Up until a few years ago, Japan was the premiere place to teach English. In fact, the TEFL industry really came into existence in Japan during the 1980s and 90s. Particularly in the 90s and early 2000’s, Japan was the place to be if you were going to teach English abroad. It is no wonder that most of the large companies that provide English language services in the world today either first developed in Japan or were modeled to some extent on Japanese companies. I taught in Japan from 2007 to 20011, a few years after the TEFL industry peaked there. Since then, I’ve stayed in contact with teachers and friends throughout the country, so the information in this article should be fairly accurate and up to date. If you disagree, then please let me know.
Fast forward to 2015 and teaching English in Japan is bit different. The situation of today is a far cry from the days when one could earn $50 per hour for a private lesson. The Japanese have tightened their belts as the economy has slowed down in recent years. Not surprisingly, the amount of available English teaching jobs is substantially less then even seven or eight years ago. It used to be that Westerners could waltz into Japan and land a job within a week or two if they were native English speakers and held a university degree. However, don’t this article discourage you. Despite changes in the economic landscape, Japan is still a developed, affluent and well-educated society. While there may be a bit more competition these days, there remain will continue to remain a decent number of jobs to teach English in Japan for qualified native English speakers. The biggest difference now is that it takes more patience, preparation and willingness to work in lesser known parts of the country.
What kind of jobs are available to teach English in Japan?
Private Language Institute
Most people teaching in Japan are employed by either a private language institute or a public elementary, middle or high school. Private language schools range from large corporate chains, such as ECC and Aeon to small institutes that only employ two or three teachers. Teaching hours at these schools or what are referred to as ‘eikaiwa‘ (conversational schools) usually range from 10 am to as late as 9 pm Monday through Saturday. However, you will be expected to only work five days a week and no more than 25 teaching hours per week. Expect some variation on this between schools. The large corporate eikaiwa(private conversation schools) usually mandate a business attire dress code while you can relax in a more casual environment at the smaller institutes. The large corporate schools will also try to squeeze more hours out of you and they usually pay about the same or not much more than small, locally owned institutes. I taught at both, but I definitely had a lot more fun teaching a small institutes compared to the large chains.
The other main avenue to teach in Japan is as an ALT (assistant language teacher) or AET (assistant English teacher). In this role, you will work as an assistant English teacher in either a public elementary, middle or high school. Some larger schools have two or three ALT’s, but the norm is to have one. In some cases,you may visit two or three schools during the week depending on the budget of the school district. This is a great way to really improve your Japanese language skills since you will be completely immersed in a Japanese environment. These positions also include a lot of paid holidays and a summer vacation for travel. On the downside, it isn’t always easy being the single non-Japanese among a staff of 30 – 40 teachers and 700 plus students.
There are many private companies that recruit and place teachers across Japan as ALT’s. Some pay better than others. It is difficult to get directly hired by a school board because they do not want to take the risk of sponsoring a foreign teacher. The most coveted and best paying ALT/AET jobs are through the JET program, which is an intergovernmental exchange program between the US and Japanese government. Apply early as the selection process has become competitive. Personally, I worked as an ALT in Okinawa during my last year in Japan. It was a great experience and my Japanese language skills improved immensely.
Colleges and Universities
It is also possible to teach English at Japanese colleges and universities. These highly sought-after jobs are not easy to land and the turnover rate is quite low. If you are willing to live in a small city or out in the sticks, your chances 0f securing a job at a university or college will greatly increase. Finding a university position in cities popular with Westerners, such as Sapporo, Fukuoka, Osaka are hard to come by. You will need at least a master’s degree and preferable a master’s or higher in linguistics, English, TESOL o something closely related.
You may be surprised to know that all kindergartens in Japan are privately owned. The better ones usually employ a foreign English teacher and in many cases several foreign teachers. While Japanese kindergartens certainly hire male teachers, native English speaking women are highly coveted in Japan to work with small children. The top kindergartens offer some of the best salaries and benefits in Japan to Western females. Personally, I knew a few female teachers in Japan that save a decent amount of money working for a few years at Japanese kindergartens.
What are the average teaching salaries to teach English in Japan?
If you are teaching at a private conversational school (eikaiwa), you can expect to make $2200 to $2800 per month. This includes health care, paid holidays and 7 to 10 days of paid vacation time. Jobs in Tokyo tend to pay on the higher end to make up for the cost of living. You may find an occasional school that pays $3000 per month, but not many. Salaries in Japanese conversational schools have actually remained about the same or in some cases decreased compared to even ten years ago. Alt and AET positions generally pay a little less, $2000 to $2500 per month, but offer better benefits in terms of paid holidays and vacation time during the summer. JET program teaching positions pay between $3000 to $3500 per month, including a lengthy paid vacation and health insurance. It is no wonder that the JET program is so competitive.
Typically, someone starting out teaching full-time at a university or college will make around $3000 per month with excellent paid vacation time and healthcare. Kindergarten jobs usually pay between $2500 to $3000 per month and some pay upwards to $3500 or more to Western female teachers with prior experience. Many teachers in Japan also subsidize their salaries with private lessons. Back in the day, students were often willing to pay $40 per hour just to have a conversation over a coffee. Those days are over, but you can still make between $20 to $30 (around 2500 yen). Doing private lessons is a great way to network and find other jobs and opportunities. It is also possible to work at multiple schools at one time. Expect an hourly rate between $20 to $30 per hour.
What is the cost of living in Japan and can I save money?
Unless you are living in center of Tokyo, the country as a whole is not as expensive as people image. In fact, if you can adjust your lifestyle to more like a Japanese person, the cost of living is certainly cheaper than Europe and comparable to a mid-sized American city. Keep in mind that you won’t have to worry about the cost of keeping a car. A beer at a typical bar goes for about $5, but there is no tipping and there are plenty of happy hours that offer $3 or $4 dollar beers. There are plenty of cheap and delicious small restaurants and izakaya where you can really get your money’s worth. My advice is to buy a rice maker and adjust your diet. If you have to purchase every back home amenity, then your grocery bills will add up. But if you can master basic cooking and make a few changes in your diet, your grocery bill will be no more or even less than back home. As an added bonus, you will live a healthier lifestyle and likely a few pounds. I also always found that you get much more for your money when you spend $25 or $30 at a restaurant in Japan compared to the United States. With that being said, it’s possible to save $5000 to $10,000 in one year teaching English in Japan. While I was there, I saved about $4000 to $5000 per year, but I also enjoyed myself.
How do I get a work visa to teach English in Japan?
This can be a little tricky. Many people are initially hired by one of the large corporate chains, such as ECC, Nova or Aeon in their home countries. I was hired by a former large chain called GEOS. While I don’t care much for the large chain schools, they do process your work visa before you even arrive in Japan. The same can be said for the JET program, which is another safe and easy visa route. There are some other companies that hire ALT’s/AETs from abroad.Occasionally, some of the smaller chains may hire someone from their home country. This is particularly true if you are wiling to work in a small city or in the countryside where a lot of teachers don’t want to go.
There are many teachers who spend 6 months or a year living in an obscure suburb or small city on their initial visa that got them over to Japan and then find a position in a better city. Keep in mind that once you have your visa in Japan, you are free to change schools. The only requirement by law to legally stay in the country is to be sponsored by a school. In reality, it is fairly lax compared to the United States, Canada and the UK. It is possible to fly into Japan on a tourist visa and change to a work visa. This is technically illegal, but people usually get away with it. However, if you are going to do that, have some savings because it will be at least two or three months before you are working full-time. If you are looking for a teaching position in Japan, I would advise checking out Gaijin Pot.
Will the school pay for my apartment?
This would have been no problem 10 years ago, but is very uncommon nowadays to find a school that will cover the teacher’s rent. It may be possible in very obscure towns where it is difficult to recruit teachers. However, almost every school will sponsor an apartment for a full-time teacher. Keep in mind that the average security deposit or what the Japanese call ‘key money’ is equal to 3 to 5 months of rent. Fortunately, you won’t have to pay any deposit or just one month’s rent if you are employed full-time by a school. Typically, a teacher’s apartment will also be in close proximity to the school. Depending on which part of Japan, expect to pay between $400 to $700 per month for a studio apartment. I lived in 5 different apartments in Japan. Three of them were fairly small, but they were always modern, comfortable and furnished with the proper amenities. Don’t worry, you will have high-speed internet!
Do I need a TEFL,TESOL or CELTA certificate to teach English in Japan?
For the most part, the answer is no. It’s kind of surprising in a way because the Japanese invest so much money into education, including English education, but they don’t seem to put much value into bringing over quality and trained teachers. While I like to think of myself as a pretty good teacher now, I had no idea what I was during my first six months in Japan. It does seem to be changing a bit, however, as some schools prefer teachers with experience and a TESOL or TEFL. These same schools offer better pay and working conditions. While you still do not need a TEFL or TESOL to teach in Japan, I recommend getting one. If you have never taught or even if you have taught other subjects, a TEFL or TESOL will pay dividends in the long run and give you a leg up on the competition. Don’t expect to wow people in Japan with prior teaching experience in a formal, public school. Teaching English/ESL in Japan or in general is not like other forms of teaching. I would say it is half teaching and half entertaining, so you have to quickly learn how to be a bit of a showman or showwoman!
Teaching English in Japan is a great opportunity to experience a truly interesting and idiosyncratic culture. While it may not be everyone, most of the teachers I met there enjoyed their time and seemed content. I did it for four years and it was a great time to say the least.