So You Want to Teach English in Japan? This Is What You Need to Know First

Teacher in classroom
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Maybe you heard it through a friend, a forum, or someone at your university. They noted your interest in Japanese culture, language, or desire to work abroad. “Teach English in Japan!” they told you. “There are many ways to do it!” they said. But which way is best, and what does each path lead to? Read on to get the lowdown from someone with four years of English teaching experience under his belt.

The English Teaching Scene in Japan

Japanese Elementary Student

The only mandated foreign language that all students must learn in Japan is English. English education usually starts in junior high school (though some prefectures have recently begun implementing an English program starting from elementary school), and it is a required subject all the way through high school graduation. For students seeking entrance to universities, English is one of the required subjects they are tested on. In addition, many kids—and adults, for that matter—attend English classes outside of school at “eikaiwa” conversation classes or English language after-school care. This means there is a large market for English teachers, and along with it a variety of jobs one can take with no more requirements than a university degree and native English ability.

Exactly what kind of jobs exist, and how can one find a teaching position? Here is a breakdown of the English teaching market in Japan.

Government Work vs. Private Work

Japanese classroom

The first big fork in the road when deciding to teach English in Japan is choosing whether you will go the government route or the private route. The government route is the exclusive property of the JET Programme, or the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. Founded in 1978 for British university students, it came into its modern form in 1987, when it opened the program to people from all English-speaking countries.

What the JET Programme does is recruit native English speakers from around the world who want to be either Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in Japanese classrooms, Coordinators of International Relations (CIRs) that work with local city halls, or the rarer Sports Exchange Advisors (SEA). A majority (90%) of JETs become ALTs, and many of these end up working in high school classrooms. An ALT’s work consists of assisting the Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) with in-classroom lessons, preparing lesson materials, and participating in extracurricular activities like clubs or sports teams. 

The JET program only recruits however, it doesn’t employ. Once recruited, JETs are sent off to their contracting organizations, which can be either prefectural boards of education, local boards of education, or even direct hires of schools themselves. CIRs are similarly employees of their contracting city hall, not the program itself. All JETs are government employees with a few minor exceptions. 

Private work encompasses all other types of English teaching in Japan. This can be anything from private ALT dispatch companies and English conversation schools (eikaiwa), to business English schools and private tutoring. Each of these jobs involves a slightly different form of work that we’ll differentiate later in the article. For now, understand that the private English-teaching scene in Japan is quite large and in-demand.

Government Work (JET Programme)

Japanese middle schoolers

Salary (2020):

  • Year 1: ¥2,800,000
  • Year 2: ¥3,600,000
  • Year 3: ¥3,900,000
  • Year 4/5: ¥3,960,000

Hours: 35 hours a week, 8:30am to 5:15pm, Monday-Friday

Workday: Typically three 50-minute classes

To become a government worker, you must become a JET, as it is the only government-run program recruiting English teachers from abroad. JET has a fairly selective hiring process, as there are only about 6,000 positions across the entire country, many of which are occupied by people staying multiple years. Expect heavy competition. The application process opens up once a year in autumn, with a large and rather meticulous form that must be filled out in addition to an essay about your desire to become a JET. The application and essay will cull a good half or more of the applications to the program.

Several months later, for those chosen to proceed, there will be in-person interviews at a local Japanese consulate. The interview will be quick and anything from actively disarming to quite pleasant, depending on the people giving the interview. This again will cull applications until two lists are made in spring: one of those chosen for first-round placements, and one of those chosen as backup placements should a first-rounder drop out. The whole process can take half a year or more, and the actual start of the position won’t occur until the summer of the year after application.

The process, however arduous, is well worth it. As government employees, JETs gain a majority of the same benefits entitled to Japanese public service workers. Besides a healthy salary (which may actually be higher than your co-workers!) you may be entitled to rental subsidies, travel fees, paid leave (both for vacation and sickness), paid government holidays and summer vacation, government health insurance, social security benefits, taxation exemptions (in the case of American ALTs), and connection to an extremely wide pool of assistance from both the government and local/national JET chapters. JET, and the government path, is the gold standard for teaching English in Japan.

Private Work

Elementary students

Private work, on the other hand, is generally easier to get into. The hiring process depends heavily on which company you choose, but overall will be far less selective and punishing than JET, accepting a wider pool of applicants over the course of the year (as opposed to just a single month as with JET). Companies will often bring people in during the start of the school year, but if teachers drop out, replacements can come in at any time. This is often where people turn to when they don’t get into the JET program.

In exchange for the ease of entrance, those working for a private company lose out on all the benefits of being a government employee, including the generous salary that JET offers.

As noted before, the world of private work in Japan is quite large, so we’ll break it down into its component pieces and discuss each one in depth.

Private ALT Dispatch Companies

Japanese schoolyard

Example Salary: Between ¥2,400,000 and ¥2,700,000 per year

Hours: 8:00am to 5:00pm, Monday to Friday

Workday: Typically three to five 45-minute classes

This is one of the most stable of the private options and can be thought of as basically a non-government JET Programme. If working for an ALT dispatch company, you’ll be dispatched to several local elementary and junior high schools to help teach English classes, but your direct employer will be the dispatch company itself. Although you will only be paid for the days you work (which means no paid summer vacation), you will be given a regular enough schedule that your pay will be more or less equivalent to a normal salary. Some of the best-known ALT dispatch companies include Interac, Heart Corporation, Borderlink, and Altia Central.

It is also possible (in rare cases) to get a job as an ALT by contracting directly with an education board, without going through an ALT dispatch company. However, these opportunities are few and far between, and will most likely require you to already be living in Japan with a Visa.

Eikaiwa

Girl studying

Salary: Around ¥250,000 per month for a full-time position

Hours: 40 hours a week, 1:00pm to 9:00pm, weekdays and weekends

Workday: A series of small, 1-hour classes

In Japanese, “eikaiwa” (英会話) means “English conversation” and refers to private schools that teach more casual English lessons. Working at an eikaiwa means working at a single business, as opposed to being dispatched or contracted with a variety of schools. Your work will be mostly in the later afternoon and evening, as well as on weekends when the students have more time. Depending on your eikaiwa, you may teach elementary students, junior high school students, high school students, or even business people or adults through continuing education. Unlike regular school, students may fade-in and fade-out of class, depending on their own schedules and needs. Your class sizes can both bloom and shrink depending on the time of the year. 

These businesses are usually small and in high competition with one another. What this means is, again, is that each business is different, and your experience will depend heavily on where you end up working. Just like with private ALT companies, there are both good eikaiwa that respect their employees, and “black” companies (more on this below) that see teachers as an expendable commodity. In general, you can expect both a lower pay than at a private ALT company, as well as more hours, depending on the school and who they cater to. Depending on your contract, you may be able to live off a single eikaiwa job, though people often choose to work a side job to help make ends meet.

Some of the most well-known eikaiwa schools include: GABA, Berlitz, ECC, and AEON.

Business English Schools

Business class students

Salary: Starting at around ¥270,000 per month, going upwards of ¥450,000 for those with heavy business experience

Hours: 35 hours per week, depending on classes, weekdays

Workday: Dispatched to teach at various companies, workdays vary

The most professional option for teaching English in Japan is through a business English school/dispatch service. Many companies in Japan operate internationally or conduct business with vendors and clients abroad, and to do this, they need English-speaking staff. Oftentimes, companies will pay to send their employees to attend business English classes in order to sharpen their skills. As a business English teacher, you will be dispatched to various companies where you will work with groups of middle-aged students in conference rooms, teaching English that will help them navigate the corporate world.

Other than teaching general business terms, classes will generally cover things like interacting with English-speaking companies abroad, sending emails, and conducting and speaking up in English-only meetings. As the average age of these students is much older than that of a typical classroom, it requires a completely different skill set than that needed for teaching to high school or elementary school students. You still need a certain amount of energy and the ability to pace your classroom correctly, but since your students are adults—ostensibly responsible ones—you will need to treat the class and their needs more seriously.

After-School English Teacher

PIXTA

Salary: Around¥250,000 per month

Hours: 9:00am to 20:30pm with varying shifts, Monday to Friday

Workday: Varying amounts of classes

This is similar to teaching at an eikaiwa but is usually geared toward younger students, typically kindergarten through early elementary school. Whereas at eikaiwa the aim is to teach new English to complement public school education, after-school programs tend towards practical English usage, practicing what the kids know in a fun environment. Teachers will often play games with the students and sing songs, keeping the class active and engaged. Compared with other options, after school teachers need to have a lot of energy and to be able to handle children for long hours at a time. Compared with junior high and high school, it can be exhausting!

Private Preschool or Kindergarten

Kindergartners at sports day

Salary: Starting at around ¥260,000 per month

Hours: 9:00am to 2:30pm (possibly later, depending on schedule), Monday to Friday

Workday: Classes are in the morning, with after-school activities in the afternoon

Like the after-school teacher, this job involves working with young children. However, it can be both more structured and less structured in comparison. There is more structure in that it involves working with the same students every day. As a teacher, you work at only one school with fixed attendance, so you will see every student that attends that school from the time they enter through graduation. There’s less structure, however, in that although you might be the primary English teacher, teaching kindergartners English generally isn’t the focus of the school. English education at this age is more of an addendum to far more important subjects, and your schedule will vary considerably with the goals of the school for that day or month. You might have normal classroom time with your students, or you might be sent to change a diaper in the bathroom, or taken on a field trip with very little notice. It requires both high energy and flexibility, so it definitely isn’t for everyone.

Private Tutoring

Student and tutor

Salary: Around ¥3000 per hour

Hours: Depends on how many students you tutor

Workday: Sessions are typically an hour, but vary depending on the needs of the student

At the bottom of the list is private tutoring. It is best to treat private tutoring like a part-time job, as you will be paid on a per-session basis. Usually, private tutoring is done in addition to eikaiwa or private ALT work. (An aside, JETs are often tempted to take private tutoring jobs on the side, though this is actually illegal. Government employees in Japan are not allowed to hold more than one job). With private tutoring, expect to get to know single students extremely well, and unlike eikaiwa where lessons will be more generalized for a bigger class, tutoring work is tailored to the student and their needs. Out of the bunch, this is the most irregular. Not only will you need to find your own students to tutor—which is a process in and of itself—but your students will pop in and out of class depending on how they feel or their own schedules. In turn, tutoring should definitely not be taken as a guaranteed form of income. 

A Note on Similarities – Placements

Japanese countryside

In the case of both government work (the JET Programme) and many private companies (especially ALT dispatch companies), expect similar placements. Eschew those big-city dreams of living it up in Tokyo and Osaka as, while a majority of Japanese people live in giant metropolises, a majority of schools don’t. It’s just a matter of numbers, but there are more schools with small populations of rural students than there are big schools full of urban students.

While Tokyo does have far more schools than any other city and there is a chance you could be placed there, it’s better to go into the experience expecting that your placement, JET or private, might be in the countryside. Don’t be surprised if you’re dropped into a tiny mountain village serviced by a single lane road, or a small rust-belt town where you’ll need to plan trips into the nearest city in order to shop. Rarely, people even get sent to far-flung islands, the kind where if you want to go to Tokyo, it’s on a boat that stops by once a week. However, these sorts of rural towns need ALTs and English teachers just as much as the glitzy schools in Tokyo.

That being said, Japan is an extraordinarily dense country. So dense, that even the most forlorn countryside hamlet is usually never more than an hour or two from a major metropolis—and in most cases, far closer. Trains are everywhere in the country, and the roads are serviceable so that no matter where you are (barring those on an island adventure), you can get yourself to an urban center relatively easily. 

Where Do You Find a Job Teaching English in Japan?

Job search

The internet! Well, of course, there’s a bit more nuance to it than that but for the most part, that’s how you will find these jobs. 

The JET Programme will of course post the application portal on their website for about one month every year, around the beginning of the fall term. If you’re planning on applying, it’s best to get most of your documents (and especially your essay!) in order before the application opens up. 

As for private companies, there are two ways to go about it. The first is to search for actual positions. Many companies that need an English teacher will post positions on job boards such as Gaijinpot, Daijob, or O-HAYO SENSEI. These jobs will usually be for eikaiwa or individual schools that want to hire directly. When using these sites, make sure that the job you are applying for offers visa support, as some jobs require that applicants already have a visa and are in Japan.

The second way is to find the companies themselves, as in the case of ALT dispatch companies. You will usually apply on their website, just like with the JET Programme but with a bigger window. They will then go through the process of hiring you and finding schools for you to work at. 

The JET Programme, private ALT dispatch companies, and most eikaiwa will go through the effort of making sure you have housing when you get to Japan. They will set you up with an apartment or home to live in initially, though depending on your contract you can move and find your own place if you’re not happy. 

Visas

Japan visa

Visas are big, and determine exactly what you can and cannot do when you come to Japan. Tourist visas limit the amount of time you can stay in Japan and prevent you from working, while different kinds of working visas also delineate things to a very specific degree. You will need a visa before you come to Japan, or you will at least need to begin the process of getting one.

That being said, companies that look to hire help abroad will generally have the visa system down. The JET Programme, eikaiwa, and ALT dispatch companies will not only sponsor new hires but generally go through the process of getting their visa sorted before they come to Japan. If the company doesn’t do it before, they will at least help when you get here. In general, the company wants you to be able to stay and work!

There are two types of visas for teaching English in Japan. The first is the “Instructor” visa, which people working at a typical public school will usually have. This visa is specific to teaching English, meaning you would need to change visas in order to work in a different type of job if you decided to quit. However, if your first job as an English teacher doesn’t work out and you wish to change to a different English teaching company, you can do so on your instructor visa (though the new company will need to sponsor you when it comes time to renew your visa).

The other type of visa that teachers at eikaiwa or other private, non-traditional schools use is the “Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services” visa. Unlike the instructor visa, this visa is much more flexible and can be used at a variety of jobs giving you more options should your first job not work out.

Regardless of visa type, you will only be allowed to stay in Japan for as long as your visa is valid (in terms of years) and will need to renew the visa before it expires. Some companies will go through the effort of sponsoring you, while others will make you self-sponsor or expect you to already have a visa. Make sure you understand what your company will do for you before signing a contract, otherwise you will have to leave Japan when your old visa is up. 

Black Companies

Overworked

The tricky part of finding a job teaching English in Japan is avoiding so-called “black companies.” Black company (ブラック企業)is a Japanese term for an exploitive workplace with sweatshop-like conditions. These companies will expect employees to work long hours for low wages with excessive amounts of overtime (and no compensation to boot!). These companies are just as prevalent in the English teaching world as they are outside of it.

Looking for English teaching jobs overseas can be a bit of a minefield and oftentimes, the smaller the company you’re looking at, the bigger the risk that they might treat their employees poorly. Finding out which companies are potentially “black” is very important before coming to Japan, or you may find yourself in for several very uncomfortable months as you try to search for a new job.

To find out if a job offer is from a so-called black company, you need to do your research. The smaller the company, the harder you will have to search for testimony from former employees. While applying, you can also look for big red flags, things like if they expect you to come over on a tourist visa, or if they want you to work as a volunteer initially while they sort paperwork. Similarly, look at the hours they want you to work. If it’s below 30 but not considered part-time, chances are they don’t want to pay for your health insurance while still making you work all day. When applying, make sure to ask questions about the turn-over rate and how overtime is compensated. If you ever feel uncomfortable, or the employer seems dodgy, look somewhere else. 

In general, the bigger the company, the less likely they are to be “black.” They’ll have had years of experience working with bringing in ALTs from abroad and will have little desire to skirt the law. When in doubt, go big. 

The Odds and Ends

No Japanese Required, But Japanese Required

Can you speak Japanese?

You don’t need to speak Japanese to get an English speaking job in Japan. Plenty of companies will promote the idea that you can get by on English only, and plenty of people will come to Japan with that mentality in mind. That being said, you can get by living in Japan without speaking Japanese, however, whether or not you want to is an entirely different question.

Japanese people, in general, don’t speak very much English. Even in the cities, where you might expect a more cosmopolitan culture, we’re looking at a country where demographically, 98% of the people are Japanese. When an average Japanese person does speak English (unless the person does it recreationally or for work) it’ll be with whatever English they haven’t forgotten since high school and won’t stray far from basic phrases and words. This will only be more extreme the more rural you go. As an English speaker with no Japanese skills in the middle of Japanese farm country, you will be relying heavily on English speaking Japanese friends, your company, or your phone to do trivial things like withdraw money or shop for food. Going to the store will become a hassle, and getting anything done can seem like an unending chain of uncomfortable situations.

So yes, you can get by in Japan without Japanese, plenty of people do. But even a little, cursory knowledge will go miles for increasing your quality of life. You don’t even need to speak it properly. If you string together related words, Japanese people can easily fill in the gaps and help you with whatever you need. Worst case scenario, there’s always Google translate in your pocket to help you out, but it’s there as a translation aid, not a translator. With some very basic Japanese, Google translate, and a lot of patience, living in Japan will go from annoying to easy relatively quickly. Learn it back home or learn it in Japan, it doesn’t matter as long as you try.

ESID

Friendly Japanese people

If you don’t know ESID, you’ll learn it upon coming to Japan. The unofficial motto of the JET Programme and just about any English teaching job in the country is ESID, or “Every Situation is Different.” Everyone comes here with different attitudes and expectations, and everyone will have different experiences and leave with different feelings. Your friend who recommended you for a job might have a blast playing sports all day with kindergarten kids and then karaoke all night with Japanese salarymen in the city. You, accepting the same job, might be a desk warmer and human tape recorder for some unenthused high schoolers, while living in a place that can only be described as “Showa era.” Teaching English in Japan is a job, and like any other job, it will be what you make of it. Japan is a big place, full of millions upon millions of people. Don’t expect to live the same life here as some vlogger on Youtube, for better or for worse. 

That being said, I suggest a second, addendum motto. EWTHY, or “Everyone Wants to Help You.” Japanese people are no different from any other people on this planet. Throw away whatever preconceptions you have of the country because chances are they’re wrong. Everyone here is living a normal life, just like you. Everyone is well aware that you’ve traveled thousands of miles from home, probably hopping an ocean or two, leaving friends and family behind to live and work here. They will go out of their way to make you feel welcome, to help you solve your issues, and to make your life as stress-free as possible. Far from brushing you off, most will lend you a helping hand, even if you sometimes have to go out of your way to ask for it. If you’re at all worried about a cold shoulder or being left alone in some foreign land, don’t be. You’re surrounded by friends and neighbors, coworkers and family, and they’ll all be the nicest people you’ve ever met.

In Closing

Working in Japan isn’t for everyone. Teaching English isn’t for everyone. But at the end of the day, it can be an amazing, once in a lifetime experience that few can boast of. If you have the will, there’s a way, and you too can find yourself living it up in Japan.

If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you’d really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook! 

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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