The Guide to Teach English in Japan

Despite a slowing economy in recent years, Japan remains a premier destination to teach English and it’s understandable why there is such an attraction to this place. Japan is endowed with an exotic culture, breathtaking nature, the world’s best seafood a hospitable people. About the size of California, it’s also quite larger than most people tend to realize. Although it is homogenous country, there exist a considerable variation in landscape, food and nuances among the different regions. Hokkaido, the northern most island looks similar to parts of Europe, while the tropical jungles of Okinawa are comparable to Taiwan. One of the best parts about teaching English and living in Japan is the accessibility to transportation throughout the country. Flights can be pricey, but the country is connected methodically through the extensive JR train system. If you enjoy the ocean, there are also underutilized and inexpensive ferry-boats that can be used as a fun way to travel. I once took a comfortable 24-hour ferry-boat from Hokkaido to a town near Osaka. There were vending machines that sold beer seemingly everywhere and a spacious room where one could sleep on tatami mats.

I taught English in Japan for four years from 2007 to 2011 and I still keep in close contact with friends, schools and former students throughout the country. While I didn’t always love teaching there,  I enjoyed every waning second of existing in the land of the rising sun. Living in Japan is an incredible experience and opportunity to not only further understand Japanese culture, but meet a lot of other interesting and not so interesting expats from around the world. As an American, I had friends from the UK, Canada, Africa, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. My students ranged in ages from early elementary to retires. I taught rambunctious 10-year-olds, housewives, university students, workaholic professionals and senior citizens. I worked at large corporate giants, small conversational schools known as eikaiwas, a middle school as an ALT and did slew of private lessons on the side. Now, can I use my former employers in Japan as a work reference here in the United States? Not really. When I apply for jobs in the United States, do the majority of potential employers view me as someone who sort of carelessly left America for four years? For the most part yes, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. After all, if you are on your way to teach in Japan or some other non-Western country, you probably aren’t the type that is too keen on settling for the monotony of mainstream American culture.

Whether you are truly interested in teaching English in Japan or just flirting with the idea, you probably have a handful of questions, which is why the hand of Google brought you here. I’ve tried my best to pass on my inside knowledge of teaching English in Japan in the following paragraphs. Although I left in 2011, I still keep in close contact with teachers there and the information I’ve provided should be accurate and up to date. If you beg the differ, then please call me out, so that I can revise it. I am consistently updating my blog and adding new tidbits of information whenever possible. For a more information about Japan, check out Teaching English in Japan: An Inside ScoopBelow I’ve tried to answer some general questions that I’m often asked.

Are there still jobs available to teach English in Japan?

While Japan’s economy has remained stagnant and a saturation of foreigners (gaijin) exist in the larger cities, there remain a fair amount of English jobs available. Although it is difficult to find a position in the trendier parts of Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka and in Sapporo, you can certainly land something if you are willing to be more flexible in your location preference. Like any country, the vast majority of jobs remain in the metropolitan areas of the largest cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. However, there are also a good amount of decent paid positions for individuals willing to live in the outer suburbs, smaller cities or even in rural areas. English education will always remain a priority in Japan, so jobs will remain despite the economy.

What kinds of English teaching Jobs are available in Japan? How much will I make if I teach English in Japan?  

Eikaiwa (English Conversation School)

There are a few different situations for teaching English that exist in Japan. First, one can land a job in what is called an Eikaiwa, which is an English conversational school (kaiwa means conversation in Japanese and eigo means English). Eikaiwas range in size from large corporations like Aeon, Nova or ECC to mid-sized and mom and pop operations. I advise potential teachers to stay away from the large companies like Aeon, Nova and ECC unless it’s your only option for getting your foot in the door. There used to be another large school called GEOS, which I worked for during my first three months  in Japan. That was in a town called Obihiro, located in southeastern Hokkaido. While the pay is about the same, the working conditions at a mid-sized or smaller Eikaiwa are usually better, more authentic and casual. I worked for one Eikaiwa in which we had a bi-weekly Saturday night party with the adult students, which were known to get out of control at times.

At an Eikaiwa, you can expect to work  from about 11am to 7 or 8 in the evening give or take an hour or two and work 5 or 6 days a week (this may vary). Salaries can range between $2000 to $3000 per month depending on the school, your experience and the cost of living of where you live. Class sizes range from 2 to 8 students with occasional private lessons.  Most likely, you will split your time between teaching children and working professionals. So if you are some Western guy who thinks he is going to be hanging out with hot, Japanese ladies all day, think again buddy! Child students range in age from 4-year-olds through high school. Adult students could be university students, working professionals, housewives or senor citizens. I had all kinds of adult students in Japan, including university professors, marketing agents, public school teachers, homemakers, doctors and even people that didn’t seem to work at all. If you find the right school, teaching at an Eikaiwa can be quite fun and you will learn to appreciate the company of your fellow teachers.

ALT/AET (assistant language teacher/assistant English teacher)

Another common way to teach English  in Japan is as an ALT (assistant language teacher) or what is also referred to as an AET (assistant English teacher). In fact, with the private sector suffering from a slow economy, working as an ALT/AET might be the easier route. What the heck is an ALT or AET position? ALT/AETs work in public elementary, middle and high schools. While these types of jobs used to only be available in middle and high schools, a fair amount of elementary schools now have ALT/AET’s  due to recent government initiatives. As an ALT or AET, you will teach with a Japanese public school teacher. Japanese law does not permit gaijin (foreigners) to teach alone in Japanese public schools. I can kind of understand why since there are some odd gaijin out there, but it is also unfortunate since the students do not benefit as much. As a an ALT/AET teacher, your hands will be tied even if you work with Japanese teachers that grant a fair amount of freedom in their class. Be prepared to encounter an ocassional Japanese teacher that tries earnestly to minimize your involvement in the class as they most likely fear your influence will undermine their ability to control the class. On the hand, there are plenty of Japanese teachers that will welcome your presence in the classroom and allow you to contribute in your own creative way.

I worked as an ALT in a junior high school during my last year in Japan, which was in a small town in Okinawa called Yomitan. As an ALT or AET, you will most likely be the only foreign teacher (thus the only foreigner) at the school you are assigned to teach at or you may visit two or three schools in the same district during a typical week. There are some larger schools which have 2 or more ALT/AETs.  An ALT or AET is technically hired through a Japanese school board. However, most Japanese school boards do not want to sponsor the visa of a foreign teacher, so the teacher is instead brought in and sponsored by a third party company. This other company is an ALT placement company that unfortunately will take a portion of your income. In reality, this ALT/AET placement company is actually contracted by the school board and you are brought in through them. ALT and AETs typically make between $2000 to $2600 per month.

There is also the JET program, which is the most prestigious of all the ALT/AET positions in Japan. A typical JET teacher averages around $3000 month and is provided with good benefits, including a generous amount of paid vacation time. This is the safest  and most secure way to teach in Japan. Not surprisingly, it is also quite competitive and it is best to apply well before the deadline. If you are turned down for the JET program, don’t be discouraged as there are plenty of other opportunities in Japan. You might not make as much money, but you’ll probably have a better time and meet more interesting people.

Japanese Universities

It is also possible to teach English at a Japanese university, but keep in mind that these positions are almost always assigned to teachers that already have at least a couple of years experience in Japan. There are a couple of programs that place first year teachers into university positions, but these are in rural areas where most foreigners do not want to live. If you are willing to take such a position, it could be a great way to save money. Afterall, there isn’t much to spend your money on out in the sticks. If you want to teach at a Japanese university in of the more popular cities, it is best to network as many such jobs are filledby word or mouth. You will come across a fair amount of middle-aged teachers that have been holding onto these coveted teaching gigs for over a decade and are reluctant to give them up. You can’t blame them since teaching English at a Japanese university is one of the cosiest gigs on the planet.

Just like anywhere else, one needs at least a master’s degree and whatever other credentials the school requires to teach at the university level. If you plan on landing a position with  a BA in history, then you might have to first marry the daughter of the university president or have written the book on networking. In today’s market, you will also likely need a master’s or PHD in linguistics, TESOL or English. It is also quite helpful to have prior university teaching experience in your home country. Because these are such sought after jobs, universities can be quite selective in the hiring process.

Japanese kindergartens

Teaching English at a Japanese kindergarten is yet another viable way to find employment. Japanese kindergartens differ from Western ones in that they are privately owned. Most mid-level kindergartens employ at least one foreign teacher and the higher-end ones usually have a team of foreign instructors. Some schools pay quite well and I’ve seen salaries as high as $3500 per month. While Japanese kindergartens prefer female teachers, they will sometimes hire a male instructor. Japanese children tend to respond better to the softer voices of women. Lets be honest, children are also sensitive to smell and most little Japanese kids just don’t respond well to some foreign male teacher who reeks of alcohol and cigarettes because he closed the bar the night before.

Private Lessons and part-time gigs

It is certainly possible to freelance in Japan and I pretty much did this during my second year there. While most teachers usually pick up one private lesson here or there in addition to there full-time job, there are plenty of teachers juggling several private lessons each week with a part-time or semi full-time position at a conversational school (eikaiwa). To do this, you will need to find a school willing to sponsor your work visa without really working full-time. What some teachers do is work three or four days a week at a school that will sponsor their visa because he or she is a valuable enough instructor and then work one day a week at another eikaiwa and manage a few private lessons on the side. Expect to make around 2500 yen per hour ($25) for a one-hour private lesson and $20 to$25 per hour working part-time at an eikaiwa. Private lessons can be quite enjoyable if you find the right student or agonizing, so choose your students carefully.

Keep in mind that most private lessons only last between 2 to 5 months, but get them to commit to showing up each week while they are your student. If you have a really nice student, go out of your way for that student because he or she will hook you up with future referrals. They might get busy and have to cancel after a while, but you might be teaching thier close friend or family member a week or two later. I also wouldn’t spend too much time conducting free, trial lessons. If they want to meet and chat for 10 or 15 minutes, that is fine, but don’t spend an afternoon trying to get a new student because they will likely turn out to be a pain to teach in the long run.

When is the best time to get a job to teach English in Japan?

Like all countries in East Asia, the best times coincide with the start of school in late August and February/March. If you are planning on working as an ALT/AET, including the JET program, you will absolutely have to begin during these times. An ALT position ocassionally opens up during other months, but that is only because a teacher has suddenly quit for whatever reason. If that is the case, you should do your homework to see if the issue was with the school or if the teacher just had a family or personal problem. While the majority of private eikaiwa positions also open up during these times, jobs with private schools spring up throughout the year. Again, do your homework and find out if the school has a high turnover rate.

How do I get a working visa to teach English in Japan?

Unless you are on a working holiday visa, you will absolutely need a university degree from an accredited school. The degree can be in any discipline so long as it is accredited. Along with a four-year degree, one also needs to hold a passport from the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. There is a general age limit of 60 years of age, but most teachers in Japan are under 40. Racism can be an issue at times, but it is nowhere to the same degree as it is in parts of China and South Korea. In fact, schools in Japan are generally open to hiring teachers of color compared to their Asian neighbors or even countries in Europe or South America. If you are a person of color who is a good teacher, smart,  outgoing and fun, you will be rather popular there. This is particulary true if you are a male teacher. If you are a balding, pasty-faced, English guy who is socially inept, the Japanese have unfortuantely caught on to your act in recent years. Keep in mind that Japan is also a decade or two ahead of China and South Korea when it comes to such matters.

How do I get a job to teach English in Japan?

This can be little tricky since there isn’t an extensive recruiter system as there is in South Korea, nor the high demand like there is in  China. It really comes down to finding a job from your home country or biting the bullet and flying into Japan on a tourist visa with the hopes of finding a school to sponsor a work visa. The latter is definitely possible, but it may be two or three months before you receive your first paycheck, so you will need to have a sufficient amount of funds to hold you over. If you take this path, it is also best to begin networking with other teachers from the moment you arrive in the country.  If you are looking to get hired from your home country, then the large chain schools such as ECC, AEON and NOVA still hire from abroad. There is also the JET program, but the hiring window for the JET program is only once per year. If you are willing to work in a remote area your first year, then you will find job postings from smaller private schools and programs that hire from abroad.

How do I get housing in Japan?

While housing usually isn’t paid for like it is in South Korea and China, most schools in Japan will act as the guarantor of your apartment. In other words, you cannot just rent out an apartment in Japan the same way as you would back home. You need a school, company or financially established individual to sign off on your apartment. Before you think this is because you are a foreigner, remember that the Japanese must also go through the same process. The school or company that is sponsoring your apartment will pay for the deposit, also known as key money and usually provide furniture. You will be responsible for the rent and utilities. I once had a nice studio flat near downtown Sapporo for only $450 per month. Expect to pay between $500 to $800 in parts of Tokyo. Obviously if you are planning on flying into Japan on a tourist visa and later finding a job, housing will be an issue. There are temporary apartments in the larger cities that can be rented for a few months. I would recommend checking out Gaijinpot, which usually has advertisements for temporary apartments. Gaijinpot is also a great starting point to look for a job.

How is the nightlife in Japan?

If you are in any of the larger cities, such as Osaka, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Sapporo, Hiroshima, Nagoya and Yokohama, then you will have plenty of options during the evening hours. In any Japanese city, you will find heaps of Western-style bars, cafes, karaoke bars, nightclubs and drinking and eating establishments referred to as an izakaya. In most cities, there is an area where the majority of foreign teachers and residents hang out. In these areas, there are plenty of Western style bars, which often have happy hours. Typically most of these establishments will have about a 50/50 mix of Western and Japanese customers

Teaching English in Japan can be a great experience. I hope this article provides some useful information and at least guides you in the right direction. If you do find this post informative, please share it with your friends or through social media channels. If you are already teaching English or living in Japan, please feel free to contribute in the comments section.

About JT 63 Articles
JT taught English for four years in Japan. He also has extensive experience teaching ESL in the United States. JT has also traveled throughout Asia and South America. He began JimmyESL in 2014 as a way to provide honest information for those interested in teaching English abroad. These days, he spends most of his time building Wordpress sites, blogging and teaching others the nuances of digital marketing.