Working in Japan as a Military Spouse

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Photo by U.S. Pacific Fleet

The day I found out I was moving to Japan, I started to worry about my career. I haven’t stopped since. Yes, I probably need to calm down quite a bit about that. But I’ve spoken to many others who share the same feelings as I do. For spouses, coming to Japan on military orders often means leaving behind a budding career.

I was working my way up as a journalist and had just been offered my first editor position when I found out my husband had orders to Japan. Overall, I was ecstatic: living here sounded like a dream, and being here has been better than imagined. But there was one thought I couldn’t shake: What good is a political reporter in a country where she doesn’t speak the language?

When I got here, my fears were heightened. There seems to be a myth around the military bases that it’s impossible to find work here. Fear not: It isn’t.

That isn’t to say that it’s easy, and you might not be working in your chosen field. Unfortunately, that sometimes comes with the package when the military uproots you every few years. But, you can find work, and you’ll likely experience something that will open your mind in a way you didn’t expect. Here’s how:

Off-Base Work

When Kate Meyer came to Japan, she made sure to pack business cards. A lot of them.

“People started telling me it was impossible to find work here,” she said. “You can’t let that discourage you.”

So, she started talking to people, on base and off, and made sure to leave a card with everyone she met. She also looked online, which yielded plenty of leads.

Meeting one person catalyzed more introductions, and soon, Meyer found herself fully booked as an independent English language consultant, offering everything from one-on-one English lessons to advising on how to best communicate business ideas to English-speaking colleagues. Once, she helped a restaurant owner by changing the “rape soup” listed on his English menu to the more aptly translated (and more appealing) “pork-pot soup.”

“My career is very important to me; it’s my outlet; it’s what I focus on,” Meyer said. “Coming here, the best thing to do is not give up. It isn’t always easy, but it’s doable.”

Teaching is probably the most common job for English speakers in Japan. Most schools require its teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, but there are other jobs available for those who don’t. Private English teaching is a popular job and posting ads on sites like CafeTalk can get you far.

There are also other jobs off base, for those who aren’t inclined to teaching, although they aren’t as easy to find. A quick search for “English jobs in Japan” pulls up job search engines for foreigners, and you can post your resume to GaijinPot’s job website for more options. Like many foreigners, Meyer also models in Japan. Check out this series for information on modeling in Japan.

Home-Based Businesses

Coming to Japan constituted a unique opportunity for Lina Morones, who’d been pursuing photography as a hobby for years before her husband got orders to Atsugi. She’d had fleeting thoughts of starting a business before, but never seriously considered it until she came to Japan and was weighing her options for work.

“Being here gave me a push to make photography into a job because I wanted something to do while we were here,” Morones said. “At first, it was an idea, but coming to Japan, it snowballed into something bigger.”

After starting Lina Elyse Photography, Morones began accumulating clients and soon was busier than expected. It gave her the chance to grow as a photographer while learning a lot about business, from everything to web design to accounting.

“I kind of just dove in,” she said.

An overseas duty station can mean the chance for you to try something new. Some people sell products from companies with sales rep programs, while others create product- or service-based web businesses. Still others cater to others on base.

Before starting a business in Japan, military members and their dependents must obtain approval. Because the rules sometimes vary among military branches and are updated, the best way to get the most accurate information about the process is through your base’s legal office.

Childcare

Perhaps the hardest thing about working in Japan is navigating childcare. The Child Development Centers offer childcare, but there is often a waiting list for such services. Morones, who gives online English lesson and writes web content in addition to running her business, said she picked her jobs so they would let her stay home with her two sons. But, she said, when she has shoots or jobs while her husband is gone, she has to rely on and pay for a babysitter. Morones suggests using Work At Home Mom to find jobs you can work at home when childcare is too difficult to find.

“Doing that gives you more time to travel anyway,” she said. “Your time here passes before you know it, and there will always be things you wish you’d experienced. My biggest piece of advice is not to worry so much and try to enjoy the chance to be here.”

Keeping the Career Fresh

I love living in Japan, but every once in a while it feels as though working hard to become a journalist was in vain since I ended up marrying into the military. It can be discouraging to be torn from your job just because the government said so.

My best advice is to find a way to keep your career fresh while you’re here, especially if you’re like me and derive a lot of satisfaction from work. In between my jobs modeling and teaching, I’m working as a freelance editor and writer and getting a master’s degree online. I’m also learning photography, which will make me a better job candidate stateside. I realize keeping your resume current is easier for certain fields (mine, for instance) than others, and it usually requires some creativity. But it’s not impossible.

And, you never know: I really didn’t want to teach when I came to Japan, but doing so has been a great introduction to Japanese people and culture. It wasn’t easy, but my resume still looks respectable, and I’ve gotten some incredible experiences from taking a slight career detour to come to Japan. I wouldn’t trade them.

Topics:    

Journalist, photographer, travel addict.
  • Becca Haynes says:

    This doesn’t really discuss the problems with the SOFA status rules. You don’t get a work visa when you get SOFA status and working off base without a work visa is actually illegal, which can get you in trouble because of your SOFA status. As a matter of fact ,the Japanese govenrment doesn’t grant work Visas to people in the country on SOFA. I know people do it and don’t get in trouble, but I don’t know if it is a good move to recommend something that is illegal.

    • katiejane28 says:

      I am trying to take a job in Camp Zama and I will be the sponsor of the SOFA. Therefore, as long as I (the sponsor) hold the SOFA then so do my dependents. My understanding is that their SOFA cannot be taken away because I am the sponsor. So, now we are trying to understand if my husband can work in the private sector in Tokyo and what are the requirements. Does he need visa or not? If so, is it hard to obtain a visa? Are companies willing to sponsor a US Citizen with a Japanese work visa?

  • Wanderfull Life says:

    This was a little disappointing for me as it mentions nothing about the Status of Forces Agreement and how hard it is to actually work legally in Japan as a military spouse. A post with details like that would be exceptionally helpful.

  • Executive wife says:

    Been there… English teaching is basically THE option (if you are Native American because if you aren’t, even though you may speak perfectly and your grammar is better than of some Americans you will not be able to teach to anybody). Modeling works if you are blond with blue eyes or have a very pale complexion. Eventually they also need black models, but if you’re in between forget about it! Photography… Yes… Good luck building a portfolio! If you studied hard in any other field forget that… Japan is a time for enjoying your housewife life, taking care of your kids and traveling around in a very safe country… Say goodbye to career while in here…

  • Calico Hippo says:

    So, basically- be a teacher (of English), a journalist, or otherwise work from home (as a photographer). Got it. Totally NOT helpful if you have a career in any other field.

    • Reg says:

      So many don’t think about business/ companies that are over here supporting the military, I have work within two bases, since moving here. The first one was in 4 months of moving here, no it was not in my field but when you speak up and and say, hey I also do this also, most of the time your boss is not going to turn you down. And with in a year my dream job opened up. I now work in my field.

    • missycapp says:

      While there aren’t many specific examples, a good takeaway would be to look at new opportunities that come up. One of the options noted in the article is working as a consultant. You could be surprised what opportunities surface from needs that would have been difficult to identify without living there in Japan.

      I’m in the same boat right now as we wait to find out about orders to Japan for next year. Are you moving there soon?

      • Jennifer Heric says:

        Hello, I am the wife of a US Veteran, and we own a franchise business working as consultants for Ambit ENERGY based in the US. Today it was announced we will be opening up markets in Japan. I am looking for people who would want to work from home as Marketing Consultants helping people save money on their energy bill due to deregulation. This opportunity is being offered for free to those living in Japan. Please contact me if you are interested! Info@hericenergy.com

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