Teaching for a Living in Japan
Tom Bridgeland

Get a teaching job in Japan. It sounds difficult, and most people dread job hunting even in their own country. The fact is however, if you have the basic qualifications then it really is not so very hard. What do you need?

First, the most basic questions. What are your qualifications? What kind of position do you want? How much money do you expect to get? What kind of person are you?

To teach English most schools and education companies in Japan are looking for a bachelors degree. In rare cases, if a person has considerable useful experience, such as in business and management, a degree is unnecessary, but for the younger person without experience, it is mandatory. Any bachelors degree in any subject is generally acceptable, but a degree in teaching or especially language teaching is preferable, and may command a somewhat higher salary.

If you want to make real money, universities are the place to go. Most universities require a masters degree, but again they sometimes hire people with only a bachelors. A degree in teaching or TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is again an advantage but far from necessary to get university jobs. Most newcomers to the Japan scene start in language schools and then try to move up to universities later after they have made some contacts.

The place for most people to start is in the language schools that are ubiquitous in Japanese towns. It may be hard for Americans to imagine, but virtually every small town in Japan has one or more language schools filled with students desperately paying 70 dollars an hour to learn a foreign language, English. The Japanese are unified in their desire to speak English, and fortunately for us teachers, are very slow to pick it up. Job security is very good.

But how do we find these plum jobs from all the way across the ocean in America, Australia Canada, or wherever we are now? This is the stumbling block for most people, taking that first step. Do you have a computer? If not, get one and plan to have one with you in Japan. It is a wonderful tool that connects you to the people you need to find.

I recently spent a few months working in the office of the company I teach for, filling in for someone who was moving up to another job. I was constantly on the internet, contacting our teachers, fielding resumes from prospective teachers, and in general conducting business, all from my keyboard. It was always a hassle trying to contact the teachers who did not have internet connections.

We advertise regularly for new teachers, and without a doubt those with computers are preferred. From where you sit now you can begin your job search in Japan. There are many sites that will connect you to your new job. Before writing this article I ran an internet search using "Teach English Japan" as criteria, and got dozens of likely sites. You should try it yourself with various criteria, and fire off resumes to any that seem interesting. The more you send, the better.

One resource on the internet that my company uses regularly to find new teachers is "Gaijin Pot", which collects and distributes resumes to interested schools. Just send them your resume and some 400 language teaching companies and schools will see it the next day. http://www.gaijinpot.com/

Most schools do not hire without a face to face interview, in Japan (some do though, I got my first job with no more than a telephone interview). That leaves you in the unenviable position of having to come to Japan without a job, and scrambling to find one before either your visa or your money runs out. But this is exactly the route used by many people. If you are willing to take a chance, and have a degree, you could just go for it.

If you are going to do this, plan in advance your campaign. Use the internet to spread your resume around as widely as possible in the city you want to live in. All of the major and even most smaller cities have plenty of opportunities. Line up in advance as many interviews as you can for the week of your arrival. Travel light, but bring along your "business attire" for those interviews.

Do you have any friends in Japan? Use them. Shamelessly. A lot of business in Japan depends on the personal touch. A recommendation goes a long way. A futon on the floor of a friend's apartment can extend your money for weeks. (I know of one guy who slept in a baseball dugout while job hunting, after his money ran out.) Japanese acquaintances are often very useful in helping you find your way around those confusing first few weeks. Just make sure to bring them plenty of little presents to show proper appreciation. Japanese are usually very kind and helpful people, but they hate ingratitude. Say thank you many times, at least twice as often as you would to an American, and give presents. One when you arrive is mandatory. Presents don't have to be expensive, but should be nicely wrapped.

What about money? How much can you expect to make armed with a bachelors degree and some youthful enthusiasm? And how hard will you have to work to get it?

I have often told people that teaching English is the most money for the least work of any honest job I have ever had. That's a joke, but not too far wrong. How much you get paid, and how much time and effort you have to put in to get it can vary greatly.

At one extreme, the good end, I knew a woman who was making 260,000 yen a month (about 2500 dollars) and only teaching 12 to 14 hours a week! Include a few office hours for paper work and that is still less than 20 easy working hours a week for about 30,000 dollars a year. How she got that deal I do not know. But they are out there. Salaries at legitimate companies will range from 250,000 yen a month for the inexperienced, to around 300,000 yen if you have some experience. I was making 300,000 after 4 years teaching. Other factors, such as mandatory office hours, non-teaching duties (typing, cleaning etc.), number of teaching hours etc., can make either extreme a good or bad deal. A common mid-point might be 260,000 yen a month for 20-25 teaching hours a week, at entry level. With a masters degree expect a little more, and if you have a masters and can find a university job, expect double the salary of a language school. That's the real deal.

On the other extreme, are the fly-by-nights, shady-dealing near hoodlums who scam every angle from taxes to teachers' pay to students' up-front fees. Some of these places expect 30 or more teaching hours, (and a full 40 hour work week with office hours) but only want to pay 250,000 yen a month, the legal minimum for full time degreed foreign staff. Other places may even try to get away with paying less, but if you are offered less than 250,000 take home, after taxes, you are dealing with criminals, for sure.

What kind of person are you? Are you cut out to be a teacher? Can you handle teaching in Japan? In my experience observing for 14 years, almost anyone can make it here unless they are: bone lazy, bone stupid, or criminally violent (I have seen all three). And even those types usually seem to do all right.

The only people who really have trouble here are the uptight. If you can't handle stress, crowded trains, environmental pollution, covert and overt racism (particularly against other Asians and any darker skinned peoples, but also often enough against whites), aggressively friendly drunks, the list of accumulating peeves and rants by foreigners seems endless, then don't come to Japan.

If you can lean back and take the long view, blow off steam once in a while, laugh at yourself, and generally keep your hat on, you should do well here. As a refueling point on your world tour, as a post graduation resume builder, or just as an exciting place to live a while, Japan has a lot to offer.

Some don'ts in Japan:

  • Don't bring in drugs. Japanese police have absolutely no sense of humor where drugs are concerned. They even arrested John Lennon.

  • Don't get in bar fights. Japanese tend to attack in groups. There seems to be no concept here of the "fair fight". Expect to be knocked to the ground and kicked senseless. I have seen it more than once. The yakuza are active everywhere and kill with impunity.

  • Don't get angry, don't curse. The Japanese are thoroughly unimpressed, and will never treat you as a "normal person" again. Maintain a calm demeanor.

  • If you are a young female, expect to be harassed, bumped, pinched, propositioned. Rape is said to be common.

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