If you’ve been researching the best places to teach English abroad, you will likely find that China, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam often make the top of everyone’s list. This is mostly due to the number of available jobs, ability to save money, cost of living or some combination of all three elements. However, if there is one place that still lures in the curious Westerner, it is Japan.
When you think about, it’s not surprising that Japan remains one of the top places to teach English and live abroad for the young and young at heart. While it may have all of the modern amenities like any developed country, there remains a hidden and idiosyncratic culture behind the mirage of technology, human-like robots, and extensive train systems. It by far offers some of the best places to teach English in the world.
I should know since I had the chance to live and teach English in Japan for four years. It was an experience of a lifetime. I didn’t save much money, pay off any student loans or find the meaning of life, but I lived a life within a life, grew to know more about myself, came close to mastering Japanese and viewed the world from the lens of an alternative perspective. In a land that tries to so hard to imitate the West, the reality is that Japan has always and continues to offer ideas that have also been embraced by the West.
On the surface, it is a nation of friendly and hospitable people. This is one of the prevailing stereotypes of Japan and rightfully so. I was treated well during my time there and I have tried to incorporate those same ideas in my own life since coming back to the United States. In reality, 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.
During my four years there, I traveled extensively throughout the country. I lived in Sapporo, which is in the far north of the country, before moving to the other side to Okinawa where I finished out the final one and half years of my stay. If you are thinking of moving to Japan, keep in mind that there is more variation throughout the country then one might expect.
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. 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.
If you are looking for more information about the job market in Japan, check out The Guide To Teaching English In Japan.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, that is my five best cities to teach English in Japan. Again, I devised this list based on the quality of life and possibility of finding a job. Please don’t let this top five deter you from living in other parts of Japan. There are many other notable places that deserve to be mentioned.