhaps even draconian contract. But, as the HR head explained to me later, nearly every clause in the contract is there because a past employee did something stupid. He went into great detail, and his explanation put me at ease. But before that, it was jarring to see that this company was good during the application process and even better during the interview, but then tyrannical in the contract. I thought that maybe I was being tricked by Jekyll and Hyde–that they appeared friendly and caring but were actually villains. So I had to think on it for a week or so before finally signing. All I can say is be careful and you should be fine.
In Part 2 I’ll tell you what to expect in an average contract.
If you apply early and you get copies of your contracts in February or so, you’ll have a few weeks to look over them and consider which job you’ll accept. Be sure to let the companies know that you plan to take your time; don’t make them wait in silence.
If you only get one job offer, then either accept it or wait another year. There’s no shame in waiting. I advise you to not let your desire to move to Japan make you desperate. On the other hand, maybe it’s worth it to you.
Once you’re hired, the company will sponsor your work visa. They’ll send a form to you to fill out, then they’ll apply for the visa on your behalf. It usually takes about a month. I strongly recommend against applying to a company that doesn’t sponsor visas. If you have to do it yourself, it will be a huge headache and could take six months or more.
Step 10: Moving house
After this, you’ll need to prepare to move to Japan. I won’t list the things you have to do to prepare, because there are numerous resources for that, and because I don’t know your specific situation. I’ll just advise you to prioritize packing what you can’t buy in Japan. If you wear size 13 shoes like me, then buy an extra pair or two and take them with you. Feel free to pack as much as the airline will allow you to bring on the plane. I bought a scale so that I could pack my luggage as efficiently as possible. I weighed it again and again until I was half a pound short on each piece of luggage. In Japan you’re allowed 20kg for each piece of check-in luggage and 10kg each for carry-ons, so be careful.
Hopefully you’ll have a coordinator who will meet you at the airport or at your hotel, and take you to get your new apartment, take you to the grocery store, etc. Within two weeks of moving to Japan you’ll need to get a residence card (在留カード) and within five or six weeks you’ll need a Japanese bank account so that you can get paid. Just take things as they come so that you don’t feel overwhelmed.
On page 2 I’ll tell you about work life.