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Teaching English in Japan: A Yen for the Far East
by Honor Dargan

Are you thinking about teaching English in Japan?

Want to know more about the ins and outs of living and working in the land of the rising sun? 

First of all let me say Hi. My name's Honor and I've been living in Tokyo, Japan since leaving the UK in 2001.

I am a primary school teacher by trade but have focused on teaching English since coming here. 

I've worked in a variety of settings including conversational English, kindergarten, pre-school and university students, and finally teaching cross-cultural and business communication in companies, so my experience is pretty broad. If you're interested in teaching English in Japan, I hope I can help you get started.

Teaching English in Japan - Sea of CloudsJapan's Sea of Clouds

What you need for a job teaching English in Japan

To qualify for a working visa to teach English in Japan you must hold an authentic four-year university degree. It does not have to be in any particular subject but it is a prerequisite - an absolute minimum to be eligible for a working visa.

Does teaching English in Japan require a CELTA certificate or other TEFL qualification? Not always, although awareness of this qualification is growing and many employers are now asking for it. If you want to make a career of teaching English abroad then I would say put this on your 'to do' list. Once you have it you can move around as you please between countries. (MyTEFL will give readers of Women on the Road a 35% discount on its TEFL courses if you quote the promo code SCRIBE35).

The majority of schools require that you speak English at native level.

Teaching English in Japan: work visa requirements and procedures

I've already mentioned the necessity of having a university degree if you want to qualify for teaching English in Japan. You also need to have a firm job offer before your application will be considered.

There is a rather bureaucratic - and time consuming! - process that is specific to Japan. It works like this:

  • You apply for a job, are accepted and the company agrees to sponsor your visa.
  • Through the Japanese Embassy you must apply for a special document called a Certificate of Eligibility. You cannot get this without the backing of an employer. The C of E usually takes between 2-3 weeks to be approved although it can take longer.
  • Once you receive the C of E you are now eligible to apply for the working visa. You are not yet legally allowed to start work.
  • Complete and submit your application for your visa along with all necessary accompanying documents required from your company and then wait until the visa is issued. Again this usually takes around 3-4 weeks but this is in the lap of the gods. Ultimately, it is up to immigration how long this process takes.

For more information visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan or your local Japanese Embassy.

Working Holiday Visa in Japan

Certain countries have an agreement with Japan that allows young people up to 30 years old to participate in a working holiday visa program. This allows them to bypass some of the restrictions for a full working visa. Australia, New Zealand and Canada are granted a six-month stay, while the Republic of Korea, UK, Germany, France, Ireland, and Denmark are granted a year. There are restrictions on the types of work you can do but teaching English in Japan is not on the list. However, the main reason for your stay in Japan must be 'holiday' and not 'work'.

For more information and to confirm the current status of these conditions please visit the Working Holiday Visa Japan section on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan website.

Teaching English in Japan - Tokyo at nightNighttime in Akihabara, Tokyo

Show me the money!

The advice that I was given when I came to Japan and that still applies now is: "Arrive with enough money to see you through three months with no salary."

Even though I arranged my visa through my employer before I left the UK, I still needed to wait to receive my first salary.

There is rent to pay, food to buy, and all the other costs associated with moving to a new place. Many companies will pay you on a month in hand basis so it will be a couple of months before you receive any cash.

Be sure to check these details so that you can be prepared to sustain yourself until that first long awaited pay day!

Salaries and expenses

So what kind of salary and expenses can you expect if you're teaching English in Japan? It's a great experience and one I highly recommend but you do need to make sure you can cover your bottom line!

If you're living in Tokyo, the average rent for a regular apartment is between 80,000 to 150,000 JPY (Japanese Yen)per month. Apartments are small, in fact tiny when you first arrive here and are not used to the lack of space. My last three apartments have all been 25 square meters or less in total floor space with an average rent of 90,000 JPY. My current apartment is 44 square meters and costs 143,000 JPY per month. You'll find more information on Tokyo's cost of living here.

Most decent jobs teaching English in Japan, whether you're working in a conversation school (eikaiwa), children's school or other entity should pay a minimum of around 250,000 JPY. There are higher paying jobs but you usually need to have done your time here first and proved that you are staying before you will be offered these routes. If you're an international school teacher you can expect considerably more as with any other country. If you are a Masters or PhD holder and want to teach in a university, again the pay scales are higher.

Over the last year or so I have noticed a number of smaller schools starting to advertise lower salaries of 230,000 JPY or less. I would seriously consider whether you are able to live on this amount of money before accepting such an offer.

How to find a job teaching English in Japan

There are a number of resources available if you want to check the options for teaching English in Japan. Here are my favorites:

  • Gaijinpot - This site not only includes English teaching jobs but also a variety of other options
  • Jobs In Japan - Not quite as professional looking as Gaijinpot in my opinion but still a great source for current vacancies in the teaching field and other areas
  • Ohayo Sensei - A newsletter format that arrives in your inbox with all the current vacancies

If you want to apply directly to one of the big conversation schools go direct to the source. The major schools are GEOSAEONECC and Berlitz. You will hear good and bad about all of these so be sure to check your facts and make sure you are comfortable with the deal being offered. When you start, the best advice I can give is don't listen to the dissenters until you've had a chance to form your own opinion.

A few general tips on teaching English in Japan

  • Salaries in Tokyo are generally higher than in other parts of Japan for teaching English in Japan - but so are living costs.
  • Students in general are switched on and eager to learn although there is an inherent 'reserve', often referred to as 'shyness' that inhibits the active production of spoken English. Crossing this bridge can be the toughest when you're not used to it.
  • Housing is small and very different to western standards. When you first arrive I think that is one of the biggest shocks to the system. The more prepared you are for this, the easier the transition will be.
  • Get your head around the train maps and how the trains work as soon as possible. This is the cheapest and most convenient form of transport and after eight years here I wouldn't travel any other way.
  • 'Genki' is perhaps the most important survival skill you need. Genki is essentially having lots of energy and smiling your way through the day, regardless of how you are feeling. Pull this one off and you are sure to win friends and influence people - Japanese style!

A Last Word

I personally love being and teaching English in Japan. I'm still here after eight years - in fact I returned after spending a year in Singapore because I missed the life and the culture so much. There is no way I would say this gig is for everyone, but if you fancy an adventure and are prepared to arrive with an open mind, it is an opportunity to experience life from a completely different perspective than the one you are used to.

Honor Dargan spent many years calling Tokyo her home. While living there, she managed a website, TokyoTopia, which provided plenty of information on the city.


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