With Japan’s labor shortage and need for workers, Japan has seen a rise in foreigners moving to Japan, with around 250,000 moving to Japan in 2018. While moving to Japan as an English instructor may be one of the most common ways, there are, of course, other job opportunities for foreigners who want to live in Japan.
TenshokuDo is a website providing information about the Japanese job market. The TenshokuDo editorial team interviewed six people who moved to Japan. Find out how they made their move over, their stories about the hiring process, the pros and cons of working in Japan, and some advice they have for others looking to move to Japan.
We asked Samantha, a Senior Community Specialist at Wahl+Case Tokyo recruitment office for her tips, advice, and knowledge on current job market trends.
- Can you explain how you got your job and what the application and hiring process was like?
- How much Japanese did you speak before coming to Japan and do you have to speak it on a daily basis at work?
- What are the biggest pros of working in Japan?
- What are the biggest cons of working in Japan?
- Many of you came to Japan as English teachers. What’s it like being a teacher in Japan?
- Any advice for those who are wanting to move to Japan?
Meet the Six Foreigners
Erin moved to Japan from the Philippines as an English teacher. She had planned to move here for some time and finally got the chance in October 2017. She looks to live in Japan permanently, continuing to teach English.
Katie had hoped to live in Japan after visiting back in 2008. In the summer of 2017, she was finally able to move here from the US on the JET program as an Assistant Language Teacher.
Laura moved to Japan at the end of 2017 from Portland, Oregon. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Art & Design and has worked in the UI/UX field for over eight years. In Tokyo, she works at a tech company as a UX (User Experience) Designer.
Matt took a career break from his job in the financial field in Sydney, Australia and moved to Japan in July 2014 on a student visa. After a year of studying at a language school, he decided to stay longer and currently works as a Business English Instructor.
Simon moved to Japan in the spring of 2016 from Macedonia. As a Fine Arts graduate, he came to Tokyo looking for work opportunities in the big art of entertainment projects. He landed a position at the largest architecture company in Japan, working as an architectural illustrator.
Tom moved to Japan with his girlfriend in March of 2017 after graduating from university in the UK. He moved here as an Assistant Language Teacher and has since become an ESL teacher at a private school.
Can you explain how you got your job and what the application and hiring process was like?
I was really lucky to find this job but I don’t think of it as a coincidence. When I decided to try and find a job in Tokyo I didn’t know anybody there, or a way to get there or get recruited. I didn’t even speak the language.
I didn’t try to get recruited beforehand because I knew it is easier to get a job in Tokyo if you live there already. I knew a lot about the culture, the entertainment industry and the art scene, but it took several years of preparation and networking to learn the language and to find a way to move to Tokyo.
Simon’s illustration – Tokyo Tower
For people like me, networking is key. It also helps if you get recommended. I have been building my network based on friendships and good relations, not just business acquaintances. I had a friend who was working at Nikken Sekkei and she told me about the opening. She recommended me to the art director at the Illustration Studio and I made an appointment as soon as I got the work permit.
It was my first interview in Tokyo and I got lucky on the first try. I went to the interview with my portfolio and I was hired right away as a part-time worker at first. After 2 months, I was hired full-time.
The opportunity came up to work for a company in Japan, and I took it immediately. I found my current job through a listing on Glassdoor. Previously I had also been using LinkedIn, Justa.io, and Indeed for searching for jobs. GaijinPot is another website I had looked into, but I never really saw any jobs in my field there.
A screenshot from Glassdoor.com.
At the interview for my company, the head of the department warned me that working in Japan was very different. The example he used was the fact that we have an 8 am meeting every Monday. But at my previous job I usually got into work at 8 am every day, so 8 am only one day a week was not a problem!
I think since I work for a Japan-based global tech company, they have a similar process to what I experienced interviewing in the US. The onboarding process was a little bit confusing since the English materials were not robust.
Berlitz was something I found by networking through LinkedIn, a website used by global professionals across the world. It isn’t very popular here, but some foreign residents use it specifically for reaching out and networking across the globe, to source talent for Japan.
Other ways include word of mouth, job postings on websites like craigslist, registering directly with agencies, etc. Of course, if you decide to use the craigslist website, just be careful about who you send information to, there are many scams and other shady people that use that site, as well as many legitimate companies too.
A screenshot from Claigslist.org Tokyo
The two key things that stick out for me are the number of interviews and the decision making process. Of course, this is also a job and industry-driven, but I would assume Australia’s interview and decision-making process is more efficient and less time consuming than Japan.
It’s kind of silly, but I googled “Japan, no Japanese, highest paying job” and found the JET program that way. For me, it was the best way at the time to move to Japan and start learning Japanese.
My former job was completely different to teaching, so it was a nice change of pace. I applied right before the applications for the year closed and waited through the long process of multiple interviews before being selected for the JET Program. I was thrilled to be selected, and it’s been a great experience so far.
I applied through different companies online –GaijinPot Jobs and Ohayo Sensei. I needed to secure my visa right away, so I took the first company that offered me a sponsorship.
I find it weird that, recently, some Japanese companies ask applicants to submit self-recorded videos to introduce themselves. Most people get more anxious about filming themselves, which may be the reason why they will end up not pursuing the application.
However, when I was hired to work as a teacher in a public elementary school, I really liked how I was introduced officially in front of the teachers in the faculty room. To me, this strongly established my presence in their school. And as a foreigner, being introduced as part of the faculty lessens anxiety and encourages communication with colleagues.
I found out about the job through word of mouth, but I had to apply like everyone else. General ESL jobs you’ll find online. Daves ESL café, Jobs in Japan, GaijinPot are websites you can use; and if you’re a licensed teacher then there are other websites tailored for you.
Word of mouth though is very popular, so I would stay tuned-in to expat Facebook groups and your friends, because some job opportunities could pop up through them.
How much Japanese did you speak before coming to Japan and do you have to speak it on a daily basis at work?
My workplace is all in Japanese, with the exception of other English teachers. I communicate in English with the teachers I work with directly with and some other teachers who enjoy speaking in English. Being in a mostly-Japanese speaking work environment has been great for improving my language skills.
Japanese language proficiency isn’t necessary, but being able to speak, read, and write certainly helps with workflow and communication with colleagues. I did a baito (part-time job) for a couple of months because I wanted to improve my Japanese skills. It was at a stationery store in Mitaka. I left because I had to focus on my Japanese exam at that time.
My Japanese language skills are low since I do not need to use it much at work. I’m currently working on a product aimed at foreigners, but I know enough to create Japanese designs and observe usability sessions in Japanese with some translation help from my colleagues.
The basic language requirements are Japanese or English, but knowing Japanese is an advantage. Many people in the company speak both languages fluently, so we all help each other.
When I first came to Japan, I was just a full-time student in Japanese Language school. I felt and still think that it is important to have some kind of grasp of the Japanese language, especially if you plan to live here in any mid-long term capacity.
The English level of general Japanese is definitely improving, but when the country operates almost entirely 100% in Japanese, it is best to learn as much as possible. In saying that, my Japanese level is still nowhere near where I would like it to be, I am definitely conversational, but still have a way to go learning more Kanji and vocabulary.
Yet, I do plan to attempt the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) soon, at a business level, similar to TOEIC. So, I am recently studying the language a lot more actively in preparation for that next year.
The JLPT – Japanese Language Proficiency test has five levels from N5 to N1.
When we are in the office or communicating by phone/email most of this is done in English, and most staff have a reasonable level of English ability to be able to competently work in an English environment.
There’s both Japanese and English spoken at my job. Personally, I want to work somewhere where I can be in contact with my culture whilst studying Japanese at a leisurely pace, but, if you want to jump into the deep end, then being an ALT(Assistant Language Teacher) is a fantastic opportunity.
This is especially true in rural areas, where English really isn’t spoken. If language acquisition isn’t really your thing, though, (and believe me, fair enough) then I would go for an ‘after school’ school which has many foreigners around.
What are the biggest pros of working in Japan?
The best part is being here. I wouldn’t choose any other place in the world!
I think the best part of working in Japan is that it’s Japan! I love the convenience and safety of living in Tokyo. In addition, there are always interesting places to visit and unique events to go to. Luckily, my team at work values having a good work/life balance, so I’m able to take advantage of all of the fun things to do in Tokyo during my off-hours.
Laura’s Instagram @bububun
The advantages of working in a city like Tokyo, include the convenient transportation system, the plethora of convenient stores on every street corner, people’s generally polite demeanour and the cleanliness of most areas. Specifically, for Japanese companies, they always try to be polite and respectful, as long as you don’t burn any bridges and keep up a respectable image and reputation it can go a long way.
The best part for me has been getting to work with Japanese colleagues and students. And, of course, my job allows me to live in Tokyo, which is incredibly convenient and enjoyable.
What are the biggest cons of working in Japan?
The biggest con overall is the work/life balance, or lack thereof. I see my coworkers juggle a ridiculous amount of work, most of it unrelated to teaching, and the “gaman” culture of working through illness and major life events (ie: coming to work right after a funeral or birth) is hard for me to understand.
As a foreigner, they don’t hold me to quite the same standard, but it’s hard to see people suffering from this lack of work/life balance.
Samantha: I think this is a fair point and a lot of the time, this would apply to more traditional companies here in Japan as the culture itself revolves on being one with the peace, and if “gaman” can mean no conflicts, then that in all is fine.
However, times are changing and many companies are also looking to move from being “black” companies to “white” companies, meaning reasonable working hours and higher focus on productivity during working hours.
From Wikipedia: Gaman (我慢) is a Japanese term meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” The term is generally translated as “perseverance,” “patience,” or “tolerance.” Read more
Commuters on a Japanese train.
Worst part was, based on experience, is commuting for 2 hours every day to get to your job. You go to work and the trains are full. You come home from work and the trains are full. The commute was more exhausting than the actual job.
Also, everything is expensive! So if your salary is not that great, it is so difficult to live on a daily basis, especially with all the taxes and insurance — it’s impossible to put aside money for personal savings.
I think the worst thing about working in Japan is the lower salary. It seems like, across the board, jobs pay less in Japan than they do in the US and many other countries. I have heard that in Japan, salary is determined by your age, rather than your field or experience.
Samantha: Salary really depends on the type of job; if you are an engineer from the US looking to make the same amount you’ve made in the US in a startup here in Japan, it might be difficult considering it is a startup and salaries for skilled personnel such as engineers are lower in standards.
However, if you are a salesperson fluent in Japanese, that would also be a different topic as Japanese companies seek professionals who are able to sell to these traditional Japanese companies plus be able to speak English.
If I think about Japan in terms of processes, I still find companies too rigid when it comes to their own policies, and lots of inflexibility when it comes to people protecting those policies. In addition, procedures for many kinds of things are overly convoluted, old-fashioned and paperwork heavy.
Japan is gradually changing, and some of these innovations are already evident, but it is still taking time for most to follow the winds of change. Australia, on the other hand, has embraced technology and innovation better in many ways, and this can be seen in our working conditions, lack of overtime and laid back lifestyle.
Samantha: Overtime is becoming a serious topic here in Japan and I’m sure the Japanese Government is working hard at regulating it considering the number of white-collar workers that end up taking leaves due to overwork or depression. The change is slow, but with 2020 coming, companies will have to change.
Office buildings at night in Shinjuku, Tokyo.
Many of you came to Japan as English teachers. What’s it like being a teacher in Japan?
I’m an ESL teacher at a private school in Tokyo. ESL jobs are very varied and you don’t always need a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), but typically you will be asked for one and a degree is a must. There is a huge amount of variation in the kind of work you can have here and it really depends on who you sign up with.
There’s fantastic work out there in ESL like with the JET programme or for people like me who are directly hired by a school. There are also good companies interested in people who want to stay here long term.
I know a few people working for factories and corporations (also directly hired) who teach the employees there English and this sometimes ends up transferring them to other work within the company such as HR, recruitment and stuff like that.
Having said that, there are other companies like language schools and ALT companies who, whilst can be nice places to work at, don’t give a particularly good salary (especially if you’re working in Tokyo which is criminally expensive). It just depends on what you’re here for.
As a non-native but near-fluent English speaker, there are several qualifications required. One has to have a college or university degree, with a minimum of 12 years proof that English was used as the medium of instruction.
Teaching certifications are not always required but are desired by some schools and companies. In my case, I didn’t need one but I plan to complete an online TESOL course because this will help me move up in my career.
A screenshot from the TESOL website.
With my job, I have a great schedule: I usually work from 8 to 5, Mondays to Fridays, with no overtime; teaching is rewarding!
However, salary is not that great, it depends if you’re directly hired or if you go through a recruitment agency; English teachers are easily replaced; there is little opportunity to advance (or be promoted) in the field. Also, there is a HUGE bias between native and non-native speakers.
I also teach at English camps. It is more intensive than a classroom setting. Everything is fast-paced, so it’s hard to get attached to your students because you say goodbye to them after 3 days or 1 week.
I work mainly for Berlitz as a contractor (similar to a freelancer), and I am contracted to provide Business English lessons mainly to company employees to help them improve their communication skills. Especially in business, they focus on meeting facilitation, presentation skills, networking, negotiations, email writing and so on.
A screenshot of Berlitz’s website, one of the world’s leading providers of language instruction with operations in over 70 countries.
While we do have more freedom generally than full-time employees and we can control our schedule to some degree, student’s availability very much depends on their company, work environment and workload.
It is common for most work to be available around lunchtime, after normal business hours or on weekends. There are some students available during business hours, but this would be the exception, not the rule.
Other jobs I have held include conducting lessons at cafes with students, this is through introduction agencies. I have also taught via Skype, where I would work with business professionals to also boost their communication skills in business—similar to the students I help in Berlitz. Finally, I work with Flamingo (app) and teach as part of their corporate program, and have several students in companies through them currently.
I came into Japan on the JET program which puts native English speakers as assistant language teachers in Japanese schools. The basic qualifications to be accepted to the program include being a native speaker and having at least a bachelor’s degree.
Coming in to teach English, through a program, private company or conversation school seems to be a pretty common way for people to begin working in Japan. This has been a subject covered by many people before since English teaching is more often than not a foot in the door to get started working in Japan.
There are a lot of different situations for ALTs but in my case, the pros would be scheduling flexibility, time to get used to living in Japan, learning Japanese and working with students.
The biggest con would be that there is no possibility of advancement and eventually you will have to leave your school (in the case of the JET program). English teaching in Japan has a high turnover rate, so only a few people stick with it long term, while most either return home or switch to other types of work.
A look into life in Tokyo and its food – Find more on Katie Instagram @thetastytraveler.kt
Any advice for those who are wanting to move to Japan?
Tokyo is a mega-metropolis with many industries, countless opportunities, and limitless possibilities. If you know what you want and if you are open to challenges you can find a good spot for you and keep growing. If you don’t feel like you are growing and thriving then maybe you are not in a good spot and you should look again for another opportunity.
For me staying positive and clear about what I want, what I offer and what I ask for has always resulted in better outcomes. Vision, patience, and communication are crucial. If I lack one of those three I will soon get disappointed.
Simon’s Illustrations- Shinjuku 2
If you want to move to Japan, but aren’t interested in teaching, I’d suggest pursuing a career in tech. There are lots of jobs in the tech industry, not only limited to coding, available here. If you have any Japanese ability, that will increase your opportunities as well. If not, then you should focus on global companies that have offices in Japan.
Make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date, especially if you are already in Japan. Recruiters are very active there and are more likely to reach out if you live here. And the most important thing is: don’t give up! I had wanted to move to Japan for many years before the right opportunity came up for me.
You can take the time to work on your career before coming to Japan; it will put you in a better position when it comes to your job search.
A screenshot from Linkedin.
Location is key. For example, if you’re really into food then Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama are places you want to hit. Same with nightlife. On the flip side, if you love nature and can drive, then obviously, it’s a more rural place you would go.
The only thing I’d say is if you can’t drive than living in a rural place is a nightmare so make sure you factor that in. Even in cities though, you have to be careful about where you live. The worst part about working in Japan can be living somewhere you really hate.
As employers often sort out your living arrangements, you have limited choice in the matter and can find yourself stuck in the middle of nowhere with absolutely nothing to do, and with cities (Tokyo especially) you can find yourself in the middle of a suburb hours away from any nightlife or all the things you were excited about seeing.
Shinjuku, one of the biggest stations in Tokyo at night.
If you want to move and work here, learn Japanese because this will give you more edge.
If you are new to Japan, I would recommend traveling to the country first, and experiencing it that way first. Having any grasp of the national language is also an advantage even from a daily life perspective.
You can check all the major job sites for work here, some include GaijinPot, Career Cross, and Daijob as a few examples. Feel free to contact companies directly, as that is definitely an option as well as networking across LinkedIn like I did.
A screenshot from FAQ Japan, a website all about life in Japan, run by Matt.
My only advice for moving to Japan is to keep an open mind and try not to have too many preconceived notions about what life is like here! Many people tend to have a romanticized image of Japan and become depressed when the day-to-day reality of living here doesn’t match their expectations.
Samantha: Japan is still a country that’s slowly adapting to change. One piece of advice before coming to Japan is to of course learn the language. Japan is trying to include English as an option for communication but instead of expecting Japan to change immediately, I always think it’s also fair to learn the language. Doing as the Romans do will not hurt and if you’re in a country, learning the language of the country is the bare minimum you could do.
Being able to speak the language will not only give you the advantage when going for interviews, but it could also help you communicate with your future colleagues and make it easier for them to teach you the ropes.
There are plenty of reasons to want to find a job in Japan. We got some valuable advice from six people who have all been on that road and succeeded. Some good points to keep in mind are: keep an open mind, learning the language will put you a step ahead of the competition, coming in through teaching English is a convenient way to get your foot in the door, and while the work/life balance situation in Japan definitely has its challenges, it’s definitely possible to find your dream job (with research and proper preparation, of course). Resources like Glassdoor, Daijob, GaijinPot, LinkedIn, and other professional job search websites are available to both help you find good employers and help those good employers find you! What do you say? Ready to take the plunge and look for a job in Japan?
If you are already employed and looking to make a switch to something else, we’ve got an article to help you here, too!
Contact Samantha for Job opportunity in Japan
Samantha is currently involved in community management, event planning, e-mail marketing, and finding top talents for mid-level to executive level positions in Japan and APAC, for enterprise, consumer, and advertising technology.
She currently work as a Senior Community Specialist at EQIQ K.K. (www.wahlandcase.com)