Ria is an avid writer who is currently teaching English in southwest Japan. She loves helping new teachers and expats get settled in.
Where in Japan do you want to teach?
The biggest mistake foreigners make is assuming they want to live in or near Tokyo. While suburbs of Tokyo such as Yokohama can be incredibly expat-friendly, you'll find that there are literally thousands of other worthwhile living options around the country!
Of course, that number drops somewhat if you don't want to mess with getting your Japanese drivers license or can't stand the thought of being the only foreigner in the neighborhood. Still, underrated urban areas are numerous. For starters, consider Fukuoka and Oita to the sunny south, and Sapporo to the cooler north side of the country.
Remember, the smaller the city, the more affordable it is. While Tokyo isn't nearly as expensive as New York City or San Francisco, English teacher salaries aren't exactly luxurious.
How much money do you want to make, and what kind of benefits do you need?
If you're moving to Japan alone, you may not be particularly worried about your salary, but you'll find that living abroad is much less lonely when you actually have money to go out and spend. English teacher salaries can be as low as around ¥2M a year for 29-hours-a-week part-time work - and ¥2M gets you about as much in Japan as $20,000 does in the U.S. While cheap studio apartments and ample public transit can make this salary more livable, you may not have as much money to travel as you would like.
Luckily, Japanese health insurance is pretty amazing, and folks with medical issues will find some serious peace of mind living over here. Many English teacher jobs aren't full-time, though, which means that you'll have to pay your own monthly insurance fees. If your salary is very low to begin with, this additional cost can be burdensome. Depending on what area you live in and a few other factors, your insurance can be as much as around ¥20,000 a month. Additionally, part-time employees have to make larger pension contributions, whereas full-time employees have their employer make part of the contribution.
If money is an issue for you, your best bet may be teaching full-time at an eikaiwa, where starting salaries can be ¥3M or higher annually. Elementary and junior high school Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) positions tend to be part-time at just under 30 hours per week, and run closer to ¥2.2M-¥2.5M per year. It's also difficult to secure raises as an ALT; eikaiwa English schools are a little more likely to reward good employees with raises.
What age do you want to teach?
English teaching positions are available at kindergartens, elementary and junior high schools, high schools, universities, juku cram schools, eikaiwa English schools, and more. If you love teaching tiny children, you can probably find a job doing that in most major metro areas. If small children drive you crazy and you'd rather teach adults, English classes for adults are available almost anywhere in the country.
Keep in mind that the more academic the classes, the more qualifications you typically need. Universities often won't consider instructors without Masters' degrees, even if your English is flawless and you have other teaching experience. High school teaching positions are very competitive, and many want you to have some Japanese competency.
Oddly enough, English classes for businessmen and at eikaiwa can be surprisingly relaxed about qualifications. This is because these institutions are typically more concerned about conversational skills and gaining comfort with the language. Still, some positions may require or prefer TEFL certification.
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How many students do you want at a time?
Does the chaos of a 40-student classroom appeal to you? If so, maybe an elementary school ALT position is your calling! Believe it or not, sometimes having more students in a classroom makes the time fly by faster. The noise level can be intense, but there's nothing more rewarding than when the class clown strings together a hilarious English sentence that gets the whole group laughing.
If you would rather work one-on-one, eikaiwa teaching may be more your speed. The downside is that teaching one student at a time can be draining if the student clearly doesn't want to be there. Sometimes eikaiwas offer small group classes, but these can also be a challenge if one student is clearly more fluent than the others. Still, eikaiwa teaching is often the best bet for teachers who get overwhelmed by small children screaming in unison.
University class and high school class sizes can vary, but the maturity level of your students will typically make it much more manageable than you would expect.
What kind of work environment do you want?
If you want to work with other English-speakers all day, eikaiwa life is probably your best bet. Junior high school, high school, and university teaching positions are also bound to have at least some English speakers present to help you muddle through your work assignments. If you want a crash course in Japanese, elementary school ALT life is the way to go! You may find that your day-to-day contacts at school speak incredibly little English, but are enthusiastic about teaching you new words.
Since Japanese public school teachers are incredibly busy, ALT life can be quite lonely. This is especially the case during exam season in junior high schools, or in very rural areas where no one in your 12-student class seems to like you. On the flip side, some schools have a strong sense of camaraderie among the teaching staff, and busy urban schools are full of children who want to yell random English words at you.
Dress code is another area where jobs can vary widely. Eikaiwas almost always want their staff to be dressed to the nines, and will even dictate what color suit their employees should wear! Some ALT companies claim to have a dress code mandating professional attire at all times, but these requirements are often waived somewhat at the elementary level. Junior high schools, high schools and universities can sometimes be more strict.
Whatever you do, make sure to research your future employer thoroughly! Some eikaiwas end up with a bad reputation for mistreating their employees. With the major national ALT and eikaiwa companies, conditions can even vary by region or city, so be careful! When you do interview with a company, make sure to ask any questions you have, and articulate your own hopes and expectations for the job.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is it feasible for a non-Japanese speaker to teach ESL in Japan and get to know the culture and its people?
Answer: Yes, I'd say Japan is fine to teach in even if you don't speak the language, in large part because people here are so kind and helpful. I would highly recommend learning the basics/survival phrases before arriving and then continuing to make an effort to learn once you arrive. If you have ESL teaching experience elsewhere you will probably find teaching in Japan to be fairly easy. I don't have a blog, but I occasionally post new articles here.
© 2018 Ria Fritz
Larry Slawson from North Carolina on October 22, 2018:
Had always thought about doing this. Very helpful and insightful article! Thank you for sharing.