Finding Work in Japan: If You Don’t Want to Teach English, Don’t

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What’s your type?

There are two types of English teachers in Japan. The first is simply a language teacher, usually English (or some other language), and they just happen to do it in Japan. Maybe they always wanted to live in Japan, maybe they love manga or sumo, but for some reason, they practice their craft here and are loving it. They crave to improve their skills. The tough parts of the job are just exciting challenges and they are generally doing exactly what they want to be doing. They might want more money or a better position, but being a teacher is exactly how they want to spend their time working at this point in their lives.

The second type of teacher is much more common. It’s what I call the “waiter in L.A.” teacher. I use this designation because, like the stereotype of waiters in Los Angeles, if you ask them what they do, “waiter” would be the last and most reluctant response.

I’m really an actor.” “I write screenplays.” “I’m in-between gigs.

These are much more common answers.

In Japan, those answers are usually adjusted to writer, model, or artist, but “English teacher” is rarely the first reply. The “waiter” who’s teaching English is just teaching because they have to.

For some, this may be totally fine. Perhaps they just wanted a fun year in Japan or maybe they aren’t really ready to make a career choice, but teaching is not something they specifically set out to do.

But for others, the people who have been in Japan for a long period of time, it’s more likely that they are teaching English because they believe there isn’t actually anything else they can do to earn income as a foreigner.

Preparation is key

I’d like to talk to this type of person, the person who is either happily or unhappily teaching English just to earn money while living in Japan.

If you don’t want to teach English — don’t teach English.

Let me clarify, though: I’m not advising that you quit your job and hope everything just works out. What I’m suggesting is that while you’re teaching English, prepare yourself in every way possible to be able to do what you want to do. You should only delay your progression for as long as it takes you to prepare.

You should only delay your progression for as long as it takes you to prepare.

1. Learn Japanese

For most, this will mean attacking the process of learning Japanese with your total attention. Most non-teaching jobs you might want to do require you to be at least conversant in Japanese. If you’re serious about doing something besides teaching English for the rest of your time in Japan, you quite simply must learn the language.

2. Build a network

For everyone, this will mean getting yourself firmly planted in the “world” of what you want to do. If you want to be a model, you need to get yourself in the modeling world. Using your Facebook and Twitter accounts, follow everyone on the “modeling in Japan” scene and find out how to get into modeling-related events. Want to be a writer? You better start writing a hell of a lot. A blog is the best way to get your foot in the door (and acts as your digital CV), and being published on other sites is crucial for your exposure.

Love what you do

You can see with both of those examples, teaching English isn’t anywhere on that list. For this type of person, teaching English is only what you do until you don’t have to anymore. There’s obviously no guarantee you’ll make it. The point where you don’t have to teach anymore might never come, but if teaching English is only a means to an end, make sure you’re pursuing that end. You don’t want to be a “waiter” forever.

The best English teachers love teaching English. You can still be a good teacher if it’s not exactly what you want to do, but you’ll feel most rewarded if you’re chasing down your ultimate goal in the meantime. So if you’re wishing you could be doing something else in Japan, start making it happen.

That way, you can happily answer the age-old question “What do you do?” with a confident: “I teach English… for now.”

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Refusing to be a bitter gaijin since 2007.
  • Meliah says:

    This article is telling my life story right now. People have been asking me, “why stop being an ALT so soon?” or “Why quit, you’re so good at it?”. I tell them exactly the things that are written here. After finishing my one year contract as ALT, I am going to get a new job with better connections to the world I want to work in (even if it is still teaching English but in a different setting and location). It feels good to be taking that next step forward.

  • David says:

    Hi James, thanks for this article. You mention “some other languages”. I’ve been trying to discover if you can make a living as an Italian teacher in Japan for a long time now, but all my google searches took me to these find-your-teacher websites which are good to build a client base, but only if you are already living in Japan (and can count on another source of income). I’d probably have more luck if I could do my searches in Japanese, but my language skills are still very very basic. I’m a trained and certified teacher and this is what I want to do (at east at this point) in my life. Do you, or anyone, know if there are private schools where they teach Italian? I’d be great if you could share some information 🙂

    Unrelated to the above:it’s really sad seeing how so many people are unsatisfied with their job as an English teacher. Don’t get me wrong, it’s totally ok to get into teaching as a means to move to Japan. I mean, if someone told me “hey come teach Italian, we don’t care if you have no experience as long as you’re a native speaker” I’d dare anyone to refuse. I just think that the least they could do is appreciate this opportunity and try to put a serious effort into what they’re doing. Even if this is not your dream job. Not only is it just honest towards your students, it will also help you maintain a positive and constructive attitude and, in the end, you’ll have learnt a lot more than than you expected.

    • james says:

      Hey David, I know its super late, but I did some searching and it appears ECC, Berlitz, and other companies do offer Italian lessons. If you haven’t already make it a point to apply to those two companies and highlight your Italian skillz in your cover letter and resume.

  • Lizzy Herrera says:

    Are there any jobs in Japan that don’t ask/require a college degree??? My friend and I really want to live and work there but they have no degree. Would certificates be enough at minimum?

  • Walter says:

    “Start making it happen!” good advice for everyone!

  • Ronald Kaloostian says:

    There is nothing wrong or shameful making an honest living as a waiter or ESL teacher.

  • Alex Milla says:

    Hey, you might want to check the first two paragraphs. There’s like 5 setences repeated, a little like a tape on loop 😡

  • Chris King says:

    Just an fyi there is a big editing oversight in your article. The first paragraph repeats itself in the second paragraph. Outside of that, I enjoy your stories.

  • Bartholomew Harte says:

    No matter Where you live , if you can’t speak the native language you Will Fail! I play music & that in itself is an international language but you will need to relate in the native oratory as well.

  • Garthgoyle says:

    Good advice and straight to the point. Thanks.

  • kayumochi says:

    There are two types of long-term Western gaijin men in Japan: 1) low-achieving Peter Pans (overwhelmingly the majority) and 2) high-achieving Peter Pans (a rare breed, but they do exist) – the rest leave the country. Both groups live in a bubble of specialness, but in fact, exist at the bottom of Japanese society. To be in either group is to be infantilized , a Baby-Man with no agency.

  • Jonathan Fahey says:

    Man the first half of this article is poorly written and repetitive.

  • Robert Chandler says:

    Nice post except you offer no solid examples of other people getting jobs. You suggest how to start working on getting a new one. I submit to you that most jobs in Japan suck and you would not want one even if you can speak Japanese.

    I read and speak Japanese fine and looked around. The thing is you have to have another skill set such as computers or banking. Even if you do want those jobs its better to do them in another country. Even menial jobs here require you to work 50-60 hours a week or get paid an unlivable wage. Real jobs 60 hours is mandatory plus you probably will be expected to spend off hours with your boss/coworkers drinking etc.

    i wasted many years here trying to get Japanese proficiency, and then started to look around. I suggest if someone wants to do something else at least find one solid other person doing the same job here and ask them questions. If it sounds good to you then start learning the language and working on doing it not the other way around.

    The other good jobs involve starting your own business and that requires a Japanese person you trust with you financial life. I trust people but none to starve my children over, especially if it fails because said person changed their minds.

    In summary the reason the “waiter” job are so common is non “waiter jobs” are as rare as hitting it big in Hollywood. Sure it exists but the reason people in Hollywood do crap jobs still is because getting that real job is super difficult and as much luck as it is skill. In Japan its worse you still probably wont like the work conditions.

  • Richie Mullaney says:

    Not particularly enlightening or helpful, I’m sorry for say! Learn the language, create a network and do what you love is the recipe for a happy career in any country/culture/industry. I was expecting to read about which industries seek English speakers currently or advice of other jobs which don’t require becoming fluent in Japanese.

  • Treskatae says:

    Not really super helpful for people who looking to actually find a non-teaching job, which is what I was expecting. I have a friend who applied to a lot of places, but nobody called him back. Eventually he ran out of money and had to come home. He said that he got that feeling that nobody wanted to have to sponsor his visa.

  • maulinator says:

    I agree that learning Japanese is a definite requirement. One does not got to the US looking for a “real” job without at least speaking conversational English.

    Some other potential pointers-

    Learn how to create Japanese resumes. They are different in style and format from English ones.

    Practice interviewing skills, particularly Japanese interviewing skills. This is one area where your “gaijin smash” skills will clearly hurt you more than benefit you.

    Offer your services for free, something like an internship or test run for a few weeks or months. It is the best way to get in the door, but don’t let your employer take advantage of you. Set ground rules if you can so you can manage expectations.

    Always be networking. You don’t know who has the connection of knows someone who can help. The guy drinking next to you just might be a company CEO or an influential person in the industry you want to get into. Especially if you freelance, this is very important. I have helped introduce the right connections to mutually interested parties and taken a fee to do that countless times.

    Be prepared to pay your dues. Japanese employers will typically not let you do what you really want to do until they know they can trust you (this is true for all countries, but the Japanese will take more time deciding to trust you or not). Until then expect to do all the crap work and don’t complain about it. This is a duration of months not weeks.

    Build a portfolio- whether it be writing samples, photo shoots, code, websites. Whatever you like to do, build presentable examples. If it is something you enjoy, then you will make time to do it, even if you r teaching schedule is long and arduous.

    If you work at a foreign firm, like I do, then you probably won’t have to go through all of this rigamarole, but you better have some thing or skill that can add value to the company. A nice personality and demeanor and the will to work hard is simply not enough to convince someone like me to hire someone.

    Good luck

  • Tom says:

    There’s only 2 steps…?

  • Dale Goodwin says:

    It is an incredibly terrible idea to move to Japan and start teaching English with the intention of moving into a completely different occupation while in Japan. It is not as bad as it used to be, but English conversation teachers do tend to be stereotyped into “people who teach English conversation because they are not qualified to do anything else.” If you want to make sure that doesn’t apply to you, first of all, get a good education in the area you want to work in. I happened to be lucky enough to be fluent in conversational Japanese when I moved here permanently in 1980 with an MBA, but the first thing I did was do additional post-graduate work in Japanese at an international Japanese university. Working in an international company may not be an option initially, but as long as you look for a company that has a plan for your future, it can turn out to be a valuable experience. Living in Japan on a long-term basis is not for everybody, so make sure you are moving forward in your career choice and not just slowly digging a hole that you won’t be able to climb out of.

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