The Guide To Teaching English In Japan

Teaching English in Japan is very, very popular. Japan is called to be a safe, clean and well-organized country of friendly people. However, finding a teaching job there can a laborious and difficult task. This guide about how to teach English in Japan will answer all the essential questions you might have.

If you have traveled to Japan – or dreamed yourself into – you are probably amongst the many who would love the opportunity to live and teach English in this beautiful country. 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.

What is there not to love: Japanese food is amazingly delicious as well as healthy; people in Japan are the most polite in the world; the natural beauty and variety of this island country are awe-inspiring. Hokkaido, the northernmost island looks similar to parts of Europe, while the tropical jungles of Okinawa are comparable to Taiwan. About the size of California, it’s also quite larger than most people tend to realize.

On the surface, it is a nation of friendly and hospitable people. This is one of the prevailing stereotypes of Japan and rightfully so. The Japanese are a proud and well-organized group of people. Despite the many distractions from the outside world, including boisterous foreigners that visit their streets, socialize in their downtown spaces and sometimes stay forever, the Japanese seem to exist in a sort of harmony with each other. This is a common theme that one will find throughout the country.

When I decided to move to Japan in 2015, I heard from a multitude of people teaching abroad (who had never even entered the country) that it would be borderline impossible to snatch a job here. Shockingly, they were wrong.

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 magic 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.

Are there still jobs available in Japan?

While Japan’s economy has remained stagnant and saturation of foreigners (gaijin) exist in the larger cities, there remain a fair amount of English teaching jobs available. Although it might be difficult to find a position in the trendier parts of Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, and 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 decently 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 that jobs will remain despite the economy.

As mentioned later in this post, your start in Japan may present challenges and hurdles. But the longer you are there, the more doors will open.

The Essential Requirements for Getting a Work Visa and Teaching English in Japan

A native English speaker or not, everything goes as long as you have a high level of English. But what you do need for teaching English in Japan is a Bachelor’s Degree and a couple of years of any work experience.

Pay in mind that you do not necessarily need teaching experience: if you have worked at McDonald’s for a year or two and have a Bachelor’s Degree, you will most likely not have problems finding a job.

Also, bear in mind that you do not need to get a job before entering Japan. It is not illegal to arrive in Japan with a tourist visa and search for work. In my opinion, it was an incredible perk to already be in Japan when applying for jobs. It shows future employers that you really want to be in this country and also that you are available to start work immediately.

To obtain a work visa, 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.

Without a Work Visa, Life in Japan is Difficult

Finding an English teaching job in Japan can be a 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.

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Before coming to Japan, I had worked as an English teacher in China for a year and had a couple of months worth of part-time volunteer work experience. Along with the CELTA I had acquired this was a fruitful combination in my opinion. So as I landed in Japan with a mere tourist visa, I did not have big fears of not finding a job.

That soon changed as I realized how difficult it was to do anything in Japan without a work visa. I wanted to call potential employees but could not get a local phone number without a work visa. My phone broke, and I found out that I could not buy a phone from a store without a work visa.

Now you can buy a Japanese sim card as a foreigner, without a work visa!

I could not transfer funds from overseas as I could not open a bank account without a work visa. I was not able to rent an apartment without a work visa. And to be fair, even if I could have, none of the real-estate agencies spoke any English. Some big real-estate agencies offered to hire a translator and as a gesture of goodwill would have charged me an arm and a leg for it.

Hence a couple of weeks in I started to feel a bit of stress accumulating as I had literally no options in Japan until I found a job to provide me a work visa. Time was ticking on my 90-day tourist visa. Expect to struggle a bit at first as you are finding your bearings in Japan. It is not easy but it is doable.

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 to Find and Apply for Teaching Jobs

I was very pleased to find out that Japan’s reputation as an organized country is not overly exaggerated. There is a system, and once you figure it out, you know what to do to get you from A to B.

From other foreigners whom I met in Japan, I found out that here in the land of the rising sun you do not simply walk to a company, introduce yourself or drop off your CV. Companies do not look kindly to this kind of behavior as it is seen unprofessional. Instead, you want to approach companies via email.

I found out that as a non-Japanese speaking person there was merely one and only worthwhile website to use and seek employment: Gaijinpot. It is a wonderfully versatile website with jobs, apartments, articles about life in Japan written by other foreigners – basically all the tools you need to make it in this fascinating country.

I created a profile online on Gaijinpot along with a resume, a professional photo of myself and off I went applying for anything that had the keywords “English” and “teacher” in it. I do not possess a passport from a designated native-English-speaking country, but as I know my skills are up to par I confidently applied for jobs which advertised “non-native English speakers need not apply”. In a few days, I had several emails from potential employers.

Sometimes the wheels of bureaucracy move painfully slowly in Japan: it could take days to hear back from companies. Have patience; you have not been forgotten. Japan has a strangely old-fashioned, stiff working culture and to a newbie, everything seems almost comically business-like as well as rule-infused.

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.

What’s the Best Time to Get an ESL Teaching Job 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 occasionally 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.

The Opportunities for Teaching English in Japan

Most people teaching in Japan are employed by either a private language institute or a public elementary, middle or high school.

Private Language Institutes

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 is referred to as ‘eikaiwa‘ (conversational schools) usually range from 10 am to as late as 9pm Monday through Saturday. However, you will be expected to work only five days a week and no more than 25 teaching hours per week. Expect some variation on this between schools.

The large corporate eikaiwa 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 know people who taught at both, but most of them said they had a lot more fun teaching at small institutes compared to the large chains.

ALT/AET/JET

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 ALTs, 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 improve your Japanese language skills since you will completely immerse 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.

Many private companies 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 the Japanese government. Apply early as the selection process has become competitive.

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 of securing a job at a university or college will significantly increase. University positions 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 preferably a master’s or higher in linguistics, English, TESOL o something closely related.

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Kindergartens

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 indeed 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 saved a decent amount of money working for a few years at Japanese kindergartens.

Do You Have to Teach Children?

Short answer: yes, most likely. If you are not comfortable teaching English to children, you might want to have a change of heart instantly. If you do not mind teaching kids, rejoice: the majority of teaching opportunities here are with children. If you are lucky, you will teach a mixture of both adults and children.

Average Salaries for ESL Teachers in Japan

If you are teaching at a private conversational school, you can expect to make $2,200 to $2,800 per month. Salaries include 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 $3,000 per month, but not many. Salaries in Japanese conversational schools have remained about the same or in some cases decreased compared to even ten years ago.

ALT/AET positions generally pay a little less, $2,000 to $2,500 per month, but offer better benefits regarding paid holidays and vacation time during the summer. JET program teaching positions pay between $3,000 to $3,500 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 $3,000 per month with excellent paid vacation time and healthcare.

Kindergarten jobs usually pay between $2,500 to $3,000 per month and some pay upwards to $3,500 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 only to have a conversation over a coffee. Those days are over, but you can still make between $20 to $30.

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.

I Skype-interviewed with some of the most promising companies and found that there were many opportunities indeed: I could work in big cities or rural areas and the salary was around the same ballpark, roughly $2,000 to $2,600 per month. (¥200,000 to ¥260,000).

Living Costs in Japan

Like in most other countries big cities are much more expensive to live in than smaller cities or rural areas. For example, in Tokyo, you could rent a shoebox where you barely have enough room to sleep in and pay half your monthly wages whereas in Hiroshima I spend a very affordable amount for a spacious apartment with two rooms.

Also in big cities, other expenses will be bigger: think local tax, eating and drinking out, shopping, transport. Many people dream about living in Tokyo, but the problem is that millions of people already do. That means that your dream might end up costing you most of your monthly salary, resulting in you having no savings.

(Of course, all dollar prices depend on current conversion rate.)

Accommodation

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 the deposit, also known as ‘key money’ (equal to 3 to 5 months of rent) and usually provide furniture. You will be responsible for the rent and utilities.

Rent in Tokyo is on average anything from approximately $800 to $1,100 per month (¥80,000 to ¥110,000). Utility bills like electricity will set you back around $40 to $80  (¥4,000 JPY to ¥8,000), depending on how cool you like your apartment during the boiling summer months vs. how vital is it heating your apartment during winter rather than slowly freezing to a state of hibernation. How comfortable you want to be will determine your utility costs. Japan gets very hot during summer and extremely cold in winter months.

Travel and Transportation

One of the best parts about teaching English in Japan – and generally living there – 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 you can use 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.

Can You Save Money While Teaching English in Japan?

Yes. I work part-time, live a five-minute walk from the main street of Hiroshima and yet I save most of my monthly paycheck. There are always cheap options no matter if it comes to accommodation, restaurants, shopping, internet or phone providers.

You will find out after a while that Japan’s reputation as a ridiculously expensive country is harshly exaggerated and there are ways to live here affordably. In fact, if you can adjust your lifestyle to more like a Japanese person, the cost of living is cheaper than Europe and comparable to a mid-sized American city. For example, you won’t have to worry about the cost of keeping a car.

A beer at a typical bar goes for about $5, for $3 or $4 during happy hours. There are plenty of cheap and delicious small restaurants and izakaya where you can really get your money’s worth. Also, there’s no tipping, which can make an effective 20% to 30% difference to North American restaurant prices!

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 a bonus, you will live a healthier lifestyle and likely a few pounds.

With that being said, it’s possible to save $5,000 to $10,000 in one year teaching English in Japan. I know (full-time) ESL teachers who saved about $4,000 to $5,000 per year but also enjoyed life.

The Best Cities to Live in and Teach English in Japan

If you are planning on teaching there or just entertaining the thought, you might want to know what are the best cities to teach English in Japan. Keep in mind that there is more variation throughout the country then one might expect. The reality is that you may not be able to initially find a job in your preferred location during the first year, but it is certainly possible during your second year.

Below are my five best cities to teach English in Japan. Feel free to comment and disagree. I chose these five cities based on a combination of the job market and lifestyle. However, my own bias probably puts more emphasis on lifestyle.

5. Tokyo

Reluctantly, I have to put Tokyo in my top five simply because it has the most jobs and is the financial center of Japan and of the major economic hubs of the globe. According to a recent number, the Tokyo metro area is also the largest metropolis of the world with 25 million busy, industrious, but overworked individuals. The mere size of Tokyo is enough to keep me away.

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I will admit, the airport in Narita is a lovely experience. It’s so nice that you can even pay roughly $5 for a shower in a hotel type of experience. so I could venture into the Tokyo area at some point once again just to take advantage of that perk.

But if you are like most people, living in a city with 25 million people soon becomes exhausting, hectic and legally chaotic. I once lived in Chicago, a metro population of 9.2, and that was plenty big for me.

As much as I abhor Tokyo, I have to admit that it has jobs and in this tight global economy, sometimes you just have to buckle down and go where the job market is. The reality is that the TEFL industry in Japan is only a shell of what it once was in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. While there are still are a fair number of positions throughout the country and always will be, the industry definitely peaked out in Japan years ago.

Consequently, competition for English speaking jobs in Japan is high, including Tokyo. However, due to the mere size of this city, most qualified westerners can usually manage to find a job. Such a teaching job may encompass a long commute and life in the more obscure suburbs of Tokyo, but one cannot deny the importance of steady work.

Who knows, you might end up liking it there. If you are looking for a job in Tokyo, I would start with the site Gaijin Pot.

4. Okinawa

I lived in Okinawa for nearly a year a half, so this pick might be a little bias. There are many things to love about Okinawa and they certainly outweigh the unattractive features. This tiny sliver of the earth remains a sought-after destination not only for the US military but for individuals from mainland Japan and the West. It is a fascinating little island and culturally speaking quite different than the mainland.

If you can manage to keep your distance from the military and shopping malls, it really can be a land of peace and beauty. If you are not into the hustle and bustle of the large cities and seek a more laid-back setting, then Okinawa is a great place to be.

Okinawa mostly makes this list simply because it is such a cool place to live and the beach. Unfortunately, you will have a much harder time finding a job there compared to Tokyo. If you do plan to teach in Okinawa, your best for employment is to work as an ALT. The vast majority of English teachers in Okinawa are ALTs.

Because Okinawans make less and don’t have nearly the same spending power as the mainlanders, the need for private language schools isn’t much. Most of the private language schools that do exist there only hire part-time. A good place to look for jobs and news in Okinawa is the site Japan Update.

3. Osaka

Osaka could definitely be number one on this list. The only reason it’s not is that it isn’t a city for everyone. However, for the right kind of personality, Osaka is the perfect place. If you prefer Los Angeles and San Francisco over Chicago, then Osaka might not be the best place for you. But if you adore Chicago and think that San Fran and Los Angeles are overrated, then you want to be in Osaka.

Although not as large as Tokyo, it is still a massive city. Unlike the stiffness of Tokyo, Osaka is a place with character, grit, and charm. It is a loud, bustling, noisy city and the people of Osaka are a reflection of that. While the Japanese have a reputation of being shy, Osakans are anything but. Show up at any bar in Osaka by yourself and you will likely find someone to talk your ear off.

Like Tokyo, there are a fair amount of jobs in Osaka and you can make close to a Tokyo salary. The cost of living, in general, isn’t as high as Tokyo, but it can be high in certain situations. There is a great mix of jobs in private language schools and public ones as assistant language teachers.

Osaka also has a vibrant foreign community and will be sure to run into many expats that can offer advice about the city, jobs and the need to know. Craigslist or Kansai Scene are good places to look for jobs in Osaka.

2. Sapporo

OK, so this pick is a little bias on my part only because I lived in Sapporo for two and half wonderful years. There aren’t enough good things I can say about this city. It is a place that I will always cherish and dream of returning to one day. It is a beautiful city in every way with friendly people, amazing food, snowy winters, and convenience.

It has all the amenities of Tokyo, yet it is like living in a large town. Not only is there a healthy foreign community there, but a lot of open-minded and hospitable Japanese that embrace the international culture.

Sapporo is a winter paradise for about 5 months of the year and a pleasant 25 to 30 degrees Celsius during the summer months. It also might be one of the greenest cities in all of Asia. The elongated Odori Park cuts right through the middle of the city and Maruyama Park offers a natural retreat just a few metro stops from downtown.

The downside of Sapporo is the job situation. Twenty years ago it would have been easy to find a job there, but even 7 or 8 years ago, the economy began to tighten up. While the cost of living is significantly less than Tokyo, this also means that Sapporo’s residents simply don’t have the same spending power as the Japanese in Tokyo and Osaka.

With that being said, there are still a fair amount of private language schools throughout the city and a good amount of ALT positions to be had. If you do manage to find a job in Sapporo, enjoy your time in this city. Hokkaido Insider is a good site to look for jobs in Sapporo and throughout Hokkaido.

1. Fukuoka

Like Sapporo, Fukuoka is a city that embraces the international culture and the Japanese there tend to be more open and easy going compared to the conservative nature of Tokyo. It is no wonder then that there is a strong ex-pat community in Fukuoka.

Roughly similar in size, it has been referred to as the southern version of Sapporo. A place of excellent food, friendly people, cool bars and an overall chill vibe. It made it to number one on this list simply because of the weather. Personally, I love the snow, but many people just cannot hack the long winters of Sapporo. If I were a person that couldn’t deal with snow, I would most definitely have gone to Fukuoka.

As far as the job market goes, similar story to Sapporo and Okinawa. There are jobs available, but not the mega market that exists in Tokyo and Osaka. If you decide to move there without a job, make sure to have at least a few months savings to hold you over. Check the job board on Fukuoka Now for the latest job opportunities in the area.

Is teaching English in Japan worth it?

Absolutely. Once you jump through all the hoops and have your work visa in hand, you can sigh with relief and enjoy all the sushi, ramen, mountain hiking, karaoke or whatever brought you to this amazing country in the first place.

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