The way I figure it, jobs in Japan fall into seven categories:
1. High-level corporate
3. Sales and Recruiting
4. Teaching English
5. Washing dishes
Actually, I had seven in mind, but it was late at night when I started this and then I fell asleep on the floor with a glass of white wine and some Calbee’s potato chips, so I ended up typing something like 6. Mmmy handss are alllll greasy and 7. I’m sooo sleeepyzzzzz . . . So apparently now it’s only five. Maybe I’ll edit this later. Anyway, I’ve got a mess of tiny, tiny chips to vacuum up, so let’s not get stuck on the details.
How I got a Job in Japan
First, let me tell you how I ended up working in Japan. See, back in the U.S., I had this swanky corporate gig, with a big office, a desk with two computers, and a phone with all these buttons that lit up. The high point of my day was pretty much going to Starbucks. That’s known as an “off-site meeting.” Then the economy went to hell, the company’s stock crashed, and since I was bored anyway, I thought, Great, why not get the same job in Japan? “Salaryman” has such a glamorous ring to it. So I sent off a few resumes, and Boom, immediately landed a slew of videoconference interviews. They all sounded good. Work in Roppongi, live in a nice apartment, make a lot of money. I’m a big fan of money, as it allows me to do things like buy cars, stylish clothes, and eat. But I also kept hearing something that sounded ominous.
For my first interview, I wore a red tie and sat in this giant videoconference room in L.A. that the company had rented to talk to me. I figured red would show up better on screen. Then from somewhere on the other side of the Pacific ocean, three serious-looking Japanese people in suits appeared on the TV and asked me questions. At one point, the interviewer said, “Are you familiar with the phrase, ‘work-life balance’?”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Well, we don’t have that. Work is our priority.
“That’s fine with me,” I lied.
After that, I wore a blue tie. But no matter what color I pulled out of my closet, the same theme kept emerging. And since I’d already had my share of stressful jobs, I was starting to think more along the lines of, Come to Japan and work in a surf shop. You know, listen to the waves while showing college girls in bikinis how to wax boards. I mean, who wants to wear a suit and sit at a desk all day? That sucks. Nobody’d be able to see my washboard abs. So that avenue didn’t really seem like it was panning out.
Screw it, I thought, I’ll just go teach English.
I did of course consider some of the other available options.
Technology Jobs in Japan
If you’re a programmer for a language in demand, or you have some other specific technical skill, there’s a reasonable chance you can land a job in Japan.
Here, the need is often for someone who speaks English, and enough Japanese to get by. Japan already has plenty of programmers. Tech jobs for foreigners are often in international companies, where they need someone who can communicate with their counterparts in English, possibly provide tech support in English, and also speak enough Japanese to get along in the office environment. Nobody wants you to put the coffee scoop into the tea pot. Japanese people hate when that happens.
I never really considered this option, since in the past I’d been a programmer in the States, and I knew what that entailed. It’s just like the swanky corporate job, only with less money and more time hunched over a computer screen. More mousepad, less bikinis. So that was definitely out.
Recruiting and Sales Jobs in Japan
This is what you do when you’re done teaching English. You recruit other people to teach English. “Training” may also be part of the job, which is where you take a group of jet-lagged college grads whose last job was scooping ice cream and explain to them the intricacies of teaching English in a day and a half. Poof, now you’re qualified—good luck!
Recruiters may also fill other positions, working on commission. Textbook sales is another variation on this theme, as is importing used cars to Okinawa and selling Chinese Rolexes on the street. These jobs are generally not available from overseas, and most of the people who do them seem to wear faded suits and sweat profusely. I don’t like to sweat, as it messes up my hair, so I ruled out this category as well.
Washing Dishes in Japan
If you’re from some place like Britain, you may be able to get a Working Holiday visa in Japan. For other nationalities, a Student visa will allow you to work part-time. There are plenty of foreigners schlepping tables in restaurants and manning the register of the neighborhood convenience store. I briefly considered enrolling in a language school full-time, particularly one near the beach so I could work in a surf shop, which would have been sweet. But when I looked at the cost of language school, it was like paying money to come to Japan, rather than making money. And that didn’t sound good at all.
So teaching English it was.
How to get a Job Teaching English in Japan
This is a very simple process involving only two steps:
1. Have a Bachelor’s degree or higher
2. Be from a country other than Japan
Speaking English, surprisingly enough, isn’t actually a requirement, which is blatantly apparent when you see some of the English teachers here. So while those two things are actually enough, let me give you five more you might want to think about:
3. This isn’t really a “how to” item, but it’s certainly important to keep in mind. And that is: Have a plan. Yeah okay, I know I’m not exactly the best person to give advice on this. Again, details. Anyway, think about what you’re going to do after teaching English. Because there’s very little chance for advancement in Japan, and many people get stuck with a meager salary that only affords enough money for potato chips and wine. Not to say that Calbee’s black pepper chips aren’t great with chardonnay, because they are, although not as much as the limited-edition hot-and-spicy chips were. Jeez, excuse me for a minute while I run to the convenience store.
Okay, I’m back. Thanks for waiting. So while it may sound like a great plan to come here, teach for a year, and then find a better job, the reality is that there’s not that many “better” jobs out there. Lots of English teachers float along for years, not really going anywhere, while going back home becomes increasingly difficult. “I taught Japanese kindergarten for five years” does not look that impressive on a resume. So have a plan—some plan, any plan, some goal. Failing that, hey, start a blog. Now there’s an original idea.
5. Get some other qualifications. TESL certificate. TEFL certificate. Some other acronym nobody’s every heard of, anything. Get something on your resume that every other foreigner doesn’t already have. You can pick these up all over the place. Take a real class, an almost-real online class, or make something up yourself. You are your own certifying authority.
6. Visit Japan. The days when you could just fly to Japan and go door-to-door looking for jobs are over. But being able to say that you’ve visited Japan goes a long way in convincing people that they should hire you to move here. Just saying “I watch a lot of anime” probably isn’t going to cut it.
7. Get some foreign-language teaching experience. Tutor someone in English through Skype. On a resume, that becomes “Instructed EFL classes for international students studying abroad.” Teach your three year-old niece how to count to five in Japanese. That’s “Experienced in early childhood education methods and principles.” God gave you an imagination for a reason. Who are you to argue with His wisdom?
7. Look good. It doesn’t matter what race you are. Even nationality isn’t that important, although the more Asian you appear, the better your English will need to be. If you’re a white Australian guy who just woke up from under a pile of Foster’s cans, eh mate, your English is fine. The key thing is, look like a real adult. Get a haircut. Buy some granny glasses. Wear a suit. If you’re doing a Skype interview, at least wear a suit from the waist up, and hope that nobody asks you to stand and do a demo lesson. There are some things interviewers do not want to see.
What Japanese Interviewers Want
An interviewer’s job is pretty straightforward. The number one thing they’re trying to weed out is flaky people. Nobody wants to 747 your ass all the way to Japan, get you set up with an apartment, a train pass, and a group of students, only to have you decide three months later that Japan isn’t the heaven you dreamed it’d be. This happens surprisingly often.
They also want people who are “flexible.” You’ll hear this in Japanese interviews all the time. Now, you may think that word connotes the ability to adapt to changing situations. Shows how much you know about “English.” In Japan, that word actually means, “Do what you’re told.” So that’s kind of the opposite. Employers want someone who’s going to show up for work early, every day, do the job according to procedure, stamp the proper forms, and not mix the plastic bottles in with the aluminum cans. Then late on Friday afternoon, when you’re planning to fly to Korea for the weekend, your boss will say, “We need you to work this Sunday.” See, that’s where the flexibility comes in.
There may also be a nominal requirement to actually display some English ability in the interview. Sometimes there’s a written test where you’ll have to spell “broccoli” or explain some grammar point. Successfully doing so will only demonstrate that you are in fact not qualified for the job, since no native speaker actually knows what a gerund is. Should it come up, just laugh loudly and then chuckle something about nouns under your breath. I mean, that’s why we have Google; so we don’t have to learn stuff anymore.
Finally, an interviewer may want you to demonstrate that you can, in fact, do the job. Shocking, I know. You’ll be glad you wore pants at this point. The art of the demo lesson is a whole other subject, but let’s just say that for the most part, teaching isn’t really that complicated. You stand up, say some stuff, then ask the students to do something. It’s more like playing darts than it is chess. Anyway, you’ll be fine.
Job Search in Japan
Before you can get an interview, of course, you have to find a job in Japan. That’s where the internet really shines. You can thank Al Gore. Here are some sites that will help you land your dream job in Japan:
1. GaijinPot. Easily your biggest resource, and I’d say that even if they weren’t a sponsor (but thanks GaijinPot!). Seriously, they’ve got a ton of position listings, and most of the jobs I’ve gotten in Japan have come from here.
2. JREC-In. If you’ve got a Master’s degree, a few published papers, or a Doctorate, this site is your best friend. Welcome to the exciting world of Japanese academia, Doctor.
3. O-Hayo Sensei. The site design’s straight out of 1985, but it does list some good teaching jobs.
4. Career-Cross. Can you actually speak Japanese? This is a great site for people who want to work in bilingual jobs.
5. Daijob. Have you passed the JLPT level 1? If so, then this site lets you compete with native Japanese people for that Mechanical Engineering job you always wanted.
6. Craigslist Tokyo. Has anyone ever actually gotten a job off of Craigslist? Somehow I kind of doubt it. But like the Casual Encounters section, it’s interesting to visit Jobs just for the sheer randomness.
7. My Shigoto. Never fails to remind me of My Sharona, but that’s just a happy coincidence. This is a job-listing aggregator site. The layout looks like a dog took hold of the Wanted section of the newspaper and somebody threw the remaining shreds in a bucket, but there are a ton of positions if you’re willing to sift through the listings.
Welcome to Japan
And that’s about it. Nail the interview, get yourself a plane ticket, and it’s sayonara everything you never liked about your home country. Soon you’ll be going to maid cafes and drifting cars through Shibuya on a daily basis. Then you have a whole new country where everything’s perfect, at least for a couple weeks.