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Teach English in Japan: An Introduction & Guide

A hugely popular culture and a TEFL industry on the rebound

Thinking of teaching English in Japan? Hopefully this country profile will help clear up most of your questions.

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Looking for the jobs?
If you're just looking for the jobs, then you can view all jobs in Japan here..

We'll go over everything from how much you can earn and where you can work, to how to get a visa and find a house (that part's easy actually, many jobs in Japan will provide you with accommodation although you'll still have to pay for it.

To give you an idea of what's in the knowledge, we've listed a number of common questions that we go over in the knowledge.

  1. The basics
  2. Where can you teach in Japan?
  3. An overview of the ALT programme
  4. What do you need to know about housing in Japan?
  5. What kind of qualifications do you need to work in Japan and how do you go about getting the right visa?
  6. How do taxes and social security work in Japan?

Looking for a quick summary before you dive in?

There are two main kinds of English teaching jobs in Japan: private school positions in eikaiwa's (privately owned English conversation schools) and public school positions in the ALT programme. Teachers in Japan on average earn between 240,000 - 260,000 JPY and tax & social security will usually take between 10% to 16% of your salary. Eikaiwa's will typically pay slightly better as do positions in large cities like Tokyo and Osaka. See our pages on how much can you earn teaching in Japan and Japanese cost of living budget for more information.

There are 2 main requirements for teaching English in Japan: a bachelors degree and having English as your first language (i.e. a native speaker). You don't need a TEFL certification, although obviously that will help both with teaching and allowing you to get better positions.

There are also two main visa's that people use to teach in Japan: a working holiday visa and a work visa. Working holiday visa's are only available up until you're 35 and they're often used by graduates either looking for a gap year and wanting to travel Japan, or as a easy way to get started on a longer term position. (For more details see our Japan requirements and visa information section).

Immediate questions satisfied? Time to dive in.

A Short Introduction

Japan’s English language industry has gone through a number of ups and downs. A boom, a bust and a slow re-growth towards something more stable.

Like many countries Japan is pushed towards the English language because of its importance in the global economy. A large number of students still study overseas, although this has decreased in recent years and it remains an important way for the Japanese to be exposed to different cultures.

Why teach English in Japan

  1. Learn Japanese
  2. Experience Japan’s very different and specific culture
  3. Travel Japan & Climb Mount Fuji
  4. A large English language industry in a developed country

The best place for learning Japanese is obviously Japan. Although there are emigrant communities in places like Brazil and Hawaii, and you'll find Japanese expat communities in large cities, the only place you’ll truly be able to surround yourself in Japanese is in Japan.

Knowing some Japanese before you arrive is also a big advantage when getting a job in Japan. Especially in highly competitive programmes like JET, knowing Japanese gives you a big leg up. It shows your interest in Japan and increases your chance of being able to fit into the job, particularly in rural positions where you might be the only foreigner.

Japan not only has a lot of heritage culture, it also has a popular culture which has been very successfully exported. Most people have a very powerful picture of what they imagine Japan to be like, they can picture the traditional: architecture, clothing and food etc. and then the modern: anime, manga, J-pop, fashion and television. Aside from western culture, very few modern cultures have been exported as successfully as Japan's.

Of course if you love all of that, then you already know why you want to come to Japan. For those who don’t, coming to Japan gives you a chance to experience those two very different cultures side by side.

Most countries have beautiful travel spots and Japan is no different, what works to its advantage is its size. As a small country with an excellent transport system, it’s far easier to take time to go and visit the scenic spots, you’re even able to climb Mount Fuji. If you’re lucky enough to be around in March and April you can take to the parks with the crowds to enjoy the Cherry Blossom festival, where the country is transformed in a blaze of pink.

Unlike many of the countries in Asia where people go to teach English, Japan is very much a developed country and one of the world’s largest economies. Aside from the wild differences in culture, it is very much a modern country similar to where you might live now. The trade-off is cost of living, but by moving to Japan you’re going from one developed country to another with all the creature comforts it entails. In terms of crime Japan is also considered one of the safest countries to live in.

What to be aware of

The food

The food in Japan is heavily based on seafood (island nation). If you don’t like seafood then finding things to eat in Japan becomes a lot more difficult.

That’s not to say there isn’t huge variety, there is, but a lot of it will be based on seafood or rice (often both) and if you can’t get along with them then Japan becomes that bit more expensive and difficult.

Earthquakes

When it comes to crime Japan is a very safe country, its crime statistics are some of the best. However Japan is also notoriously earthquake prone, one of the world's most active fault lines sits directly below it. It’s had large earthquakes almost every year in the 2000s, often more than one a year.

Of course the country has built around this, earthquake insurance is its own separate insurance in Japan and earthquakes are so common they often don’t even make the news. However like in 2011, occasionally there’s a true calamity and genuine problems. Odds are you’ll be fine, but it’s worth mentioning.

Small living quarters

Japan has a large population and is a small country. Your apartment is probably going to be a lot smaller than you’re used to, if you’re living in Japan you’ll have to learn how to make do on less space. (This is all covered in-depth in the accommodation section.)

A little bit of history of the English teaching industry

Japan’s English teaching industry has a bit of a turbulent history which is worth knowing.

Although it’s done well, especially considering the problems Japan itself has, the ESL industry has had some very public ups and downs. In the 80s and early 90s it went through a giant boom, Japan's crash in the early 90s slowed it down slightly, but it still continued to grow with Nova leading the charge. Then in 2007 and 2010 the industry suffered the bankruptcies of two of the largest private English language chains, Nova and GEOS respectively.

Nova was the largest eikaiwa, but after very rapid expansion, hits to its reputation and lawsuits, it collapsed in a similar way to a bank. Students began cancelling their contracts, getting refunds and Nova’s debt began grow. The panic caused a vicious circle of more people withdrawing their contracts and more money leaving Nova, until it started to struggle to pay everyday expenses like its teachers salaries. In 2007 it collapsed completely.

The brand still exists today, it was bought out and restructured by G.Communication but it’s not the giant it once was. Since 2010 the industry has recovered and continued to grow at a more reasonable pace with the ECC, Gaba and Aeon now the largest 3 private language employers.

Nova was the first large company to go bankrupt, GEOS was the second. It wasn’t hit with the media storm that Nova suffered but it still went bankrupt. Like Nova it was also bought out by G.Communication, although unlike Nova it no longer has any running schools in Japan and now only exists as a couple of chain schools outside Japan.

The industry has slowly recovered since then and is now growing steadily at around 2% a year. The most recent market report for 2013 by Yano Research, put growth in 2012 at 2.7% and predicted an even larger jump for 2013 of 4.3% up to 823 billion yen. Large Japanese companies like Fast Retailing and Rakuten have chosen to use English as their business language and English is still viewed as increasingly important.

That doesn't mean it's all sunshine and roses however, entry level wages have remained fairly static for teachers, partly because although the industry has gone through all these ups and downs, the number of people wanting to teach has remained reasonably constant (particularly in the new millennium). So it's a mixed bag.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing there’s a far more detailed report by the British Council on the English language industry in Japan (2013) that you can pick apart here. You can find the key findings of the Yano report here, but you will have to drop a grand to read the whole thing. So maybe just stick with the cliff notes.

Image Attribution:

"Shibuya Scramble Crossing" by Yoshikazu TAKADA is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
"Class Photo" by gwaar is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
"JLPT lvl3 - passed" by w00kie is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Photo has been cropped.
"A sunday in full cherry blossom season" by yisris is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Photo has been cropped.
"Aerial view of Oshima-Mura, Japan, 11 days after the earthquake." by Official U.S. Navy Page is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Photo has been cropped.

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