How to Teach English in Japan – the Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

by Callum Howe
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So you’re dreaming of living in Japan? Dreams are all well and good, but when it comes time to make them a reality, practicalities come to the fore. Getting a visa and making enough money to live are the two basic foundations of a new life overseas, upon which you can build a lifestyle of exploration and discovery. If you have solid English skills and enjoy working with people, then the doors are open to you for a career in language teaching overseas. But how easy is it to teach in Japan, and can a job like this sustain the lifestyle you want?

Well, the good news is that it’s relatively easy to land a teaching job in Japan, provided you fulfill a few key criteria. As one of the wealthiest economies, Japan has no shortage of people that need English to get by in the world of international business. It also has plenty of avid travelers who study English as a hobby, and students desperately trying to land a place at a top university.

To support them, a whole industry and culture of English education have sprung up over the past few decades. Within it, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to land your first Japanese teaching job. Let’s take a look at what kinds of jobs are available, and what you need to do to get one.

Japan has some of the most populous cities in the world, such as Tokyo, which are all brimming with English teaching opportunities.

Do I Qualify?

The first hurdle you’ll have to clear is finding out whether you’re eligible to work in Japan. You’re probably aware that in the US and other countries, school teachers require special training and licenses. However, to teach English in Japan, the requirements are actually a lot more relaxed. There are just a few boxes you have to tick (with some workarounds if you aren’t able to do so).

University Degree

The first is a university degree. As Japan is an overwhelmingly middle-class nation, around 90% of the population attends university after finishing high school. Because of that, the visa application process is pretty well weighted in the favor of degree holders.

If you have at least a bachelor’s degree, it will make things a lot easier for you when trying to find a teaching job in Japan. It can be in any field. Literally, any. Your degree could be in computer science or textile design — it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a degree.

If you don’t hold a university degree, don’t give up just yet! There are a few workarounds you can use to get your Japan visa, after which you can apply to teach English part-time. Skip ahead to our section on working holiday visas and student visas to see how. 

English Language Ability

This one goes without saying, but if you’re a non-native English speaker who wants to teach English in Japan, you might be wondering exactly what level is required. The job listings will usually demand native or near-native levels, but the reality is a little different.

To be totally honest, if you’re comfortable speaking with your friends in English and don’t make too many mistakes, you’ll be able to teach the vast majority of Japanese students. Just being somewhere in the advanced band should suffice (although I’ve had coworkers in the past who were only around upper-intermediate).

In recent years, it’s become something of a trend for conversation schools in Japan to sell themselves as places to learn truly international English. That means they’re usually keen to hire a spread of native and non-native speakers from around the world, all speaking their own dialects. Because if Kenji the salaryman only learns his English from a Londoner, he’ll be totally lost on his business trips to Boston and Singapore. 

A Clean Record

This is not a hard and fast requirement, but many of the teaching companies in Japan will ask you to submit to a criminal background check. If you’re unable or unwilling to provide one, this could limit your number of opportunities. 

You don’t need a university degree to teach English here, but it helps.

What Jobs are Out There?

Now let’s take a look at exactly what type of job you’ll be doing in Japan. The English teaching industry is vast and varied, so there are jobs to suit pretty much any lifestyle or personality. Although salaries have dropped since the English teaching boom of the 90s, you’re likely to find something below to suit your qualifications and requirements.

Public School Jobs

Average Pay: ¥175,000 – 250,000 a month.

This is probably the most well-known way of landing a first teaching job in Japan, thanks in part to the government-sponsored JET Programme. This initiative takes English speakers from over 50 participant countries around the world and places them in public schools around Japan.

The deal they offer is pretty sweet, covering the cost of your flight to Japan, and helping with everything from getting your apartment to meeting new friends. You won’t have to worry about getting a foothold in Japan if you land a spot with JET. That’s no small task though, as you’ll have to pass a pretty intense selection process.

If you get turned down, there are plenty of other ways to teach in Japanese public schools. Private dispatch companies such as Borderlink have contracts with thousands of schools, and their recruitment processes are often less strict than JET’s. 

Be warned however: many of these companies (such as Interac) have quite bad reputations among the expats of Japan, and salaries tend to be quite low. Just make sure you know exactly what you’re signing up for, and don’t let anyone exploit your burning desire to come to Japan for their own gain!

Whichever avenue you take, the job will usually consist of delivering lessons to large classrooms of kids from elementary to high school age. Most positions will have you teach solo while coordinating with the Japanese teaching staff at the school. You may also have to travel between several schools in a week.

If you land a good position at a good school, these jobs can be a dream. You’ll have your weekends free, stable hours, and the chance to help out with some school clubs and activities. Being a part of a Japanese school community is an excellent way to really connect with locals.

The main downside is that placements are often a total lottery. Instead of applying for a specific position, you’ll usually only find out where you’re being stationed far into the application process (sometimes even after arriving in Japan). You might request a position under the neon lights of central Osaka, but find yourself in a rural town in the Nagano mountains where nobody speaks English! 

The countryside of Japan is beautiful, but maybe it’s not the sort of place you’re looking to start your new life overseas.

Private School Jobs

Average pay: ¥250,000 – 350,000 a month.

If you have your heart set on a specific location, and already have some teaching experience under your belt, then maybe a private school is the best choice. All of the major cities in Japan have international schools across the whole spectrum of grade levels. Because these places charge huge fees from the parents of their students, you’ll typically find that they offer much more agreeable salaries.

You’ll also be able to apply directly to the school, so you’ll know exactly where you’ll be teaching. Expect to fight hard to land one of these jobs, with those holding an MA degree and at least 5 years of experience getting priority. Certain schools might also give preference to applicants from specific countries. For example, the Canadian International School Tokyo prefers teachers who have experience inside the Canadian education system.

Eikaiwa Jobs

Average pay: ¥200,000-275,000 a month.

Eikaiwa is the Japanese word for conversation schools. These are private, commercial institutions usually attended by adults looking to improve their English speaking skills. You’ll find all kinds of people studying here, from university students to elderly retirees. Many companies also offer lessons for kids too. 

The teaching is typically done 1-to-1, in blocks of around 45-60 minutes. The lessons can be quite casual (for hobbyist learners) or very intense and structured (for businesspeople who need to improve quickly). Typically companies will offer a 3 or 4-day intensive training course to give you the core teaching skills to succeed.

One of the greatest benefits of these jobs is that you’ll be teaching through conversation, so you’ll learn a huge amount about Japanese culture and people. In my 18 months working at eikaiwa, I learned more about Japanese humor, life, religion, food, and business than in my many years of reading about the country. 

Some of the top eikaiwa in Japan include Gaba, Berlitz, and Nova. The job is roughly the same across all of them. However, at Gaba, teachers can set their own schedule. This incredible flexibility is great if you’re looking to travel around Japan. The only downside is that it can result in a very volatile income, and comes with no paid vacation. Most other companies tend to offer their teachers fixed-salary contracts instead.

Eikaiwa companies are absolutely huge, with thousands of schools around the country. They may just be your best bet for landing a job in the city of your choice (rather than rolling the dice on a public school placement location). The downside is that you’ll likely have to say goodbye to your weekends and evenings for the foreseeable future — those are the peak times for lessons.

Having a good knowledge of business English and corporate culture can help you gain an edge as an eikaiwa teacher, but you’ll find a niche no matter your background.

Cafe Jobs

Average pay: ¥1,000 – 1,500 an hour.

One of the newest ways for Japanese people to learn English is by going to English cafes. These typically have a more relaxed atmosphere than the eikaiwa, marketed as places to drop by and enjoy a fun chat in English. Because of that, they don’t charge their customers as much and therefore don’t offer as much money to teachers. 

They also rarely offer visa sponsorship. This is because the Japanese government has quite strict regulations about the number of hours that staff has to work to justify a visa, and cafes typically only offer part-time positions. However, if you already have your visa sorted through other means, cafe jobs can be a great way to supplement your income and meet some Japanese students in a chilled atmosphere. And hey — free coffee!

University Jobs 

Average pay: ¥275,000 – 550,000 a month.

If you’re planning on making a career in English teaching in Japan, you might want to aspire to teach at the university level. You can’t just waltz into one of these positions with no prior experience. In fact, it’s unlikely that they’ll even glance at your resume without an MA or PhD in linguistics, language acquisition, or a related field. That’s because jobs at universities require a high level of expertise. You’ll likely be helping plan the curriculum as well as delivering lessons in lectures, seminars, and private sessions. 

The salary will depend on whether you’re a full member of the faculty or just a contract hire. The former enjoy full benefits, salaries up to 500k JPY, and loads of paid time off across the holidays between semesters. The latter still gets a pretty good deal and some excellent experience, but the pay will usually flutter somewhere around 300k per month. 

For faculty positions, the competition is extra fierce. Universities will tend to prefer long-time residents or those who plan to stay in Japan for quite some time. It’s also often a case of ‘who you know, not what you know’. If you can get an in with an existing faculty member, their recommendation will do you the world of good. 

Dispatch company positions aren’t quite so difficult to land. However, you’ll still need a solid background in teaching and a master’s degree. These short contracts usually last about 3 or 6 months and are available through companies like Westgate. 

Tokyo University consistently ranks among the best in the world, so you’ll need to maintain a high standard of teaching to get and keep a job there.

Online Jobs 

Average pay: ¥1,000 – 2,500 a lesson.

Although many of the online teaching companies aren’t based in Japan, they’re still popular among Japanese students. This means they offer a great chance to cut your teeth as a teacher or to generate some extra income on the side. All you need is a computer, webcam, and internet connection. 

Now is a better time than ever to get into online teaching, due to the impact of COVID-19. The big eikaiwa schools will likely be ramping up their online activities in order to insulate themselves from any further restrictions or relapses, so if you feel comfortable teaching through Skype then you’ll probably be able to earn a decent living from the comfort of your own home!

Sites like Italki and CafeTalk can help you find students and build your online teaching business. They allow you to set up a profile, advertise the exact services you want to provide and receive messages from prospective students who want to take your lessons. Whether it’s your main income stream or just a supplement to help you afford Tokyo rent prices, you’d be a fool not to jump on the digital bandwagon of online teaching.

Freelance Tutoring

Average pay: ¥3,000 – 5,000 an hour.

If you already feel comfortable as a teacher and want to go it alone, Japan is a pretty good place to do so. For a single one-hour lesson, freelance teachers can expect to earn up to quadruple what their peers working in eikaiwa make! 

After I quit my last job, one of my favorite students asked if we could have private lessons. Without discussing rates, I went along to his office and taught him for two hours. In the end, he handed me ¥20,000 ($185) in cash! Amazingly, that was how much he had been paying at the eikaiwa. Of course, I couldn’t accept (daylight robbery isn’t my thing) so we agreed on a reasonable rate that gave us both a great deal by cutting out the middle man.

It might sound like a dream job, but there are two major obstacles to clear: the visa and the client base. It’s almost impossible to sponsor your own visa before moving to Japan. However, if you’re renewing your visa, you can switch to a self-sponsored freelancer status and go it alone (see the visa section below). For that reason, it’s usually best to work a normal job in Japan for a year or so first, then transition to freelancing after you’ve built up a client base on the side.

Doing so isn’t exactly easy. There are sites online such as HelloSensei where you can set up a profile to advertise your services, but competition is quite fierce. The best way to get clients is through word-of-mouth. Working in other teaching jobs, you’ll usually have students approach you to ask for private lessons, so try to build up a reputation from there. It’s a grind, but the rewards can be huge for those who pull it off!

Private lessons typically take place in cafes, but you’ll probably end up teaching everywhere from McDonald’s to private penthouses.

Where to Find Jobs

To get started with your Japan job journey, check out some of the online job boards which list all of the currently available positions. Sites like GaijinPot and JobsInJapan list hundreds of positions across the whole spectrum. If you need a company to sponsor your visa, be sure to filter the results by ‘visa sponsorship available’. 

Alternatively, go straight to the source. All of the major eikaiwa have their own application pages, as do the dispatch companies. If you want to give the JET Programme a go, then you should head directly to their own site too. 

If you’re really struggling to find opportunities through more conventional channels, or you’re just looking for casual part-time work, then jump on Craigslist. That’s right, it’s not just for seedy propositions and used bicycles! Although, you will find a lot of seedy propositions alongside the genuine job offers…

Getting a Visa

Okay, so you’ve chosen your English teaching career path and found a job that can start you on your way. Now all you need is a visa to get past immigration! It’s pretty easy to get one with the backing of a reputable company to sponsor you. The types of teaching visas vary depending on the sort of job you’re aiming for, so individual recruiters will be able to fill you in on exactly what you need.

The Three Main Types of Teaching Visa

These visas are the main ones that English teachers in Japan hold. The process of getting one is very simple: apply with the backing of a company, complete the admin process in your home country, and covert your certificate of eligibility (CoE) to a full visa when you arrive in Japan.

  • Instructor Visa — this visa covers all of the international and public school jobs, including the coveted JET program positions.  
  • Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International Services — this bizarrely broad category is the standard for teaching at any of the eikaiwa companies, or as a dispatch company contractor at a university.
  • Professor Visa — the top dogs of the university teaching hierarchy (those who are employed full time by the university) need this kind of visa, as do employees of technical colleges.
This is the Japanese government’s official sample of the foreign resident card. Once you have it, you’re good to go.

Other Visas for Teaching in Japan

For those who want to study Japanese, go independent, or gain the right to work here without being eligible for a standard visa, these three alternative options offer some great opportunities.

Student Visa

This is the visa held by anyone studying at a Japanese educational institution. This includes university students, as well as students of Japanese language schools. Basically, any course which runs across 6 months or more must offer visa sponsorship. Such a course at a Japanese language school will set you back about ¥750,000 per year.

Once you’re enrolled and living in Japan, you’ll have to apply for your work permit separately. After it’s granted, you’ll be able to work in a teaching position for up to 28 hours a week. For those who want to live and work in Japan without a degree (or while gaining one), this is a great way to go about it!

Working Holiday Visa

A miracle of international relations, this visa is granted based on an agreement between two countries, allowing their citizens to travel freely on each other’s soil for about a year! Japan has such agreements with 26 countries, so take a look here to see if yours is on the list. 

Once you get the visa, there’s essentially no restriction placed on the number of hours you can work. Generally, these visas are meant for travel, with the work component intended to be a secondary concern. However, there’s not really any official oversight on that matter, so it’s a good way to get established in Japan and kickstart your new life. 

Be aware though, some eikaiwa and dispatch companies won’t employ people on a working holiday visa. That’s because it’s expected that you’ll be leaving Japan after your year is up, even though in reality many working holiday visa holders end up staying for much longer.

Self-sponsored Visa

This is one of the most misunderstood visa styles of all. Rather than a distinct visa category, it’s a different way of attaining one of the visas listed above. Basically, it’s a way for you to get a work visa without being tied to one specific company. If you manage to get it, you’ll be working as a freelancer, or across multiple part-time jobs. 

It’s basically not possible to apply for this without already holding a Japanese work visa, as you have to be established enough to prove that you can earn a basic salary of ¥250,000 (within the activities listed under one visa category). Typically teachers move on to his kind of visa after one or two years of employment in a conventional job.

The benefits are huge because you can usually maximize the profitability of your days by piecing together a variety of different jobs, while still leaving time to do what you love. The downside is the paperwork. You’ll probably need to hire a visa lawyer just to help you fill out all of the necessary documentation with confidence.

For some entrepreneurial teachers, a self-sponsored visa is a golden ticket to the self-employed lifestyle they’ve always dreamed of.

The Wrap-up

Now you have all of the information to start your new career as an English teacher in Japan. No matter your situation, all sorts of routes are available for you to progress through — whether you want to follow the academic path all the way to becoming Japan’s top English professor or establish a lucrative Bohemian lifestyle as a self-sponsored freelancer. 

If you start researching your visa or job-hunting today, you could be living your new life in Japan within as little as 3 or 4 months. What are you waiting for!?

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