For most westerners, the thought of Japan conjures up images of Tokyo high-rises, expensive sushi dinners, and flashy anime shows. These are just a few aspects of a beautifully diverse country that spans from the snowy mountains in Hokkaido to the tropical island of Okinawa. Teaching jobs in Japan can be an incredibly rewarding experience even for folks who don’t wish to pursue a lifetime career in education, as the classroom often becomes a center of cultural exchange. Those who teach in Japan will learn about the depth of Japan’s history, culture, and people daily.
If international candidates pursue teaching jobs in Japan through a well-established and popular program like JET, the majority of placements will be located in smaller rural areas, in public high schools, or middle schools. The Japanese Ministry of education was created intentionally, to provide rural students with exposure to foreigners that they might not otherwise experience. In larger cities like Nagoya or Yokohama, many teachers work with private corporations, teaching in language schools that offer a range of classes from private tutoring to conversation classes.
For someone looking to teach abroad in Japan in a city-based placement, there are a few large cities other than Tokyo to consider. The Kansai region is home to Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Kobe. Each of these cities strikes a pleasant balance between old world and modern city, with both an abundance of temples and traditional landmarks, and all the convenience of an urban center. Living in one of these cities also ensures you are only a short train ride away from another city filled with cultural diversions, so boredom will never be an issue for teachers who choose to teach in Japan.
If you’re hoping to pursue a quieter lifestyle, much of Japan is made up of rural farmland, and there are plenty of opportunities for interested teachers who want to teach in Japan at a local school. The Tohoku region in the north of Japan’s main island, Honshu, offers incredible scenery as the backdrop to life in the country. This region is known for its ski resorts and natural onsens (hot springs), but this region isn’t yet filled with tourists, so don’t expect to run into many foreigners.
Okinawa is another unique location to consider for teaching jobs in Japan. This small island is located off the coast of Japan, so many Okinawans consider their culture to be distinct from the rest of the country. These differences are evident in many of the local customs, the local dialect, and even the Okinawan cuisine. There is a large military presence from the United States in Okinawa, so you may want to consider if you are comfortable being mistaken for a serviceman or woman when you are outside of the school environment.
Typically, teaching abroad in Japan is relegated to teaching English as a Second Language. There are a few rare positions for professorships at Universities, but for the most part Japanese courses are instructed in Japanese. Not all programs or companies require formal English education degrees to find employment, as the emphasis is often on building conversation skills and honing pronunciation. However, a TEFL certification can make a candidate a more appealing new hire for teaching jobs in Japan.
Depending on the program, teachers may be placed in middle and high schools. Opportunities to become a primary school teacher in Japan, or be placed in kindergartens or preschools, is fairly rare, but is an option periodically. In a private language school, teachers could find themselves teaching children who are not yet school age or teaching adults senior citizens. However, the biggest demand for English language instruction is in middle to high schools, where students are required to study English as part of the national curriculum. Just a few years back, the Japanese government extended the years of required English education to include the fifth and sixth grade, which may create a larger demand for elementary school teachers in Japan over the next few years.
Teachers who teach in Japan will have varied schedules depending on their placement or position. Some programs require that teachers work a standard work week schedule (which provides a nice sense of structure), while private companies may require teachers negotiate their schedule with their employer, which can provide for greater control in some cases, or more frustration, depending upon your personality. Taking time to consider the type of work environment will ultimately help you decide which route to pursue. Also, understanding that with teaching experience you can apply for a different set of teaching jobs in Japan than those that are offered to first-time teachers.
Teachers’ wages in Japan will vary greatly depending on the employer. The cost of living in Japan can be higher, in some cases, in comparison to the United States, but generally employers strive to provide teachers with a good living wage. Some programs are set up to ensure all teachers receive the same compensation no matter their placement, so you can calculate your living costs even before you arrive. Private companies will sometimes work on a commission basis, so you will need to be prepared to bring in and keep new students in these cases.
Taxes can be a complicated and intimidating issue for teachers who go abroad for the first time. However, America and Japan have an agreement that caps the amount of foreign income earned that American citizens must pay taxes on, and Japan allows international residents (with valid visas!) to claim tax-exemption for the first two years of their residency. Essentially, for the first two years of most teaching jobs in Japan, you must report your earned income to the IRS, but you can take home all your wages without taxation from Japan or the United States. Several other countries have similar agreements with Japan, but you should always check with your home country prior to filing your taxes.
Housing in Japan is quite different from most western countries. Size matters in Japan, and Japanese homes often have to maximize minimal space available. Central heating and air conditioning are rare in Japan, and the costs associated with the use of these comforts can be relatively high. Many international teachers who teach in Japan live in their own accommodations, and finding housing without the help of a local can prove to be tricky. It’s often best to negotiate with your employer prior to arrival to help with securing accommodations, so there is no confusion as to where you will be staying when you arrive on Japanese soil.
The Japanese government does have strict guidelines when it comes to internationals working in Japan. Most employers will help with the visa application process, as you will need a sponsor to obtain a working visa. Don’t expect to be able to find legitimate salaried work on a tourist visa in Japan; you will most likely only be able to find “under the table” freelance work without a proper visa, which comes with its own set of frustrations and issues. The best route to obtaining a proper visa is to first find an employer, while still in your home country, so they can assist you. Visa processing with the Japanese embassy, while not complicated, can be time consuming, so contact your local Japanese embassy or consulate early on.
The market for teaching jobs in Japan has always been fairly robust for native English speakers willing to teach English as a second language. Although in recent years there has been a push to include Chinese language instruction, English is still one of the most in demand languages in Japan.
International teachers should be aware that while Japan is generally a safe and pleasant country to reside in, any criminal behavior from a foreigner is dealt with harshly. Recreational drug use is particularly stigmatized in Japanese culture, and anyone caught with an illegal substance is subject to deportation.
Teaching in Japan provides valuable skills in many different ways depending on the teaching placement. Many international teachers use teaching as a foot in the door to Japanese employment, moving away from education to private industry after their contracts have expired. For candidates with no previous exposure to Japanese culture, it may simply be a chance to test the waters of international English teaching or international travel and education.
Whatever has sparked your interest in teaching in Japan, you will discover a thousand more reasons to love this unique island country upon your arrival.