Steve Tainton

Japan or bust!

The costs of setting yourself up as a teacher

The reverse side also has a reverse side
Japanese Proverb

Having thoroughly hacked to pieces my stay in Thailand and reasons for going back to Japan in the two previous columns, this month I will turn my attention toward Japan and the process of finding employment there. The Thailand to Japan move is not an especially easy one and I suspect that is the flow of teachers in the opposite direction is more common. It is certainly simpler.

Money: In the past I have made contradictory statements about how expensive Japan is, but on one point I am convinced – Japan is very expensive for the traveler and start up costs are high. The cheapest guesthouses will run 50,000yen a month, typically with a month’s deposit upfront. That’s around 37,000baht to get into a guesthouse for a month. People need to eat as well. Forget road-side stands, there are none. For the cost conscious, noodle stands and donburi (rice topped with something meaty) come the closest to cheap eats at around 500yen a helping or 180baht. I imagine that even foregoing all forms of enjoyment, it would cost around 50,000baht to live in Japan for just the first month factoring in the deposit on accommodation. I have started with finances first because it is one reason that, unlike Thailand, prospective teachers just don’t show in Japan and then look for work. Consider that once a person has found employment they need to exit the country to start the working visa process, now consider that a visa run costs the roundtrip airfare to Korea, and add that to the living expenses. There is a reason why there are almost no TEFL/TESL/CELTA courses run in Japan.

Employment: Some good news here – there are as many jobs in Japan as Thailand, probably more given the population of the Land of the Rising Sun is double that of the Land of Smiles. A great place to start a job search is or

The bad news is if you look closely, you’ll find most employers are looking for someone in country. On Gaijinpot these jobs are highlighted with an asterisk. Try to find an asterisk-free job ad, it’s not easy. Moreover, most employers that advertise in country are looking for employees with a visa.

Those among you who have been paying attention have probably noticed a glaring inconsistency; it is near impossible to get started in Japan yet all the employers are looking for people in Japan with visas – what gives? In step the Eikaiwas, huge private language schools with hundreds of branches and thousands of teachers. And guess what? They do hire overseas and arrange visas, housing and so on. Horror stories abound about the Eikawas, but I worked for one for six years. I’ll be the first to admit that the Eikaiwa gig is not for everyone, but I have witnessed far more unscrupulous employer behavior in small Thai private language schools than I ever did in a big corporate Eikaiwa. The fact of the matter is these guys pay you what they say and on time.

The other major employer of English teachers in Japan is teacher agencies, often called dispatch companies in Japan. They supply most Japanese secondary, and now primary schools with ALTs (assistant language teacher). Whereas in Thailand the bulk of the work may exist in such settings, the majority of teachers in Japan work in the above mentioned Eikaiwa private language schools. Nonetheless, the dispatch companies are growing rapidly and provide the Japanese school system with a service that is replacing the direct contracts between schools and ALTs. As in Thailand, these agencies may be hit or miss, but the intrinsic truth is that working for a dispatch company means the teacher is answerable to two employers – the school and the agency. As of late the dispatch companies have been catching as much, if not more, bad press than the Eikaiwas.

Visa: Essential for Japan, much more so than Thailand where a border is often only a several hour drive away. Fortunately, the Japan Specialist in Humanities and International Services visa that teacher obtain is much more straightforward than Thailand’s Non-Immigrant B, teacher’s license, working paper combination. Basically, once you get the visa, it allows for work and you never need to exit the country, even for renewal (though like most countries to change visa status from tourist to working means you must exit the country). The other welcome news about the Japan visa is that it is valid for its duration regardless of employment changes.

Again, for those paying attention the formula for work in Japan becomes simple. Find employment overseas with a company large enough to recruit abroad and offer visa sponsorship – typically the Eikaiwa. If things don’t work out, there are a number of other employment options and you already have a visa. I am not necessarily advocating jumping ship on an employer, but the possibility is there. A word of caution, the original sponsor of the visa needs to ‘relinquish’ the visa to the new employer. Additionally, all potential employers will want to know how you came by your visa and will know the date of issue so there will be no covering your tracks if you quit a job only several months into it.

I assume anyone interested in Japan would be so for the money. Unless you are a real Japanophile, the country lacks the beauty, fun and adventure of Thailand so there would be little reason to uproot from Thailand to Japan if it were not monetary. Of course the other money maker is Korea, but writers Ken and Steve would know more about that than me. One thing I have noticed about Korea is all inclusive employment packages with airfare and accommodation that may make Korea a better option for the truly destitute. On the other hand, Hagwon (Korean Eikaiwa) horror stories are in no short supply.

My purpose is to neither recommend nor to discourage EFL teachers from seeking work in Japan; I wish only to inform. I will devote the next several columns to the specifics of interviewing and starting work in Japan.


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